Internal Family Systems Model

The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s.[1][2] It combines systems thinking with the view that the mind is made up of relatively discrete subpersonalities, each with its own unique viewpoint and qualities. IFS uses family systems theory to understand how these collections of subpersonalities are organized.[3]


IFS posits that the mind is made up of multiple parts, and underlying them is a person's core or true Self. Like members of a family, a person's inner parts can take on extreme roles or subpersonalities. Each part has its own perspective, interests, memories, and viewpoint. A core tenet of IFS is that every part has a positive intent, even if its actions are counterproductive and/or cause dysfunction. There is no need to fight with, coerce, or eliminate parts; the IFS method promotes internal connection and harmony to bring the mind back into balance.

IFS therapy aims to heal wounded parts and restore mental balance. The first step is to access the core Self and then, from there, understand the different parts in order to heal them.

In the IFS model, there are three general types of parts:[4]

  1. Exiles represent psychological trauma, often from childhood, and they carry the pain and fear. Exiles may become isolated from the other parts and polarize the system. Managers and Firefighters try to protect a person's consciousness by preventing the Exiles' pain from coming to awareness.[5]
  2. Managers take on a preemptive, protective role. They influence the way a person interacts with the external world, protecting the person from harm and preventing painful or traumatic experiences from flooding the person's conscious awareness.
  3. Firefighters emerge when Exiles break out and demand attention. They work to divert attention away from the Exile's hurt and shame, which leads to impulsive and/or inappropriate behaviors like overeating, drug use or violence. They can also distract a person from pain by excessively focusing attention on more subtle activities such as overworking or over-medicating.

The SelfEdit

IFS views people as whole underneath their collections of parts. According to IFS, everyone has a true self or spiritual center, called the Self, and everyone has access to it as well as its healing qualities: curiosity, connectedness, compassion, and calmness.

IFS therapists first help clients to disengage from their parts and connect with their true Self. From there, they can understand each part and heal it. The aim is to let go of the destructive roles and enter into a harmonious collaboration, led by the Self.

IFS emphasizes the spiritual nature of the Self, allowing growth for spiritual development and self-awareness as well as psychological healing.

The internal systemEdit

IFS focuses on the relationships between parts and the core Self. The goal of therapy is to create a cooperative and trusting relationship between the Self and each part.

There are three primary types of relationships between parts: protection, polarization, and alliance.[6]

  1. Protection is provided by Managers and Firefighters. They intend to spare Exiles from harm and protect the individual from the Exile's pain.
  2. Polarization occurs between two parts that battle each other to determine how a person feels or behaves in a certain situation. Each part believes that it must act as it does in order to counter the extreme behavior of the other part. IFS has a method for working with polarized parts.
  3. Alliance is formed between two different parts if they're working together to accomplish the same goal.

IFS methodEdit

IFS practitioners report a well-defined therapeutic method for individual therapy based on the following principles. In this description, the term "protector" refers to either a manager or firefighter.

  • Parts in extreme roles carry "burdens", which are painful emotions or negative beliefs that they have taken on as a result of past harmful experiences, often in childhood. These burdens are not intrinsic to the part and therefore they can be released or "unburdened" through IFS therapy, allowing the part to assume its natural healthy role.
  • The Self is the agent of psychological healing. Therapists help their clients to access and remain in Self, providing guidance along the way.
  • Protectors usually can't let go of their protective roles and transform until the Exiles they are protecting have been unburdened.
  • There is no attempt to work with Exiles until the client has obtained permission from the Protectors who are protecting it. This makes the method relatively safe, even in working with traumatized parts.
  • The Self is the natural leader of the internal system. However, because of past harmful incidents or relationships, Protectors have stepped in and taken over for the Self. One Protector after another is activated and takes the lead, causing dysfunctional behavior. Protectors are also frequently in conflict with each other, resulting in internal chaos or stagnation. The aim is for the Protectors to trust the Self and allow it to lead the system, creating internal harmony under its guidance.

