Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an approach to psychotherapy that identifies and addresses multiple sub-personalities or families within each person’s mental system.
The founder of IFS therapy, Dr. Richard Schwartz, thought of the mind as an inner family and began applying techniques to individuals that he usually used with families.
The underlying concept of this theory is that we all have several parts living within us that fulfill both healthy and unhealthy roles. Life events or trauma, however, can force us out of those healthy roles into extreme roles.
The good news is that these internal roles are not static and can change with time and work. The goal of IFS therapy is to find your Self and bring all of these parts together.
Techniques of IFS Therapy
While there may be infinite parts within you, there are three main types: firefighters, managers, and exiles.
- The firefighter parts are protectors that are activated when a trigger is present. An example of this might look like being reminded of a painful memory and using a behavior like substance use to put out the “fire” of the pain.
- The manager parts protect you by managing situations through intense planning to do whatever they can to avoid something that might bring you deep pain.
- Both the firefighter and manager, according to the theory, work to keep the exile from emerging and flooding you with memories of pain and trauma.
Benefits of IFS Therapy
In a study of college-aged women with moderate to severe depression,4researchers found IFS therapy to have the following benefits for the participants:
- Gives them power through self-leadership in achieving an internal balance
- Promotes self-compassion
- Helps them view depression symptoms as normal reactions to stressors or trauma, rather than a diagnosis
- Provides a better understanding of self
- Prepares for emotional difficulty in the future
Schwartz, R. C. (2013). Moving from acceptance toward transformation with internal family systems therapy (ifs). Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69(8), 805-816.
What IFS Therapy Can Help With
IFS therapy can help with general life stressors like grief, relationship, and career issues, and improve resilience and self-esteem.
Though it is non-pathologizing (does not reduce a client to their diagnosis), it may treat several mental health issues and conditions.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Dissociative identity disorder1
- Eating disorder
- Substance use disorders.
Fun Fact: The entire Thriving Well Team is trained in this amazing modality.