Internal Family Systems (IFS)

IFS is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on a client's internal “parts” and “Self.”

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Internal Family Sytems

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a form of trauma therapy invented during the 1990s by Richard Schwartz. The central concept of IFS is that all human beings have a Self and parts. We are born with a Self that wants healing, wholeness, harmony, and balance. To accomplish these goals the Self is endowed with the qualities of curiosity, calm, clarity, compassion, courage, confidence, and creativity. Parts come into existence in response to our environment and experience. For example, some children develop a part that dissociates as a means of escaping painful situations at home, while other children might develop a highly oppositional part to cope with these situations.

Parts can be understood as sub-personalities with different roles, functions, and objectives. They are a completely normal part of the human psyche and not a sign of pathology. It is easy to notice some of your own parts whenever you make a list of pros and cons yet remain torn over making a decision. Parts also show up when you are triggered and you suddenly experience nostalgia, déjà vu, anxiety, dread, sadness, anger, rage, numbness, dissociation, obsessions or cravings. The Self was under-developed (much like the brain) during childhood and not strong enough to protect the parts from harm done by dysfunctional parents. The parts, known in IFS as exiles and protectors, lost faith in the Self, pushed it to the side, and took over the emotional system. The parts are driven by the experiences, self-created stories, and perspectives of the distant past, which is why they are out of touch with present day realities and not able to use new, more flexible and adaptive behaviors on their own.


Exiles live in the unconscious. They represent the wounded child who clings to the hurts, fears, and terrors associated with childhood events as if they were still happening now.  The protectors exist to prevent the pain of the exiles from breaking through into consciousness where they would overwhelm our entire emotional system. There are two kind of protectors - managers and firefighters. Managers are on the job every day using coping techniques to sequester the exiles in ways that are not flagrant or life-endangering. Examples are emotional repression, perfectionism, people pleasing and co-dependence. The firefighters are only called to action when traumatic memories have been triggered and the exiles are starting to breakthrough. Firefighters use risky methods without regard to the cost such as getting drunk and fighting or driving; self-starvation; engaging in unsafe sex; and even threatening or attempting suicide. 


To heal childhood trauma IFS uses techniques that restore the faith and trust the parts once had in the Self. This occurs when the client is able to access the healing energy of Self for positive, productive uses. Sometimes the client is empowered to stop a long-running feud between polarized parts that judge each other. The client may also converse with a protector, come to understand why it came into existence, and why it still believes it must fight the exile using childish methods to ensure the client's survival as an adult. When this happens, a protector can unburden and release its time-worn agenda, creating an opportunity for transformation and a new, happier purpose. As more protectors are unburdened it becomes possible to bring healing love, compassion, and nurturance to all of one's exiles so they are no longer carrying old pain. When this occurs the client's entire emotional system becomes balanced and functions in ways that help the client to grow and develop his full potential under the leadership of Self.


While not all of my clients respond to IFS some clients love this technique and master it so well that they use for the rest of their lives, even after meeting their therapy goals.