Internal Family Systems: Using ''Parts Work'' and ''the Self'' to Feel and Function Better
Updated: Mar 24
What is Internal Family Systems?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic approach that refers to the inner family of ‘’subpersonalities,’’ within the psyche of every human. IFS helps people understand how different aspects of their minds play various roles in coping and directing behavior. We all intuitively reference this, making statements when conflicted such as ‘’Part of me wants to [do this], but another part of me wants to [do this other thing].’’
An extreme example of this phenomenon is Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), but that diagnosis applies when individuals actually move in and out of outward-facing identities--typically as a coping response to severe trauma.
However, Internal Family Systems and similar models, which are sometimes referred to simply as ‘’parts work,’’ recognize subpersonalities as a universal component of psychological development, regardless of trauma history. As noted in this page on EMDR, everyone experiences emotional wounding (particularly through childhood) that we’re unable to fully integrate--and the resulting inner conflict leads to fractured aspects of the self: some in the background that hold our pain, and others which suppress that pain in functional and/or self-destructive ways.
IFS normalizes this multiplicity and provides a process for recognizing, ‘’unblending,’’ and befriending parts, allowing you to gain insight into your reactions, increase self-compassion, make better choices, and reduce anxiety and depression. The overarching goal of IFS is development of a positive relationship with parts through connection to the ''Self''--the authentic, ‘’undamaged,’’ essence within everyone. The Self is a universal source of centeredness that can exert calm, healthy leadership over competing parts, even within a highly traumatized individual.
What Does Internal Family Systems Treat?
Internal Family Systems was granted evidence-based status by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2015, rating IFS as effective for ''improving general functioning,’’ and rating it as promising for ''phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms; physical health conditions and symptoms; personal resilience/self-concept; and depression and depressive symptoms.''
As indicated above, IFS is an excellent approach for addressing problems resulting from trauma history, such as complex PTSD, anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders (the creator of IFS, Richard Schwartz, actually began developing the approach to more effectively treat eating disorders). In fact, the criteria of a particular mental health diagnosis often reflect how different parts are operating in ways ''necessary'' for the individual.
As indicated by the benefit of medication in most cases of complex PTSD, the commonly alternating presentation of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse or other dysfunctional behaviors can of course also be understood in the biochemical context. For example, stress hormones cause physical sensations of anxiety, which cause cravings for substances that can dampen that anxiety by impacting neurotransmitters. However, IFS suggests that these symptoms should also be understood as a system of competing subpersonalities, often functioning in a cyclical manner. For example, psychiatrist and IFS expert Frank Anderson, M.D. synthesizes these perspectives by making sure all ''parts'' are in agreement about taking a particular medication.
Internal Family Systems identifies two broad categories of parts. Protectors maintain stability and daily functioning, while Exiles carry the difficult feelings we'd rather not encounter. Within the Protector category, there are two subtypes. Managers operate proactively to suppress Exiles with forms of anxiety such as worry, terrorizing, image-managing, obsessing, pessimism, and criticism. Firefighters impulsively numb, distract, and otherwise stifle the Exiles when they threaten to flood a person with pain, or threaten to emerge at all.
Like actual firefighters, Firefighter parts act without concern for collateral damage, so they do things like:
--Lash out or fight
--Overspend, restrict, or hoard
--Overuse video games, TV, or the internet
--Binge eat, purge, or starve
--Self-mutilate or make suicide attempts
--Abuse drugs and alcohol
These typically pathologized behaviors, when viewed through the compassionate lens of IFS, can be properly understood as ways to avoid overwhelming feelings.
However, even if you lack trauma history, do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis mentioned, or don’t engage in highly self-destructive behaviors, IFS can be used to develop awareness of unconscious wounds and associated parts that may be interfering with your optimal functioning. For example, loving parents often wonder why they find themselves being repeatedly over-reactive to their children, or high-functioning people often wonder why they can’t ever seem to truly relax.
The IFS concept of Self energy is generally common to transpersonal psychology models, which recognize a center of guidance across belief systems that supersedes limiting ego defenses (parts). Transpersonal therapy focuses on illuminating and integrating these so one can live more grounded in the present, operating from a sense of balanced inner authority. From the perspective of Jungian therapy, which is perhaps best-known transpersonal approach, IFS can illuminate how wounded parts maintain self-sabotaging patterns under the guise of victimization or fate. In other words, the more awareness you develop about unresolved inner baggage, the more your external world seems to change.
