I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the phrase often heard about Internal Family Systems that “IFS is more than a psychotherapy.” I can’t help but feel like it invokes a framing effect that assumes IFS is inherently a therapy modality – as opposed to a modality highly effective in therapy. In the United States, where the use of the word “therapy” is highly regulated, such beliefs cause issues. Yet after three years of doing this work, I have yet to come across any evidence supporting this belief. IFS is not centrally therapy. While it may be useful in this space, its true nature is something else.

The recent decision by the IFS Institute to limit the current program of trainings only to therapists seems to have caused unprecedented self-conflict and schism within our community of practice. After decades of non-therapists delivering high-quality IFS to the world and contributing heavily to the model, Level 1 trainings are now reserved for therapists alone. For those who believe IFS is centrally therapy, this move makes sense. Yet for those like myself who don’t make this assumption, feelings ranging from confusion to pain abound. Whatever the reason behind this decision, there can be better solutions that would not end up splitting up a community inherently built on the belief that diverse parts belong together as a system.

Yet what makes something a therapy? While not a therapist myself, I’ve always believed IFS matches far more with coaching than any other field of which I’m aware. Its philosophy and mechanics are almost identical. And if a strong case for this can be made, as I intend to do below, what does that say about IFS? Should it be constrained to any single field, or is it something greater that goes beyond any tiny box we humans could make?

This article has three parts. First, we’ll explore some of the common arguments made for why IFS could be considered a therapy. Second, we’ll explore a counterargument and review the evidence for why IFS could be considered a coaching modality. Finally, I’ll share my personal view.

Author context

Any time we listen to an argument, it’s important to consider who is speaking and their background. This allows us to understand the context of their words and decide how we want to hold them.

I am a Level 2 IFS practitioner and coach. I specialize in helping individuals improve their self-relationship so they can bring their light into the world instead of wasting energy on self-criticism and self-conflict. I’ve been doing this for over a decade and with IFS as my main modality since 2021. Prior to this I worked in counter-terrorism and emergency response.

Coaches and therapists have different foci. Coaches focus on helping people create a life that externally reflects who they are within – that is, self-realization. Coaching clients are generally mentally stable but feel stuck. Either a) there is a specific goal they want to achieve but can’t for some reason, or b) they don’t know what they want, but they know it’s not this. Self-realization requires authenticity, which in turn requires vulnerability. That’s where the work is. IFS has been priceless in this regard.

IFS therapists play a major role in my life. I do my personal IFS work with an IFS therapist. Most of my colleagues are IFS therapists and I belong to a peer-consultation group in which I’m the only coach. Most of my referrals come from IFS therapists, especially from IFS therapists across the United States who refer male family members to me since I can work across state lines. IFS therapists have supported me tremendously since the IFS-I’s announcement and helped write the petition against these changes at self-led.org. No one is an enemy. We are all on the same team, even if we work in diverse spaces.

Part I: Examining arguments for IFS as a therapy

Dick Schwartz was a therapist, therefore IFS is a therapy.

This argument has multiple issues. First, if something is sufficiently new to be given its own name, we typically define it by its own merits instead of by its creator. The Wright brothers may have been bicycle mechanics, yet none of us would call powered airplanes “flying bicycles.” Just because someone is a therapist doesn’t mean their work is automatically a therapy.

This argument is further complicated by another key fact: IFS wasn’t invented. It was discovered.

Based on Dick’s writing, it could be said that he either discovered IFS or was taught it by his clients. Either way, he was a receiver – not a creator. In doing so, he was granted a privilege few experience: to feel what it is like to go beyond the current mindset and touch the Divine Truth of existence in a way that allows us to better understand ourselves and the world. Our gratitude for this is immense. However, being a receiver is not the same as being an owner. Newton and Einstein discovered the fundamental truths of gravity and transformed human history, but neither could claim to “own” gravity. Discoveries about the world go beyond any single individual.

Finally, as Dick has repeatedly said, non-therapists have played a key role in developing IFS from its beginning. Unburdenings, perhaps the most celebrated part of IFS, came from shamanism.

IFS is inherently clinical because it was developed in a clinical setting.

Just because something was developed in a certain setting doesn’t mean it only belongs in that domain. A biologist may make a discovery, but their findings could have equal impact for physicists, chemists, economists, or even chefs. Truth goes beyond artificial borders. Discoveries made by therapists are not inherently constrained to therapy.

For example, Cece Sykes’ work with addiction has transformed my work with clients. Even though she built her approach by working with addicts, nothing in her work is inherently clinical. Her model explains how systems look for relief around shame – something every human alive deals with. As a coach, I’ve never found a better way to help someone break out of chronic procrastination. I was able to directly apply her methodology within my scope of practice without modification.

In return, IFS therapists benefited from the work of practitioners. Practitioners previously taught at the IFS conference and are conducting ground-breaking work in other areas of IFS, such as (but not limited to): spiritual wounds, UB-like parts, ancestral healing, somatics, movement, working with neuro-divergent populations, IFS meditation, academic research, and more. Their work will help us all.

IFS is highly effective with extreme trauma and should be reserved for this space.

Just because something is therapeutic and excels with intense trauma work doesn’t make it solely a therapy. Mindfulness is a great example. Entire therapy modalities have been built out of its principles, yet trying to claim mindfulness as a therapy would mean trying to colonize all of Buddhist philosophy. The same could be said for self-compassion, writing, art, dance, and other interventions with proven effectiveness for healing inner wounds. IFS can be considered the same way.

