How you present yourself in one situation can be different from who you are in another. IFS approaches therapy from this principle.
Psychotherapy is a go-to tool for many needs, from treating mental health conditions to working on your self-awareness. But not all psychotherapy approaches are the same.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapists work with what they call parts or different representations of yourself. These are just different expressions of who you are.
Schwartz believed the mind works in the same way as a family unit. This is why he incorporated some traditional models and techniques used in family systems therapy into his own psychotherapy approach.
Instead of a singular personality, Schwartz suggested everyone deals with an undetermined amount of subpersonalities. These subpersonalities are overseen by a core governing entity, known as the Self.
“We all have parts (unique subpersonalities) within our mind, and these parts have beliefs, hopes, and burdens,” explains Clarissa Harwell, a clinical social worker in Muwekema Ohlone, California.
What is family systems therapy?
Family systems therapy views family units as a whole, instead of seeing the family as a group of people.
Each person in the family is a part of the unit, and how those parts interact with each other determines the overall health of the family system.
Schwartz applied this approach to his Internal Family Systems therapy.
IFS therapy is based on five basic assumptions:
- The mind is naturally subdivided into multiple “parts” or subpersonalities.
- The subpersonalities compose the Self, and Self leads the internal system that’s made up of subpersonalities.
- There are no “bad” subpersonalities. IFS doesn’t pretend to eliminate any part, but rather help them find a non-extreme role that does not impact the whole system.
- Subpersonalities develop as you grow, forming complex interactions among themselves. But systems can be reorganized, and when this happens, parts and interactions change, too.
- Internal (self) and external (environment) systems affect each other, so when one changes, the other one will tend to do so too.
IFS versus dissociative identity disorder
If IFS focuses on the different “parts” or subpersonalities of a person, what’s the difference between those parts and someone with dissociative identity disorder (DID)?
DID (previously known as multiple personality disorder) is a mental health condition marked by someone having separate, alternative identities that often behave and feel independently from the others. Due to lapses in memory, someone might not initially be aware of their alternate identities.
IFS is a therapeutic approach. The parts mentioned in IFS are just different aspects of your one identity that show up in different scenarios. For instance, one part of you may be shy around strangers while another part is the life of a party at a family reunion.
The Internal Family Systems approach views the mind as a group of parts or subpersonalities.
These subpersonalities are led by the Self, the part of you that holds your core essence, beliefs, and consciousness.
In other words, your Self is your identity, and the subpersonalities are the different thoughts and behaviors that express that identity depending on the experience.
Since all the parts are you, it’s assumed they have good intentions and want the best for the Self.
But they’re all different. This leads them to interact with each other in certain ways and create a complex system.
For example, think of the Self as a family unit, and each part as a member of that family.
Each person in the family has different personalities, interests, experiences, and thoughts. They all want the best for the family.
Each member of the family might have a different idea of what “best” means and how to achieve it, though. This leads to complex relationships between family relatives.
In the same way, all your parts want the best for your Self, but their differences may lead to complex relationships.
For example, a part may “think” that what’s best for you is to go for it, take the chance, while another part may push for a more cautious approach. This could lead these two parts of your mind to come into conflict when making a decision.
Your life experiences may affect your parts, polarizing some of them. This means that these polarized parts can become your more defining personality traits.
Polarized parts are often referred to as “managers” in IFS therapy. They control everyday situations and organize other parts, based on need.
Your parts aren’t created by these experiences, but they can be influenced by them.
Trauma, for example, can cause parts of your mind to become burdened.
A burdened subpersonality in IFS is one that’s holding on to excess energy.
Burdened parts can become suppressed or extreme, depending on the nature of the experience and the part affected.
Raquel Ornelas, a clinical counselor in Chicago, explains that these burdened parts are referred to as “exiles” and they can create persistent feelings of vulnerability.
Sometimes, burdened subpersonalities can become extreme. This would lead them to blend with or take over the original leader, the Self.
Exile parts do this through developing coping behaviors, which are seen as protective measures to deal with pain and other intense emotions.
While coping behaviors are meant to protect you, sometimes we use things to cope in harmful ways, like heavy drinking or gambling.
