What is IFS?

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a non-pathologizing approach to psychotherapy.  It emphasizes the natural multiplicity of the mind. The grounding assumption is that there are no bad parts, only parts forced into bad roles. When a client learns how to access Self, they can then heal their wounded parts. This brings the whole system into harmony and allows the person to become more Self-led. The natural side effect of this healing is a reduction in problematic or symptomatic behavior.

Core concepts of Internal Family Systems therapy

IFS consists of working with the Self and parts.

Self: The first core concept of IFS is the existence of the Self. The Self is the innate presence within each person that is the pure essence of who they are. It is inherently good and whole, and cannot be broken or corrupted. When a person is Self-led, their system is balanced and all parts are acting in harmony with one another. Sometimes the Self and other parts become blended, obscuring the Self. When this happens, the first step is to differentiate the Self from the blended parts.

Parts: The second core concept of IFS is the existence of parts. Sometimes referred to as subpersonalities or families, each part has their own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. They may be a different age or gender than the client.1 All parts act from a place of positive intention. There are no bad parts, only bad roles.

When a part feels threatened and doesn’t trust the Self, they act out to try to protect the system. Because parts are often stuck in time or polarized with one another, the behaviors they elicit are extreme or out of sync with reality. When parts trust the Self, and feel understood and appreciated, they take on positive roles and the whole system acts in harmony.

What’s the goal of IFS?

The initial goal of IFS therapy is to help the client access their Self and befriend Parts. Then, in Self, the goal is for the client to access parts and heal them through the unburdening process. The ultimate goal of IFS is to increase the client’s access to Self so that they can be more Self-led. This process naturally allows clients to reach other goals they may have such as decreasing anxiety, improving their relationships, or recovering from trauma.

What can Internal Family Systems therapy help with?

Originally, IFS was developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s to help people suffering from eating disorders. Since then, the model has been used to treat a wide range of mental health diagnoses as well as non-clinical issues. The disorders that Internal Family Systems can help with range from anxiety to depression to suicidal ideation. IFS is also used for people struggling with issues related to self-esteem, anger, shame, and more.

Is Internal Family Systems therapy effective?

Internal family systems therapy was designated as an evidence-based treatment in 2015. Although much of the evidence regarding the efficacy of IFS is anecdotal, major research studies are ongoing and will hopefully provide scientific evidence to support what IFS therapists consistently see.

Who is able to offer IFS therapy?

In order to offer IFS therapy a therapist must have additional post-graduate training. This typically includes attending the IFS Institute’s Level 1 training, participating in consultation or supervision with other IFS therapists, and continuing education classes that focus on IFS. 

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