Internal Family Systems Therapy: Healing Our Vulnerability

Inside us, there are certain areas that are inhabited by painful emotions. They're parts of us that we prefer to exile because they cause us suffering. However, if we want to have genuine and strong central selves, there's a type of therapy that can help achieve it.
Internal Family Systems Therapy: Healing Our Vulnerability
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 27 September, 2022

Many of us have certain vulnerable areas. That’s because relationships with our caregivers or any other traumatic experience from the past caused us to lock certain parts of ourselves away, and they were placed almost in exile. Consequently, wounds, like painful emotions, make up small regions of ourselves that we don’t want to even look at.

They stay there, like stunted areas of growth or emotional warts that we hide at all costs. We don’t take responsibility for these fragile psychological scenarios and instead adopt subpersonalities in order to try and survive as if nothing has happened. As if our minds don’t contain our crying ghosts from yesterday.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy aims to detect and heal all those wounded parts. This approach was created in 1980 by Richard C. Schwartz. He claimed that the mind is made up of multiple parts and underneath is the core of the true self. Only when we’re able to look inside ourselves and achieve harmony between all these fragments, will we achieve well-being.

Dr. Schwartz used metaphorical imagery to explain what goes on in our minds. The ‘firefighters’, for example, seek to appease, suffocate, and extinguish suffering at all costs. In doing so, they can make us fall into substance use or eating disorders.

Mind with a man inside symbolizing Internal Family Systems Therapy
Internal Family Systems therapy allows us to reduce the noise of our mental universe to develop a healthier internal dialogue.

Internal Family Systems therapy: purpose, characteristics, and validity

This therapy proposes that, in the human mind, there are a series of subpersonalities that are in conflict with each other. Richard Schwartz, in his daily work as a therapist, realized that when people described their problems and discomforts, they often used the same kinds of phrases: “There’s a part of me that tells me” or “There’s a part of me that’s suffering”, etc.

Schwartz decided that these ‘parts’ were actually different types of subpersonalities. Metaphorically, according to this approach, the psychological universe is like a family with different members who interact with each other. Each figure symbolizes a need, a problem, a thought, or even an unattended trauma. Most of the time, these figures are dealing with disputes and disagreements.

Internal Family Systems therapy combines a systemic perspective that invites the patient to look inside themselves. From that threshold, they discover the parts that are losing harmony (thoughts, emotions, sensations, needs, etc.). The goal is to reduce internal dialogue, bring greater trust, and achieve reconciliation in all parts of the patient’s being.

Using the language of the ‘parts’ allows the patient to detect and understand which area of themselves is the one that must be worked on and healed with appropriate tools.

The parts inside that trigger your suffering

When Richard Schwartz published his book, Internal Family Systems Therapy (1995), he provided an interesting and original therapeutic strategy. He introduced the metaphor of parts and family systems to allow the individual to understand how their mind works.

Through this perspective, they can identify which processes are intensifying their problems or pathological behaviors. Schwartz defined three especially decisive areas when it comes to building suffering. They’re as follows:

  • The manager is the part of the mind that carries out sophisticated plans, reasoning, and strategies to prevent something from causing us pain.
  • The exiled person is the area that we set aside, that we make an effort to leave in a distant place in our mental universe so as not to see it. It’s the one that drags around our traumas and unresolved problems. The one we just wish would go away.
  • The firefighter is our false protector. It wants to put out and suffocate the pain but does so through unhelpful and even harmful strategies. For example, it promises us that our suffering will end if we binge eat or turn to alcohol.

The six steps of Internal Family Systems therapy

Therapists trained in this therapy guide their patients to identify their vulnerable areas and heal them. The process is organized into six steps. They’re articulated in the following therapeutic goals:

  • Find the problem areas that require attention. For instance, unresolved traumas, emotions that limit well-being, dormant fears, phobias, anxieties, unmet needs, etc.
  • Focus. Focus on the problematic part that triggers discomfort.
  • Describe. The patient must make contact with their problematic internal reality and describe it. In fact, they must put that reality, pain, or displaced story into words.
  • Feel. The person must explore and vent their emotions and feelings.
  • Friendship. The purpose of internal family systems therapy is for the patient to accept their painful experiences. Also, for them to develop a more positive dialogue and apply a healthier mental approach.
  • Fear. This last phase of the therapy seeks to make the patient think about what changes they should make in their life to stop feeling afraid.

The goal of Internal Family Systems therapy is to coordinate and harmonize the self and all parts, so that they can work together in harmony and are able to face every difficulty.

woman with figures in mind to symbolize Internal Family Systems Therapy
Internal Family Systems therapy can help us through stressful times in our lives.

Who is this type of therapy for?

Internal Family Systems therapy isn’t suitable for patients with personality disorders. However, it’s especially effective in the following personal realities and psychological conditions:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Addictions.
  • Family and relationship problems.

Reliability and validity

Family Systems therapy, which was created by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s, is both reliable and valid. This was confirmed in a study conducted in 2013 published in The Journal of Rheumatology.

The study stated that patients suffering from chronic pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis found relief and that their quality of life improved after three months of Internal Family Systems therapy. Therefore, we can confidently state that this therapeutic perspective is both interesting and effective in certain areas.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Breunlin, Douglas C.; Schwartz, Richard C.; Kune-Karrer, Betty Mac (1992). Metaframeworks: transcending the models of family therapy. The Jossey-Bass social and behavioral science series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 1555424260
  • Pais S. A systemic approach to the treatment of dissociative identity disorder. Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 2009;20(1):72-88. doi:10.1080/08975350802716566
  • Lester RJ. Self-governance, psychotherapy, and the subject of managed care: Internal Family Systems therapy and the multiple self in a US eating-disorders treatment center: Eating disorders and managed care. American Ethnologist. 2017;44(1):23-35. doi:10.1111/amet.12423
  • Schwartz, Richard C.; Rose, Michi (2002). “Internal family systems therapy”. In Carlson, Jon; Kjos, Diane (eds.). Theories and strategies of family therapy. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. pp. 275–295. ISBN 020527403X

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.