Exile parts then interact with parts known as “firefighters.”
Firefighter parts strive to put out the extreme feelings experienced by the exile parts.
This process leads to the development of coping mechanisms that can go from avoidant behaviors to self-harming behaviors.
Both firefighter and manager parts act to keep exiles away.
Internal Family Systems therapy states that everyone has a Self.
It’s your center — that part of you that feels secure, relaxed, and receptive. Your Self is the part of you that all other parts look to for direction.
“Self in IFS is inherent within each of us and can be viewed as our true nature, our seat of consciousness, our deep inner-knowing,” says Harwell. “Some see Self as our spirit or spiritual center.”
IFS sees the Self as that part of you that remains constant. No matter what subpersonalities a situation may require, your core Self is always the same.
And the Self is in command. It will determine what parts get listened to or shut out depending on the circumstances. It can also be critical for returning your parts to a state of equilibrium.
“By using our Self, we can help our parts release burdens that they have accumulated through trauma or life experiences, thereby allowing the parts to take roles that better serve them, and us,” Harwell says.
According to Ornelas, IFS therapy is indicated for everyone.
It’s considered an effective form of therapy for anyone looking to break unhealthy thought and behavioral cycles, or people with specific diagnoses.
“It helps couples break cycles from their past, it helps people with panic disorders understand triggers and find preventive ways to relax, and it helps [people with addiction] heal from past trauma or family abuse,” she says.
In general, Internal Family Systems therapy is used for many conditions and personal challenges, including:
- substance use
- bipolar disorder
- personality disorders
- sexual disorders
- conditions related to body image and self-worth
Acknowledging burdened subpersonalities is a key component of Internal Family Systems. Because parts work together, accepting and recognizing burdened parts must happen for your internal system to be reorganized. This is how healing begins.
IFS therapy is a type of talk therapy where the goal is to help you identify your Self and parts.
At the beginning of the process, your therapist may ask about polarized parts. That is, those parts that you feel are dominant within yourself and also when you’re around other people.
Your therapist will then try to identify links between how your inner parts relate to each other and how they relate to your environment.
Protective parts, those subpersonalities keeping exile in check, are addressed first.
Once the protective parts feel comfortable, different methods can be used to access exile and firefighter parts.
You may be asked to keep a journal initially or to draw diagrams of your perceived subpersonalities.
As you explore burdened parts more thoroughly, your therapist may move to work with imaging methods.
Imaging methods — such as imagining you’re walking through an internal mountain landscape — are intended to help you visualize the sensations and thoughts of each part.
Ultimately, the goal of IFS therapy is to help you reclaim your core Self and heal burdened parts.
In 2015, Internal Family Systems therapy was listed as an evidence-based treatment option in the National Registry for Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP).
NREPP was hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In 2018, it was suspended and later replaced with the Evidence-Based Practices Resource Center.
Being added to the resource center indicates that enough validating research has been conducted to be considered an effective clinical practice.
But IFS isn’t without controversy.
Some techniques used by IFS therapists have sometimes come under scrutiny. Particularly, a method used to recover lost traumatic memories. This practice is no longer considered mainstream by mental health professionals.
Memory recovery therapies have been associated with the creation of false memories, often due to a therapist’s subconscious push to reveal trauma that might not exist.
IFS was at the heart of one such controversy in 2017.
But IFS therapy is not promoted or offered as a form of memory retrieval.
Schwartz’s work indicates mental health professionals can directly influence how effective IFS is.
Therapists that don’t correctly identify Self, or who do not take into account how their personal subpersonalities impact an individual, may not practice IFS therapy successfully.
Internal Family Systems therapy is considered an evidence-based form of psychotherapy.
Based on models of traditional family dynamics, IFS focuses on the relationships between parts of your mind and your core Self.
IFS may not be for everyone. Your environment, support network, and mental health professional can all influence the success of IFS.
While this treatment option is supported by some research, it has also been a point of controversy because of isolated cases.
To learn more about Internal Family Systems, or to connect with a community group in your region, you can visit the IFS Institute resource page.