The first step is to help the client access the Self. Next, the Self gets to know the Protector(s), its positive intent, and develops a trusting relationship with it. Then, with the Protector's permission, the client accesses the Exile(s) to uncover the childhood incident or relationship which is the source of the burden(s) it carries. The Exile is retrieved from the past situation and guided to release its burdens. Finally, the Protector can then let go of its protective role and assume a healthy one.[7]


IFS proponents claim to have a "complete" form of individual therapy that is used for the full range of human development, from the healing of trauma to personal and spiritual growth. It has also been applied in the following areas:


IFS has been supported by multiple studies to be an effective treatment of trauma.[8][9] Richard Schwartz developed IFS while working with people who had experienced considerable trauma. By understanding the traumatized Exile, the client learns how to reside in Self and witness the traumatic memory without being flooded by it. In this way the trauma is revisited, processed and healed without the risk of retraumatization.

Couples therapyEdit

IFS proponents claim to have successfully applied the method to couples therapy, investigating the interactions between the parts of the two people and how a part in one person can activate extreme parts in the other. The method incorporates short pieces of individual therapy in a couples session along with work on communicating from Self.

Self-help and peer counselingEdit

Because the Self is the agent of transformation in IFS, the IFS method naturally lends itself to self-help. The method has been taught in self-therapy classes as well as peer counseling for the general public.

Inner criticEdit

Jay Earley and Bonnie Weiss have applied IFS to working with the inner critic, showing how this difficult part is really an IFS protector that one can connect with and transform.


Some IFS proponents acknowledge that although this psychotherapy model can be effective, there are drawbacks and limitations. Therapist Alexander Hsieh pointed out that the method of self-discovery can take extensive time and effort, which can be multiplied when dealing with multiple family members.[10] Therapist Sharon A. Deacon and Jonathan C. Davis said that working with one's parts "can be emotional and anxiety-provoking for clients", and that IFS may not work well with delusional, paranoid, or schizophrenic clients who may not be grounded in reality and therefore misuse the idea of "parts".[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Minor, Amanda J. (2016). "Internal Family Systems Model". In Carlson, Jon; Dermer, Shannon B. (eds.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling. SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-4833-6956-3. Retrieved 28 January 2020. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model was developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s and describes and integrative, nonpathological approach to psychotherapy.... The premise of IFS is that similar to the complex external family system, individuals are composed of separate and multifaceted internal parts in relationship with each other. IFS's primary focus is to work with individuals and help differentiate parts or subpersonalities in the mind.
  2. ^ Logan, Sadye L. M. (2008). "Family: Overview". In Mizrahi, Terry; Davis, Larry E. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Social Work. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 2:175–182.
  3. ^ Burgoyne, Nancy (2018). "Schwartz, Richard C.". In Lebow, J.; Chambers, A.; Breunlin, D. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Springer International Publishing. pp. 1–2. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_927-1. ISBN 978-3-319-15877-8. [Schwartz] brought family therapy theory and technique to the intrapsychic worlds of clients and, in so doing, discovered ways of working with individuals, couples, and families that is unique and evidence-based. IFS has become not only a school of family therapy but also a major form of psychotherapy in general, with a vast literature and training institutes throughout the world.
