Introduction to Internal Family Systems: a Groundbreaking Psychotherapy, Self-Therapy, Communication Method and World-View

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Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, is a form of psychotherapy that recently has been rapidly gaining popularity for several different reasons. It can be used to treat simple and complex trauma, addictions, many types of mental health conditions as well as everyday issues like procrastination and perfectionism. Its effects are often quickly apparent. IFS takes into account the person’s current situation (e.g. systemic injustices) and doesn’t pathologize or call anything maladaptive. In contrast to most types of psychotherapy, in many cases IFS can be practiced as self-therapy or with a peer, though severe traumas may be best left to professional IFS therapists.

The core concept of IFS is that our minds are made up of parts, kinds of subpersonalities, which make us the incredibly complex and fascinating beings we are. Parts are why we sometimes act in ways “uncharacteristic” to us, why we may do things we don’t want to do (like with addictions, bad habits and arguing) or don’t do the things we want to do (like going to the gym or expressing our boundaries). Most parts have developed in our childhood, and may be mentally stuck there, viewing the world through the lens of a child. We can contact these parts, hear them out, comfort them and solve many issues that way. Healing a part may take time, but occasionally a life-long issue may be resolved in half an hour.

In IFS, it’s usually helpful to treat parts like real people, even if you think of them as just facets of your mind — real people who want to be seen, heard, understood, valued and loved. One of the core concepts of IFS is that all parts are welcome. Even if some parts make you feel like they’re sabotaging your life, they are just trying to help. A part may be stuck at age four, and four-year-olds generally aren’t so good at tackling adult problems. They may hold extreme beliefs like “If I’m not perfect, no one will love me” or “Nothing will ever get better”.

IFS is not the only form of therapy focused on parts of the mind. The established schools of schema therapy (a type of CBT), ego state therapy (which has largely gone out of fashion) and Gestalt therapy also use the concept of parts, as do hypnosis parts work, many NLP techniques and Voice Dialogue. The Inner Child is a common concept in pop psychology, though it feels a bit funny from the IFS perspective — there is no one “inner child”, there are dozens of inner children!

The difference between IFS and most of these other parts-based therapies is the concept of Self, which is outside of any part and the cornerstone of therapeutic work. When you are in Self, not blended with any part, certain positive qualities like curiosity and compassion naturally arise. Even though alcoholism or withdrawing emotionally may have ruined many things for you, from Self you are able to appreciate the parts behind these issues or at least meet them with curiosity. Most other forms of parts work either have you go into a part or communicate with it indirectly, e.g. by writing.

Typically in an IFS session, the goal is to be at least mostly in Self when you communicate with parts, though sometimes approaches like consciously blending with a part or a part talking with another person’s Self are used. If you are reacting to a part or the session with emotions such as frustration, anger, anxiety, resentment, impatience or fear instead of warm openness, you’re not in Self, but blended with a part and your target part can sense that. It’s also possible to be blended with a Self-like part, one that believes it’s Self, which makes it difficult to progress with therapy.

Self is not just a tool for therapy. The long-term goal of IFS is to become Self-led in daily life. The more parts you heal, the more your system begins to trust Self and you’re less likely to react to things from a part. When you are in Self, you are not emotionally reactive and can face the difficulties of life, including interpersonal issues, with calm spaciousness and compassion for both your own and other people’s parts. After all, if someone hurt you, that was likely caused by a hurting child part of theirs.

In the IFS model, parts are divided into three types. Exiles carry pain and are guarded by protector parts, managers and firefighters, who try hard to stop the pain from coming to your attention. Managers have more rational approaches to this, while firefighters fight fire with fire and may escape into addictions or even self-harm. A protector may have multiple exiles and an exile may be guarded by more than one protector. You are supposed to ask a protector for permission to work with its exile. In practice, this classification is often too simplistic and I’ve rarely found it useful in my own IFS work.

