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A Q&A About Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

October 21, 2021

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an approach to therapy that treats the psyche as a unique system of parts that influence each other and the external world. It was developed by Richard Schwartz, a family therapist who observed patients describing themselves in terms of conflicting “parts,” and then realized that he had parts of his own. IFS applies systemic concepts to these inner parts, or subpersonalities.


Who might benefit from IFS?

IFS has been shown to be effective in improving general mental and emotional well-being and has been promising with reducing anxiety and depression. People who have experienced developmental trauma, self-sabotage, low self-esteem, shame, or trouble making decisions may find this approach particularly useful.

What kinds of “parts” do you encounter with IFS?

Internal systems are complex and often have upwards of 17 parts! These parts can usually be put into a few categories: “managers,” “firefighters,” and “exiles.” Exiles are parts that are below the level of everyday consciousness, and they are often in a lot of pain due to various kinds of trauma. Managers run an individual’s daily life and protect people from getting hurt in the same ways they have been in the past. Sometimes, the managers can’t prevent the exiles from feeling triggered or upset, and that’s when firefighters come in with their strategies like using alcohol and other drugs, sex, or other addictive behaviors. Often, an early task of IFS is befriending and getting to know manager parts and how they got into the roles that they’re currently inhabiting.

What makes IFS different from other types of therapy?

Each person has a unique internal system, but everyone has a “Self.” Self is our internal sense of “I.” One goal of IFS therapy is self-leadership, meaning that our system is led by this central figure. We know that we are “in Self” when we are feeling curious, compassionate, calm, confident, connected, clear, courageous, and creative. The idea that everyone can access “Self” makes IFS therapy an empowering experience for many clients and sometimes even a spiritual or soulful one.

What have you learned while doing IFS with your clients?

Our parts have our best interest at heart. Many parts are “stuck” in roles that they don’t want but had to take on to protect us. While it can be frustrating to grapple with their self-defeating strategies, a more compassionate view shows us that what they are doing made sense at one point. IFS practitioners like to say that there are “no bad parts” because all parts play a role in making us who we are.

For further reading on IFS, visit: https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/internal-family-systems-model-outline.

Tessa Peoples, MFT is a Staff Therapist at our Blue Bell, PA and University City Offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at tpeoples@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 4230.