  4. ^ Scott, Derek (2012). "Grief and the Internal Family System". In Winokuer, Howard; Harris, Darcy (eds.). Principles and practice of grief counseling. Springer Publishing Company. pp. 168–169. ISBN 9780826108739. The "parts" in this model may be understood to be autonomous aspects of the personality that have specific roles. [...] The exiled parts hold extreme feelings or beliefs about themselves.... When these vulnerable parts get triggered, other parts jump up to distract us from them and these reactive protective parts are termed "firefighters." [...] The other group of protectors in the system are referred to as "managers," and they seek to ensure that the vulnerable parts do not get triggered.
  5. ^ Sweezy, Martha (April 2011). "The Teenager's Confession: Regulating Shame in Internal Family Systems Therapy". American Journal of Psychotherapy. 65 (2): 179–188. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2011.65.2.179. PMID 21847894. Therapeutic work with parts can help to unpack an amalgamated experience of shame like Angie’s into its component parts, differentiating its origin from the ways in which it is maintained.
  6. ^ Carlisle, Robert M. (2015). "Internal Family Systems Model". In Neukrug, Edward S. (ed.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy. SAGE Publications. pp. 567–569. ISBN 978-1-4833-4649-6. Retrieved 28 January 2020. The internal system consists of the types of relationships between each of the parts and the self. The three primary relationships consist of protection, polarization, and alliance.
  7. ^ Kolk, Bessel A. Van der (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-14-312774-1. OCLC 861478952. The task of the therapist is to help patients separate this confusing blend into separate entities.... Patients learn to put their fear, rage, or disgust on hold and open up into states of curiosity and self-reflection. From the stable perspective of Self they can begin constructive inner dialogues with their parts.
  8. ^ Carlisle, Robert M. (2015). "Internal Family Systems Model". The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy. SAGE Publications, Inc. pp. 568–569. doi:10.4135/9781483346502.n195. ISBN 9781452274126. The IFS model was developed in the mid-1990s by Richard C. Schwartz, marriage and family therapist and founder of the Center for Self Leadership in Illinois. IFS has been researched in multiple studies and has been shown to be effective for treating trauma in individuals, couples, and families.
  9. ^ Blum, Ben (2020-07-21). "Inside the Revolutionary Treatment That Could Change Psychotherapy Forever". Medium. Retrieved 2020-08-01.
  10. ^ Hsieh, Alexander L. (31 March 2015). "Internal Family Systems: A Parts Party Intervention". Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 26 (1): 31–35. doi:10.1080/08975353.2015.1002740. To begin with, the process of therapy and discovery of the core self by removing layers upon layers of polarizing parts could progress through a time-consuming process with the therapist and client. [...] Finally, one can foresee that IFS has limitations when it comes to incorporating systems with multiple members involved because of the increased burden in managing exponentially more individual parts.
  11. ^ Deacon, Sharon A.; Davis, Jonathan C. (March 2001). "Internal Family Systems Theory: A Technical Integration". Journal of Systemic Therapies. 20 (1): 45–58. doi:10.1521/jsyt. Parts work can be emotional and anxiety-provoking for clients and therapists must have a rationale and direction in order to guide clients on such internal journeys. [...] Although Schwartz may disagree, we believe that IFS therapy, in general, may not work well with delusional, paranoid, or schizophrenic clients. Clients who are not grounded in reality may misuse the idea of "parts" or become more entrenched in delusional thoughts by such interventions.

