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MFT Spotlight: What is internal family systems therapy?

Internal Family Systems Therapy is a popular talk therapy technique for Marriage & Family Therapists. But what is IFS Therapy, and what makes it unique?

When you hear the term “Marriage and Family Therapy”, you might not immediately think of therapy on an individual level. But what about therapy meant to understand the relationships we have with different parts of our psyche? This branch of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) is called Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy and is quickly becoming more popular. But, what exactly is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

To understand IFS Therapy, it’s important to understand MFT. The Chicago School defines Marriage and Family Therapy as the field of psychotherapy aimed at treating individuals, couples, and families within a relational context. Internal Family Systems therapy is a branch of psychology connected to the individual portion of Marriage and Family Therapy.


What are Internal Family Systems?

As originally noted by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., a person may internally take on several different familial roles when they’re in an environment they perceive to be unsafe. This forms an Internal Family System; and these subpersonalities, or parts, act separately from the center Self. Dr. Schwartz explains that the Self is one’s truest version, but that the subpersonalities can still have a positive purpose. It is only when the parts become extreme that issues arise.


Common subpersonalities

Traditional IFS Therapy categorizes these roles into three broad subpersonality types:

  • The Manager
  • The Exile
  • The Firefighter

Managers keep the Self safe, protecting it from becoming dependent and pushing the individual to be better. Often, this involves keeping especially difficult feelings such as shame, fear, humiliation, or pain out of consciousness in order to avoid feeling vulnerable. These suppressed parts are called Exiles. When one of the Exiles becomes so upset that it may make the Self feel vulnerable, the Firefighters may jump into action, impulsively finding some stimulating activity (e.g., drugs, sex, or work) to distract from the overwhelming vulnerable feelings.


Understanding the Self

In addition to these three subpersonalities, there is the Self. While patients can learn to calm down their subpersonalities, IFS teaches that the Self always remains. Because the Self is the true constant in an IFS patient’s psyche, the general goal of IFS Therapy is to return control to the Self.

By putting the Self in charge, IFS Therapy can restore balance in patients’ lives. Balance (or lack of balance) in the internal system can affect how we behave externally, just as the external world can affect our internal behavior. IFS Therapy uses the power of talk, introspection, and the multiplicity of the mind to restore patients’ power of Self and get them on the road to recovery.


Want to learn more about marriage and family therapy techniques? Fill out the form below for more information about marriage and family therapy programs at The Chicago School or visit our programs page.


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