IFS, or Internal Family Systems, is a complex yet highly effective therapeutic modality designed by Richard Schwartz. The IFS Institute certified therapists in the technique, and IFS-informed counselors have at least the same training as Level I from the institute.
Who might benefit from IFS?
As a trauma and IFS-informed counselor, I have found that just about anyone can benefit from these concepts. Anyone who has experienced an internal conflict or had trouble making a decision may be aware of a “part of themselves” with one set of goals or interests, while another “part” feels differently.
People who experienced childhood abuse, trauma, or suffer from chronic illness may also especially benefit from IFS. Schwartz reports numerous cases of physical improvement in his work with clients (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019).
So, how does his theory work?
According to Schwartz, our “parts” are formed unconsciously, especially in childhood, and trouble arises when they come forward and act in ways that impair us. He is clear that “all parts are welcome,” and we must learn how to have compassion for all aspects of ourselves. For example, “firefighters” are parts that protect more vulnerable, wounded parts. These latter parts are often younger. Firefighters may “alert the system” of danger by binge eating, drinking, going on a spending spree, or a person may experience a flare-up of a chronic health condition such as IBS, fibromyalgia, or back problems (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019). Many people begin counseling stating that they “want to get rid of” an aspect of themselves. First, though, we need to see these parts, get to know them a bit, and their role in our system, or our internal family system.
By working with the body and mind in a holistic way, the counselor facilitates communication with a client’s “parts” to help the client unburden each part and find new, less painful roles. IFS can help clients see their relationships differently, and parts work also helps lessen the severity of difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, and anxiety. IFS works well with other mind-body modalities, such as Brainspotting and Somatic Experiencing. Using awareness of how loss, trauma, or other physiological wounds might “reside” in the body is becoming more and more common in the mental health field. Techniques like mindfulness, meditation, DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy), yoga, and art therapy are other forms of healing or counseling that involve the mind-body connection.
For some, IFS might be confused with dissociative disorders, wherein clients may have parts that have become so split off, or severed, that the client does not remember these other identities at all. According to Schwartz, the actual concept of a self as a “mono” entity is inaccurate. Rather, he sees the self as naturally multiple and created IFS to work with this system. For Schwartz, the goal is not to be a perfectly “integrated” self, but rather to create harmony and awareness within one’s system so that the self (client) can feel better and be less hindered by adversity.