Mental Health
What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

5 min read


Megan Caligiuri

Unlock self-discovery and healing with Internal Family Systems Therapy. Explore your inner world, discover your true self, and foster harmony within.

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a therapeutic modality that takes into account the fact that you have likely built and re-built many versions of yourself over the course of your life. More simply put, there is thought to be a core Self and an indeterminate number of “parts” or sub-personalities working to protect the Self. The goal is not to eliminate or invalidate these parts, but to help them become a less-extreme version of itself.

The name of this modality comes from family systems theory that explains the complex norms, power dynamics, and intricacies of a family and what role each individual plays for better and for worse, seeking to correct dysfunction, imbalance or issue. The assessment phase of the work involves assessing for polarization among parts and among the individual’s family members. The way you relate to your own parts parallels the way you relate to those parts of others. Helping our Self understand why and how not to blend with parts can take some time, especially if we have been a part of an enmeshed family or codependent relationships.

Our various parts operate internally with one another and the Self. A healthy state of mind occurs when the Self is running the show and the parts are sending useful information in non-extreme ways. Parts can show up as feelings, thoughts, images, sensations or something else. As parts become burdened and compete for dominance, polarization and extremism develops.

Foundations of IFS Therapy

The main parts that are discussed in IFS are: managers, firefighters and exiles. Exiles tend to be younger, traumatized, extra-sensitive parts that try with all their might to protect us from fear, terror, pain, embarrassment, etc. Manager parts tend to run day-to-day tasks, keeping the Self in control while preventing rejection and hurt via control, evaluating, caretaking, and terrorizing. Firefighter parts are similar to Manager parts in that they too strive to maintain balance by showing up when exiles are activated to control and extinguish their feelings. The means is not always helpful as the firefighter is concerned with protecting from exiles by any means necessary, such as numbing with substance abuse, self-harm behaviors, and high-risk sex, spending, overeating, and so on.

If you’ve experienced “big T OR little t” trauma and PTSD or C-PTSD, your exiles and firefight parts have likely come in handy in surviving bewildering circumstances. The problem here being, they’ve gotten too cocky and need to be brought down a peg so that Self can resume its role as our center, our alignment.

Inner Child Work

Inner child work involves addressing and healing wounded or traumatized parts of the psyche, known as "exile parts." They contain the unresolved emotional residue of past traumas, neglect, or difficult childhood experiences. These parts often carry feelings of fear, shame, abandonment, and sadness. Through guided introspection and therapeutic techniques, individuals learn to reconnect with their inner child parts. This involves acknowledging the pain, fears, and unmet needs of these parts and offering them the care and support they lacked in the past.

The ultimate goal of inner child is integrating the wounded inner child parts back into the self with a sense of healing and empowerment. Rather than being controlled by past pain or trauma, the individual becomes more whole and self-compassionate. As the healing process progresses, individuals strengthen their Self-leadership. The Self, often referred to as the "capital-S Self" in IFS, takes on the role of the compassionate and wise guide for all parts, including the inner child. This helps individuals navigate their inner world with greater self-awareness and self-compassion.

Inner child work in IFS is a deeply therapeutic process that allows individuals to reconnect with and nurture the wounded parts of themselves. It enables them to break free from the patterns and beliefs rooted in childhood trauma and move toward greater self-acceptance and emotional healing. Through this work, individuals can experience a more authentic and fulfilling life.

What are the benefits of Internal Family Systems Therapy?

IFS provides a framework for individuals to explore and heal emotional wounds. By addressing and understanding the underlying pain carried by "exile" parts of the psyche, individuals can work towards emotional resolution and healing.

Through the process of externalizing and dialoguing with internal parts, individuals gain a deeper understanding of their inner world. This heightened self-awareness allows them to recognize and navigate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors more effectively.

IFS encourages the development of self-compassion by fostering a compassionate inner dialogue. As individuals learn to relate to their inner parts with empathy and understanding, they can extend these qualities to themselves in their daily lives. By addressing the protective "firefighter" parts that react impulsively to distress, IFS helps individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and emotional regulation skills. This leads to greater emotional stability and resilience.

As individuals unburden and heal wounded parts of themselves, they often experience a boost in self-esteem and self-worth. This can have a positive impact on their overall confidence and self-perception. IFS therapy can improve relationships by helping individuals recognize and work with the parts that may trigger conflict or distress in their interactions with others. This leads to healthier communication and more harmonious relationships.

IFS is not solely about addressing emotional distress; it also supports personal growth and self-actualization. By nurturing the Self as a wise and compassionate leader, individuals can unlock their full potential.

It's important to note that the benefits of IFS therapy can vary from person to person, as the therapy is highly individualized and tailored to each client's unique needs and goals. Overall, IFS offers a holistic approach to inner healing and self-discovery, promoting emotional resilience and a deeper connection with one's true self.

Is Internal Family Systems Therapy right for me?

Determining if Internal Family Systems therapy is the right fit for you involves considering your therapeutic goals, personal preferences, and willingness to explore your inner world. If you're seeking a safe and collaborative therapeutic approach that delves into the complexities of your psyche, IFS may be suitable. Selecting an experienced and qualified therapist trained in IFS is essential to ensure you receive effective and supportive guidance throughout your therapy experience.

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About the author

Megan 'Cali' Caligiuri is the Senior Growth Marketing Manager at MyWellBeing. As a seasoned marketing and creative leader with a passion for mental health, Cali is committed to reducing the stigma of therapy, easing the stress of connecting with the right practitioner, and empowering every individual to develop a more loving, healthy relationship with themselves and those around them.

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