Internal Family Systems (IFS)
An Integrative Therapy Model for Individuals and Couples Work

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

Internal Family Systems

Imagine a therapist coming on board a ship that’s wobbling off course, with the crew in chaos or perhaps even on the verge of mutiny. The therapist’s task is to help the Captain (the client’s Self) learn how to deal with each crew member (the client’s various personality parts) by helping the Captain learn to enlist the active, genuine support of each one.

Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by psychologist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. is a non-pathologizing, creatively dynamic psychotherapy suitable for virtually any disorder. Although its name suggests that IFS is a family therapy, it’s more often practiced with individuals and couples. Arising from Schwartz’s early training as a family therapist, it refers to the internal family we each have within us–our various parts and the Self. Drawing upon many of the major influences of therapy–psychodynamic, Gestalt, family systems, mindfulness, client-centered, and humanistic–IFS engages the client and therapist in helping clients tune into their various parts, cultivating a healthy curiosity toward, and understanding of, each part and developing a Self that nurtures and listens to each part.

IFS exists at the crossroads of an important shift in therapy that’s been gradually occurring for the last few decades. Early therapists were taught to discourage clients from thinking about having different personality parts, for fear that this might lead to splitting or dissociation. Some “parts” were viewed as trouble-makers and even potentially destructive forces that could threaten a cohesive self. However, humanistic, client-centered therapies then encouraged clients to take a more accepting view toward parts of themselves.

Attachment theory helped view each part as serving some kind of protective or adaptive function. Gestalt therapy encouraged dynamic dialog with a client’s different parts. Meditation and mindfulness promoted the notion that a person could emotionally detach from aspects of the Self and view those parts calmly, benevolently, and with acceptance. IFS integrates and moves these trends forward. It enables the therapist to model and teach clients to visualize and contact their various parts, dialog with them and through dialog and curiosity, bring each part into a working relationship with other parts and with the Self.

Drawing on family systems theory, IFS believes that each person consists of a Self and various parts which serve different functions:

  • The Self is the wise, confident, compassionate leader who can call upon various parts as needed for assistance.
  • Exiles are parts that are sequestered within the system for their own protection. For example, they can be the vulnerable, yearning parts.
  • Firefighters go into action when the exiles are activated, trying to calm the exiles or distract the system from them.
  • Managers are parts that try to run the system in ways that minimize the activation of the exiles. During calm times, managers often seem to clients to be the true Self.

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