There are also other ways to classify parts. Severe childhood trauma often causes structural dissociation, where parts carrying trauma are alienated and split off. In extreme cases, the personality may become fully compartmentalized, as is the case in DID (dissociative identity disorder), formerly known as multiple personality disorder. Structural dissociation is common and behind many mental conditions and interpersonal issues. In structural dissociation theory, trauma-related parts are divided into fight, flight, freeze, fawn/submit and attach parts. However, even people without dissociation often notice such parts in themselves.

In IFS, parts can communicate with words, images, emotions, felt senses (vague vibes that may be difficult to put into words), spatial locations and bodily sensations and movement. Many people can see their parts, often down to detail such as their facial expression, body language, clothes or haircuts, but this is not necessary. Parts may look like you as a child, or something different altogether, e.g. archetypal/symbolic, a cartoon character or even an item. They may resemble someone you know, like a family member or an ex-partner.

When people first hear of IFS, they often imagine it as an inner negotiation process, and sometimes it does involve negotiation, but this approach can become you telling your parts what to do, when IFS is all about listening and being there. Sometimes being heard is enough to heal a part. For most people, IFS tends to revolve around soothing and comforting your young parts, which makes sense as most parts are children.

Most parts crave nurture, safety and/or play the most, though for people who’ve been severely neglected as children, they often aren’t able to receive these things at first. It can take a while before a part trusts you enough to say anything or even be present to you. Nurture and safety are usually best provided from Self, though some people have or develop nurturing parts to take care of other parts. Occasionally parts want imaginary scenarios where they break things or hurt or even pretend-kill people who have harmed you. This may be disturbing to other parts, but it is harmless and often empowering.

Polarization refers to two or more parts holding strongly opposite views and engaging in a kind of tug-of-war. E.g. addictions usually feature many polarized parts. One very common polarization is one part that wants to work very hard and another that just wants to play or relax. The goal is to heal all involved parts or at least negotiate with them, so they all agree to let go, at least a bit. IFS books tend to recommend meetings for the parts to accomplish this, but I’ve generally had good results just by healing all the involved parts with normal IFS work.

Often “meta parts” crop up when doing IFS. They may be annoyed at the number of parts showing up and feel the whole thing is a chaos, want the work to progress quicker, be convinced you’re doing it wrong or just imagining everything or they may be critical of IFS as a whole. They may be voicing their real objections, e.g. an inner critic grumbling you can’t do anything right, but they may also be covertly attempting to interrupt the whole process. Most traumatized people carry strong anti-healing parts — to the point they can even stop you from reading IFS books. There may also be parts that make you feel tired, scatterbrained, confused or prevent you from accessing a part in order to hinder you from doing IFS or getting to a particular exile.

The classical “magic question” in IFS is asking a part “What do you fear would happen if you didn’t do your job?” What would happen if that part didn’t make you drink, procrastinate or act snarky? You may discover very surprising motivations that would have never occurred to you via rational analysis, because emotional logic isn’t really amenable to analyzing. (Perhaps your sensible explanation for that behavior is true, but there may be several other parts behind it, as well!)

Many parts live the past and their sense of time can be quite strange: they may be angry at your boss yet still not realize you’re an adult. It’s often very helpful to let parts know your current age, that you are an adult who is capable of dealing with this issue, and e.g. that abusive people of the past are no longer in your life, perhaps also that you have a job, a partner or friends, if you do. This is one of the most powerful “IFS moves” and sometimes is enough on its own to heal a part.

Another very impressive move is asking a part if it is willing step aside for a bit to let you access Self. And usually they do oblige! This may seem perplexing: I can ask my anxiety if it would go away and it does, how is that even possible? Because you’re not wishing for a part to go away, as we so often do, you kindly ask it to step back for a moment for a good reason. Even if a part doesn’t immediately agree to let go, if you assuage any fears it has (e.g. let it know it’s can still follow the session and intervene if needed) or promise to get back to it, it often complies. Also, if a part is trying to flood you with its pain, you can ask if it is willing to tone down so that it’s easier for you to communicate with it. Just like with people, if you treat someone with kindness and respect, they tend to respond well to your requests.

