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An Internal Family Systems Model Overview

By Amber Sebastian, MFT-IF at Clear Path Counseling and Wellness

January 7, 2024

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model of psychotherapy is a therapeutic approach developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. The IFS approach is rooted in the basic premise that the human mind is comprised of various sub-personalities or "parts" which have their own distinct thoughts, feelings, desires, and motivations. These inner parts operate in ways that can be protective or adaptive, but oftentimes these parts can generate inner conflicts and emotional distress. The goal of IFS therapy is to help clients understand and integrate these parts of themselves, leading to experiences of greater internal harmony, healing, personal transformation, and heightened self-awareness. A basic overview of the key concepts and principles of the Internal Family Systems Model:

  • Self: At the core of IFS is the concept of the "Self." The Self is considered the true, undamaged essence of an individual. The Self can be thought of as a state-of-mind characterized by qualities such as compassion, curiosity, courage, and calmness. The goal of IFS therapy is to help clients connect with and strengthen their Self, which can then facilitate the healing and integration of inner parts.

  • Parts: In IFS, individuals are seen as having multiple parts within themselves. These parts can be thought of as distinct aspects of one's personality, each with its own characteristics, beliefs, and emotions. Parts often play a protective role and some parts carry wounds from early life experiences. Some examples of parts might include an "inner critic," a "scared inner child," or a "helper part."

  • Exiled and Burdened Parts: Some inner parts are considered "exiles" because they carry painful memories, traumas, negative self-beliefs, and painful emotions that have been pushed away and hidden. The goal of IFS therapy is to help these wounded and vulnerable inner parts heal through what IFS refers to as “unburdening.” Unburdening happens when the wounded part comes into contact with the Self, and the pain it has been carrying can be compassionately acknowledged and released/integrated.

  • Protector Parts: Exile parts are protected by what IFS calls "firefighters" and "managers.” Parts whose role is to keep exiles hidden and/or numb the pain.

  • Internal System: The internal system is the complex interplay between an individual’s different parts and the Self. IFS therapy aims to bring balance and harmony to this inner system by helping clients get to know their inner parts and protectors, strengthen access to Self, facilitate the unburdening of exile parts, and help parts develop new skills, roles, insights, and awareness. 

  • Self-Leadership: An IFS therapist facilitates a process wherein clients learn to become “Self-led” rather than being controlled by their more reactive or extreme parts. Clients practice accessing their Self and cultivating the qualities that define the Self: compassion, curiosity, clarity, confidence, courage, creativity, calmness, and connectedness.

IFS therapy involves a process of getting to know and understanding one’s inner parts, forming a relationship with them, and ultimately helping parts release their burdens and transform into more positive and adaptive roles. This is often achieved by facilitating a dialogue between an individual and their parts, which may include an exploration of one’s inner emotions, thoughts, beliefs, images, memories, body sensations, and/or movements. IFS therapy may also involve mindfulness meditations, guided visualizations, and somatic exercises designed to bring about holistic healing and transformation for an individual’s whole self-system.


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