Further readingEdit


  • Breunlin, Douglas C.; Schwartz, Richard C.; Kune-Karrer, Betty Mac (1992). Metaframeworks: transcending the models of family therapy. The Jossey-Bass social and behavioral science series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 1555424260. OCLC 24590165.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Michelson, Katherine J. (1998). "Mapping multiplicity: an application of the internal family systems model". In Nelson, Thorana Strever; Trepper, Terry S. (eds.). 101 more interventions in family therapy. Haworth marriage and the family. New York: Haworth Press. pp. 426–430. ISBN 078900058X. OCLC 38144382.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C. (1998). "Internal family systems family therapy". In Dattilio, Frank M.; Goldfried, Marvin R. (eds.). Case studies in couple and family therapy: systemic and cognitive perspectives. The Guilford family therapy series. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 331–352. ISBN 1572302976. OCLC 37721397.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C. (1999). "The internal family systems model". In Rowan, John; Cooper, Mick (eds.). The plural self: multiplicity in everyday life. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. pp. 238–253. ISBN 0761960759. OCLC 44414295.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C. (1999). "The self-to-self connection: intimacy and the internal family systems model". In Carlson, Jon; Sperry, Len (eds.). The intimate couple. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel. pp. 263–275. ISBN 0876308809. OCLC 39347380.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Johnson, Laura M.; Schwartz, Richard C. (2000). "Internal family systems work with children and families". In Bailey, C. Everett (ed.). Children in therapy: using the family as a resource. A Norton professional book. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 73–111. ISBN 0393702898. OCLC 43845598.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C.; Rose, Michi (2002). "Internal family systems therapy". In Carlson, Jon; Kjos, Diane (eds.). Theories and strategies of family therapy. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. pp. 275–295. ISBN 020527403X. OCLC 47296206.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Nichols, Michael P.; Schwartz, Richard C. (2006) [1984]. Family therapy: concepts and methods (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education/Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205478093. OCLC 60825574.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C.; Schwartz, Mark F.; Galperin, Lori (2009). "Internal family systems therapy". In Courtois, Christine A.; Ford, Julian D. (eds.). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders: an evidence-based guide. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 353–370. ISBN 9781606230398. OCLC 234176147.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C.; Blow, Adrian J. (2010). "Creating self-to-self intimacy: internal family systems therapy with couples". In Gurman, Alan S. (ed.). Clinical casebook of couple therapy. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 375–398. ISBN 9781606236765. OCLC 559649909.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Ecker, Bruce; Ticic, Robin; Hulley, Laurel (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415897167. OCLC 772112300.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C. (2013). "Internal family systems". In Rambo, Anne Hearon; et al. (eds.). Family therapy review: contrasting contemporary models. New York: Routledge. pp. 196–199. ISBN 9780415806626. OCLC 754732614.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Sweezy, Martha; Ziskind, Ellen L., eds. (2013). Internal family systems therapy: new dimensions. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415506830. OCLC 758394531.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Papernow, Patricia L. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: what works and what doesn't. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415894371. OCLC 727702714.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Mones, Arthur G. (2014). Transforming troubled children, teens, and their families: an internal family systems model for healing. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415744218. OCLC 869140910.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C.; Sparks, Flint (2015). "The internal family systems model in trauma treatment: parallels with Mahayana Buddhist theory and practice". In Follette, Victoria M.; Briere, John; Rozelle, Deborah; Hopper, James W.; Rome, David I. (eds.). Mindfulness-oriented interventions for trauma: integrating contemplative practices. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 125–139. ISBN 9781462518586. OCLC 895272630.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Herbine-Blank, Toni (2016). "Tracking protective sequences in internal family systems therapy". In Weeks, Gerald R.; Fife, Stephen T.; Peterson, Colleen M. (eds.). Techniques for the couple therapist: essential interventions from the experts. New York: Routledge. pp. 133–136. ISBN 9781138814608. OCLC 926090888.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Fisher, Janina (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: overcoming internal self-alientation. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415708227. OCLC 961009372.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Grabowski, Amy Yandel (2017). An internal family systems guide to recovery from eating disorders: healing part by part. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138745209. OCLC 972740227.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Spiegel, Lisa (2017). Internal family systems therapy with children. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138682108. OCLC 959602748.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Sweezy, Martha; Ziskind, Ellen L., eds. (2017). Innovations and elaborations in internal family systems therapy. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138024380. OCLC 920723974.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Peer-reviewed articlesEdit

