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Internal Family Systems: What Is It?

March 18, 2022

By Beau Black

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a treatment strategy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz that helps people process inner trauma by identifying and embracing various inner “parts” of themselves.

These parts, which Schwartz observed in psychotherapy sessions with his patients, can get bent out of their regular, beneficial functions into extreme, distorted roles within us, in response to traumatic experiences. They primarily either carry wounds or offer protection to us. The goal of IFS therapy is to help patients uncover the roots of these parts and move towards integrating these disparate, even conflicting, parts.

The goal of IFS therapy is to help patients uncover the roots of these parts and move towards integrating these disparate, even conflicting, parts.

Dr. Richard Schwartz’s Development of IFS

Dr. Schwartz began cultivating IFS more than 30 years ago as a family therapist and academic at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as he found that then-current family therapy techniques were not sufficient to give many patients full symptom relief. In exploring why this was, he discovered what he termed “parts,” or pieces of our inner world that either carry the burden of emotional or physical trauma, or that try to protect us from trauma. He conceived internal family systems therapy to help these patients address the past trauma that brought about these parts and try to reintegrate the parts into a functioning whole.

Schwartz started The Center for Self Leadership in 2000 to train therapists to use Internal Family Systems. In 2013, Dr. Schwartz left the Chicago area and is now on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In 2019, the Center was renamed The IFS Institute, and Dr. Schwartz became a Meadows Behavioral Healthcare Senior Fellow. IFS has become a widely used treatment strategy, particularly in cases of trauma.

An Early Failure Brings Discovery

In a recent interview for The Meadows’ Beyond Theory podcast, Dr. Schwartz recalls an early failure that informed the development of IFS. He was conducting an open chair session, drawn from gestalt therapy, with a client who cut herself. He says, “We decided ‘we,’ the client, wouldn’t leave the office until the cutting ‘part’ had agreed not to do it anymore. After a couple of hours of badgering that part, it finally said it wouldn’t.”

But when Schwartz opened the door to the patient at her next session, he saw she had a big gash down the side of her face caused by that part acting out. That jarring moment became a turning point in developing IFS.

Dr Richard Schwartz

“I shifted out of that coercive place to just being shocked, and then curious. I asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ And the part sort of dropped its guard and talked about how when she was being abused as a child, it needed to get her out of her body and [protect her against] more abuse,” says Schwartz. It did this by self-harming. “I shifted again, and now I have a kind of appreciation for the heroic role it played in her life, and I can extend that to the part.”

This led Richard Schwartz to take an inquisitive, curious approach as a foundation for IFS; he found that when “approached from that place, [the ‘parts’ in various patients] would reveal similar secret histories … and would say that they didn’t like doing what they did to the [patient].” However, he says, they felt they had no choice.

Burdens and Exiles

Over time, Schwartz identified two features of his parts model: burdens and exiles. “It became clear from talking to them that they weren’t living in the present, but were stuck in [the past in] these trauma scenes,” he says. These parts were carrying what he called, “burdens,” from those experiences. Schwartz defines a burden as “an extreme belief or emotion that came into you from some kind of trauma or attachment injury and attaches itself to these parts and drives the way they operate.”

He explains that he’d mistaken the part for the burden it was carrying, and as a result had been targeting the wrong thing. Ultimately, experience led him to determine that there are “no bad parts,” which supplied the title for his latest book, No Bad Parts. He found that, if approached with “curiosity and calm, … ultimately, they’ll happily leave their job.”

When these sensitive parts of ourselves are traumatized and burdened, we tend to lock them away to avoid the negative feelings and memories those burdens carry, and so these parts end up being what Dr. Schwartz calls ‘exiles.’

He says that when these sensitive parts of ourselves are traumatized and burdened, we tend to lock them away to avoid the negative feelings and memories those burdens carry, and so these parts end up being what he calls “exiles.” Anyone who has experienced trauma has exiles, Schwartz says. “When they’re triggered, it’s like flames of emotion that could consume you or take you out … so, other parts are forced out of their natural roles to become protectors, and their job is to contain these exiles so they don’t explode, and protect them so they don’t get triggered.”

And when they are triggered, they can take extreme or disproportionate action to put that fire out. “We call those ‘firefighters,’ and we at The Meadows are all about working with people with firefighter behaviors that are out of control,” Schwartz says.

Here to Help

Internal Family Systems therapy moves people toward being whole, working through the amalgam of these wounded, protected, conflicting parts. If you have firefighter behaviors that are beyond your control, maybe it’s time to contact The Meadows. With an extensive list of therapy and service options, we can help determine the treatment best for you so you can begin your healing journey.