Overview of Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy is an evidence-based therapy growing in popularity as a treatment for PTSD, Anxiety, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Depression, OCD, personality disorders, somatic concerns, experiences of trauma or attachment wounds and more. The theory understands that people are more than one single mind and, instead, exist as a complex system of “parts” that are in dynamic (and sometimes conflicting) relationships with each other. The theory was named by its founder, Dr. Richard Schwartz and refers to how these internal dynamics can be like the dynamics within a family. Just like with a family, being able to understand all perspectives is the most helpful way to move forward peacefully.
A simple way to understand how this feels for all of us is the experience of struggling to make a decision. You may have said out loud to a friend “One part of me feels this way; but at the same time, I feel completely the opposite–so I’m stuck.” Or “My head says I should [x], but my heart says [y]. What do I do?” If you’ve ever felt that sort of internal conflict, you’ve found some of your parts.
Throughout your development, these parts can take on roles and strategies that may have been very helpful (or even lifesaving) at certain times during your life, but which are no longer as effective. Maybe those parts that once helped you survive have just gotten completely burned out from trying to maintain an unsustainable way of functioning. Sometimes these parts can operate in ways that seem to not make “rational” sense for the situation at hand, or even that seem to be extremely harmful. These are parts with protective roles, and in IFS we describe them with two different categories:
- Managers: Managers saw something bad happen and stepped in to do whatever they could to avoid that bad thing happening ever again. They are proactive. For example, during a stressful period at work, you might find yourself making lists to make sure you don’t forget anything, or you might find yourself losing sleep because you are constantly thinking through all the things you need to do the next day.
Manager strategies: Planning, organizing, and caretaking for others, restricting food, obsessing, extreme inner criticism, controlling others (and more)
- Firefighters: Firefighters step in as a final line of defense, to soothe the system when something happens that activates pain. They are reactive. For example, after a very stressful day, a Firefighter part might step in to soothe the system by going for a run after work, or by drinking alcohol in larger amounts than usual.
Firefighter strategies: binging food, numbing out, sleeping, drinking, exercise, suicidal ideation, rage, self-harm, substance use, dissociation (and more)
Okay, but things are different than they used to be. So why are they still trying to protect me?
The third category of parts that we can get to know in IFS therapy are:
- Exiles: These are parts that hold onto old messages, often taken in from traumatic or wounding experiences. Exiles hold onto messages (or burdens) such as “I’m worthless,” “I’m alone,” “I am bad,” “I am unloved,” and “I am unsafe,” among others. These burdens are often (but not always) created in childhood, at a time when we were left to process an experience that we did not have the developmental resources to process. Exiles are often kept out of our awareness by our protectors, because Managers see those parts and say “Never again,” and employ their strategies. Firefighters see those parts when they get activated and say “Not now,” and go into action to soothe the system. When Exiles do get triggered, it can be a very confusing and overwhelming experience.
As you get to know how your protective parts have tried to protect you and why, your whole system gets to access the resource within you (Self) that can provide what your Exiled and burdened parts really need, and what they needed at the time they took on that burden—which is connection and compassion to help fully process the experience.
- Self is the you that is not a part. Self is the state where we experience qualities such as Compassion (for self and others), Curiosity, Clarity, Connection, Creativity, Confidence, Courage, and Calm. From this state, you witness and get to know these different aspects of who you are. Parts can be updated to know that they are no longer alone in their roles, which frees them up to do what they want to do.
When this happens, there is deeply felt healing and releasing burdens for all parts in your system. Your parts are free to take on roles they really want to have (or just to relax), and they get release everything they’ve been holding onto for so long. This experiential method of therapy can lead to nervous system regulation, memory reconsolidation, emotion regulation and distress tolerance, and more effective coping because your parts are allowed to find the roles and strategies that really work for your whole system.
Throughout my training and in my experience as a clinician, I have seen that there are many different therapy modalities that are extremely impactful and helpful to the client for a myriad of different reasons. IFS is by no means the only therapy that provides healing and change to people seeking it. Therapy with me can look differently based on what you need, and what feels right for you. I have found that the most meaningful change typically occurs with some integration of the mind and body, and that IFS offers this processing in a way that is gentle, allows for autonomy, and does not add pathology or stigma to a client’s experience, whether you are a person who is meeting the criteria for a DSM-V diagnosis, are seeking healing from traumatic or wounding experiences, or are simply looking to deepen your understanding of yourself for a more meaningful life.
To Learn More:
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk
No Bad Parts, Dr. Richard Schwartz
Transcending Trauma, Frank G. Anderson
Altogether You, Jenna Riemersma, LPC
Somatic IFS, Susan McConnell
Greater than the Sum of Our Parts, Dr. Richard Schwartz
To find a trained provider in your area: