What Is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?

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What Is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?

Internal family systems, or IFS, is a type of therapy that believes we are all made up of several parts or sub-personalities. It draws from structural, strategic, narrative, and Bowenian types of family therapy.

The founder, Dr. Richard Schwartz, thought of the mind as an inner family and began applying techniques to individuals that he usually used with families. 

The underlying concept of this theory is that we all have several parts living within us that fulfill both healthy and unhealthy roles. Life events or trauma, however, can force us out of those healthy roles into extreme roles.

The good news is that these internal roles are not static and can change with time and work. The goal of IFS therapy is to find your Self and bring all of these parts together.

Techniques

While there may be infinite parts within you, there are three main types: firefighters, managers, and exiles.

  • The firefighter parts are protectors that are activated when a trigger is present. An example of this might look like being reminded of a painful memory and using a behavior like substance use to put out the “fire” of the pain.
  • The manager parts protect you by managing situations through intense planning to do whatever they can to avoid something that might bring you deep pain.
  • Both the firefighter and manager, according to the theory, work to keep the exile from emerging and flooding you with memories of pain and trauma. 

An IFS therapist will use a six-step process to help you find these parts and release their burdens.

Find

First, you will be asked to turn your attention inward, possibly by starting with meditation. You will pay attention to the sensations in your body that come up to identify a part to work with.

If you’ve ever had an upset stomach because you were nervous, then you may understand how our mind and body work together on our emotions. 

Focus

Next, you will be asked to turn your focus to this part.

Flesh Out

Once you’ve found and focused on a part, it is time to flesh it out—to see what else you can learn about it. What emotions are associated with it? Is it a particular color? Does it represent you at a particular age?

Feel Toward

How do you feel about this part? This will give your therapist an idea of how big or small of a role this part is playing in your life.

Befriend 

This may be one of the hardest steps—getting to know the part and seeing how it takes shape in your life. It involves a degree of acceptance of the part’s existence, but that doesn’t mean it needs to stay there. 

Fear

Fear is the last F. In the process of befriending, you will discover what the fears are of that part of you. What are they afraid will happen without their presence in your life?

What IFS Therapy Can Help With

IFS therapy can help with general life stressors like grief, relationship, and career issues, and improve resilience and self-esteem.

Though it is non-pathologizing (does not reduce a client to their diagnosis), it may treat several mental health issues and conditions.

Benefits of IFS Therapy

In a study of college-aged women with moderate-to-severe depression, researchers found IFS therapy to have the following benefits for the participants:

  • It gives them power through self-leadership in achieving an internal balance
  • Promotes self-compassion
  • Views depression symptoms as normal reactions to stressors or trauma, rather than a diagnosis
  • Provides a better understanding of self
  • Prepares for emotional difficulty in the future 

Effectiveness

IFS therapy was founded in the 1980s, but it has not been deeply researched.

However, in both the study of college-aged women and a study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), IFS therapy was shown to reduce signs of depression. In the RA study, IFS therapy was also linked to a reduction in pain symptoms.

In 2015, IFS therapy was added to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry for Evidence-Based Programs and Practices for its proven effectiveness in the RA study.

Its success at improving well-being earned it a rating of effective. It was also rated promising for the following:

  • Improving phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms
  • Physical health conditions and symptoms
  • Personal resilience/self-concept
  • Depression and depressive symptoms

(Note: Registry was discontinued in 2018.)

Things to Consider

As with other types of therapy, you may feel worse for a bit before you feel better as you begin to face your problems.

A degree of this is normal, but if you find yourself engaging in self-harm or experiencing suicidal ideation, you should talk to your therapist and consider stopping or slowing down this type of therapy.

Criticism of this kind of therapy includes failing to address any neurobiological underpinnings of mental health issues.

Additionally, several lawsuits alleged that practitioners of IFS therapy pushed them to "recover memories" of repressed trauma.

If you have schizophrenia or are dealing with any active delusions or paranoia, this may not be the right type of therapy for you.

How to Get Started

If you’re interested in trying IFS therapy, this section will discuss how to find a provider for this kind of treatment and what you can expect at your first appointment. 

  • Find a certified practitioner in your area using the IFS Institute’s IFS Directory. It can help you sort by the IFS therapy training level and indicate how much room they have left in their practice for new clients. 
  • Set up a 15-minute consultation with several therapists you are interested in, if you can, so you can get an idea if you feel comfortable doing this type of work with them.
  • Consider your preferences, such as if you would prefer online therapy or in-person therapy.

The first appointment will be similar to any other type of therapy—filling out paperwork, telling the therapist more about yourself and what brings you to therapy. In the first session, you may already begin the work to identify your parts.

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Article Sources
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