  • Vesper, Joyce H. (April 1996). "Review of Internal Family Systems Therapy". Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 33 (1): 154–155. doi:10.1037/h0092358.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Barton, Marci A.; Bischoff, Richard J. (July 1998). "Rocks and rituals in producing therapeutic change". Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 9 (3): 31–41. doi:10.1300/J085V09N03_03.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Wark, Linda; Thomas, Melanie; Peterson, Sahri (April 2001). "Internal family systems therapy for children in family therapy". Journal of Marital & Family Therapy. 27 (2): 189–200. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2001.tb01156.x. PMID 11314552.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Dolbier, Christyn L.; Soderstrom, Mike; Steinhardt, Mary A. (September 2001). "The relationships between self-leadership and enhanced psychological, health, and work outcomes". The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 135 (5): 469–485. doi:10.1080/00223980109603713. PMID 11804002.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Lavergne, Majie (March 2004). "Art therapy and internal family systems therapy: an integrative model to treat trauma among adjudicated teenage girls". Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal. 17 (1): 17–36. doi:10.1080/08322473.2004.11432257.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Miller, Bobbi J.; Cardona, Jose Ruben Parra; Hardin, Michael (February 2007). "The use of narrative therapy and internal family systems with survivors of childhood sexual abuse: examining issues related to loss and oppression". Journal of Feminist Family Therapy. 18 (4): 1–27. doi:10.1300/J086v18n04_01.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Davis, Sean D.; Piercy, Fred P. (July 2007). "What clients of couple therapy model developers and their former students say about change, part I: model-dependent common factors across three models". Journal of Marital & Family Therapy. 33 (3): 318–343. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00030.x. PMID 17598781.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Mones, Arthur G.; Schwartz, Richard C. (December 2007). "The functional hypothesis: a family systems contribution toward an understanding of the healing process of the common factors". Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. 17 (4): 314–329. doi:10.1037/1053-0479.17.4.314.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Wilkins, Erica J. (December 2007). "Using an IFS informed intervention to treat African American families surviving sexual abuse: one family's story". Journal of Feminist Family Therapy. 19 (3): 37–53. doi:10.1300/J086v19n03_03.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Green, Eric J. (April 2008). "Individuals in conflict: an internal family systems approach". The Family Journal. 16 (2): 125–131. doi:10.1177/1066480707313789.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Pais, Shobha (March 2009). "A systemic approach to the treatment of dissociative identity disorder". Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 20 (1): 72–88. doi:10.1080/08975350802716566.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Sweezy, Martha (March 2011). "Treating trauma after dialectical behavioral therapy". Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. 21 (1): 90–102. doi:10.1037/a0023011.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schwartz, Richard C. (August 2013). "Moving from acceptance toward transformation with Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)". Journal of Clinical Psychology. 69 (8): 805–816. doi:10.1002/jclp.22016. PMID 23813465.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Makidon, Yvonne (January 2014). "Trailhead intervention". Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 25 (1): 83–86. doi:10.1080/08975353.2014.881700.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Mojta, Carl; Falconier, Mariana K.; Huebner, Angela J. (January 2014). "Fostering self-awareness in novice therapists using Internal Family Systems therapy". The American Journal of Family Therapy. 42 (1): 67–78. doi:10.1080/01926187.2013.772870.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Seedall, Ryan B. (April 2014). "Review of Internal Family Systems Therapy: New Dimensions". Journal of Marital & Family Therapy. 40 (2): 262–263. doi:10.1111/jmft.12033.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Hoffman, David A. (October 2015). "What the #@!* are they fighting about?!?: reflections on fairness, identity, social capital, and peacemaking in family conflicts". Family Court Review. 53 (4): 509–516. doi:10.1111/fcre.12171.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Haddock, Shelley A.; Weiler, Lindsey M.; Trump, Lisa J.; Henry, Kimberly L. (January 2017). "The efficacy of internal family systems therapy in the treatment of depression among female college students: a pilot study". Journal of Marital & Family Therapy. 43 (1): 131–144. doi:10.1111/jmft.12184. PMID 27500908.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Lester, Rebecca J. (February 2017). "Self‐governance, psychotherapy, and the subject of managed care: internal family systems therapy and the multiple self in a US eating‐disorders treatment center". American Ethnologist. 44 (1): 23–35. doi:10.1111/amet.12423.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Minaiy, Cayla; Johnson, Natalie; Ciochon, Tim; Perkins, Dustin (June 2017). "Adaptability of family therapy modalities in the treatment of lesbian and gay clients with bulimia nervosa". Contemporary Family Therapy. 39 (2): 121–131. doi:10.1007/s10591-017-9410-5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Smith, Jesse A.; Hayes, Nicholas D.; Smock Jordan, Sara (July 2018). "Systemic integration of IFS therapy and 12-step facilitation for substance use: a theoretical discussion". Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. 37: 60–74. doi:10.1080/07347324.2018.1502032.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Lucero, Rebecca; Jones, Adam C.; Hunsaker, Jacob C. (September 2018). "Using internal family systems theory in the treatment of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and their families". Contemporary Family Therapy. 40 (3): 266–275. doi:10.1007/s10591-017-9424-z.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

External linksEdit