Internal Family Systems (IFS) psychotherapy is an evidence-based therapy for individuals that uses a non-pathologizing approach to healing. It is based on the idea that we all contain different parts within us and that every part carries positive intent for us. IFS asserts that each of us has the capacity to heal ourselves by tapping into our inherent resources and wisdom. The IFS therapy model is very respectful of the pain or trauma that we all carry. Even though IFS reaches deeply into our psyche in powerful ways, it never tries to barge past defenses or dive too quickly into deep issues. The credo of IFS is: “all parts are welcome”, no matter how dark, or scary, or threatening they may appear. The word ‘family’ in IFS refers to the family of various personalities (parts) inside each of us.
We Are Made Of Parts
People are multifaceted – they have different aspects, sides, parts, or facets of their personality, effectively, our ‘internal family’. For example, you may have a part that loves a person and another part that hates that person. Each part serve a different function. It may want to protect you from harm or help you feel good about yourself. It may want to keep you from feeling pain or make other people like you. Despite their best intentions, these parts don’t always act wisely. Our parts might keep us stuck in negative patterns and have a destructive impact on our lives. Even if a part sees the present accurately, it may have a faulty strategy for helping us. However, underneath the surface, they are always doing what they think is best for us.
Vivian Gornick in “The Odd Woman and the City” says:
“we are, every last one of us, divided against ourselves. We both want to grow up and don’t want to grow up; we hunger for sexual pleasure, we dread sexual pleasure; we hate our own aggressions – anger, cruelty, the need to humiliate – yet they derive from the grievances we are least willing to part with.”
The Idea of Self
In addition to our parts, we all have internal strength to get us through difficult times. Deep down, our inner resource that knows what’s best and navigates every situation, is our core Self – our essential inner wisdom that is present in all of us from the moment we are born. This Self energy is not a part and can be characterized by curiosity, compassion, openness, kindness, caring, connectedness, calmness, and other similar qualities. Self can be accessed to help us heal parts that need attention.
How Does IFS Therapy Work?
IFS therapy model was first conceptualized over 30 years ago by Dr. Richard Schwartz, a family systems therapist. During IFS therapy, we become aware of our parts that may appear as feelings, beliefs, thought patterns, images, sensations, fantasies, or behaviors. We welcome all of them with compassion and curiosity (qualities of Self). We seek to understand each part, connect with it, and appreciate its efforts to help us, while noticing how it might also cause problems for us. By developing a caring and trusting relationship with each part, we can take steps to heal it and enable it to function in a new and healthy way.
IFS is at the forefront of a movement towards a more collaborative therapeutic approach that relies on client’s intuitive wisdom. It offers a clear and empowering view of human cognitive and emotional life and allows both therapist and client to enter into a transformational relationship in which healing can occur. As a clinical treatment, IFS has been rated effective for improving general functioning and well-being. In addition, it has been rated promising for improving each of: phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms; physical health conditions and symptoms; personal resilience/self-concept; and depression and depressive symptoms.
IFS therapy is listed on NREPP (National Registry for Evidence-Based Programs and Practices as an evidence-based practice. Interventions listed in NREPP have been subject to independent, rigorous scrutiny, and are deemed to show significant impact on individual outcomes relating to mental health. These scientific findings and the listing of IFS on NREPP affirm the vast potential of IFS therapy for advancing emotional healing and mental well-being, and indicate promising effects on mind (depression, anxiety), body (physical health conditions), and spirit (personal resilience and self-concept).
We all have protective parts who work hard for us, making sure we don’t feel pain – including the ones that cause us to be ‘lazy’ or unmotivated. In IFS therapy we track relationships between protectors, notice their polarities, and help them re-connect to Self. Protective parts view vulnerability and the emotional pain of feeling unlovable as the problem. Some parts work proactively to prevent this pain from reaching our awareness; others work reactively to suppress the pain or distract us, once the pain has reached our consciousness. In both cases, as protective parts attempt to reduce emotional suffering, they get into disagreements with each other over how to hide or manage our vulnerabilities. Examples of Protectors with their complex strategies are:
- Inner Shame Protectors
- External Shame Protectors
- Compliant Protectors
- Anxious Protectors
- Dissociative Protectors
- Appearance Protectors
- Somatizing Protectors
- Intimacy Protectors
- Food Protectors
- Mood-Altering Protectors
- Mindfulness Protectors
- Addiction Protectors
- Power Broker Protectors
- Humor Protectors
- Entertainment Protectors
- Intellectual Protectors
- Electronic Gadgets Protectors
- Exercise Protectors
- Revenge Protectors
- Suicidal Protectors
- Self-Harm Protectors
- Political Protectors
- Religious Protectors
- Angry Protectors
- Keep-a-Low-Profile Protectors
- Success Protectors
Overview Videos of IFS
These short videos provide an overview of Internal Family Systems therapy – ‘What is IFS’ (2 mins) and ‘Finding Your Parts (9 mins):
IFS and Brainspotting
Internal Family Systems therapy and Brainspotting therapy are both non-pathologizing approaches that allow the clients to lead the process of healing themselves, with the therapist providing necessary support along this journey. Dr. David Grand, who discovered Brainspotting, once said that all of Brainspotting was Parts Work. Partspotting, an advanced Brainspotting technique, allows the therapist to engage gently and safely with client’s inner Parts by helping the client connect their focused gaze with the internal sensation representing the Part. In Brainspotting, where we look affects how we feel. By helping the client identify the Brainspot for the Part and connect with it, we enable the brain to process past experiences in a gentle and calm way that leads to systemic healing.
Elaine’s IFS Resources
For more information about books, websites, videos and research on Internal Family Systems therapy, visit Internal Family Systems (IFS) Resources.
Visit my blog to discover recent articles and papers published on IFS.
How Elaine Can Help
I am an IFS Therapist (Level 1), currently in the process of completing my IFS Certification. While there are many informal ways to learn to apply IFS, the only formal way is by completing IFS Level 1 through the IFS Institute, involving over 100 hours of intensive training over a 6-months period. IFS therapists trained by the IFS institute are listed in this directory – https://ifs-institute.com/practitioners. In my practice, I love to use IFS therapy (Parts Work) to help clients address and process deeply-held shame, grief, self-esteem, childhood trauma, and other distress, in a gentle and non-invasive way. We explore and address complex issues and emotions that manifest when clients encounter external and internal stresses that impact their emotional well-being.