IFS stands for Internal Family Systems therapy, developed by Richard Schwartz in the late 1980s. While IFS can be used with families, this is not a family therapy — the “family” refers to our internal world of parts — the distinct thoughts, feelings, memories, experiences, perspectives and agendas, etc., that compete for our attention. We’re all familiar with this sense of “multiplicity”: for instance, you might have a part that is committed to finishing that important project for work, and another part that feels overwhelmed and sabotages your best efforts by hijacking you with fatigue, so that you spend the evening procrastinating in front of internet cat videos.
IFS allows us to describe the complexity and nuances of human experience - e.g., "A part of me loves you deeply, and I have a part that is afraid to be vulnerable with you."
Exiles, Managers and Firefighters
IFS sees our parts as fitting three basic roles: we have “exiles” - those parts that carry feelings that are so hard to sit with, such as shame, vulnerability, grief or trauma, that we have to push them away; and protector parts, which can be proactive (“managers”) or reactive (“firefighters”). Our managers try to organize our world in such a way that we never have to feel those exiled parts. They might arrange for us to work overtime when our father-in-law is visiting so that we can avoid the feeling of judgment that we sense in his presence. Many of our managers are invaluable and help our lives run smoothly. But sometimes they can be inflexible, compulsive, or stuck in extreme behaviours. Firefighters show up after an exile has been triggered to help numb us or distance us from the pain. Firefighters can frequently show up as parts that rage, use substances, experience panic attacks, or dissociate.
All Parts Are Welcome
No matter the role of a part, or how it manifests, we want to remember that all of our parts are trying to help us in some way. We could draw a parallel here between IFS and psychodynamic approaches, in that our parts can be thought of as defense mechanisms — patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour — that once helped us survive a difficult situation, but, now that we are adults or the situation has changed, no longer serve us as well. Transformation is not intended to “get rid of” extreme or unhelpful parts, but to help them transition to healthier roles within the family.
Qualities of Self
One core aspect of IFS is the idea of “Self.” Self is not a part, but that core sense of being, our true or best self. The self that we are able to be on our best days, with a full night of sleep and well-behaved children. This self has access to a wide range of effective responses to challenges, as it resides within the calm space in the nervous system where it can handle everything that comes its way. Schwartz says that Self has these eight, alliterative C qualities: compassion, creativity, courage, calm, curiosity, clarity, confidence, and connectedness. IFS believes that we are born with these qualities, and these healing qualities of Self can offer understanding, compassion, and comfort to our distressed parts.
The goal of IFS therapy is to build relationships with this internal family. We want these parts to learn that your Self is available to help them, and that once they can learn to trust Self, they no longer need to act so reactively. And we want your Self to be available to truly hear the stories of all these parts, so that you can offer the compassion and understanding these parts need in order to heal.
If you’re interested in learning more about IFS, you can visit the IFS Institute (https://ifs-institute.com/).
This is a short(ish) video of Richard Schwartz speaking about how his theory of personality works, how change happens within the IFS model, and briefly demonstrating how to connect to a part:
Jay Earley’s book, Self-Therapy is a great resource for applying some IFS principles by yourself.
You might also want to check out Mardou’s lovely comics about her experiences of starting IFS therapy, which illustrate how this process can feel unusual or unfamiliar at first, but can offer a unique and effective way of understanding ourselves: https://ifscomics.com/2019/06/24/session-1/
Dick Schwartz's book No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model is a great resource to learn more about IFS therapy.