Have you ever had that feeling of being at war with yourself, where one part of you wants to do one thing, and another part of you wants just as much to do something completely different? Maybe you’ve made up your mind that this time you’re absolutely not going to be late for work, or yell at your kids when you promised yourself you wouldn’t, or eat the entire bag of chips after dinner. Then suddenly that’s exactly what’s happening, and you’re furious with yourself for being late, or unhappy that you yelled at your kids, or disgusted that you ate so much, and you think, “Why can’t I just stop doing this?” Sound familiar?

man covering face with both hands while sitting on bench

This internal battle, the push and pull between different, often warring parts of ourselves, exists in all of us and the above are examples of how it can feel when different parts of you don’t agree, or seem to sabotage each other. Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy sees us as having a multitude of parts, all unique, that interact with each other much like people do. Through IFS therapy, you get to know all your parts and learn how to teach them to heal, grow, and find real peace, forever putting an end to those painful inner battles.

What is IFS?

Internal Family Systems therapy was developed in the 1990’s by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., and is an evidence-based therapy intervention that focuses on using the client’s innate ability to heal. 

At its core, the IFS model is deceptively simple, and sees humans in this way:

  • We are made up of an uncountable number of parts, each part with its own personality, beliefs, memories, and viewpoint. Our parts are all “good,” and are trying to help us as best they know how, even when it may not seem like they are.
  • Parts may have healthy, productive roles or extreme, damaging roles. Parts that have healthy roles are beneficial to us, while parts that have taken on extreme roles carry burdens of painful emotions or negative beliefs.
  • As we grow up, our internal system of Self and parts form complex relationships among themselves that can be understood by both the client and the therapist as a “family” system that works much like a family does — it has fights, old behaviour patterns, love, protectiveness, and everything else a family system has.
  • Changes to this internal system will make changes to external systems (your family relationships, friendships, intimate relationships, etc.) and vice versa — both affect each other.
  • The goal of IFS therapy is to help all your parts find non-extreme, or non-damaging roles, and to help the Self back into the leadership role.

Treating Issues With IFS

Often when things are going wrong, the Self is not in the lead. Sometimes, maybe because of a traumatic event, an unsafe parent, or other environmental upsets, parts take over by taking on extreme roles. This most often happens in childhood, when we don’t have the emotional or mental resources to handle painful situations.

For example, imagine as a child, you were humiliated by a teacher in front of the class for speaking out. A part takes over saying, “I will never feel that way again,” and so every time you’re in a similar situation, you become excruciatingly shy, never raising your hand or speaking in class again in order to prevent such deep humiliation. a boy crying tears for his loss

The part gets stuck or frozen in the extreme role that it took on in order to help you survive at that time. And survive you did, but now that part is still stuck in that role and gets activated whenever the situation feels familiar, repeating the same pattern of behaviour even if you have better ways of dealing with being upset now. The part may, in the above example, make you freeze, stutter, and feel small when it senses there’s danger of humiliation present, even if logically you can assess the situation and see there is no danger. Or the part will work really, really hard to control a situation or the people around you in order to prevent such danger from happening in the first place.

So how does IFS help change this small scared part? 

Think about what you would do when a loved one is angry, hurting, scared, or sad. You would listen carefully to what they said, tell them you understand where they are coming from, hold them close if they needed comfort, and let them know they are loved. Your parts are also loved ones, and they too need to be listened to with kindness, empathy, and respect. IFS teaches you how to listen to your parts in this way, and how to access your Self as a guide.

What Does IFS Therapy Look Like?

IFS often looks like talk therapy, where you and the therapist speak about or to the parts of you that are present at the moment, or have been coming up in your life. The therapist might ask you where you feel an emotion in your body, or how you feel toward a part that is showing up, and works with you to find out what that part might need in order to heal. Your therapist may also use guided imagery or diagrams in session to help clarify the internal system, and may, with the same goal in mind, ask you to journal at home.

The goal of IFS therapy is not to get rid of painful parts but instead to unburden them from their extreme roles through compassion and curiosity, and allow your Self to take the lead and the parts to assume roles that support the Self in decision-making. The ultimate goal is to teach you how to heal your wounded parts and return your internal system to balance, harmony, and connection. There is no end to the changes that are possible when this happens. 

If you are interested in IFS therapy, click here to book a free consultation with a professional today!

woman smiling