What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) was developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. IFS is a therapy model based on the concept that individuals are made up of a variety of different “parts.” These parts then make up our personhood. Parts can be seen as aspects of us that are tied to thoughts, feelings, and ideas that we concoct about ourselves and the world. So how can Internal Family Systems Therapy help you make sense of yourself?
What are these Parts?
The concept of parts is incredibly effective when contradictions in our personalities, wants, and needs. Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you’ve felt pulled in two totally opposite directions. This looks like a part of that you wants to go out, socialize, and experience connection with others. Then another part of you wants to stay inside and recharge by having a night alone. You may feel frustrated because there’s a part of you that knows your parents did the best that they could. Even when they tried to push you towards routes of success growing up. Then another part of you feels a deep sense of anger at the ways that they went about this and the consequences you endured. We all have aspects of our personalities that do this, and IFS gives us a place to give an equal voice to each of these aspects of ourselves.
Parts are inherently thought of to never be “bad.” Maybe we have a part (an aspect of our personality) that judges people, or acts impulsively, or likes to steal gum from the gas station. The idea with IFS is that each part needs to be respected and honored for what it truly wants. So we might wonder about each of these parts, why do you like to judge people? What do you get out of that? Or what aspect of you thrives when you’re able to act impulsively? Are you running from or towards anything? What about stealing? What is this part’s goal for me? How can we get to that deeper place?
Creating a stronger Self
Part of IFS work endeavors to create a stronger Self (yes, “capital S” Self). Self is essentially our most intuitive, reliable, and authentic driving force. The Self, according to IFS, naturally encompasses 8 C’s, confidence, calmness, creativity, compassion, clarity, curiosity, courage, and connectedness. Think of Self and parts like an orchestra, where Self is the conductor and parts are the players of the instruments. Occasionally in orchestras, conductors may have weak control over the players, in which case, chaos can ensue! But, if a conductor has a stronghold and understanding over the instruments, each instrument will have a special part, timing, and overall feature in the piece. Players will look to the conductor to guide them if the tempo is off or if someone plays at an incorrect time.
Let’s say when we feel hurt that we offended someone by something that we said. We might have a part that says, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, I’m completely justified in what I said, it was right and accurate.” Then we also have a part that says, “But, I feel really badly that I hurt them…” Self might come into the picture and say, “I see both you responding to this situation, let’s think of a way to honor both of you.” Perhaps you decide to honor the part of you that feels that what you said was accurate, but you might also choose to apologize for any unkind words.
IFS is an effective model for bringing a sense of clarity to the inner workings of our minds. It also helps the turmoil that can ensue when our thoughts and feelings begin swirling. If you resonate with this idea, check out “No Bad Parts” by Richard Schwartz, and take a look at the possibility of seeing an IFS-trained or IFS-informed therapist.
**Schwartz, R.C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press. Published in paperback in 1997.
Article written by Caroline Quintanilla, LCSW