Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
By Vanessa Gonzalez
People are complex, and there are so many facets of ourselves that make us – well, us. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a type of psychotherapy that addresses how we are all made up of different internal parts of ourselves. These parts or sub-personalities make up one internal unit or family and cannot be fully understood in isolation from another. Each of these parts lives within an individual, fosters both healthy and unhealthy roles and is ever-changing.
To achieve healing from the past, therapists will attempt to understand each of the parts of the individual and learn how the overall system reacts to other systems and people. Eventually, the goal of IFS therapy is to balance the internal family system and the Self so that it can be the most influential leader of the unit.
The parts can either have extreme, unhealthy roles or healthy roles. These sub-personalities have negative emotions such as anger or shame. The parts try to control and protect the individual from the pain of the wounded parts and are often conflicting with one another and the core Self. The core self is described as the whole individual that is at the core of every individual, that is not in pain or experience negative emotions.
There are 4 main types of parts:
- The firefighter parts are are considered protectors. When someone is triggered, the firefighter emerges to distract a person’s attention from that hurt or shame they experienced. It is meant to put out the “fire” of pain. For example, if someone is reminded of a painful memory, they may engage in maladaptive behaviors such as substance use, overeating, or violence.
- The manager parts protect you by doing exactly what it sounds like, managing situations. It handles the way the person interacts with the world to prevent getting hurt.
- The exile parts are the pain, shame, fear, trauma, or any negative emotions. The firefighter and the manager work to push down the exile from emerging and try to exile the parts from coming to the Self.
- The Self is the whole underlying collection of all of the aforementioned parts. It is considered the true Self and has qualities such as curiosity, compassion, acceptance, and peace.
IFS focuses on healing the painful parts and helping individuals disentangle themselves from their sub-personalities and the Self. The wounded parts restore mental balance and harmony by changing the dynamics that create discord among the sub-personalities and the Self.
Although some parts experience pain, the IFS does not view other parts as bad. Each part serves a function and plays a distinct role in the individual. So, the IFS therapist will validate and recognize each part and mostly work with the extreme, unhealthy roles as they may need the most therapeutic work. So, the goal of this theory is to work with the network of the subparts and find harmony between them since the individual can’t ultimately change with one part alone.
When to use it?
IFS therapy is an evidenced based practice used to treat individuals, couples, and families.
It has been proven to treat:
- Abuse – physical, emotional, or sexual
- Bipolar disorder
- Compulsive and maladaptive behavior
- Body Image issues
- Substance use
How is IFS used?
IFS is typically used as a form of talk therapy. The therapist works with the individual to identify and understand the sub-personalities and families that make up the internal system. Once the parts are identified, you acknowledge the emotions, learn how to release them so you can address the issue, and find healthier ways to manage on your own by utilizing all parts of the Self.
Some tools that are used are:
- Relaxation exercises
- Diagrams to understand the system and how it works
- Visualization techniques