Internal Family Systems therapy is an innovative treatment method that delves into the internal landscape of your mind and can be effective for treating various mental health conditions.Published studies demonstrate the efficacy of IFS for treating conditions such as PTSD, Depression (Haddock et al, 2017) and Anxiety (Shadick et al, 2013). IFS offers a unique approach to understanding and healing the complexities of the client’s inner world. In this article, we'll provide an overview of IFS, its core principles, and how it can positively impact mental health.
What is the Internal Family Systems (IFS) Treatment Method?
Internal Family Systems therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on understanding and working with different parts or aspects of a person's internal system. It was developed by Dr. Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s. According to IFS theory, individuals have various sub-personalities or "parts" within them, each with its own unique feelings, beliefs, behaviours and roles. These parts often emerge as a way to cope with life's challenges and traumas. The goal of IFS is to foster harmony and cooperation among these parts, facilitating an inner balance and a stronger sense of self.
What makes IFS different from other modalities?
The central concept in IFS is the notion of the "Self." The Self is considered the core, or wise self within each individual. It cannot be damaged. It possesses qualities from the 8 C’s which include curiosity, compassion, connection, calmness, clarity, creativity and courage. The goal of Internal Family Systems therapy is to help clients access and strengthen this Self to foster healing and growth with the other parts of the system. In time the parts learn to trust the self and soften or change into a more naturally valuable part of the system.
How Does the Internal Family Systems (IFS) Treatment Method Work?
IFS identifies three primary categories of parts:
Protectors: These parts are responsible for managing and protecting our systems from pain, vulnerability, or intense emotions. They are protecting an exile (younger wounded part from becoming triggered). In IFS there are two kinds of protectors, Managers and Firefighters.
- Manager Protectors: These parts try to maintain control, keep things organized, and prevent the person from experiencing intense emotions. They often set high standards and can be critical of themselves and others. Common protector parts include the "inner critic" “people pleaser” “workaholic” and “perfectionist.”
- Firefighter Protectors: Firefighters are more reactive and step in when emotions become overwhelming. They use distraction or self-destructive behaviors as a way to cope with distressing feelings. For example, engaging in substance abuse, overuse of screens, binge eating, or impulsive behaviours might be the firefighter's way of numbing emotional pain.
Exiles: Exiles are the younger, wounded parts of a person that carry past emotional pain, trauma, and vulnerability. They often get suppressed or avoided to prevent further distress.
Benefits of Internal Family Systems therapy for Mental Health:
What Mental Health Concerns does IFS treat?
This therapy has been used to treat various mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, trauma-related disorders, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and addiction, low self-esteem and self-worth and relationship difficulties. It is typically delivered in individual therapy settings and has gained popularity in recent years for its holistic and empowering approach to self-discovery and healing. (Schwartz, R.C n.d.). Internal Family Systems is also an evidence based practice (Shadick & Sowell, 2015).
What to Expect in a Session
In an Internal Family Systems therapy session, you can expect a safe and supportive environment. The therapist will guide you in exploring your internal parts, helping you recognize their roles, concerns, and emotions. As you deepen your connection with these parts, you'll work towards establishing a harmonious relationship among them and with your core Self. IFS often involves visualization exercises, dialogue with parts, and mindfulness practices to facilitate the healing process.
Internal Family Systems therapy offers a transformative journey of self-discovery and healing. By understanding and harmonizing the different parts within you, you can cultivate a profound sense of self-acceptance, compassion, and empowerment. If you're seeking a therapeutic approach that delves deep into the intricacies of your inner world, IFS might be the key to unlocking your true potential and achieving lasting mental health and well-being.
References and External Links
Haddock, S. A., Weiler, L. M., Trump, L. J., & Henry, K. L. (2017). The efficacy of internal family systems therapy in the treatment of depression among female college students: A pilot study. Journal of marital and family therapy, 43(1), 131-144.
Schwartz, R. C. (n.d.). Evolution of the internal family systems model. Retrieved from http://www.selfleadership.org/about-internal-family-systems.html
Schwartz, R. C., & Sweezy, M. (2019). Internal family systems therapy. Guilford Publications.
Schwartz, R. C. (2013). Moving from acceptance toward transformation with internal family systems therapy (IFS). Journal of clinical psychology, 69(8),
Shadick, N. A., Sowell, N. F., Frits, M. L., Hoffman, S. M., Hartz, S. A., Booth, F. D., ... & Schwartz, R. C. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of an internal family systems-based psychotherapeutic intervention on outcomes in rheumatoid arthritis: a proof-of-concept study. The Journal of rheumatology, 40(11), 1831-1841.
Shadick, N., & Sowell, N. (2015, November 23). IFS, an Evidence-Based Practice. The Foundation for Self Leadership. Retrieved August 8, 2023, from http://foundationifs.org/news-articles/79-ifs-an-evidence-based-practice
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New to therapy? Here's your beginner guide- Starting therapy can evoke feelings of vulnerability, but knowing what to expect can help. The journey is individualized, with no exact right or wrong way. During the first session, typically administrative matters are discussed, goals are set, and you and your therapist will get to know each other. Fit between you and you therapist is very important for your outcomes, and it's okay to switch if the fit isn't right. Therapy is adjusted to your timeline and constraints, and can range from weekly to monthly sessions. Reflecting on what you wish to accomplish can guide the process