• Cassandre Quan

WHAT IS...Internal Family Systems Therapy?

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

In honour of Family Day today, we are focusing our blog on Internal Family Systems Therapy, also known as IFS. The founder of IFS, Richard C. Schwartz realized that every client has internal parts of their personality that aim to protect the person. These parts are called protectors which use different strategies to support the person. However, protectors can be in conflict with one another or use strategies that no longer protect the individual. This can pose problems in the person’s life including their mental wellness and the health of their relationships.


IFS helps clients in resolving these problems by 1) building the client’s awareness of their internal system of protectors and 2) strengthening the client’s ability to differentiate themself from their protectors. IFS uses the term “Self” to describe the person’s authenticity as separate from their protective system (called "parts" or "protectors").


IFS heals the wounded parts of a client and builds a trusted, healthy, harmonious internal system that is coordinated by Self. This supports the client in better understanding their thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Ultimately, the client will become “Self-Led” meaning they have more self-awareness, agency and authenticity in their life.


Curious to know more? Here are the descriptions of the protectors:


1. Exiles: They carry the most extreme memories and feelings of the client. They hold the experiences of abuse, neglect, humiliation, and shame. They are often some of the youngest parts of the system and may appear as younger versions of the client.


2. Firefighters: They are the reactive protectors of the system. Firefighters step in when an exiled part has broken through the managers’ defenses. Their goal is to stop the system from feeling the pain that the exiles carry. However, firefighters often clash with managers because they despise the ways firefighters act out. These parts may use strategies such as addiction to substances, impulsive decisions, or quickly ending a relationship.


3. Managers: They are the proactive protectors of the system. Their goals include keeping the system stable and feeling prepared. Managers look for ways to control the system so that exiled parts are kept out of awareness. Managers may take the form of a inner critical parent or overbearing boss.

Who can Benefit from IFS?

Schwartz originally created IFS in the 1980s to help people healing from eating disorders. Since then, the model has been used to treat a wide range of individual and relational concerns. To name a few examples, IFS has been helpful to treat trauma, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. IFS is also used for people struggling with issues related to self-esteem, anger, shame, and relationship concerns.

IFS is used to treat those who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect, where a part has come to believe that the person is inherently bad, shameful, or unworthy of love. IFS treatment can specifically target issues such as trauma, substance abuse, issues with body image, fears and phobias!

IFS strives to connect with parts that appear like “inner critics”. These parts may unconsciously influence the client’s emotions and self-identity. Once connected to these parts, the client can learn about the parts' protective strategies and work towards shifting the strategies that no longer work.


For example, a client who experienced emotional abuse as a child may find issues occurring in their adult intimate relationships such as communication breakdowns, transparency issues and difficulties with trust. IFS will attune to the parts that protected the client when they were a child, but that no longer support the client in their adult life. When the parts learn that the client no longer needs their protection, this allows the client to better address their relationship challenges. In other words, they become more “Self-Led’ in their intimate connections.


What to Expect in IFS?

An IFS therapist will first work with the client to better understand their inner system of parts. The client will learn how to unblend from their protectors and then build a healthy relationship with their parts.


For example, a person who engages in self-harm may be asked to take a few deep breaths, and then to feel the part inside that uses the strategy of harming them. When the person begins to focus on their internal system, the therapist may ask how the person feels about that part. The client may express negative feelings towards that part. The therapist will gently encourage the client to “turn down the volume” of these feelings and connect with the part through curiosity. Then the client may be able to ask the part to work together to find safer protective strategies.

Seeking Help

We have clinicians at Relationship Matters Therapy Centre trained in IFS that can support you with your individual and relationship concerns! You may want to consider booking a free consult or first session to chat more about IFS with a therapist. Click here if you are looking to read more about Internal Family Systems Therapy.