Internal Family Systems Therapy
Internal family systems therapy (IFS) is an evidence-based therapy created by Richard C. Schwartz, MD. It dates back to the 1980s and its objective was to help adolescents with eating behavior disorders (EDs), such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa, who repeatedly spoke of ‘internal conversations’ – many of them extreme – with what they identified as “the different subpersonalities within themselves”.
Schwartz understood that when these parts of them felt safe and their concerns were heard, they were less distressing and unsettling for these young people.
Internal family systems therapy (IFS)
Schwartz found that the therapist was able to convince sufferers of extreme eating disorders to mentally detach from their distorted perspectives. Thus, they were able to adopt a position in which they didn’t judge these parts of themselves. Instead, they observed them with curiosity. This way of relating to their different parts and being compassionate and kind to them was crucial in their process of healing. It forms the central axis of internal family systems therapy (IFS).
This therapy is based on a model that integrates systemic thinking with the premise that the mind is made up of different parts. These involve distinctive ways of thinking and specific characteristics. It’s an integrative therapy because it combines the above idea with family systems theory. Each part assumes a different role that defines the inner world of the client: the Self (the being, oneself).
There are two parts to the therapy, the protective part, and the exiled part.
1. The protectors: proactive or reactive?
Each protective part tries to expel the negative feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that arise from the injured parts with the purpose of avoiding further pain and keeping the individual safe. However, there are different protective parts in response to emotional damage:
The proactive parts try to organize our existence in such a way that we leave the suffering out of our consciousness. Their goals are to motivate us to be better, to work, and to be productive and social.
However, when these parts become extreme, they become dysfunctional. For instance, perfectionism or excessive intellectualization might appear. Or, we might care for others at the expense of our own health, obsess over our appearance, or avoid conflicts with high psychological costs.
These are the firefighters of our emotions. When we suffer excessively, they try to distract us as quickly as possible no matter what happens. They don’t think of the consequences. They act under the premise of “If you need it, use it. No matter what might happen”.
Taken to the extreme, they can lead to dysfunctional behaviors such as bingeing and purging, addictions, dissociation, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
Vulnerable parties: the exiles
The exiles are the parts that have suffered so much that they’ve ‘disconnected’ from our consciousness. For instance, when we have frightening experiences, especially when we’re young, we might develop overwhelmingly threatening thoughts. For example, ” I don’t deserve to be loved”, “No one will ever love me”, or “I’m worthless”.
It’s at this point, that our protective parts come into play to keep these more vulnerable parts out of our consciousness as much as possible. The exiles are parties that have been shamed, humiliated, abused, or rejected. The amount of energy that our minds expend in trying to avoid them is immense.
By attending to the different parts, it’s possible to access what Schwartz calls ‘the wise leadership of the Self ‘. This is nothing more than the coordination of the qualities of trust, openness, and compassion.
The Self is the center from which the various parts that make us up are articulated. The Self is ‘the part of us that’s not a part’. Accessing it is the main goal of IFS.
“The Self is the core of psychic balance, the seat or seat of consciousness and the inner source of love. Everyone has a Self. Just as light can be both particle and wave, the Self can appear in the energy of a certain state of mind (curiosity, calm, courage, compassion, love) or with the sense of an individual being present.”
When clients pay more attention to their Self and listen to their parts instead of trying to suppress or alter them, their internal dialogues are modified. In fact, the extreme parts calm down and begin to feel better, with feelings of greater security, lightness, freedom, and openness.
How are the parts related?
The relationships between the different parts can be of three types:
- Polarization. It occurs when there are two or more protective parties facing each other when managing a conflict with an exiled party. It causes pain which, over time, becomes more extreme. When the client recognizes this contradiction of their Self, the protective parts that were polarized allow them to care for, protect, and reconnect to the exiled part. The expenditure of mental energy decreases and the protective parts are released.
- Protection. We’ve already mentioned these. They can be proactive or reactive.
