Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy
IFS Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that combines 3 elements
Internal - IFS Therapy offers an evidence-based method to understand your inner world, which is also called “system”;
Family - The founder of IFS Therapy, Richard Schwartz, created this method because he observed that what happens inside of people (for example when you say “A part of me wants to eat now, but another part of me wants me to stick to my diet”) can be explained as the interaction of different “parts” or sub-personalities. He used techniques from Family Therapy when dealing with parts, as if they were a family;
Systems - parts take specific roles and create an intricate organisation. In other words, they are interconnected in a system. IFS Therapy helps you understand how your internal system works.
Richard Schwartz first described his model in his book “Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model” (more info here).
IFS Therapy can be applied to almost all psychological problems. In particular, it has been successfully used in the treatment of PTSD, addictions and there is evidence that it can be used in combination with medical treatment to help pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis (see here).
How IFS Therapy Works
The key idea of IFS Therapy is that the mind has got multiple layers. The technical terms for this is the “multiplicity of the brain”. Current development in neuroscience confirm that the brain is made of many interconnected parts and regions that work together.
The English language has got phrases to express when we have multiple ideas at the same time
Part of me wants to go to the gym, but part of me wants to stay on the sofa;
A side of me would like to keep on reading this webpage, but another side of me would like to check instagram;
One the one hand I know that eating cake is not great for my calories intake, but, on the other hand, I love having it.
The same happens with feelings, emotions and sensations. There are many levels of our experience happening at the same time and IFS calls a specific collection of thoughts, physical sensations, feelings e emotions a part. Parts carry out specific tasks in our life.
Some of the most common parts are
The inner critic (aka critical voice or judge) - a part that has the job to criticise all you are doing and judge if it is right/wrong, too much/too little, etc.
The child - a part that holds memories and behaviours from childhood
The victim - a part that feels treated unfairly and believes to be powerless
There are many different parts in each person, and IFS Therapy helps navigate them by dividing them in two main categories
Protectors - these parts have the job of keeping the person safe and functioning in daily life.
Exiles - parts that are usually child-like and that have been put aside during life because of traumatic events or adverse circumstances.
Example: Ann is in her late twenties. She has just moved in with her boyfriend and they are thinking of next steps in their relationship, which makes her anxious. Ann is working hard and would like a promotion at work, but does not know how to achieve this. Ann has not been sleeping well and finds herself eating much more than usual before going to sleep. Concerned about all this, she looks for an IFS Therapists.
The IFS Therapist will help Ann identify what parts are at play inside of here, and here is what she might find out (IFS Therapists are trained to not impose or guess what parts are in a person’s system, but they are trained to guide the client in discovering them)
- 1. One protective part wants Ann to have a family just like her culture have told her to do.
- 2. Another part of Ann, though, keeps on reminding her of those times in the past when she had feeling for women. This part had been sidelined by Ann through her entire life and only found some expression when she had had some alcohol. We can say that this is an exile.
- 3. One part of Ann would like a promotion because that will bring more money in preparation for a wedding or a family.
- 4. Another part of Ann would like to have more time to herself to dedicate to her hobbies.
- 5. A part of Ann is worried for her health and is monitoring her sleep and eating. This part judges Ann’s behaviour as bad
- 6. Finally, another part of Ann literally ignores the previous part by keeping her awake and leading her to have delicious treats before bed
IFS Therapy Aims
Once you have identified parts in your system, IFS Therapy uses techniques to improve how parts interact with each other and how they react to external triggers.
By following specific steps, it is possible to enter into a particular healing state. IFS Therapy call this the Self (with capital S), and the best description I have found so far is “the absence of parts”.
IFS Therapy has discovered that, when we access the state of Self, we spontaneously gain the ability of being compassionate, curious, brave, confident, creative, etc. Every time we connect to our parts (either protectors or exiles) from Self, these parts tend to leave certain extreme roles and behaviour.
For example, if you have a part that is very critical of everything you do, you can change this extreme critical voice into a kinder and more functional voice that helps you carry out tasks well enough.
IFS believes that every part of our system exists for a good reason, and all the therapist does is to facilitate a spontaneous change in parts so that they stop having extreme behaviours and find other ways to fulfil their role.
IFS for PTSD
IFS Therapy works particularly well in the treatment of trauma. This is because IFS Therapists are trained to respect the client’s inner world and access traumatic only when they come up spontaneously.
IFS Therapy achieves great results without forcing clients to remember, feel or behave in ways that are, potentially, re-traumatising.
IFS for Addictions
IFS Therapy divides protective parts into subcategories. Some parts are always there to plan our tasks and behaviour in advance to avoid trouble and make sure we live a good life.
Other protective parts are more reactive and become active the very moment something distressing happens to us. These parts are responsible for behaviours like binge watching or eating, drinking, checking social media, etc. In extreme cases, these reactive parts become overactive and lead to addictions.
IFS for Anxiety
IFS Therapy helps with anxiety because it helps you identify what parts of yours are at play.
When you feel anxious, you have at least two parts active. One part feels the anxiety as a body sensation (usually in the belly or chest areas), and another part tries to manage this anxiety. This part works constantly to find an explanation and a logical reason for the anxiety to be there, but it rarely finds a solution, and it adds pressure to the system by going against the anxiety.
If the external worlds adds extra pressure to this (for example interviews, exams, places full of people, etc.), then more parts will activate and adds extra pressure. By acting on each of these parts, it is possible to decrease the intensity of symptoms.
Want to know more?
IFS Therapy is spreading widely across the world. It started in the USA and is quickly expanding to Europe. The official websites in English are
How to find a trained therapist in the UK
The IFS UK website has a list of trained practitioners in the UK. You can find the full list here.