Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

An image of people in IFS Therapy

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

IFS therapy, an abbreviation of internal family systems therapy, is a form of psychotherapy that posits we are made up of multiple parts or sub-personalities.

Internal family systems therapy draws from various following types of family therapy, including strategic, structural, narrative, and Bowenian.

Dr. Richard Schwartz developed IFS therapy in the 1980s after observing people in therapy refer to inner parts deep within themselves. Trained as a family therapist, Schwartz began visualizing the mind as an internal family, applying treatment techniques from family therapy to change these dynamic internal roles in individuals seeking therapy.

The core concept of this theory is that we all have multiple parts living within us and that those parts can play healthy or unhealthy roles. More extreme roles can be triggered by trauma or life events.

These internal roles are dynamic rather than static, meaning it is possible to change the roles through therapy sessions over time. The overarching goal of IFS therapy is to help you find your Self, bringing all of the internal roles together.

What is IFS Therapy?

IFS therapy is also known as internal family system therapy or inner family systems therapy and is a form of psychotherapy. There are over 400 types of psychotherapy differentiated by their approach, duration of therapy, and the clients they serve. Research shows that despite the variation in psychotherapeutic approaches, treatment outcomes are often similar. This is because a single approach to psychotherapy does not always deliver maximum benefit.

Internal family systems therapy can treat individuals and couples as well as families for the following symptoms and conditions:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Trauma
  • Phobias
  • Substance abuse
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Overall well-being
  • General functioning
  • Physical health conditions like RA (rheumatoid arthritis)

IFS therapy is not typically suitable for those with SMI (serious mental illnesses) involving paranoia or psychosis – schizophrenia, for instance. For those people, describing a person as having “parts” or “subpersonalities” can be unproductive and possibly even harmful.

Internal family systems therapy is grounded on an integrative model, combining established elements from various schools of psychology. The aim is to unite multiple strategies to effectively address the different parts of the human mind.

How does IFS internal family systems work, exactly?

An image of a man in IFS Therapy

How Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy Works

During internal family systems therapy, you will work closely with a therapist. The therapist will help you to isolate and better understand the unique sub-personalities (known as families) that constitute your internal mental system.

Once you have identified these different parts, the therapist guides you to acknowledge how you feel about suppressed emotions. The therapist will also help you to discover how to release those feelings, enabling you to address the problem head-on. Over time, you can apply the techniques learned in IFS therapy to manage internal conflicts more efficiently.

IFS therapist will utilize many tools to help you achieve this, including:

  • Journaling
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Visualization
  • Charting relationships between Self and different internal parts

The IFS model states that parts play one of three standard roles:

  1. Exiles: Exiles are internal parts that store fears, hurt, or shame from early life experiences. Exiles carry the troubling memories and emotions associated with those experiences.
  2. Managers: Managers are protective parts that help you to manage emotions, control your surroundings, and perform tasks crucial for navigating day-to-day life. Managers try to ensure that exiles remain hidden from conscious awareness in an attempt to reduce pain and distress.
  3. Firefighters: Firefighters are internal parts activated when exiles generate painful, threatening, or overwhelming emotions. These parts try to dampen those emotions by any possible means, whether that is alcohol abuse, drug abuse, or disordered eating.

According to the theory underpinning IFS, everyone has a Self – a core self or genuine self – and this Self is available to be accessed.

Per IFS, your Self can observe and identify other parts, helping them to become more productive and less extreme. The result should be a more harmonious co-existence of your various internal parts.

According to Schwartz’s model, your Self has many positive traits, categorized as the five Ps and the eight Cs.

These are the five Ps of internal family systems therapy:

  1. Persistence
  2. Patience
  3. Presence
  4. Perspective
  5. Playfulness

These are the eights Cs of internal family systems therapy:

  1. Connectedness
  2. Compassion
  3. Courage
  4. Curiosity
  5. Calmness
  6. Clarity
  7. Creativity
  8. Confidence

Your therapist will help you to assess these traits to determine how much of your Self is available at any given time and how much of yourself still needs to remerge. This is achieved by following this simple process:

  • Find: Identify all parts of your body and mind that require attention.
  • Focus: Concentrate on the relevant internal part.
  • Flesh: Describe the part and your experience of it.
  • Feel: Explore your feelings about this part of you.
  • Befriend: Accept the presence of this part and be curious about it.
  • Fear: Establish what this part fears and determine what it would fear if you altered its role.

By identifying and exploring these parts or sub-personalities, you can change how those parts function. Internal family systems therapy can create positive change. What other benefits could you reap from engaging with IFS therapy, then?

Benefits of IFS Therapy

IFS theory holds that your undamaged core Self embodies the essence of who you really are. Your Self can heal, manage, and transform your various sub-personalities, according to internal family systems therapy.

Through sessions of IFS therapy, you can:

  • Free internal parts from extreme roles.
  • Restore your trust in the Self.
  • Harmonize the Self and the various parts so they work together as a well-coordinated team with the Self assuming a management role.

Although IFS therapy was founded in the 1980s, there is minimal research on this form of psychotherapy.

This study involved college-aged women suffering with moderate to severe depression. IFS therapy was shown to deliver these benefits for the study participants:

  • Empowerment through self-leadership.
  • Achieving a superior internal balance.
  • Promoting self-compassion.
  • Viewing the symptoms of depression as healthy reactions to trauma or stressors rather than viewing depression as a diagnosis.
  • Providing a stronger understanding of self.
  • Preparing for future emotional difficulties.

Another study of patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis showed that IFS therapy reduced the symptoms of depression as well as alleviating some symptoms of physical pain.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) added IFS therapy to NREPP (National Registry for Evidence-Based Programs and Practices) in 2015 as a result of its proven effectiveness in the RA study. In addition to earning an NREPP rating of effective for improving overall well-being, IFS therapy was rated promising for:

Depressive symptoms and depression.

  • Personal resilience.
  • GAD (generalized anxiety disorder).
  • Panic attacks.
  • Phobias.
  • Physical health symptoms and conditions.

Therapy at Renaissance Recovery

Here at Renaissance Recovery, we specialize in delivering gender-specific treatment of the following conditions in an outpatient setting:

  • Mental health conditions
  • Alcoholism (alcohol use disorder)
  • Drug addiction (substance use disorder)
  • Dual diagnosis (co-occurring addiction and mental health disorder)

For anyone who requires more structure and support in therapy than a traditional outpatient program offers, we also provide more intensive programming. Our IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) include up to 15 hours of weekly therapy sessions, while our PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) are full-time outpatient programs providing over 30 hours of weekly therapy sessions.

If you feel you would benefit from outpatient treatment, but you are concerned about the volatility of your home background, inquire about our sober living homes near you. Surround yourself with others undergoing similar experiences in an environment free of triggers and distractions while engaging with outpatient therapy at TDRC.

Whether you are grappling with substance abuse issues, mental health problems, or both, your treatment team will draw from these EBTS (evidence-based treatments):

  • Psychotherapy (talk therapies like CBT, DBT, REBT, and IFS therapy)
  • Counseling (individual and group)
  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic therapies

If you feel that internal family systems therapy would help you, reach out to our friendly admissions team today at 866.330.9449.

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country