Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)

The Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), developed by psychotherapist Dr. Richard C. Schwartz, proposes an internal self (spiritual centre) that is by default curious, open and excepting of what arises in its present experience.

IFS is based on the theory that our mind consists of a number of sub personalities that all have their own point of view and also includes ‘systems thinking’ (a holistic form of viewing the smallest as part of the whole) in its theory.

Family Systems Theory (family members have many roles that define the world of the individual) is used to understand how the identified collections of internal sub personalities (namely Managers, Exiles, Fire-fighters, and the Self as a central point) are organised within the individual.

Schwartz noticed that many of his clients reported experiencing a number of parts within themselves. He found that these parts had their own agenda and only when their concerns where properly addressed would they become less disruptive and adhere to the wise leadership of the ‘self’.

Like in Family Systems Theory Schwartz concludes that the roles these parts are playing define the inner world within the individual. IFS holds that the self is the coordinating centre which exhibits qualities of confidence, compassion and openness, and around which all other parts constellate.

The aim of therapy is to guide the client to his or her ‘true self’.


IFS believes that consciousness (mind) is made up of a number of parts (i.e. sub-personalities) each with differing points of view, interests, perspectives and memories but all are united in their intention to get the best possible outcome for the individual.

Some may want to help to protect the person against pain even though the action it exhibits causes dysfunction in the overall situation.

However, understanding and accepting that all parts ultimately ‘mean well’ there is no reason to eliminate any part from the system, instead understanding and acceptance is sought with the view of promoting internal connection and harmony between parts.

IFS suggests that there are three parts, namely, managers, exiles, and fire-fighters which can play either extreme or healthy roles and thus the focus is on transforming the extremes through therapy.

On the one hand, ‘managers’ are parts that play pre-emptive protective roles. They handle the person’s interaction with the external world and ensure that hurtful or traumatic experiences are prevented from flooding consciousness.

‘Exiles’ on the other hand are those parts that are in fear, trauma, shame or pain and which managers and fire-fighters try to exile from consciousness to avoid pain coming to the surface.

If exiles do make it to the surface (into awareness) ‘fire-fighters’ emerge to distract attention from the pain, shame or hurt by engaging in compulsive/impulsive behaviours such as alcohol or drug abuse, fights, inappropriate sex, overwork, anything really that distracts attention from the exile.

The true ‘Self’ is seen as having healing qualities (curiosity, connectedness, calmness and compassion) and is the spiritual centre of the individual. It is the whole beneath the parts.

People have access to the self even though they may be dominated by their parts. The IFS therapist aims is to help the client to get in touch with his or her true self and in the process disentangle the parts so the person can let go of the distractive roles and, under the directive of the ‘self’, harmonious collaboration can be achieved.

The Internal System

The goal of IFS is the achievement of a trusting and cooperative relationship between the parts and the self. IFS proposes three types of primary relationships between parts (protection, polarization, alliance).

For example, the role of ‘protection’ is played by parts consisting of managers and fire-fighters who aim to protect the self from exiles and the pain they are causing when coming to the surface, whereas ‘polarization’ takes place when parts are arguing with each other over how the individual actually feels or behaves during a certain situation. ‘Alliance’ is formed when two parts work with each other to achieve the same goal.

IFS is based on a number of well defined methodological principles.  Burdens (painful beliefs or emotions developed through past experiences) carried by parts need to be released through therapy in order to regain its healthy role.

The IFS therapist facilitates the process of psychological healing through assisting the client to assess his or her true self which is considered the pure and natural leader of the system and thus functions as the change agent of the healing process. IFS takes the position that the system has experienced many harmful past events and relationships which has activated numerous protector parts leading to dysfunctional behaviour. In addition to this, protector parts may even be in conflict with each other which furthermore upset’s the psychological equilibrium of the individual.

Parts taking on the role of protectors of exiles can’t be relieved of their burden until exiles are unburdened. Permission must be obtained from the protecting part to work with exiles. Unless such permission has been granted no attempt will be made to work with the exile.

In summary, IFS helps clients to access their true self (increasing confidence) in order to get to know the protector parts better and to understand its intention. Once the protector part has given permission the client then accesses the ‘protected exile’ to discover the incident that was previously hidden from view so that it can be released from its burden.

This will affect ‘protector’ and ‘exile’ part as they can both be liberated to take on healthy roles. Once protectors start to trust the ‘self’ internal harmony can be achieved.

IFS has been used in various applications from trauma where the self views the experiences of the ‘exile’ without getting involved and thus can’t get re-traumatized, to couples therapy where it is used to investigate how a part in one partner can trigger an extreme part in the other.

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