What is IFS Therapy?

Article By: Jef Page, LPC-A

While searching for a therapist or researching different forms of therapy, you may have come across this acronym IFS and wondered what it was all about!  Well in this post, we’ll explore what Internal Family Systems is and how it might be a good fit for you.  

Many of us attend therapy because we’ve noticed that the methods we’ve been using aren’t actually helping us move closer toward some of our goals.  In fact, we either wondered or have concluded that, in some way, we are getting in our own way, and it sometimes feels like we don’t have a choice to do it any other way.    

Broadly speaking, the purpose of IFS is to provide you with more choice in life.  We’ll dive further into exactly what that means later in the post and how IFS proposes to accomplish that, but, for now, let’s answer the question:

What is IFS?

IFS is a model of psychotherapy that has helped alleviate the broad spectrum of symptoms that arise in response to trauma for thousands of people. 

IFS provides each person a way to think about, observe, fully experience, and understand what is happening internally.  

If you have ever wondered how all the different aspects of your internal experience are interconnected, from the thoughts and feelings, to the sensations and memories and images, IFS offers a way of understanding how those aspects are interrelated.  The first step is to view each aspect as one ‘part’ of our self.  In the IFS world: we all have parts. 

If we think about our everyday experience a little bit, most of us can identify a few parts.  Perhaps you have a part that likes to sleep in, but you also have a part that gets frustrated when you sleep in too much; perhaps you have a part that likes to drink, but also have a part that chastises you afterward for drinking too much; or perhaps you have a part that likes to people-please, but you also notice a part that tells you to stand up for yourself more often. 

Here we can see at least two parts in the system, and if we zoom out from these two parts, we’ll find that we have a lot more than two, there is a large group — this is your internal family.

And, like any family, there are members, or parts, inside us that: constantly bicker and disagree about how to navigate a situation, parts that cooperate with each other, parts that bully other parts, and parts that hide out in the dark corners of our mind and parts that gleefully run around full of joy or excitement – all different kinds of parts!   

One of the first stages of IFS therapy involves identifying our internal family members, our parts.  This might seem like a superfluous task, but for many people, this process alone provides incredible relief.  Identifying our parts and understanding how they are interrelated provides insight into the process of how we make decisions, how we react to certain situations, and why we engage in certain ways. For many people, this added organization reduces some of the confusion that comes with trying to understand our emotions and behaviors.

All about Parts

Over the development of IFS, it became apparent that our parts could be divided into three categories: proactive parts called managers, reactive parts called firefighters and parts that hold our burdens and pain, called exiles.    

Let’s look at an example: perhaps in your early history, someone close rejected you and later, as an adult in your romantic relationships, you start to notice an increasing sense of anxiety if your partner needs to spend more time at work.  You worry your partner is on the verge of leaving you and you start to engage in behaviors intended to keep them around, such as calling to check in more or overly caring for them.  This is a manager, who, soon after the original injury, accepted a job with the duty of protecting you from further rejection.  

And anytime you feel rejection, you notice that in the midst of the crying, you find yourself saying that you must not deserve love.  This is the voice of the exile, formed during the original rejection injury and re-activated by a set of circumstances that feel similar to those experienced in the past.  

Soon after, you notice that all you really wanted to do was eat cartons and cartons of ice cream.  This is a firefighter, who, soon after the original injury, learned that eating ice cream was a soothing distraction that offered short term comfort for the exile.    

And then a few days later, maybe you notice another part of you that feels like a critical parent, giving yourself a hard time for eating all that ice cream.  This is a typical dynamic in an internal family, managers giving firefighters a hard time for the tactics they utilize to try and help us feel better, and in IFS, this cycle is the root of our suffering.  

Perhaps during this entire sequence of events, you were even aware of the behaviors before and after the rejection, but it felt like there was no other way to do it.  This is how past trauma steals our choice.  We may even be aware of other choices, like going for a walk with a friend instead of eating ice cream, but our protectors are very convincing and, in the moment, emotionally, it feels compelling and necessary to do what they advise.       

If you look closely at the organization of these three parts, you’ll notice how the manager and firefighter are organized around an exile, they are the protectors of us, by being the protectors of our exiles.  So, the question arises: what would happen if our exiles didn’t need such vigorous protection? 

What would happen if our exiles could release their burdens and heal their pain?

How is change possible with IFS? 

According to IFS, lasting change is possible when we are able to fully acknowledge and accept the burdens and pain that our exiles hold with curiosity and compassion.  We do this with the part of ourselves that is not a part, called the Self.  

The Self, in IFS, spelled with an uppercase “S”, is the part that is not a part.  It is something inside each of us that is neither cultivated nor is it corruptible by trauma.  

Many people liken the Self to a soul, or spirit, but IFS simply says that we each are born with a source of energy that embodies Compassion, Curiosity, Calm, Creativity, Clarity, Confidence, Courage, and Connectedness that we can access at any point to nurture our own healing.   

In IFS, the source of healing does not come from the therapist, it comes from inside each of us.  The therapist is a guide along the journey, a facilitator who helps us access Self-energy. 

When we are able to access Self and our exiles are witnessed and allowed to unburden themselves, our system shifts; all the parts that congregate around that exile no longer feel so compelled to do their job, and you are left with more choice, more mental space to make a different decision instead of feeling like there is only one way to handle a certain kind of situation.

So, what is it like to do IFS? 

Practicing IFS will likely have a different vibe compared to other forms of therapy.  IFS is a type of guided, mindful self-study, where you are actively observing and “listening” to yourself as each part shares what it needs to share.  In this way, it feels less like a conversation with your therapist, and more like a facilitated conversation with yourself.  It is less about telling the story you already know about yourself and more about listening for the details that haven’t been acknowledged or incorporated yet.  If you have ever been curious about what your subconscious holds, IFS provides a way to access that information in digestible, bite-size pieces.  

For a more thorough introduction, check out Dick Schwartz’s latest book No Bad Parts.  If you prefer video media, an introduction can be found on the IFS website here: https://ifs-institute.com/

Go deep with one of our therapists.