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What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 22, 2021

Internal family systems therapy is a type of psychotherapy.

The idea behind it is that in your mind, you might take on different “family roles.” This creates an “inner family,” with parts that act differently from your core “self.” This usually happens when you’re in a situation where you feel unsafe.

The goal is to put your self in charge and boost:

  • Calmness
  • Positive thoughts and behavior
  • Feelings of being centered

To do this, internal family systems therapy use techniques like:

  • Talk therapy
  • Awareness of body sensations
  • Imagery
  • Seeing an image or using visualizations
  • Journaling

Concepts of Internal Family Systems Therapy

This type of therapy says that your core “self” is the truest version of you. The “family parts” you create in your mind are generally positive, and you use them to help you get by in the world. If these parts or roles become “extreme,” though, you can have problems.

Internal family systems assumes that we’re all born with the self at the center of our mind, but that it's natural to have many parts in the mind.

The parts you might create in your “inner family” fall into three main types:

“Managers.” These parts help keep the self safe. They push you to be better and protect the self from becoming dependent. These parts keep hard emotions out of consciousness in order to help you avoid feeling vulnerable. This usually includes feelings like:

  • Shame
  • Fear
  • Humiliation
  • Pain

“Exiles.” These are the “young” parts that have gone through some kind of trauma in childhood. They become isolated from the rest of the system out of protection. When an exile becomes very upset, a “manager” or “firefighter” part will jump into action to stop these exile parts from reaching the conscious level.

“Firefighters.” These parts are a distraction for the mind when the exiles break free. These parts push you to act impulsively and find some activity to distract you from overwhelming feelings. These are often things like drugs, sex, food, alcohol, or work.

Internal Family Systems Therapy and Mental Health

It’s important to work with a licensed therapist or counselor who is trained in internal family systems therapy. Make sure to talk to your therapist before attempting to do any exercises on your own.

Some therapists use this type of therapy for mental health conditions like:

Some reasons that this type of therapy might not be right for you are:

  • There is ongoing abuse in your real-life family or relationships.
  • You don’t get emotional support from the people in your life.
  • You have schizophrenia.
  • You have dementia.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Good Therapy: “Internal Family Systems (IFS).”

IFS Institute: “Evolution of The Internal Family Systems Model by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph. D.,” “The Internal Family Systems Model Outline.”

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology: “MFT Spotlight: What is internal family systems therapy?”

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