What is internal family systems therapy?
Internal family systems therapy (IFS) is a type of talk therapy based on the assumption that within each of our minds, there are multiple different "sub-personalities" or "parts." The parts are thought to interact with each other internally – just as different people might interact with each other externally.
According to the IFS model, the parts can become damaged as a result of our past experiences. For example, the experience of intense emotions like anger, fear, or shame as a result of a prior event is thought to be carried by one of the parts. The subsequent actions of the damaged part, or interactions between parts, can cause us distress or impact on our behavior in a way that creates unhappiness.
At the core of the IFS model is the concept of the ‘Self’, the idea that we all have a resourceful, calm and intact whole within. The Self is thought to be our core being and the leader of the different parts. It is thought that by working with the Self, the damaged parts can be healed and they dynamic between them rebalanced.
IFS therapy is carried out within the framework of this ‘internal system’ composed of sub-personalities interacting with each other, to be led by the Self. There is an element of spiritual healing in IFS therapy – and self-compassion and self-leadership are the overarching goals.
What internal family systems therapy can help with
The IFS model can be applied to the dynamics of couples and families, as well as to the dynamics between the sub-personalities in the individual in therapy.
There is evidence to suggest that IFS therapy can be helpful in improving functioning and wellbeing. In one study, for example, participation in IFS therapy was associated with a decrease in symptoms of depression in people living with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Although more research into IFS is required to explore its effectiveness, the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) listed IFS as a type of therapy that shows promise for the treatment of:
How internal family systems therapy works
In IFS, your therapist helps you to identify and understand the different parts of yourself. There are three different kinds of sub-personalities or parts within each person according to the IFS model:
- Exiled parts: These parts are thought to be the result of past traumatic experiences. We tend to want to avoid exploring these parts.
- Managers: These parts are thought to try to protect the Self from the exiled parts, and try to maintain control over our internal world, as well as our external environment.
- Firefighters: As the name suggests, these parts are thought to subdue the exiled parts when they are triggered, helping to keep them concealed from the Self. Abusing a drug like alcohol might be an example of a firefighter activity.
The goal of IFS therapy is to reconnect and work with your Self, the undamaged and resourceful core of your being, to heal the parts of yourself that may be causing pain, and reach a state of harmony. The steps taken along the way to achieve this are to:
- Become aware of the parts. Understand that the intention of a part is to do something positive for you, but that it in doing so, it can unintentionally create unhappiness.
- Learn how to access and restore trust in the Self.
- Restore a sense of balance between the parts, and a sense of harmony between them and the Self.
- Create a dynamic where the Self is the leader of the parts.
Length of internal family systems therapy treatment
IFS therapy has no set length; it varies from person to person, depending on what you wish to work on. The IFS approach can be very flexible in terms of frequency of sessions, length of sessions, and the overall length of treatment. Generally, however, IFS tends to be a longer-term type of therapy, lasting months or even years. You and your therapist will work together to decide on the right time to finish therapy.
Structure of internal family systems therapy sessions
As with most types of therapy, the initial IFS sessions involve your therapist asking you questions.
Here, your therapist is trying to build a picture of your inner world and distinguish the different parts. At this time, there is also a strong focus on developing a trusting working relationship with your therapist.
It’s important that you feel comfortable sharing difficult thoughts, emotions and experiences with your therapist. Additionally, it can take a couple of sessions to understand the IFS model and the kind of terminology used.
Depending on your particular needs and the style of the therapist, later sessions are likely to feel conversational.
The focus on developing an awareness of your sub-personalities increases. It’s likely that you will work with the manager parts early on in therapy, addressing any concerns those parts may have about triggering behavior from the firefighter parts. Exiled parts can bring up strong emotions and so are often dealt with in later sessions. By this time, you’ll have a greater understanding of the interaction of the parts, the role of the Self, and skills and strategies to manage emotions.
IFS is not a time-limited therapy and so there is no set end point. This means that it’s important to work with your therapist to decide on the best time to finish therapy. That said, some people continue to participate in IFS therapy for as long as they continue to benefit, or until they establish the Self as the leader of their sub-personalities, and a harmonious balance between them is achieved.
What happens in a typical internal family systems therapy session
Working in the IFS model, therapists tend to take a collaborative approach, acting as a guide to help you to identify and understand your damaged parts, and reconnect with your Self. Several techniques and skills may be used in a session, including:
- Breathing exercises, which can also be used as a way of “tuning in” to or accessing a particular part
- Mindfulness and guided meditations
- Using diagrams or ‘mapping’ as visual representations of the relationships between the parts, to aid understanding
- Asking one part to interact with another part
What to look for in an internal family systems therapist
- Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that all of our therapists have already been vetted.
- You might prefer to look for a therapist who has completed specialized training in the IFS model. The Center for Self Leadership provides training in IFS and a certification program for IFS therapists. Their website is also a good resource for finding therapists in your area and learning more about IFS.
- When embarking on any type of therapy, it’s important to look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working. A strong and trusting relationship between you and your therapist, called the “therapeutic alliance” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy.
The best way to gauge how you feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:
- IFS training
- Experience with IFS therapy
- What therapy with them will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans
- Cost of therapy
It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
Find internal family systems therapists near you
Find internal family systems therapists on Zencare, below. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.