Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy

Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) was developed by Richard Schwartz, PhD.

IFS recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called subpersonalities. You can think of them as little people inside us. Each has its own perspective, feelings, memories, goals, and motivations. For example, one part of you might be trying to lose weight and another part might want to eat whatever you want. We all have parts like the inner critic, the abandoned child, the pleaser, the angry part, and the loving caretaker.

IFS has discovered that every part has a positive intent for you, no matter how problematic it might be. For example, Sally has a part that says, “You couldn’t be successful at your ambitious goals. Who do you think you are?” This is hurtful to her and prevents her from taking action in her life, but when she got to know this part in her IFS work, she discovered that it was actually afraid she would be punished if she stuck her neck out, and it was trying to stop her to protect her from that pain.

Bill has a part that is judgmental and competitive with other people in a way that is not consistent with his true values. However, when he really got to know that part, he discovered that it was just trying to help him feel OK about himself in the only way it knew—by feeling superior to others.

When you understand that a part has a positive intent, it doesn’t mean that you give the part power. Sally doesn’t want her part to prevent her from taking action, and Bill doesn’t want his part to act out being judgmental and competitive. However, using the IFS approach, Sally and Bill can relate to their parts with understanding and appreciation while taking the steps to heal them.

This is fundamentally different from the way we ordinarily relate to our parts. Usually when we become aware of a part, the first thing we do is evaluate it. Is it good or bad for us? If we decide it is good, we embrace it and give it power. We act from it. If we decide it is bad, we try to suppress it or get rid of it. We tell it to go away. However, this doesn’t work. You can’t get rid of a part. You can only push it into your unconscious, where it will continue to affect you, but without your awareness.

In IFS, we do something altogether different and radical. We welcome all our parts with curiosity and compassion. We seek to understand them and appreciate their efforts to help us. But we don’t lose sight of the ways they may be causing us problems. We develop a relationship of caring and trust with each part, and then take the steps to release it from its burdens so it can function in a healthy way.

In the IFS system, there are two primary types of parts—protectors and exiles. The protectors are the parts you usually encounter first in exploring yourself. Their job is to handle the world and protect against the pain of the exiles. Exiles are young child parts that hold pain from the past.

For example, John has one protector that tries to know everything about any organization he might work with and tries to do everything perfectly. This is an incredible burden for him and prevents him from being light and flexible in his work life. When he started to get to know this protector, he learned that it was trying to protect him from being betrayed by people or projects he might put his heart and soul into. He also realized he had another protector that was very suspicious of people. This part checks out people carefully to see how they might betray him. Both protectors are trying to protect John from feeling the pain of an exile part that felt hurt and betrayed, first by his mother and then by an organization he was part of.

In the above example Sally had a protector that said, “Who do you think you are?” Although this message has prevented Sally from taking action as she would like, it is trying to protect Sally from the pain of an exile part who felt crushed and frightened of punishment. It turned out that Sally (and other children) had been punished by the nuns in her Catholic school whenever they became too visible, so from then on in her life, she had a terrified exile and a protector who tried to keep Sally invisible.

Parts take on extreme roles because of what has happened to them in the past. Exiles take on pain and burdens from what they experienced as children (or occasionally at other times). Protectors take on extreme roles in order to protect you from the pain of the exiles. IFS has a method of understanding and working with these parts to release the burdens and heal the system, so you can function in healthy ways.

The IFS Process

So how does IFS work with our parts? IFS recognizes that each of us has a spiritual center, a true Self. This Self is naturally compassionate and curious about people, and especially about our own parts. The Self wants to connect with each part and get to know and understand it. The Self feels compassion for the pain of the exiles and also for the burdens that drives protectors to act the way they do. The Self is also able to stay calm and centered despite the sometimes intense emotions that parts may feel. Everyone has a Self, even though in some people it may not be very accessible because of the activity of their parts.

The Self is the agent of healing. An IFS therapist or group leader will coach the Self in how to relate to the parts, but the Self is the true leader of the internal system and can love and heal each part, so you become free of extreme feelings and behavior.

Let’s see how this works. First you learn how to access the Self. IFS has many powerful ways of doing this which are beyond the scope of this article. Then the Self chooses a part to focus on. For example, let’s look at Bill, who has a protector who is judgmental and competitive. This is distressing to Bill because he believes in being cooperative and accepting and inclusive, and to some extent he is. But his judgmental protector crops up in situations where Bill feels threatened. Often he is able to hide his judgments, but sometimes they leak out and cause problems. This makes Bill considerably less effective at work and causes dissension in his organization. It also causes problems for him in his marriage.

Bill started out his IFS work by focusing on his Judgmental Part. It wasn’t easy for Bill to be in Self because he felt disgusted with the Judgmental Part for not living up to his ideals. (The Self is never disgusted, so this was really another part of Bill.) However, with some work, he was able to be genuinely in his Self so that he was interested in getting to know the Judgmental Part. He found out that it was trying to protect an exile part of him that felt inadequate. Bill had a learning problem as a child even though he is quite intelligent and competent. So there was a young part of Bill that had felt inadequate in school. The Judgmental Part was trying to compensate for this inadequacy by feeling superior to people. Bill had grown up in a judgmental, competitive home, so that was the primary model this part knew. As Bill got to know the Judgmental Part, he understood why this part acted as it did and appreciated its efforts in his behalf.

He then contacted the exile who felt inadequate. He listened and watched as this part showed him scenes from his childhood where it felt ashamed and inadequate because of his learning problem, and he responded to it with compassion and caring. The young part responded to this by feeling cherished and valuable for the first time. Up until then, it had been hidden away in Bill’s unconscious, which only increased its feelings of worthlessness. With love from Bill’s Self and direction from the IFS therapist, this young part was able to release the burden of inadequacy it had been carrying and feel good about itself. This allowed the Judgmental protector to relax. It no longer needed to judge people to compensate for the exile’s pain. This enabled Bill to respond to people in the way he always wanted, with openness and acceptance and a cooperative attitude. As a result, he became much more effective at work, and he stopped having so many fights with his wife.

This description of the IFS process is greatly simplified for the sake of this short article. It doesn’t discuss many of the difficulties and complexities that IFS knows how to handle in order to accomplish this kind of healing.