All About Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)

Have you been hearing a lot about the Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach lately? If so, you’re not alone. This therapy model is exploding in popularity among mental health professionals and clients alike thanks to its intuitive approach to healing, and the profoundly positive effects it is able to bring about.

IFS is an evidence-based therapy that has been developed over the past 30 years. It focuses on helping people become aware of, and free from their inner struggle while building the capacity to access and nurture their true self. Contrary to what you might expect from the name, IFS actually doesn’t focus on family as we commonly think of it. Instead, “family systems” refers to IFS’ use of family therapy techniques to understand and explore the ‘family’ of different subpersonalities (more on that below) that make up each of us.

IFS allows you to explore your inner experience from a place of self-compassion, acceptance, and deep understanding, with the goal being to heal yourself as a whole being, instead of trying to change individual behaviours that might be causing distress. In this article, I’ll cover what IFS is, how it works, and what makes it different from other therapies.

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) was developed by Dr Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s as a response to other forms of therapy that he saw often being ineffectual. Dr Schwartz was driven to develop a model of psychotherapy that views human emotion from the perspective of complex adaptive systems or “subpersonalities” within an individual. At its core, IFS posits that we are made up of many different subpersonalities (called parts), each having its own needs and goals, and capable of working together to promote psychological health and well-being.

IFS operates on the belief that everyone has innate wisdom and strength — which IFS calls “Self-Leadership” — which is often buried beneath layers of memories, stories, beliefs, judgments or behaviours that come into play when dealing with challenging circumstances or relationships. While traditional therapies focus on identifying thinking patterns as problems to be solved or fixed, IFS focuses on understanding how inter-part dynamics are at play both internally (within themselves), externally (in relationships), and often times both simultaneously. This allows insight into not just why we think, feel and behave in certain ways, but also what these behaviours actually do for us, without having to assign value judgments (such as good or bad, right or wrong) to these behaviours.

What is Internal Family Systems helpful for?

IFS does not focus on treating specific mental health disorders. Instead, IFS suggests that disorders are actually “jobs” being done by inner parts as efforts to cope, belong, create safety, and so forth. Because of this, IFS is both flexible and powerful, has been used to address many different concerns, including depression, anxiety, substance use, trauma, obsessions and phobias. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that IFS can be used to help virtually any problem that causes people suffering or distress.

IFS can also be an effective way to reduce stress, strengthen relationships, build self-confidence and bring harmony to one’s life. This focus on strength-building is part of what makes IFS relatively unique among clinical approaches. Ultimately, IFS aims to help people not just resolve problems, but to unlock eight qualities thought to be present in all of us: compassion, creativity, curiosity, confidence, courage, calm, connectedness, and clarity.

How Internal Family Systems works

Internal Family Systems emphasizes listening to competing, conflicting or alternate inner stories from all sides until a resolution can be reached between these parts. This involves meeting the internal parts individually, understanding their (often competing) feelings, beliefs, values, and objectives, and working with them to form new relationships with each other.

If you’ve ever said “a part of me thinks this, but another part of me thinks that,” or said something along the lines of, “it’s like there’s an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other,” you’re referring to your inner parts: those competing inner voices that seem to have very different ideas about a particular situation or course of action. It’s these parts that IFS aims to help address, and bring harmony between.

The process of IFS looks different for everyone, but follows a general path. The client sits down with their therapist to discuss what has brought them into treatment. Together they begin an inquiry process into the “parts” that may be operating behind the scenes. Clients are taught techniques to tap into these parts and begin conversation. Once comfortable being able to access these parts in session, they learn techniques for communicating with, and assisting these parts outside of session. Eventually, clients begin experiencing inner harmony and greater choice with maladaptive behaviours and difficult emotions. Gradually, but often quickly, this integrates formerly dissociated aspects of themselves back into a cohesive Self.

How is IFS different from other types of therapy?

Integrative Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a powerful and innovative approach to treating family and individual problems. It focuses on creating an effective balance between the individual and their system of personal relationships, including family, friends, co-workers, and other social networks. Moreover, IFS differs from traditional forms of psychotherapy in that it takes into account the systems and contexts within which individuals live.

IFS is flexible and comprehensive

Rather than focusing exclusively on specific symptoms or areas of dysfunction, IFS takes an holistic approach to treatment by addressing the entire network of relationships within, and surrounding a person. By incorporating an understanding of how relational dynamics influence our identities, this type of therapy creates what therapists refer to as “circular causality” where an understanding of each can inform our understanding of the other.

IFS considers the whole person

In contrast to more traditional forms of therapy such as psychoanalysis or psychodynamic therapy that focus primarily on crafting solutions through exploring the inner world of an individual’s thoughts and feelings, IFS emphasizes a consideration for the whole system in which clients exist. In doing so, it encourages not only emotional exploration but also changes to underlying beliefs and behaviours as well as changes within the systems in which the person exists.

IFS focuses on strengths over weaknesses

Where traditional therapies tend to pathologize individuals by emphasizing limitations over possibilities, IFS takes an opposite stance by highlighting strengths over weaknesses. Its primary goal is for clients to gain greater clarity about themselves rather than dwelling on deficits associated with difficult backgrounds or past experiences that may limit their potential. IFS also relies heavily on compassion as a key therapeutic technique offering opportunities for healing through forgiveness and self-acceptance instead of relying only on harsh judgment or criticism.

IFS focuses on relationships, externally and internally

Unlike other approaches that emphasize autonomy or linear structures, such as beginning-middle-end steps in problem solving, IFS acknowledges the importance of both focusing inwardly while still paying close attention to context. Any element outside an individual’s immediate experience is significantly important nonetheless, and all may have a profound effect creating pathways out of suffering. Whether individually, between couples, among family members, or neighbourhoods and nations, all factor into possibility, and opportunity.

Conclusion

Today IFS is a widely accepted form of psychotherapy for helping couples and individuals work through traumatic issues from their past so that they can develop healthier internal relationships with each other going forward. Although it didn’t receive formal recognition until much later in its life cycle than other forms of therapy, it has steadily shown tremendous potential for effecting change in individuals, and the larger systems in which they live.

If you’re looking for help resolving issues related to your past, consider talking with your therapist about the possibility utilizing IFS as part of your inner work! Many of the Counsellors here at Fieldwork offer IFS as part of their repertoire, and we’re always happy to talk about how this amazing therapy could help you.