The trickiest aspect of IFS for many people is locating the first part to work with. For some this comes quite naturally: the concept of parts makes immediate sense to them, and they may have been noticing parts all their life. I’m not one of these people: I had no idea about parts before I encountered a somewhat IFS-like technique called Internal Double Crux and met a baby part that didn’t fit in the IDC framework.

The easiest part to locate may be one of your inner critics, which is perhaps voicing derogatory views of you. Or you may sense your addiction as a “monster”, but this is likely something too heavy to start practicing IFS with. You can try bringing to mind a situation where your parts tend got triggered and see if that leads you to a part.

There are many ways to locate a part, but in my opinion, through your body may be the easiest and most beneficial way. If you sense any emotions in your body, you’re already sensing parts. Even if you don’t normally “feel emotions in your body”, you likely experience some physical sensations connected with feelings, such as nervous tension or trembling (perhaps in anticipation of an IFS session), a knot in your stomach, or stress or anxiety tightening your chest or throat.

You can see if focusing on that area of your body gives you any words, images or felt senses. Finding the part behind such a coarse sensation can help you later locate other parts that may not cause any obvious physical sensations. Once you discover just one part in your body, it often opens the door to locating many, many more, which can open your whole experience into a more embodied direction.

Some common types of parts include:

  • judges others
  • avoidant
  • makes you aloof and disconnected from your emotions (e.g. can’t cry)
  • seeks intimacy/connection/commitment, polarized with parts terrified of those things
  • terrified of rejection and abandonment
  • terrified of conflict
  • people don’t love me if I’m X/unless I’m X
  • shame (especially related to sexuality)
  • seeks sensations of aliveness and vibrancy
  • hates the grown-up world or finds it drab
  • feels burdened with gender roles
  • angry at people who’ve harmed you
  • reacts to money, food/eating or sex
  • can’t tolerate boredom
  • can’t tolerate responsibility
  • gets angry if you’re told what to do
  • people-pleaser, polarized with passive-aggression
  • terrified of being alone
  • feels you aren’t human (common in severe trauma)
  • controlling (of other parts and/or people)
  • hopeless/catastrophizing
  • overreads into social interactions (e.g. everything means people don’t like you)
  • impostor syndrome
  • fixated on how bad your life is or how unfair that is
  • crushed by others’ pain and believes it to be empathy
  • wants to rescue or fix others
  • wants you to be rescued
  • fixated on solving every problem
  • trying to earn your parents’ love
  • wants to “show someone”
  • wants you to “leave your mark”
  • afraid of expressing your wants, needs, boundaries or possibly anything at all
  • causes issues with your voice
  • terrified of you healing your trauma or dissociation lifting
  • “I’m probably doing this wrong” (IFS or other things)

They are all just trying to help, and deep down they just want to feel safe and loved. Does reading this list evoke any reactions in your parts? Remember that such reactions may also be defensive (“that’s ridiculous!”).

Some IFS books suggest a series of “rituals” performed to heal a part: reparenting, retrieving, witnessing and unburdening. Which ones of these are done and how always depends on what the part wants and needs.

Reparenting is utilized in other therapies too, but it works much better when done from Self. It may involve going back to a particular memory in the role of an ideal parent and possibly changing the situation, e.g. defending the child against parental abuse. Reparenting may also be done with an adult part carrying trauma. Most of the time, however, parts just want you to be there for them, in the now, e.g. soothed, held or tucked in.

Retrieving refers to helping the part out of an unsafe past situation into a safe environment, e.g. your home or your body. However, sometimes parts aren’t afraid of the past, but a situation in your current life, such as interacting with a parent or someone being angry at you, or another part. In that case, the part’s safe place might be something like a fortress.

Witnessing is the part showing you memories of why it adopted its current role, to make you understand how awful the whole thing was for it. It is important to note that often this is unnecessary: we now know that normally in trauma therapy, you don’t have to focus on the original trauma. However, the events to be witnessed need not be horrifying trauma, it could be e.g. occasions of your parents calling you lazy: so-called small t-trauma or microtrauma.