- Alliance. This is one of the goals of IFS. It’s the cooperative relationship between different parties to work together in the pursuit of common goals.
IFS places the focus of the intervention on the client. Therefore, the therapist is free to focus on a valuable goal: to guide the client to access their Self and help them tap into the wisdom they have about themselves.
The therapist begins the therapy by helping the client to distance themselves from their different parts in order to reconnect with their Self. From the center of themselves, they’re able to observe each of the parts to understand and heal it. The aim is to stop self-destructive behaviors.
Among the objectives of this therapy are to:
- Allow clients to help their protective parts separate.
- Establish a collaborative relationship with the protective parties and obtain ‘their permission’ to be able to care for the exiled parties: the wounded.
- Connect with the most injured and abused parts. These are the witnesses of terrible experiences. They’re helped to release the beliefs they have and the harmful moods that accompany them so that they can heal.
- To leave space for the parts that have healed and thus reestablish the Self as the client’s control center.
A glimpse of the techniques used in IFS
One of the fundamental differences between IFs and other psychotherapies is that it doesn’t pathologize or diagnose. Moreover, it provides hope. Some of the resources used in IFS are as follows:
- Six Fs to differentiate parts. Find, Focus, Flesh it Out, Feel, beFriend, and Fear.
- Eight C’s that make up the qualities of self-energy. Curiosity, calm, clarity, connectedness, confidence, courage, creativity, and compassion.
- Direct access. A method of communication with the parts. The therapist speaks explicitly to the different parts of the client. For example: “Can I speak directly with that part? Why do you want Andrea to drink?”.
- Redo. When an exiled part takes the client back to a distressing and disturbing memory where they’re stuck, the therapist helps remove them to a place of calm.
- Internal communication. The client must be aware of their different parts, with the help of visual, kinesthetic, or auditory experiences. They recognize that they have enough energy of Self to communicate directly with them. If the protective parts block internal communication, direct access is usually employed.
We could consider IFS as a form of psychotherapy applicable to numerous forms of human suffering. However, it’s not only that but is also a fundamental ally for both personal and spiritual self-discovery. At a clinical level, it can be employed to deal with:
- Trauma. For instance, clients with dissociative identity disorder (DID) (previously known as multiple personality disorder) may have had little or no access to their Self for years. Therefore, the therapist must take on the role of the client’s Self.
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In this disorder, protective parts forbid access to injured and exiled parts (desperate, internally rejected, or young parts seeking rescue).
- Narcissistic personality disorder. The protective parts are shown that “working really hard and self-idealizing ourselves is a perfect shield against the shame of feeling inadequate”.
- Depression. Depression, according to IFS, suppresses the body’s emotional signals. It slows down both physical and emotional experiences in a paralyzing way.
“To assess depression we can ask the client: – Is this a part of you that feels depressed (an exile) or is it a protective part that is using or magnifying depression for some reason?”
In addition to the above disorders, IFS also shows promise in treating anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, sociopathy, addictive disorders, and eating disorders.
However, IFS has its critics. In fact, some IFS therapists argue that, while the therapy is effective, it has limitations. For example, self-development and self-discovery take time and effort.
Moreover, by focusing intensely on emotion, the therapy can be considered ‘excessively emotional’ and generate more anxiety in the client. For this reason, it doesn’t work well in cases of psychosis such as delusions, paranoia, or schizophrenia.
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.
- Anderson, F. G., Sweezy, M., & Schwartz, R. (2020). Sistemas de familia interna: Manual de habilidades (IFS). Eleftheria.
- Burgoyne, Nancy (2018). «Schwartz, Richard C.». En Lebow, J.; Chambers, A.; Breunlin, D., eds. Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy (en inglés). Springer International Publishing. pp. 1-2
- Greenberg, L. S., Elliott, R., & Pos, A. (2009). La terapia focalizada en las emociones: una visión de conjunto. Boletín científico, 142.
- Schwartz, R. C. (2016). Introducción al modelo de los sistemas de la familia interna. Eleftheria.