Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy is a modality of psychotherapy that takes a systems approach to heal. IFS is a unique, evidence-based approach that effectively treats various presenting problems. However, it is often used to help clients heal past trauma.
IFS looks at each person as having varying characteristics, called parts, which all serve different functions. IFS assumes that people are designed with three types of components (exiles, managers, and firefighters) interacting with one another and the outside world at different times. IFS also assumes that every person has a core ‘self,’ which represents an innate sense of inner wisdom, self-compassion, and the ability to heal. IFS aims to integrate these parts of the self to heal emotional pain.
Types of Parts:
- Exiles (injured parts): These parts carry wounds and past traumas. Exiled parts show through memories of pain, unmet needs, hurt, isolation, and shame.
Protective Parts: They serve the purpose of protecting the self from the pain of the exiled parts. There are two types of protective features, managers and firefighters.
- Managers (Proactive Protectors): Managers try to protect the person from difficult emotions by working to ensure that the exiled parts will not become triggered. Examples of manager parts include perfectionism, people-pleasing, caretaking, overthinking, and self-criticism.
- Firefighters (Reactive Protectors): These parts respond to triggers associated with past trauma (exiled parts) to stop the resulting emotional pain. Examples of firefighter parts include alcohol and drug use, self-harming behaviors, or suicidality.
IFS assumes that “the self” is inherent in everyone and can be shown through “self-energy,” which is demonstrated by a person when they are acting through the “8 C’s”: curiosity, calmness, confidence, compassion, courage, creativity, connection, and clarity (Anderson, et al., 2017). Parts often blend with the self, so the true self can sometimes be hard to differentiate. IFS attempts to access and understand the job of the protective parts and separate them from “the self” so that we can access and heal the deeper wounds. Once the exiled parts are accessed, they are unburdened by their trauma and pain.
The Process of IFS Therapy: A Case Study
In IFS therapy, the therapist asks the client to reflect inward to understand and communicate with their parts. At times, the therapist may have to speak directly to the client’s parts. It is important to note that all parts are welcomed and looked at nonjudgmentally in IFS. Six steps are used to separate the protective parts from the self in IFS, and the following case study will demonstrate how this might look.
The 6F’s: The Process of Separating Protective Parts from the Self
Ana is a 30-year-old who grew up in a household with strict and overly critical parents. They expected a lot from their kids academically, and Ana would typically only receive praise or love from them when she made an achievement. Emotions went unspoken about and were not validated in Ana’s household, resulting in her holding in her feelings. Ana became overly critical of herself, holds herself to perfectionistic standards, has severe anxiety, and when she feels excessively distressed, she turns to self-harm. Ana went to college and law school and now works as a lawyer at a large firm.
Ana’s protective parts include self-criticism, perfectionism, anxiety, and self-harm. Self-criticism, perfectionism, and anxiety are managers because they try to protect Ana from triggering feelings of failure. The self-harming part is a firefighter because it aims to reduce the pain if Ana becomes too distressed.
Step 1: Find the part: This step involves encouraging the client to identify the most critical part to address in the present moment. The therapist always seeks permission from the client to proceed before working with a part (Anderson et al., 2017).
Therapist: “So it seems like you have various parts coming up, a perfectionist part, an anxious part, a self-critical part, and a self-harming part. Which aspect of what you’re experiencing do you feel is most important to address right now?”
Ana: “Well I think my perfectionism is what contributes to self-criticism, anxiety, and self-harm.”
Therapist: “So should we start with the perfectionist part?”
Ana: “Yes, I think that makes sense.”
Step 2: Focus on it: This step encourages the client to look internally to identify thoughts, physical sensations, and feelings that are coming up about the part of the focus. They may close their eyes, take deep breaths, and notice what is happening inside them (Anderson et al., 2017).
Therapist: “If you’re comfortable, I want you to turn your attention inside and focus on this perfectionist part for a few minutes. What sensations come up for you?”
Ana: “It just feels scary and overwhelming. It feels tense.”
Step 3: Flesh it out: This step involves learning more information about the part and how the individual experiences it (Anderson et al., 2017).
Therapist: “Are there any other ways you experience this part? Can you see it or hear it?
Ana: “I often hear it telling me that I’m not doing enough or that I’m bound to fail, and I often visualize the possibility of failure.”
Step 4: Feel Toward: This step involves asking how the individual feels about the part. The response received in this step allows the therapist to recognize how much self-energy is present. If the individual’s response is not aligned with the “8 C’s,” that means there are other parts present that need to be recognized and validated prior to moving forward (Anderson et al., 2017).
Therapist: “How do you feel toward this perfectionist part?”
Ana: “I think it protects me, which is good. It probably helped me get into the career I am in today.”
* Ana’s agreeable response indicates that her response is not coming from the self but from another part. It means that more work is needed to separate this part.*
Therapist: “Would this agreeing part of you be willing to step back and allow you to be curious about the perfectionist part?”
Ana: “Yes, the agreeable part will relax.”`
Therapist: “How do you feel toward the perfectionist part now?”
Ana: “I do wonder why it is necessary for it to be so present in my day-to-day life.”
* This response shows that Ana’s self is speaking, as she is talking from a place of curiosity (8 C’s).*
Step 5: Befriend the Part: The goal of this step is for the client to learn more about the part’s job and foster a relationship between the part and the client, which involves internal attachment work. It may include learning about the part’s age, whom it is trying to protect, and what the part wants the client to know (Anderson et al., 2017).
