What IFS is, how it helps and why I love it

Have you ever heard people talking about Internal Family Systems (IFS) and wondered what it is? If so, read on to get a quick overview of this powerful and effective therapeutic approach.

Jenny realises she has messed up

First, here’s a situation where IFS can help (I’ll explain how a little further on in the article):

Jenny feels awful. She has forgotten to water her boss Amanda’s plants. The plants have been in hot sunshine for a week and have died. Jenny is kicking herself. Will Amanda go ballistic?

Of course, IFS won’t bring dead plants back to life, but it does provide a way to cope with intense feelings. Keep Jenny’s problem in mind, and we’ll come back to it once we’ve covered the basics of IFS.

Where did IFS come from?

IFS was developed in Chicago in the 1980s by Richard C Schwartz, PhD, a family therapist. He noticed that his individual clients often said things like, “Part of me feels angry, but another part feels sad.” Schwartz was intrigued and thought of the principles he was already using in family sessions, to help parents and children talk to each other.

Carefully, Schwartz started to apply family therapy techniques to his work with individual clients’ parts, and was soon delighted with the outcome. From these beginnings, Schwartz then also drew on existing theories about subpersonalities and developed IFS. The IFS method is now practised very nearly worldwide.

How does IFS see people?

Here are some key IFS concepts about human beings:

  • Everyone has a number of parts – this is natural and normal. It doesn’t make us weird.
  • Parts mean well, but often take on particular jobs or roles in response to life events. They can sometimes become extreme in their roles.  
  • As well as our parts, we each have a core self, which is our true nature.
  • The core self is calm, compassionate, curious, clear-minded, connected, confident, courageous and creative.
  • The inner world of a person is like a mini ecosystem, so in IFS terminology a person’s inner world is referred to as their “system.”

IFS therapy aims to build the relationship between a person’s core self and their parts. The goal of IFS therapy is to become self-led, ie. to reach a point where the core self is able to take the lead in actions and communication. If you imagine the conductor of an orchestra, this gives an idea of how core self can improve the functioning of a person’s system. With skilful leadership, the core self is able to bring out the best in the parts.

Types of parts

There are three main kinds of role/job which parts take on:  

  1. A Manager role. A manager’s job is to protect the person’s system by providing a habitual approach to life and other people. Managers are mainly focused on the future and on progression. A few typical examples of manager roles are: perfectionism, pessimism, caretaking, self-criticism, controlling and striving.
  2. A Firefighter role. Firefighters come to the rescue quickly to distract and soothe a person if very painful or negative feelings occur. Here are some characteristic Firefighter roles and activities: addictions, obsessions, dissociation, fantasy, binge eating and self-harm.
  3. An Exile Role. Exiles are usually young parts. They carry the burden of painful feelings and beliefs which they took on during difficult childhood events. Some feelings carried by exiles can include: shame, helplessness, fear, hurt, abandonment and grief. Exiles are mostly kept out of a person’s awareness by managers and firefighters. However, they get activated when things happen which remind them of their original hurts.

Now it’s time to return to Jenny and the plants.  

How can IFS help Jenny?

Here’s that scenario again:

Jenny feels awful. She has forgotten to water her boss Amanda’s plants. The plants have been in hot sunshine for a week and have died.  Jenny is kicking herself. Will Amanda go ballistic?

If Jenny has done some IFS therapy, she will know that when she has intense feelings like these, it is usually because one of her exiles has been activated. This particular young exile of Jenny’s has carried feelings of fear and shame ever since the day when Jenny, as a child at school, was told off in front of the class by her teacher. Why? Because she had forgotten to feed the school hamster.

Years later, as an adult, discovering that she has forgotten to water Amanda’s plants is a similar enough situation to trigger Jenny’s exile. The exile fills Jenny’s system with old feelings of fear and shame as a result. Meanwhile, a self-critical manager part of Jenny imitates that past teacher by giving Jenny’s exile a “kicking,” or telling off.

In her IFS sessions, Jenny will probably have already helped this young exile to take some steps towards healing. She will have begun building a relationship between her core self (that’s the core self who is compassionate, curious, calm, etc) and the young exile.  

How will Jenny respond to her feelings using IFS? She may do some or all of the following:

  1. Pause, and notice what feelings/thoughts are there, eg. “awful”, “will Amanda go ballistic?” and “kicking herself”.
  2. Recognise that these feelings and thoughts come from two different parts of her:  firstly, the young exile feeling awful and fearing Amanda’s reaction, and secondly, a self-critical manager verbally “kicking” the exile.
  3. Respond to both these parts calmly, with compassion, from her core self.
  4. Ask the self-critical manager part to step back and give her core self a bit of space to talk to the exile.
  5. Comfort and reassure the exile that she (the exile) is loved by Jenny’s core self, that she’s safe, and that the core self will handle telling Amanda what happened to the plants.
  6. Offer to check in with the exile again later.
  7. Make a note to do further IFS work with both the exile and the self-critical manager.

None of this needs to take long, as Jenny’s exile will already recognise and trust her core self. After step five, Jenny’s exile will probably start to feel better.

Parallels with self-compassion and mindfulness approaches

Reading the above, you may have noticed some similarities between IFS and mindfulness or self-compassion approaches, such as those taught by Tara Brach, Kristin Neff and others. One common feature shared by IFS and these approaches is the adoption of a kind, non-judgmental attitude towards oneself. However, IFS’ unique strength lies in combining those qualities with the techniques of family therapy. This ensures that other parts don’t block the flow of non-judgmental compassion. In addition, for extra safety, the process usually takes place ­in the presence and with the prompting of a person trained in IFS, who acts as a guide/ally.

Why I love IFS

Having had individual IFS sessions as a client and also learned its theory as a practitioner, I find the IFS view of human nature more compelling than any other.  IFS offers me a practical way to understand my own and other people’s experience. For instance, right now, noticing that my computer wants to install updates prompts a feeling of frustration, along with a worry that I’m going to run out of time to finish this article.

However, I’ve learned that those reactions come from parts of me and are not my real nature. And fortunately, that’s also true of bigger, more difficult feelings. Best of all, Internal Family Systems is inclusive: it works on the principle that everyone has a core self, no matter what their background or experience. This, in turn, means that we are all capable of emotional healing and change. What’s not to like?

References

Schwartz, R C (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park, Illinois: Trailheads Publications.

For further information about IFS, see: ifs-institute.com

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend
Lisburn, BT28

Written by Susan Gully, Registered Member MBACP (Accred) Counsellor and IFS Practitioner

Lisburn, BT28

Susan Gully, Registered Member MBACP (Accred) is a counsellor and Level 2 IFS practitioner. She works online with clients based throughout the UK. Enquiries are welcome from anyone interested in IFS sessions or counselling.

Phone: 07581 325846
Email: susangully@gmail.com
Website: susangullycounselling.co.uk

Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals.