Estimated reading time: 25 minute(s)
Internal Family System or IFS therapy has been a rapidly popularizing treatment for various mental health illnesses of the current era. The therapy strongly believes that each person has several sub-personalities or parts and draws from strategic, structures, Bowenian, and narrative types of family therapy. Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of this therapy, believed the human mind to be an inner family and spent years using different techniques that he previously used with the families of his clients. Experts now believe that the internal roles highlighted by Dr. Schwartz are not static and are capable of changing with time. IFS therapy aims to bring all these parts together for more efficient working while overcoming issues like depression, anxiety, and more. 
What is IFS Therapy and What it Includes?
IFS is a type of talk therapy where a person works with a trained therapist to identify their specific sub-personalities or families, making up their internal mental system and understanding them.  Once this identification is done, a therapist can help patients acknowledge their feelings about their suppressed emotions while teaching them how to release them to free themselves from underlying issues. Moreover, therapists also help patients find positive ways to manage conflicts on their own. To establish these rules, patients can use multiple tools, such as visualization, creating a chart that depicts the relationship between a person and their different parts, maintaining a journal, and relaxation exercises.
According to the IFS model, the following are the three typical roles played by a person’s inner mental parts:
- Managers: These protective parts function to control a person’s surroundings while managing their tasks and emotions to easily navigate daily life.
- Exiles: These inner parts hold the feelings of shame, fear, and hurt from early experiences, along with difficult memories and emotions linked with these experiences. Managers help contain these exiles while hiding them from conscious awareness so that a person does not feel pain and distress.
- Firefighters: These parts are stimulated when exiles lead to painful, threatening, or overwhelming emotions. Firefights aim to stop these difficult emotions through any means, such as binge eating or substance use.
For example, a person may have an exiled part containing anger or trauma due to an earlier abuse. In general, the manager keeps these emotions suppressed, but when they become too difficult to handle, a firefighter may distract a person by attracting them toward alcohol addiction.
IFS also believes that everyone comes with a core Self and a genuine self. The Self can observe, identify, and help all parts become more productive and less extreme while supporting them to effectively co-exist. Schwartz’s model also proposed multiple positive traits of the Self, such as the five Ps and the eight Cs. These traits help identify how much of the self is present at a particular time and how much of it needs to emerge. Following are the eight Cs of self as proposed by the IFS therapy:
The five Ps of the IFS therapy includes the following:
Therapists help people identify their parts and eliminate any burden they carry. To allow this, they may follow a process with the following six steps:
- Find: This includes identifying all parts of the body and mind that require attention.
- Focus: This includes paying attention to the right and relevant parts.
- Flesh: Patients can flesh out their emotions by describing them and their experiences associated with them.
- Feel: Patients analyze how they feel toward a specific part identified under ‘Focus.”
- Befriend: This involves being curious about the specific part and accepting its presence.
- Fear: This involves exploring what the part fears and how it would change if you alter the part’s role.
IFS Treatment Plan: What to Expect
The first session of IFS therapy covers basic information about the process apart from an initial assessment. As a part of this assessment, a therapist asks the patient about their background to understand better their problematic areas that require guidance and support. This assessment also lays the foundation of a therapeutic relationship critical for overall success. Hence, building a comfortable, strong, and trusting rapport with a therapist is imperative.
The subsequent sessions involve working with a therapist to identify different parts of the Self while building a network with all of them. Each session includes talk therapy that allows patients to explore their inner parts. Throughout a session, patients are constantly encouraged to focus on their inner selves, and some people may experience anger, shame, fear, or discomfort in doing so. A therapist can help them manage these feelings while learning how to deal with them in healthier ways. Remember that IFS therapy can not only help individuals overcome mental health issues but also support them in controlling certain physical problems, like rheumatoid arthritis. 
Common IFS Exercises and Techniques
IFS therapy involves understanding the inner self through the use of efficient techniques and exercises. Many of these exercises are linked to effective breathing control, which boosts mental clarity and relaxation. Some of these techniques include the following:
Maintaining a journal
- The room technique: This technique allows one part to watch as the Self interacts with the other. Its primary benefit includes bringing polarized parts together.
- Illustrating relationships and associations between different parts through diagrams
- Feeling the heart: Breathing, relaxing, and feeling the heart is one way to ask the protectors to take a step back so that a person’s exiles can be better understood.
- Mountain or path exercise: In this technique, a patient visualizes themselves as walking on an inviting path. If one can successfully do so, a therapist encourages them to move into the body and enjoy the scenery from within while carefully paying attention to any sensations, feelings, or thoughts that they generate. This exercise helps people in therapy better understand their inner world.
- Knowing whoever is there: This step encourages people to breathe and relax while focusing on their inner world and learning about their present parts in the best way possible.
Getting Started with IFS Therapy: What to Do
If you wish to try IFS therapy, follow the steps mentioned below for a wholesome experience with maximum benefits:
- Find a certified therapist in the local area: Try using the IFS directory or ask your primary healthcare physician to locate a therapist who offers IFS therapy. Using the directory can help you locate a suitable professional while providing information about their training level in addition to any vacancy to join their clinic.
- Set up a 15-minute consultation: Talk to an IFS therapist you have shortlisted and discuss their experience, treatment method, approach, and success rate. This consultation is to determine if a person can comfortably work with a particular therapist.
- Consider the preferences: Some people prefer seeking therapy in person, while others go for online sessions. Choose your preferences carefully according to your circumstances.
Remember that the first appointment for IFS is likely similar to any other kind of therapy, involving filling out paperwork and an initial introduction. Some therapists begin working on identifying the parts from the very first appointment.
How does IFS therapy work?
According to IFS therapy, a person’s undamaged core Self forms the true essence of who they are. It also believes in healing, transform, and better managing a person’s parts by the Self through the achievement of the following goals:
- Freeing all parts from their extreme roles
- Restoring trust and faith in the Self
- Coordinating the Self with other parts so that they can work together as a team
What should I look for in an IFS therapist?
Various experts can provide IFS therapy, such as social workers, counselors, psychotherapists, or other professionals with advanced training. While choosing a professional, look for someone with adequate credentials along with experience in the practical field. Additionally, ensure that the therapist you choose is the one you are comfortable working with.
What is IFS therapy used for?
IFS therapy can help individuals, families, and couples dealing with different issues, such as the following:
- Substance use
- General well-being and functioning
- Certain physical health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis
1 Haddock SA, Weiler LM, Trump LJ, Henry KL. The efficacy of internal family systems therapy in the treatment of depression among female college students: A pilot study. Journal of marital and family therapy. 2017 Jan;43(1):131-44.
2 Schwartz RC. Moving from acceptance toward transformation with internal family systems therapy (IFS). Journal of clinical psychology. 2013 Aug;69(8):805-16.
3 Shadick NA, Sowell NF, Frits ML, Hoffman SM, Hartz SA, Booth FD, Sweezy M, Rogers PR, Dubin RL, Atkinson JC, Friedman AL. A randomized controlled trial of an internal family systems-based psychotherapeutic intervention on outcomes in rheumatoid arthritis: a proof-of-concept study. The Journal of rheumatology. 2013 Nov 1;40(11):1831-41.