How Does Internal Family Systems Work?
The essence of IFS is the use of a mindful, somatic approach (highly present and focused on body sensations) to identify parts, begin to understand and appreciate their purpose, and ask them to step back so you can be with them instead of directed by them. Depending upon the needs of the client, there are different strategies for facilitating this process, but most people respond well to guided imagery exercises. When time and openness is allowed for this process to unfold, the energy of the Self can eventually be recognized and experienced as a source of inner agency.
It usually depends upon the extent of trauma history, or possibly the reliance on certain parts, how quickly and easily this type of distinction can be made. For example, for someone who easily moves into dissociation due to PTSD, it may take several IFS sessions before Protector parts feel comfortable ‘’unblending’’ enough to let Exiles come through and express their pain. However, with patience and curiosity, the various parts can come forward and then step aside for the Self to be felt. Also, IFS puts a great deal of emphasis on the therapist’s attunement to Self energy in the session, as the more they intentionally connect to a sense of presence beyond their own parts, the more synergy there is to facilitate a client’s healing work with parts.
In the following passage, IFS creator Richard Schwartz describes how he observed the Self energy come alive in even the most traumatized individuals and usher them into a more self-aware and self-accepting place:
“....almost no Western psychological theories could explain where this newfound and quite amazing ability to contain and understand their inner turmoil had come from.
The more this happened, the more I felt confronted by what were in essence spiritual questions that simply couldn’t be addressed in the terms of problem solving, symptom-focused, results-orientated, clinical technique. I began my own novice’s exploration into the literature of spirituality and religion and discovered a mother lode of esoteric writings by sages, holy seekers, wise men and women, who emphasized meditative and contemplative techniques as a means of coming to know their Self. (“Esoteric” here means not exotic or far out, but derives from the Greek esotero, which means “further in.”) Though they used different words, all the esoteric traditions within the major religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam – emphasized their same core belief: we are sparks of the eternal flame, manifestations of the absolute ground of being. It turns out that the divine within – what the Christians call the soul or Christ Consciousness, Buddhists call Buddha Nature, the Hindus Atman, the Taoists Tao, the Sufis the Beloved, the Quakers the Inner Light – often doesn’t take years of meditative practice to access because it exists in all of us, just below the surface of our extreme parts. Once they agree to separate from us, we suddenly have access to who we really are.”
IFS has a great deal of similarity with a model called Psychosynthesis, which was actually developed decades ago by a contemporary of Carl Jung’s named Roberto Assagioli. If you’re especially interested in the concept of the Self and are up for a deep and thought-provoking read about what it is, I recommend Assagioli’s article ‘’The Superconscious and the Self.’’
Internal Family Systems, The Self, and Psychedelic Assisted Therapy
Reflective of its connection to higher self concepts, Internal Family Systems is actually being evaluated as the therapeutic framework for MDMA-Assisted Therapy, which is expected to get FDA approval pending the replication of a successful Phase 3 clinical trial. Thanks to a resurgence in psychedelic research following suppression created by the War on Drugs, psychedelic-assisted therapy is on course to be the next big wave of progress in treatment of PTSD and other treatment-resistant mental health problems.
By targeting a particular serotonin receptor, psychedelics invoke healing of trauma and other deep-seated problems such as addiction by deactivating what is known as the Default Mode Network (DNS). The DNS is the source of our individual identity patterns, or our collection of ego constructs--in other words, our pervasive and fundamental sense of (little ‘’s”) self. By allowing the individual to dis-identify with this fixed psychological orientation in a safe and supportive setting, recognition of wounded parts and a ‘’connectedness’’ to others and/or a higher self seems to naturally occur. In fact, IFS was initially included in MDMA-Assisted Therapy clinical trials after earlier research demonstrated that participants often seemed to move into parts work on their own.
FDA approval of MDMA-assisted therapy is expected within the next few years, and if and when any physicians in this area choose to oversee the treatment (as will be required), my intention is to be on the forefront of licensed mental health clinicians seeking training to guide the therapeutic component. Until then, the Center for Holistic Behavioral Health can guide you in non-medicated parts work using IFS.