Have you heard about Internal Family Systems (IFS)?
No need to cringe if the answer’s a solid no. Until a daylong Continuing Education training on the topic shook my internal—and later external—world, I had no clue about it myself.
IFS views our internal world as consisting of multiple parts (think subpersonalities). Because every person has these parts, we can hold polar opposite views at the same time. For instance, you can be a gregarious extrovert while also feeling as though people are a nuisance. That’s because while a part of you loves to hobnob with people, another part might feel repulsed by their noise and needs.
According to IFS, there are two major classes of parts. Exiles are parts which carry painful memories, including shame, humiliation, or other difficult feelings. Then there are protectors, which strive to keep these exiles far away from our awareness.
We owe our protective parts a debt of gratitude—because who wants to feel inferior or rejected or ashamed 24/7?
Lastly, there’s Self. No matter how violent your trauma history might have been, your Self is untainted by it. According to Dr. Richard Schwartz, IFS founder, Self is innately calm, creative, curious, compassionate, courageous, confident, has clarity in every situation, and has an instinctive way to connect with parts on the inside and people on the outside.
Self is the rightful leader of the inner world. Don’t ask protective parts if they agree, though, because they often don’t—especially when there’s a history of developmental trauma.
If reading this dry description of IFS feels ho-hum, however, hang in there. I’m about to share three reasons why I love IFS—and why I believe you ought to give this model a try.
1. IFS is Respectful of Parts
I used to supervise graduate students using another psychotherapy modality. Keep this in mind as you read about one of my supervisees’ old cases. The client, Mrs. Newlywed, sought individual psychotherapy because of suspicions regarding her husband’s extramarital affair. Since Mr. Newlywed refused to join her, however, she marched into therapy alone.
Back to my supervisee’s clinical notes. For a particular session, she had scribbled that Mrs. Newlywed “complained about a bad pedicure,” and then interpreted this minor annoyance as a way to evade the client’s main pain, which my supervisee identified as the client’s marital strife.
I have no intention to fault my supervisee for thinking as such. What she formulated would have been fine according to the theory I used in supervision back then.
Since practicing IFS, however, I’ve learned to appreciate our parts’ multiple concerns equally. One part of Mrs. Newlywed might have very well lamented her lousy toe nails while other parts could have silently ruminated on her louse of a husband.
Befriending the first part might have opened the door to the second one.
To welcome all of our clients’ concerns without judging one to hold more value than the other is a more respectful way to work with our clients’ complex inner systems.
2. IFS is Daring but Doable
Hearing a client blurt out an impulse to self-harm used to unnerve me. What if my client gave into these destructive impulses, destroyed her life, and dragged my license to oblivion?
The IFS world understands self-harming behavior as the work of a segment of protectors known as firefighters. These parts adhere to a no-holds barred mentality. They’ll douse our emotional flame at all costs—including if it means killing the person in the process.
Let me illustrate. Joannie’s made-from-scratch pastries tasted so tantalizing, her friends kept urging her to start her own business. So, Joannie mustered up her courage and secured loans to establish her tiny bakery. Unfortunately, COVID happened, which forced her business to close and lose money. After watching her account dwindle day after day, Joannie started to feel suicidal.
When she explored her inner world with curiosity, Joannie learned that the suicidal thought came in response to a familiar memory buried deep in her psyche: her step-mom, slapping little Joannie and ranting that she’d never amount to anything.
A firefighter part of Joannie felt convinced that the only way she could escape the shame and agony of believing she’s a failure is to kill herself.
Joannie worked with the part of her that’s bent on suicide. I told Joannie to inform the part, “If the goal is to get rid of the pain little Joannie has been carrying all this time, you need to give us time. I can’t help the girl feel better if you kill me before that, right?”
Suicidal parts will continue to dangle death as desirable until the vulnerable parts they’re trying to protect—those with feelings of rejection, shame, inferiority, and so on—are liberated from their burdens.
3. IFS Offers a Pathway to Healing
While still in grad school, I worked at a community mental health center under the supervision of PhD-level clinicians. I cherish the years I spent working there, even as a part of me abhors the dense journal articles I had to read—verbose literature with scant relevance to my clients’ struggles.
The theory I used back then never offered a clear pathway. When I relayed to my supervisor a client’s complaint regarding how therapy didn’t alleviate his symptoms, I was instructed to encourage him to come twice, as opposed to once, a week.
But how is doubling the dose of an ineffective treatment helpful?
And if a client acted out? The client’s unconscious mind put her up to it—so let’s see if we could link a few pieces of information together and perhaps arrive at an interpretation that would relieve her from misbehaving.
I didn’t realize it then, but these messages implanted a subtle seed in my beginning therapist’s mind that I shouldn’t expect tangible changes. Here’s the rationale I’d unknowingly embraced: Because the unconscious mind is, well, unconscious, we may need to settle for long periods of therapy and hope for the best.
Contrast this with IFS, which offers distinct steps to befriend protector parts and then steps to unload burdens from wounded exiles.
Finding a modality which offers a straightforward way to healing revitalized my passion to help the hurting.
The fact that IFS offers a plain pathway to liberate each exile means clients can—and do—see palpable changes in their lives. A married couple with a barren sex life ended therapy after they helped their exiles dump painful memories from childhood abuse. Once they unburdened themselves of these young parts, the couple discovered more room for passion to return.
Another client gushed to her sister about IFS as the “best” therapy she’s ever done and researched IFS therapists in the sister’s state, to hopefully coax her to try IFS.
I can list more success stories, but perhaps it’s more important to invite you to practice this model yourself—even if only for a moment. How about if you pause reading and ask yourself what next step feels right? One option is to explore the IFS Institute website. Another may be to watch videos on IFS.
Oh, and if you ever craft a list on why you love IFS, be sure to send me a copy.