Unburdening is based on the idea, to my knowledge unique to IFS, that many parts carry a burden, even though the part may believe it is the burden — similarly to how an entire human, blended with a part, may believe they are nothing but a failure. A burden is an emotion like shame or a negative belief like “I’m unlovable”. The part can be asked if it carries a burden and if and how it’d like to dispose of it. The typical way isdissolving it into the elements, like burning with fire or burying in the ground. I once guided someone’s part in disposing its burden into a washing machine.

Parts with severe trauma may be terrified of witnessing or unburdening. In that case, it’s possible to reassure them that you can start with just a portion of the burden. One can initially witness 20% or unburden 10% of a particular trauma. If the part agrees to this, the remaining trauma can be stored in an imaginary box or another container between your sessions to stop it from bothering you. (This may also sound like unbelievable play-pretend, but the box technique is also used in other therapies.)

In practice, these steps are not always needed. My own parts usually aren’t in a “place” and can’t be retrieved, they rarely show me any memories and their burdens almost always heal without explicitly focusing on them.

A part healing may make you feel more spacious, cause different physical sensations and often it moves you to tears. Afterward it may want to find a new role in the system, e.g. a critic becoming a mentor. Or it just wants to go on a holiday and rest. (In IFS theory, healing a part doesn’t make it disappear, but occasionally they do seem to vanish.) Healing a part can often be completed in one session, sometimes it takes many. Sometimes the burden heals but comes back later and additional work is needed. If you notice no change in the issue you worked on, there might also be more parts involved.

There are many ways to do IFS. The most popular IFS guidebook, Jay Earley’s Self-Therapy, is valuable but also somewhat formulaic and prescriptive. I feel IFS should be more like improv. Janina Fisher’s IFS book Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors focuses on stabilizing the system when there is severe trauma and structural dissociation, e.g. by naming all emotions as coming from a part rather than “me”. Susan McConnell’s Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy utilizes e.g. touch, movement and breathwork. Parts you sense in your body often respond well to touching that area.

IFS can also be combined with other types of psychotherapy. I’ve had great success with integrating IFS with somatic experiencing (SE), a trauma therapy that offers more techniques of working with parts through your body and is particularly helpful for severe trauma, as well as angry parts. I healed all my trauma with IFS, SE and loving-kindness meditation.

Combining IFS with hypnosis or EMDR is also relatively common. Therapists working with children may use play therapy or sandtray therapy from an IFS perspective. All psychotherapy works with parts, explicitly or not. When you benefit from therapy, it’s because it healed one or more parts. It just tends to be much more effective to access parts consciously and directly.

IFS and meditation can be combined in many different ways. I’ve also mixed IFS with (or influences from) e.g. coherence therapy, solution-focused brief therapy, Alexander technique and drumming. Some people do IFS under the influence of psychedelics or MDMA. You can journal from a part or to a part or let parts express themselves through art, music or poetry. The IFS framework can also be a very helpful tool for writing fiction.

IFS is a deeply relational therapy that takes into account the person’s living conditions and systemic factors. Most parts are stuck in the past, but a part may also be reacting to a current physical illness, unhealthy relationship, poverty, medical abuse, systemic racism or other ongoing oppression. In IFS, no reaction is ever considered “pathological” or “maladaptive”, unlike in CBT. And sometimes e.g. voicing your needs really isn’t safe.

IFS was developed based on family therapy, and it is also used in family therapy and couples therapy. Concepts from IFS can be used in communication outside of therapy settings too, e.g. one member of a family talks for a part of theirs from Self, while other family members listen trying to stay in Self. When people are familiar with the IFS frame, it can be used in everyday conversations too: “It really hurts some of my parts when your critical part judges me”, which tends to be better received than I-you-talk. This book contains an excellent chapter on communicating with IFS.

There are no panaceas and obviously IFS is not going to be a good fit for everyone and every problem, but it can relieve a surprisingly wide range of different conditions and issues — as well as giving you perspective into why people act the way they do and how the whole society works. The world is full of hurting child parts who long to be heard, and you can start with yours.

Journalist, medical writer and patient activist, author of 17 published books in Finnish.