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Internal family systems therapy

Internal family systems therapy or IFS therapy acknowledges that we have different ‘parts’ within us and that we have a core Self that is calm and compassionate. The aim of this approach is to help you access this by disentangling yourself from other parts that may be behaving in an unhelpful way. 

Taking the idea behind family/systemic therapy and applying it to you as an individual, internal family systems therapy helps you explore your rich inner world to gain more insight and ultimately discover the ‘you’ beneath it all. Here, we’ll explore the therapy in more depth, including what it can help with and what you can expect when working with an IFS therapist.


What is IFS therapy?

Internal family systems therapy was developed by Richard Schwartz in the early 1990s. As a family therapist, Richard found himself listening to clients talk about the inner parts within themselves. This led him to think about the way these parts interact and how this relationship could be changed. Richard started to view the mind as an internal family, allowing him to use his training in family therapy and apply it here.

The belief underlying internal family systems therapy is that all of us have a core Self that cannot be damaged and is calm, connected and compassionate. It can be thought of as our ‘true self’. Over the course of our lives, the various life experiences and situations we encounter cause other parts of us to try to protect ourselves from harm. While these parts have good intentions, they can become extreme and overprotective, making it difficult for us to access our core Self. 

The aim of internal family systems therapy is to help us reconnect with this core Self so we can let go of the more extreme nature of our parts. These parts can then work harmoniously, led by the Self. An analogy that can help us understand this is to think of the Self as a conductor of an orchestra and our parts as the musicians. When the Self takes the lead and orchestrates the music, it can bring out the best in our parts and the melody is beautiful.

There are five basic assumptions that underpin the IFS model, and they are:

  1. The human mind is subdivided into a number of different parts. 
  2. Everyone has a core Self which should be in charge of coordinating the inner ‘family’ or parts. 
  3. Parts that engage in non-extreme behaviour are beneficial. There are no ‘bad parts’, instead the aim of therapy is to help parts discover their non-extreme roles.
  4. Personal development and growth leads to the development of our internal system. 
  5. When adjustments are made to the internal system, changes will be seen externally too and vice versa, so both internal and external systems should be considered.

Understanding the Self and the parts within IFS therapy

There are believed to be three types of parts within our internal systems; managers, exiles, and firefighters.

Managers

These parts are concerned with progression and avoiding interactions that they perceive as counterproductive. They want us to stay safe within routine and can manifest as perfectionism, being self-critical and overly goal-orientated.

Exiles

These parts tend to result from childhood experiences and are often in a state of pain or even trauma. Because of this pain they bring up, the other parts (managers and firefighters) look to exile these parts to prevent them from coming up in our consciousness.

Firefighters

If these exiles break free and come to the surface, firefighters offer up a distraction for the mind. These distractions are rarely healthy and can lead to unhelpful behaviours such as addiction and self-harm.

The Self

In contrast to these parts, the Self represents who we truly are beneath all of our experiences. It is linked to positive behaviours such as confidence, leadership, calmness and acceptance. With the help of an IFS therapist, we can reduce the harmful behaviours of our different parts and ensure decision making and coordination comes from the Self. 


What can IFS help with?

IFS therapist Lynn Palethorpe explains that while this approach is known for its efficient and effective treatment of trauma, it can help with almost any challenge you’re experiencing.

“You will become super aware of your inner workings, or parts, such as irritating critical voices, distracting behaviours or overwhelming feelings. Organic change occurs as you begin to understand your ‘autopilot’ ways of being in the world and locate the buried pain and hurt, which has been well protected for so long. 

“Profound and lasting change can occur when you connect with your core Self, from where you can heal the parts which are holding this pain. As healing occurs, your system calms and you will feel able to respond differently and show up in the world in ways you had never imagined possible, less reactive, less burdened with shame, in better relationship with others and more compassionate with yourself.”

Some concerns that may respond particularly well include:

If you’re unsure, you can speak to an IFS therapist to learn more about their approach and whether or not it could be right for you.


What to expect from an IFS therapy session

When you start internal family systems therapy, you’re starting a collaborative partnership with your therapist. They will act as a guide, helping you to notice which parts are present and how to access your core self. 

“In a session, you will experience your therapist working with you in a collaborative way, inviting you to focus on your internal environment, or notice which parts are present,” Lynn explains.

“Some clients find it easier to close their eyes. You might notice a part as a voice, an image or a sensation or pain in your body. Your therapist will help you connect with your core Self, from where you will build a relationship. You will find out about the positive intentions of these internal parts and as they are witnessed and feel understood, they will point to the more vulnerable parts they are protecting, often doing their utmost to help you avoid experiencing this pain again. 

“Your IFS therapist will skillfully and compassionately accompany you as these vulnerable parts share how and when they became wounded. As they experience your Self energy and feel more trusting, you will be able to help them release their burdens and bring them to a place of safety.”

Once a wounded part has been healed, Lynn explains that you’ll be guided again to the parts that had been protecting it.

“They are often keen to relinquish their extreme, hardworking roles, choosing a more enjoyable role instead. Your therapist is likely to encourage you to briefly check in with the parts you have worked with between sessions, to integrate and ensure lasting change.”

As this approach is integrative in nature, a number of different techniques can be used, but some you may see include journaling, drawing and visualisation.

If you’re ready to get to know your internal system and work with an IFS therapist, you can use our search tool to connect with one today.     

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