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Internal Family Systems

Healing the inner Self to achieve integration and wholeness

Understanding IFS

Internal Family Systems, or IFS, is a therapeutic approach that helps people heal by acknowledging, accessing, and loving their protective and wounded inner parts. After observing his patients’ descriptions of these parts within themselves and seeing common patterns and connections among these parts, Dr. Richard Schwartz developed IFS. It posits that all of us have a core Self that knows how to heal, and IFS helps patients move toward internal and external connectedness.

As can happen with members of a family, these inner parts are forced from their normal, helpful states into extreme roles within us. Our inner parts contain valuable qualities, and our core Self knows how to heal, moving us toward becoming integrated and whole.

The History of IFS

IFS was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. He went on to found The Center for Self Leadership in 2000 as a training organization for the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy. In 2019, due to the increasing global recognition of IFS, the organization was renamed the IFS Institute to better represent its purpose and goals. Also in 2019, Dr. Schwartz was named a Meadows Behavioral Healthcare Senior Fellow.

Dr. Schwartz began his career as a family therapist and academic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. There, he discovered that family therapy alone did not achieve full symptom relief, and in asking patients why, he learned that they were plagued by what they called “parts.” He developed IFS to help patients address and reintegrate these parts into a healthy Self. Dr. Schwartz found that as patients focused on, and thereby separated from, their parts, they would shift into a state characterized by qualities like curiosity, calm, confidence, and compassion.

IFS is now evidence-based, and has become a widely used form of psychotherapy, particularly with trauma. It provides a non-pathologizing and empowering perspective, and a practical and effective set of techniques for working with patients in a variety of contexts. In 2013, Dr. Schwartz left the Chicago area and is now on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Richard Schwartz

How It Works

Internal Family Systems sees the therapist’s job as helping the client to disentangle themselves from their parts and access the Self, which can then connect with each part and heal it, so that the parts can let go of their destructive roles and enter into a harmonious collaboration led by the Self. IFS recognizes that people are whole underneath the amalgam of their parts. Each of us has a true self or spiritual center, known as the Self and distinct from the parts. Even people whose experience is dominated by parts have access to this Self and its healing qualities.

IFS explicitly recognizes the spiritual nature of the Self, allowing the model to be helpful in spiritual development as well as psychological healing. It is a creative and variable approach to increase self harmony and well being.

Featured Article: Internal Family Systems: What Is It?

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