Internal Family Systems

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Leona Dawson Depression & Anxiety, Personal Development

What is IFS?

Internal Family Systems is a form of psychotherapy, developed by Richard Schwartz, which supports personal growth and deep healing. IFS brings both compassion and clarity into each session to help you make sense of your world and the choices you make as a consequence.

Why is it called Internal Family Systems?

You may be wondering why this therapy model is called Internal Family Systems. In a nutshell, it is because it refers to the family of different parts we have within us. You might have a part that is shy while also having another part that is adventurous. You might have a part that procrastinates and this triggers another part who tries to get you to do things by criticising you. You may have parts that are quite young and others that are very grown up. You may also have parts that encourage you to relax, or exercise or eat well and occasionally others who like to party hard, or binge or gamble. All of us have many parts of us that help us navigate the world and to protect us when the world seems confusing or unsafe.

Most of the time these parts just get on with life. Our organised parts get us out of bed, off to class or work. Our playful parts show up when we go out with friends or enjoy our hobbies. Most of the time our parts work as a team who draw upon their strengths and skills to help us have the life we would like. I have heard clients call their parts an inner family, an inner committee, a team or an inner community.

Here’s a simple way to understand parts.

Have a quick look at this snippet of the Disney movie, Inside Out, which humorously depicts our inner parts.

So if are parts of me causing problems in my life shouldn’t I just shut them out?

We can make sense of ourselves.

Sometimes, however, our parts do not work seamlessly together. Members of the team might not agree to the same goals, or they might believe different things about the world. Then we feel uncertain, discombobulated or distressed. We might find ourselves having trouble making decisions or even doing things that we wished we hadn’t such as getting too angry, or too compliant, or feeling chronically anxious or depressed. When we can’t manage how we feel or life seems too much our parts might find ways to help us feel better by numbing out, distracting us from our feelings with TV or binge-watching Netflix for example. We might find ourselves getting foggy or sleepy, or addicted to something – maybe drugs or alcohol, the internet and even to exercise or work – anything to stop us feeling bad, sad or confused. Even when we are doing these things our parts are still trying to help us – it’s just that sometimes they have a limited range of strategies and maybe some old beliefs that are no longer helpful. We can work with these parts to let go of old beliefs and make better choices from this point forward.

internal family systemsWe can use compassion and mindfulness with Internal Family Systems therapy and coaching to recognise when we are caught up with a part and make the choice to change how we respond to a situation, person, thought or feeling. We do this by getting in touch with something we can call Self. This quality is the part of us that has the ability to hear, understand and heal all other parts. It is that place within us that is compassionate, curious, caring, creative, calm, clear and courageous. In IFS we learn to get in touch with these qualities through mindful awareness. This process helps us get more control over our life in a caring and responsive way whereby more options open out in front of us because we are able to get the bigger picture not just one part’s perspective.

Does IFS work?

Internal Family Systems is a wonderful combination of simplicity and effectiveness. The beauty of IFS is that we can communicate with each part of us and really get to understand why it does what it does. We can hear how it experiences the world and it can make better choices as it heals. You can get to know yourself better and become a friend to yourself, your own inner coach and mentor. Because the basic principles are so easy to grasp, you begin to guide your own own healing and can take those skills with you when you finish therapy.

IFS is an empirically endorsed for of psychotherapy and has been rated as effective for improving well-being, personal resilience and self-acceptance. IFS has been shown to be helpful in dealing with phobias, anxiety, trauma, addictions, eating disorders and depression as well as couples therapy.

Find out more about IFS here and here.