What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy And Who Can Benefit From It?

Updated June 25, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

There are many forms of therapy, and there are a few that deal with the family unit. In this post, we will look at Internal Family Systems therapy or IFS. What is it? How can it help people? Let's find out.

What Is IFS?

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IFS is a form of therapy that uses the theory of family systems. This is the concept that people who are isolated from their families are unable to be understood fully. The goal is to help create strategies and techniques to be able to address different problems within one's family or another form of community.

Many different families and groups function in different ways, and IFS tries to work by taking a look at how the family functions so they can be able to figure out what is causing the conflict and how the conflict can be managed.


IFS is a newer form of therapy. In the early 1990s, Richard Schwartz listened to his clients and heard them talk about their inner workings. Schwartz, a family therapist, started to be able to communicate with his clients after he tossed away his preconceived beliefs about therapy and the mind in general.

Schwartz looked at the internal parts of the family unit and discovered they had their roles that were all connected. If a person was able to intervene, the parts of the family unit could be changed. Schwartz took the mind and looked at it as a family, and then used his techniques to help treat his clients.

The Model Of IFS

Now, let's talk about the model of IFS. The model itself is integrative, combining different techniques to make its product. The parts of IFS are combined in a way that allows for a total understanding of the mind.

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IFS believes that consciousness exists in different personalities known as sub-personalities. These personalities have their own beliefs, likes, dislikes, and so on, and they combine to make the individual. Despite them all being together, they are also separate, and they must act separately to fight off problematic behaviors or actions that can cause dysfunction. Some parts have healthy roles, while others do not.

The model of IFS has five assumptions:

  • The mind is divided. How many parts there are is unknown.
  • Everyone has their self, and the self is what controls the inner family.
  • Any part of the mind that is engaging in behavior that is not extreme can help the person. Bad parts do not exist.
  • When you grow, so does your inner family. There are more complex interactions between your parts,and they all work together to benefit you.
  • When you adjust your internal system, your external system changes, and vice versa.

There are also three types of parts.

  • This is a part that keeps the consciousness and makes it function. It does this by getting rid of any unneeded emotions, experiences, or interactions.
  • These are the parts that are hurting. This can be due to the trauma you've faced as a childhood. The managers and the firefighters work to keep the exiles, well, exiled, so they don't reach the consciousness.
  • The firefighters. This help distracts your mind when the exiles manage to go into the conscious. They make a person engage in impulsive behaviors that can be bad but help the person out in the long run.

What Is The Self?

We mentioned the idea of a self but didn't explain it. In IFS, the self-represents the core of a person. The self may be wise, compassionate, accepting, empathetic, and so on. The self is invisible and the observer of the inner parts of your mind.

The self is different from the other three parts, and it's part of the goal of IFS. The goal is to make a system that works in harmony and is controlled by yourself in the best way possible.

The goal of IFS is to let people find their self and maintain it. This can allow people to regulate their internal mind, creating a sense of harmony and more positivity than if untreated.

What Can IFS Treat?

You may wonder the issues that IFS treats. It can treat a variety of conditions and can work in a group, family, or individual. This form of therapy has been since 2015 listed as a practice that is based on evidence, is effective for improving your well-being.

It shows promise to help improve anxiety, depression, phobias, and even physical troubles. It can help trauma, compulsive behaviors, bipolar disorder, and other problems as well.

IFS Sessions

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You may wonder what happens in IFS. It's similar to normal talk therapy, but instead, the therapist will take a look at the person's internal environment and their parts. This allows a person to connect their internal parts.

Meditation is often used. If someone is addicted to a drug, a person may meditate and try to look for the part in their mind that is associated with addiction. They may find the part through a sensation or image.

Once they become aware of the part, the therapist will ask how the client feels when it comes to the part. Usually, it's negative emotions associated with the part. Instead of encouraging hate, the therapist will help the person figure out why the part is doing this and not react so negatively to the part's actions.

Sometimes, the reason why the part acts like this is that it believes it's trying to help the individual. The client must then ask the part if it would be okay with better coping mechanisms. At first, the part may refuse, but eventually, it will warm up and be able to try different techniques to help deal with a problem more healthily.

Exercises Of IFS

There are many different techniques used in IFS to help improve the individual. There is journal keeping, creating diagrams to describe the parts, and some more complex exercises as well. One is the room technique, where a person observes the parts talking with each other. There are other visualizing techniques as well.

One involves a mountain exercise. In it, the person sees themselves walking a path and looking at their feelings, sensations, and other parts of themselves. It's like a tour of your inside, and a way to explore your mind. The therapist may ask the client to talk to their parts and get to know them better. Then, someone can be able to get a feel for their own heart. They can even look at their exiles and see why they exist in the first place.

How An IFS Therapist Is Trained

To become an IFS certified therapist, you can receive training from the Center for Self Leadership.

There are three different training levels.

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In level one, a person learns about what IFS is, what the concepts are, and some basic techniques they can use. They can even practice looking at their insides. There may group discussions, videos, exercises, and other workshops.

In level two, the training gets more intense. There is multi-topic training, which uses different modules. Strengthening Skills and Advanced Techniques, Working with Multiple Systems, Working With Trauma, and The Therapeutic Relationship and Spiritual Aspects of IFS are the modules. Level two is all about growing deeper and sharpening their skills as an IFS counselor.

Level three involves introspection. A person must look at their triggers, figure out their life, and be able to grow as a person and be the best they can be. More exercises, more training, and more personal work are always welcome at this stage.

There are prerequisites as well. Someone may need a Master's degree in a relevant field and be licensed to practice. There may be extra hours of training that are required as well. There may be certification fees as well. For many, it's tough to become an IFS trainer, but it's worth it in the end.

Any ProblemsOf IFS?

IFS has been classified as an evidence-based practice. Even if the parts of a person aren't tangible, they are still good as a metaphorical way to describe a person. However, there are issues. The therapist may have their parts that can interfere; the client may have their parts that can stall the treatment. There may be a lack of an external system for a client, which can make the treatment worse. When it comes to talking to different parts, a therapist must realize who they are talking to. Sometimes, the self may just be another part and vice versa. It can be a challenge, but many find that it is worth it.

If you are interested in IFS or want to try another form of therapy, speak to a counselor today. They can help you.

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