What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?
Learn about internal family systems therapy, what it is, what it can help with, and its overall effectiveness.
Are There Different Types of Therapy?
There are several different forms of mental therapy, and these various therapy forms are based on different beliefs and, as such, have different approaches. Some therapies try to identify unconscious triggers to currently experienced mental health problems, while another focuses on learning patterns and history and how it affects subsequent observable behaviors (behavioral therapy).1
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS Therapy) doesn’t “strictly” fall into these categories as it doesn’t operate by any theories. So, what exactly is internal family systems therapy, and how does it work?
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS Therapy)
Internal family systems therapy (IFS Therapy) is a therapy type that incorporates several different family therapy approaches, such as the structural, Bowenian, narrative, and strategic family therapy approaches. This method of therapy was first originated by Dr. Richard Schwartz (a therapist who initially only counseled families), who viewed the mind as an internal family-like “network” made up of several distinct units that all contribute to the overall “health state” of the mind. The internal family systems theory is based on internal systems therapy.2
So, in essence, internal systems therapy (or IFS therapy) is a style of treatment based on the idea that a person is made up of different, unique sub-personalities, and all these personalities have their contributions to a healthy mind. However, not all these sub-personalities contribute “beneficially.” Sufficient pressure from external or internal sources can force or effect switching of roles from normal to more “extreme” roles leading to an unhealthy mind.2
Objective of IFS Therapy
When is Internal Family Systems Therapy Used?
The internal family systems model is a psychotherapy option commonly employed as an effective treatment for several mental health conditions ranging from phobias and anxiety to relatively more severe mental health conditions like personality disorders.3
The internal family systems model is usually used when individuals feel like they would be best served by an internal family systems therapy session (or sessions) rather than other therapy methods for mental health challenges. Family systems therapy training is also explored as a treatment option for people who haven’t experienced relief from other conventional treatment methods. Of course, these decisions usually raise questions like, “Is internal family systems evidence-based?”4
Is IFS Therapy Evidence-Based?
Internal systems therapy was registered in the National Registry for Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (now replaced by Evidence-Based Practices Resource Center) as an evidence-based treatment option in 2015. The addition of internal systems therapy to the resource center means that enough validating research has been done to make it a viable clinical practice. So, if you’re considering internal systems therapy as an option, you will be glad to know that it’s an evidence-based therapy program.
Three Main Types of Internal Family Systems Therapy
The firefighter part is a protective sub-personality that acts as a guardian to protect you from harm. They activate when they recognize a trigger and act in several ways to provide adequate protection from pain or extreme feelings caused by the “exile parts.” The protective “function” of the firefighter parts leads to the development of coping mechanisms which may or may not be self-harming.
The manager sub-personalities are also protective sub-personalities that take up “managerial roles” whereby they identify the triggers for painful sensations or experiences and intensively plan toward avoiding these triggers and sensations. Manager parts in internal family systems are also known as polarized parts, and they essentially “manage” other sub-personalities whenever there is a need to.
The exile part (or parts) in internal family systems is the part that you do not want to emerge. These parts are usually formed due to negative experiences or trauma, becoming “burdened.” These burden parts often threaten to overwhelm you with painful and traumatic memories leading to an imbalance in your internal family systems environment.
Techniques Used in Internal Family Systems Therapy
Several techniques are used in internal family systems interventions to effectively identify the sub-personality (or sub-personalities) that may be responsible for the “burdened” feelings you’ve been experiencing. An internal family systems therapist uses a technique made up of six steps to identify these parts and help you achieve relief and recovery. These systems therapy techniques include:
This is the first step in internal family system interventions that will involve your internal family systems therapist starting you off with a meditation session. Internal family systems meditation allows your IFS therapists to “isolate” and identify a sub-personality or part they can work with.
Once a sub-personality has been identified, your therapist will then ask you to concentrate on this part.
The next step in the inner family systems therapy after focusing your attention on the identified part is to try and see if there’s any detail about that part you can isolate. You may be asked questions such as, “what emotions can you link with it?” or “is it linked to a specific age?”
The “feel toward” part of the family systems therapy exercises aims to identify the magnitude of influence the identified sub-personality has on your life. You will be asked questions aimed at helping you discover your feelings about and towards that sub-personality.
This is usually the most challenging part of the internal family systems therapy exercises because it involves you acknowledging that part of you exists. You will, in essence, be asked to befriend this part of you, understand it, and see how it affects your life.
This part of family integration therapy is partially linked to the previous part. In this part, you will get to discover the “fears” of that sub-personality, i.e., its fears concerning what might happen if it’s no longer present to protect you. Remember, all internal family systems work to improve you as a whole; however, the problems usually arise from conflict in the approaches these sub-personalities take toward achieving their goals.
What IFS Therapy Can Help With
Internal family systems therapy (or parts work therapy) has been used, with tremendous success, to effect full healing and recovery of individuals suffering from several different mental health issues. Patient have found IFS to aid with the following:
- Dissociative identity disorders
- Major depressive disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Eating disorder
Benefits of IFS Therapy
Although the knowledge about how internal family systems parts work and the overall benefits of this therapy option isn’t all that widespread, the following are some of the advantages that researchers have discovered IFS therapy to have on people who opt for this therapy option:
- Internal family systems training promotes self-compassion
- Prepares for emotional difficulty in the future
- IFS therapy also helps individuals develop strength via self-leadership
- Provides a better understanding of self
- Internal family systems training also helps individuals view symptoms of depression as normal reactions to stressful experiences or trauma instead of a diagnosis
Effectiveness of Internal Family Systems Therapy
Even though relatively little is known about family systems therapy training compared with other mental illness treatment options, its use in the successful management of some mental illness conditions has ensured it’s a recognized mental illness treatment solution for the effective treatment and management of several mental health disorders.
When Should You Or Your Loved One Consider IFS Therapy?
It’s also regarded as a potentially effective treatment for the health conditions listed below:
- Physical health conditions
- Depression and depressive symptoms
- Phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders (GAD)
- Personal resilience
Get Internal Family Systems Therapy at Pacific Beach Health
Pacific Beach Health is a treatment facility specializing in proper treatment and management of several health conditions such as mood disorders, substance use disorders, behavioral or process addiction, and several more. Pacific Beach Health is made up of a team of highly-qualified, seasoned professionals so individuals will have access to several different psychotherapy procedures, including internal family systems group therapy.5