At this point, all I’ve told you about theoretical orientations is that therapists have them. Still, to make an informed decision on the type of therapist you need (or want to become!) you need a little more info. Today I’m going to get into Internal Family Systems (IFS Therapy) in a little more depth. Below are the five main facets of IFS therapy, and how they can help individuals, couples, and families function in a healthier way.
**The information on this website is purely educational and not to be used as therapy. While my post-grad job prospects are still in the air, if you think you might need a therapist, please check out BetterHelp! They have thousands of licensed therapists that you can meet with online for a fraction of the cost of in-person therapy.
IFS therapy was created by Dr. Richard Scwartz, a family therapist who kept hearing his clients refer to “parts of [themselves]” which had conflicting feelings. He wasn’t the first person to notice internal parts, (think Freud and his id, ego and superego!) but he was the first to pay attention to how they interact. He began treating individuals as if their parts each had their own minds with desires and fears. Thus, IFS Therapy was born.
IFS says the mind is naturally subdivided into these parts, which each add value to the system in their natural state. However, life events can force them to reorganize, creating problems. One of the most important things IFS therapists maintain is that there are no bad parts– only bad roles they have found themselves in.
So, what types of life events are we talking here? Sometimes it’s trauma. For example, a person who was sexually assaulted needs to hold a lot of pain, which gives the part with that job a lot of power. We’ll get into the parts shortly. More often, it’s simply family rules and patterns that slowly train us to to maintain unhealthy ways of being.
IFS therapy is an integrative approach, meaning it takes pieces from other established theories. It’s also evidence-based, meaning that it’s efficacy doesn’t rely on anecdotal evidence from therapists.
Assumptions and Goals
Any theory starts with basic assumptions about the world and/or people. Not subscribing to the assumptions likely means that you’d have difficulty working with the theory. They all also have their own goals, marking progress based on what the theory says.
IFS therapy has about five assumptions. First, everyone’s mind naturally splits into these parts. The second is that one of these parts is a core self, the home of confidence, compassion, leadership, etc.. It’s job is to lead the system.
I already somewhat stated the third and fourth assumptions in the previous section. The baseline function of each part is helpful to the system, and the parts change as we go through life events.
Fifth, and this is how IFS therapy fits into systems theory so well, changes to the internal system will affect the external system (families, couples, communities, etc) and vice versa.
The overall goal of IFS therapy is to help the core self lead. This involves helping all the parts feel comfortable stepping aside. A therapist can do this by helping the person see and listen to what their parts need. They won’t vie for the power of leadership if they’re getting what they need.
There are four main types of parts in IFS therapy. Dr. Scwartz called them the core self, exiles, managers, and firefighters. However, another therapist may change the names to help their client relate.
The self is at the core of the person, and it it holds all the person’s best qualities. It is confident, balanced, relaxed, and most importantly, leading the system. When it’s on top of the hierarchy as it should be, a person feels empowered and centered.
When they’re in their non-extreme states, the exiled parts hold emotions. This is helpful for processing pain and being able to move on from it. However, the society we live in just really doesn’t give exiles the space to do their job. We value pushing through, picking yourself up by your bootstraps and all that. So, the managers, in charge of day-to-day living, force the exiles into deep, dark corners of the system. They exile them.
But the managers don’t process the pain for us. They just push it away. So now the exile has no choice but to make a fuss, screaming to be heard, banging on a crusty, splintery basement door trying to escape. When they finally do escape, and take over the system, they leave the person feeling very fragile and vulnerable.
Managers, again, are the parts in charge of maintaining daily tasks. Exiles really tend to wallow, and if we let them be in charge all the time, we’d never get anything done.
There are several different management styles, just like there are in larger systems like a work environment. Some are perfectionists, trying to keep life perfect so we don’t experience any pain. Some are caretakers of others, because they dislike seeing strong emotions in others. Perhaps that would trigger our own. We often have several of these different types of managers to help us stay in the good graces of the many systems in our lives. When the managers are securely in charge, our exiles are barely detectable. However, when they fail, it becomes time to bring in the big guns.
The firefighters come in to “save the day” when the managers fail at keeping the exiles at bay. When we desperately need to quell our intense vulnerability and soothe our pain, we don’t feel like we have the time or resources to let the exiles handle it themselves. Or the managers for that matter. So, the firefighters use quick methods, albeit often extremely unhealthy.
The firefighters are the parts that drink in excess. They’re the ones that punch walls and throw cell phones at girlfriends. They skip work and drunk text your exes and lash out at well-meaning friends. Firefighters really get us in a lot of trouble. But we often feel a lot better until the consequences kick in.
A beginning IFS therapy intervention is the path exercise. It helps therapist and client gather information about the parts, and how willing they are to let the self lead. The therapist asks the client to visualize themselves walking on a path. What do they see? If they describe watching themselves, they’re still removed from the process. There’s likely a part interfering. The client must speak with it and ask it to step aside. It may take several sessions to hear all the worries of each par before the self can walk alone.
Another intervention that’s helpful for conceptualizing parts is drawing. It doesn’t matter if the client is a good artist– they can even write a description instead if they prefer. But the therapist asks the client to describe each part. What do they look like? Do they seem scary? Friendly? Are they crouching in a corner? Are they always yelling? This helps both therapist and client get an idea of what they’re working with.
Finally, an intervention I love using is the empty chair. This is not technically IFS therapy, as it’s normally used to help clients get closure with people who have passed away. But I’ve noticed it makes it easier for clients to speak to parts as well. The client speaks to an empty chair as if the person they wish to speak to is really there. At first, they often feel silly, but it almost always ends with the release of strong feelings.
Strengths and Weaknesses of IFS Therapy
Any theory will have pros and cons. These are pros and cons of IFS therapy.
While IFS therapy is technically considered evidence-based by the National Registry of Evidence Based Programs (NREPP) it is still quite new. A few more years of testing will help researchers feel more confident in it’s ability to increase well-being.
Since it is so positively focused, it is not always the best option for clients in crisis, or clients with very severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.
Next, sometimes it can be difficult for a therapist to tell when the self is really in charge. It leaves some room for the clients parts to be dishonest and impersonate the self. Yesterday, I asked my sister to visualize the path, and she said she could see it from her own point of view, indicating her core self was in charge. With more probing however, it turned out she was only viewing it that way because she didn’t want to get her height wrong when she imagined herself (??). Silly reason aside, it was quickly clear that a perfectionist manager was really in charge, trying to make sure she did the exercise “right.” Again, this does not make for a bad part, just one that’s really anxious to protect the self.
Finally, the last weakness is that some clients– more pragmatic, logical ones, may have trouble conceptualizing these parts. Some people like more concrete interventions than what IFS therapy provides.
The positive focus of IFS therapy makes it really empowering for many clients. This is especially beneficial with resistant clients because it softens the blow of taking responsibility.
It is evidence-based. That means there’s concrete proof that IFS therapy works!
It is also really versatile– it can be used with individuals, families, and couples.
There’s a training program online that gives you an official IFS education, straight from the creator and his students!
What do you think about IFS therapy? Leave your thoughts in the comments!