Therapist: “Let the part know you are curious about why it is necessary for it to be so present in your daily life and ask it.”
Ana: “It wants to protect me from failure.”
Therapist: “Let the part know that you appreciate it trying to protect you. How does this part feel about doing this job?”
Ana: “It feels tired because it has been protecting me for so long.”
Step 6: Assessing Protector Fears: This step involves assessing the fears of the protective parts. This step often reveals other protective parts or exiled parts. Many fears may come up; however, one of the most common is the fear of the client becoming overwhelmed with pain (Anderson et al., 2017).
Therapist: “What is the perfectionist part worried would happen to you if it stopped doing its job?”
Ana: “It fears I will start failing at things and then lose the respect of others and myself. Then I would become so distressed and become too overwhelmed to cope.”
Therapist: “How old does this part think you are?”
Ana: “A teenager. When I was younger, if I didn’t excel and meet my parents’ high expectations, my parents would get angry and withdraw love from me. The only time I really felt loved and supported was when I was achieving something.”
*Ana’s response to this question reveals the exiled part.*
Therapist: “I want you to let the perfectionist part know who you are today.”
Ana: “It recognizes I am not the same teenager it thought it was protecting, but it is still too scared to let go.”
*At this point, a therapist might choose to use the technique of Direct Access to speak directly with the protective part rather than having the client communicate with the part. The goal is to help facilitate the separation of the protective part from the self in order to access the exiled part.*
Therapist: “Would it be okay if I spoke directly with this perfectionist part?”
Therapist: “I want to talk directly with the teenage part who felt no love from her parents when she did not achieve. Are you there?”
Perfectionist Part: “Yes.”
Therapist: “I see that you are the part that keeps Ana achieving, pushing herself, and doing everything to perfection so that that young girl does not fail and lose the love or respect of her parents. Is that correct?”
Perfectionist Part: “Yes.”
Therapist: “That makes a lot of sense. You had a very important role for Ana.”
Perfectionist Part: “Yes I do.”
Therapist: “What if I knew another way to help Ana, that did not involve you having to work so hard?”
Perfectionist Part: “I have no idea how that would happen.”
Therapist: “I know how to help, but I would need you to allow me to access that teenage part so that Ana can help herself in a different way.”
Perfectionist Part: “Okay, I am willing.”
Therapist: “Thank you for sharing all of this with me. Can we bring Ana back?”
The Unburdening Process: (Anderson et al., 2017)
In IFS, the unburdening process is the main healing work. This process can only occur when all of a client’s protective parts are accessible, and the client’s self relates to its exiled parts. In Ana’s case, the perfectionism, anxiety, self-harming, and self-critical parts would have been worked through using the 6Fs before the unburdening process.
Step 1: Witnessing: The self and the exiled part establish a relationship, and the exiled part can show the self its experience. The exiled part may represent an experience of trauma, abuse, or fear. The memory that the exiled part holds on to always results in negative thoughts, feelings, or beliefs about oneself or the world.
- Witnessing would include allowing Ana’s Self to form a relationship with that inner teenager in order to understand her experiences from that time. Ana might recall beliefs about herself being a failure, memories of a withdrawal of love from her parents, and the pain and hurt that caused her.
Step 2: Do-Over: The client’s self returns to the traumatic situation and provides what it needs at the time of the trauma. It might include a sense of comfort, validation, or safety.
- Ana may visualize being there with her teen self and providing her with the love, support, and guidance she did not receive from her parents.
Step 3: Retrieve: The self asks the part to come with it to a place of safety in the present.
- Having validated her past pain and visualized meeting the unmet needs, Ana would invite the part to a safe place in the present rather than allow it to remain stuck in the past.
Step 4: Unburden: The client is asked to release the thoughts, feelings, or beliefs they are holding onto regarding the past pain or trauma. IFS therapists often suggest using natural elements to release past trauma.
- Ana might visualize letting her fears of failure, self-criticism, sadness, and anger surrounding her past experience go into an ocean or the air.
Step 5: Invite: The client is instructed to invite the part to welcome any positive qualities it has not had room for.
- This teenage version of Ana did not have room for fun, play, and spontaneity because she was so preoccupied with perfectionism and approval from others. At this point, she may invite these new qualities instead of that fear and worry.
Step 6: Check-in: The protective parts are asked to recognize that the exiled part they have been working so hard to protect is healing. It allows the protective parts to let go of the jobs they have been doing for so long.
- Ana would invite her protective parts, including perfectionism, anxiety, self-criticism, and self-harm, to acknowledge that Ana’s teenage, exiled part is now safe with the self. Because this exiled part of Ana has healed, there is no need for these parts to continue to do their jobs that they were doing to try to keep her safe before.
While the IFS process will look very different for each client and is much lengthier in practice with real clients, the above provides a case example of the main steps of the process. IFS helps clients heal past wounds by allowing them to foster compassion and curiosity toward their different parts so that they can ultimately recognize and live as their true selves.
Anderson, F.G., Sweezy, M., Schwartz, R.C. (2017). Internal Family Systems: Skills Training Manual. Eu Claire: PESI Publishing & Media.