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What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?

Have you ever felt like there are different sides of you, each with its own thoughts and feelings, pulling you in all different directions?

One part of you may be urging you to face your fears and step outside of your comfort zone, while the other part is cautious, preferring that you remain in your safe, familiar space.

Experiencing the presence of various internal parts, which may sometimes have conflicting thoughts or emotions, is entirely normal, especially when these parts emerge in particular situations.

Internal family systems therapy offers a way to understand and communicate with these internal parts of yourself.

Follow along as we explore the use of internal family systems in counselling, and how it’s used to help us make sense of our inner conflict, emotional wounds, and foster a harmonious relationship with the diverse aspects of our being.

Understanding Internal Family Systems Therapy

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a unique form of psychotherapy to help individuals understand and work with the different internal parts within their minds.

According to the IFS Institute, this model assumes:

  • The mind may be divided into a number of parts or “subpersonalities”
  • All of the parts inside of us have good intentions; there is no such thing as “bad” parts
  • Therapy helps each part find their healthy roles, working in harmony with one another
  • As we grow, so do our parts, creating a complex system that works together
  • When we make changes inside ourselves, it can influence how we interact with the outside world

In IFS therapy, the goal is to find a balance within the internal family system. It is used to help individuals distinguish the Self from the parts, so they can become effective leaders within the system. The other parts will then exist to provide talent and insight to elevate the Self.

According to this 2020 study, the parts often take on two broad categories:

  1. Vulnerable Parts: those that hold painful or overwhelming emotions, thoughts, and memories
  2. Protective Parts: those that serve to distract us from, cope with, or temporarily survive the distressing states of mind

IFS therapy is used to cultivate particular mental states. These mental states support the activation of the client’s compassionate Self, creating a secure internal environment that facilitates the processing of traumatic memories and encourages the healing process.

How It Works

IFS therapy sounds more complicated than it really is.

In its essence, an IFS therapy session will help individuals identify, understand, and communicate with each of the various parts of their internal systems.

Though every session may look a little different, here is a general breakdown of what happens during an IFS therapy session.

Step 1: Identifying Your Parts

You’ll begin your session by discussing the different parts of yourself. Consider each of these as a part of your personality. As mentioned earlier, some may be vulnerable, while others may be more protective.

Generally, these parts can take on 3 distinct roles:

  1. Exiles: these are the vulnerable parts that tend to carry emotional wounds, painful memories, and unresolved trauma. Exiles hold the burden of repressed memories and vulnerable emotions.
  1. Managers: these are the protective part of the system, helping keep us safe by controlling or “managing” external situations. Managers create defence mechanisms to prevent exile parts from being triggered and exposing painful emotions.
  1. Firefighters: these parts are also protective in nature, rapidly responding when exiles are triggered and emotional pain surfaces. Firefighters act impulsively to distract us from and “distinguish” emotional distress, often through unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse, excessive eating, and so on.

Together, you and your therapist will work to identify each of these parts. The goal of the session is to create a safe and comfortable space where you are willing and capable of exploring your thoughts and emotions, allowing the parts to surface.

There may also be the use of techniques to help prompt the unveiling of these parts such as through guided imagery, visualization, or journaling.

Step 2: Understanding their Roles

From here, you and your therapist will explore these parts, understanding their origins and the roles they play in your life. For example, you may find out through open exploration that a part feels anxious when faced with a new challenge while another is striving for perfection.

Each part serves a purpose. It’s important to note that even the most challenging parts have good intentions on our system as a whole.

Step 3: Communicating, Unburdening, and Reintegrating

Through IFS therapy, you’ll learn how to communicate with each part of you. Through this exploration, you may learn that some parts carry heavier burdens than others due to past trauma or emotional wounds.

Your therapist will help you process these emotions and unburden these parts. This might involve discussing past experiences, working through trauma, and practicing self-compassion.

As your parts become unburdened over time, they are capable of taking on healthier roles within your internal system. The goal is to help these parts let go of their expectations and find a more balanced and harmonious place within their internal system.

For example, you may have a part that has been chronically anxious and in constant worry about what’s to come. This part may have developed due to certain past experiences. IFS therapy can help you explore the origins of anxiety and the role it plays in your life. As you gain insight and develop coping strategies, the anxious part can let go of its worry, eventually taking on a healthier role that contributes to greater well-being and internal wholeness.

Why It Works

There are numerous reasons why IFS therapy is so effective.

It serves to address and heal emotional wounds and resolve issues stored as exiles. IFS therapy is also integral to enhancing individuals’ coping skills, to help us adapt to difficult situations with healthier more adapting mechanisms than before.

IFS therapy can help individuals become more reflective, self-aware, and self-compassionate, By gaining insight into our past trauma and understanding what causes these triggers to arise, we are more capable not only of being proactive in managing these triggers but also of becoming more self-compassionate towards them.

Through IFS, we learn that no part of us is inherently “bad”, but rather that these parts help teach us how to grow. Through these lessons, we learn to become more compassionate, which helps provide the comfort necessary to heal.

Finally, IFS plays a crucial role in helping us manage the internal conflicts that we encounter throughout our lives. We assist our protective parts in adopting more constructive roles within our inner system instead of resorting to deflection, repression, or engaging in destructive behaviours. This process of self-regulation paves the way for more sound decision-making and healthier behaviours.

Who Can Benefit from Internal Family Systems Therapy

IFS therapy is particularly suited for individuals experiencing emotional challenges, internal conflicts, or unresolved problems that they are looking to find relief from.

No matter if you're dealing with anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorders, substance abuse, relationship difficulties, phobias, or stress and coping challenges, IFS therapy is an excellent approach to exploring and addressing the complex inner workings of your psyche.

Whether you’re looking to heal from past traumas, improve your mental health, or embark on a path of self-discovery, IFS therapy can provide you with the tools and support you need to create positive change in your life.

The Bottom Line

IFS therapy is a powerful approach for individuals who experience an internal conflict of thoughts, feelings, and emotions and are looking to gain clarity. It provides a framework to understand, communicate, and harmonize the various parts of our internal selves.

If you think IFS therapy may be beneficial for you or if you’d like to learn more, reach out for support. At On Your Mind Counselling, we offer free 30-minute consultation sessions to help set you on the right path in your therapeutic journey. During this session, you can ask questions, share your concerns, and discover how IFS (or related therapies) can help you.

Cassandra Wolfe - On Your Mind Counselling

Written by Cassandra Wolfe MA, RP, LPC, CAADC

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