What Is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?
A family is a system comprised of many people with different traits: the protective parent, the rebellious child, the angry sister, the timid brother…and so many more. These interpersonal interactions create a dynamic that shapes the family system as a whole.
According to the Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model, each individual is a like a family, comprised of a multitude of selves (also referred to as subpersonalities or parts). For example, perhaps you have thought something like, “Part of me wants to take this job opportunity, but another part of me is afraid of making the change.” Or, “Part of me is angry and hurt, but another part wants to shut up and pretend this never happened.”
Just like different family members, each of your distinct parts comes with unique responsibilities, interests, perspectives, upsets, desires and needs. That means, just like family members, your subpersonalities can be in conflict.
IFS, a comprehensive therapeutic model of parts therapy, heals this inner conflict. In the early 80s, Dr. Richard Schwartz listened to his therapy clients describe their issues and observed how they naturally talked about the conflict between their internal “parts,” which created both confusion and chaos in their lives. Through compassionate exploration of these subpersonalites, he discovered that each part played a unique and vital role, even when, on the surface, they presented as dysfunctional. Drawing from his experience as a family systems therapist, and with feedback from his clients, he eventually developed IFS therapy to help clients calm the war within.
Schwartz observed that all individuals innately possess a Greater Self, which is compassionate, lucid, grounded and calm. One of the foundational principles of IFS is creating the harmony needed to access the wisdom of the Greater Self. The primary goal of IFS is for client’s (and the therapist) to be Self-led, rather than parts-led.
Who Can IFS Help?
IFS is now recognized as a highly effective modality for improving overall well-being and daily functioning. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, it has been proven to help those struggling with:
IFS therapy is appropriate for nearly every issue because it effectively addresses the primary sources of all pain: internal chaos and relationship wounding. No matter what you are struggling with, IFS therapy can help you heal the hurt your parts are desperate to express. Then, you can stop dedicating so much energy to managing those distressed parts and start living from the wisdom of your Greater Self.
How Does the Internal Family Systems Model Work?
IFS therapy aims to address emotional, spiritual and physical concerns by accessing your Greater Self. Think of your Greater Self as a grounded, calm parent. When the parent is in control, you enter a state of Self-leadership. Through that Greater Self, you can effectively identify and communicate with the warring parts that are keeping you stuck and in pain.
According to Dr. Schwartz, parts tend to play three common roles:
- Exiles: The shunned parts. Exiles hold the memories from past hurts, fears and shames—from traumas both big and small. They generally carry painful emotions.
- Managers: Try to maintain control, often through self-criticizing, self-sacrificing and withdrawing emotionally. They shun the more vulnerable, needy parts. Most of us live our lives from our managers.
- Firefighters: These come into play when managers aren’t able to keep the exiles in check. When the exiles’ emotions become overwhelming, firefighters numb or avoid seemingly dangerous emotions through impulsive behaviors, such as substance use. Firefighters do put out the fire, but they leave a disaster in their wake.
Trauma, family of origin issues and relationship wounding lead your parts into extreme, often destructive roles. When these upset parts are leading your life, you likely struggle with a whole host of emotional, relational and life difficulties such as, loneliness, anxiety, anger, depression and overwhelm. You might also feel numb and disconnected from yourself and others. As you neglect your highest goals or face ongoing relationship conflict, it’s possible that you can’t understand why you feel or act the way you do.
IFS is designed to harmonize your varied parts so that you can connect with your Highest Self. When you’re connected to your Highest Self, you can hold compassion and acceptance for challenging situations and emotions. You can quiet the internal battles and enjoy newfound peace.
Through IFS, it’s possible to:
- Heal the wounds that activate triggers and successfully navigate conflict
- Form connected, authentic relationships with yourself and others
- Learn to recognize and express your emotions respectfully, without self-judgement
- Deepen your sense of compassion for self and others
- Foster self-forgiveness, self-acceptance and personal growth
- Relinquish shame and enjoy a sense of empowerment over your life
My Approach to IFS Therapy
IFS is very different than traditional psychotherapy, which tends to be highly cognitive, analytical and pathologizing. IFS therapists will not see you as broken. We don’t orient to treating conditions*, such as depression; instead, we work with the parts that are holding feelings such sadness, grief and hopelessness and that are taking over your life. I do not set out to fix you because your Core Self is not broken.
Your Greater Self is already healthy and whole. In sessions, I can help you harness deep curiosity, courage and the wisdom which already resides within you. Through compassionate, respectful and mindful engagement with your parts, both from my Greater Self and eventually from yours as well, we can help those parts heal. We will discover their underlying needs and unburden them from the negative beliefs they carry and the unhelpful coping mechanishms they use to navigating your life.
Because I am also a somatic (body-oriented) psychotherapist, movement therapist and expressive and creative arts therapist, I may incorporate more of these tools than other IFS therapists, giving you even more skills for working with those challenging parts of you.
As you access your Greater Self, you can also gain clarity around your passion and purpose, connecting to a Higher Source of Wisdom and your Authentic Self. I offer inclusive spiritual counseling to help you discover your sense of direction and meaning, whether you are part of a faith system or not.
IFS is central to my practice. I originally worked with IFS as a client and found that, unlike other therapies I’d tried, IFS made a dramatic difference in the stability of my emotional states and the quality of my life. IFS was such a life changer for me that I knew my calling was to share it with others, so I began clinical training in 2004.
Since then, I have deepened my understanding through ongoing trainings, workshops and personal exploration. I have also taught introductory courses on the IFS Model and often guest lecture on the topic, most recently at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Both personally and professionally, I know that you can create a harmonious, fulfilling life. Your Greater Self is already within you. IFS can help you meet the wise, confident, and creative person you’ve always been.
Embrace All That You Are
I invite you to call me at 702-762-4100 for a free 20-minute phone consultation. You can ask me any questions about internal family systems and my practice in Henderson, NV or Las Vegas, NV. I am one of only two advanced IFS therapists within the state of Nevada. I look forward to working with you!
*I might offer a diagnosis for insurance purpose. But, I will not treat you like someone who needs fixing. You are already whole.
- Audio Interview ~ Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts ~ Richard Schwartz
- Podcast ~ Conversations with Alanis Morisette with Richard Schwartz
- Podcast ~ Introduction to Internal Family Systems ~ Steve Franssen
- Video ~ Internal Family Systems (IFS): A guided meditation ~ Frank Guastella Anderson
- Video ~ The Power of Self to Heal our Parts ~ Richard Schwartz & Soren Gordhamer at Wisdom 2.0 Conference
- Video ~ Understanding the Personality System: Introduction to the Internal Family System ~ Derek Scott