Part II: The counterargument – IFS is a coaching modality

One of the most obvious signs that IFS isn’t a therapy is found in the oft-repeated phrase heard by anyone who has been around IFS enough: “IFS practitioners are often some of the best at IFS because they don’t have to unlearn the things therapists are taught.” “Therapist parts” are real and must be accounted for. This all begs an obvious question: If someone like a coach doesn’t have to unlearn, but a therapist does, what does that say about IFS? Shouldn’t a therapist pick up a therapy modality easier while the non-therapist struggles?

The argument goes deeper. IFS shares a huge amount with coaching: the client is held in a place of being seen as inherently whole and complete, the professional and client co-create an experience without either knowing what will happen on the other side, and there are no premade solutions or “cures.” Our job is to help clients go within and connect with their inner wisdom. All of this, and more, is coaching. All of this, and more, is IFS.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of further similarities. You’ll notice I use the term “IFS facilitator” instead of “therapist” or “practitioner.” I believe this is a better and more democratic title than our current therapist/practitioner divide. After all, IFS is a relational process that we facilitate our clients through.

 

CoachingIFS
The client is inherently strong, capable, and wise. You must honor their wisdom and strength even if they are currently hidden.Every client has Self energy. No matter how blended they are, Self energy is there. Trust in it.
Because your client is inherently wise, you do not need to solve their problem for them. They have everything they need to solve it themselves. Your job is to facilitate the connection between them and their inner wisdom.Because your client has Self energy, you do not need to solve their problems for them. Everything they need to heal is within. Your job is to facilitate the connection between their Self energy and Parts.
A great coach is a mirror that allows the client to see and understand every Part of themselves. The more they understand themselves, the more they’ll automatically know what needs to be done.A great IFS facilitator allows the client to map out and form relationships with all the relevant Parts of themselves. The more self-aware they are, the easier is for them to know what needs to happen next.
As a coach, you are in the job of asking questions – not giving answers or solutions.As an IFS facilitator, you are in the job of asking questions – not giving answers or solutions.
You are co-creating this experience with your client. Let every decision be theirs. You provide the framework while they choose what happens next.You are co-creating this experience with your client. Their Parts and Self know what is needed. You provide the framework while they decide what happens next.
If you’re doing it right, you should simultaneously not know what’s coming next while also knowing the general arc this work needs to take.A good IFS session should unfold without either the facilitator or client knowing what will happen next. If this isn’t true, look for a Self-like Part directing the work.
You do not need to understand everything about a client’s problem in order to help them. Just keep asking questions. Trust them and trust the process.Parts can keep answers private; a client doesn’t have to share everything with you. Just keep asking questions. Trust them and trust the model.
If you’re stuck, it’s probably because, a) you’re getting in the way (e.g., you’re making assumptions, trying to problem solve, not being curious), or, b) the client is stuck in a fear-based limiting belief that hasn’t yet been named. Step back and be curious.If you’re stuck, it’s either because, a) one of your Parts is blended with you, or, b) an unidentified Part is blended with the client and preventing them from moving forward. Step back, unblend, and be curious.
Don’t overthink it. One of the most powerful questions you can ask is, “What else?” If you really don’t know what to do, be quiet and step back. Let the client say what needs to be said next.Don’t overthink it. One of the most powerful questions you can ask is, “What else does this Part need you to know?” If you really feel lost, be quiet and step back. Let their system guide you.

I don’t love IFS because it allowed me to do therapy. I love IFS because it allowed me to be a better coach.

Long before IFS, my work already had me exploring client emotions with language like, “How is that critical voice inside trying to help?”, or “What is the knot in your stomach afraid might happen if you pursue this vision?” IFS primarily gave me two things: a) the realization that emotions (i.e., Parts) can be relationally worked with as conscious individuals and transform, and b) the healing steps – which, again, came from shamanism. Everything else was already familiar.

IFS has always felt like putting on a well-worn glove. During my Level 1 training, one of my PAs (a certified IFS therapist and consultant) stopped me during my turn facilitating and asked if I was reading the questions from the training manual. I admitted yes. She told me to stop, close the book, and trust my instinct. “You already understand this. Lean in and give it more.” I did. There was no resistance; it felt like surfing a wave I’ve surfed a thousand times before. If it was true that individuals need to be trained in mental health skills before learning IFS, this should have been impossible.

Part III: Defining IFS

So, what is IFS?

At its core, I believe IFS is a spiritual modality that goes beyond any one field. If you forced me to define it, I’d say it’s a spiritual coaching intervention that’s highly effective in therapy settings. The use of Self energy as a healing mechanism frees IFS from any previously defined domain. Spiritual interventions touch every field which is why no individual field has the right to claim it.

Recognizing this truth would liberate IFS from the constrained world of American therapy. After all, IFS inherently rejects the pathologizing medical model governing American therapy today.

Naming IFS as a spiritual intervention would also bring long-needed equality to the IFS community in a way that would help us all. For example, we could ease the training bottleneck by spinning up Level 1s taught by the deep well of IFS practitioners with decades of experience for students who don’t need Continuing Education Units (CEUs). Limiting training might not lead to safer IFS; it would just lead to more IFS done by people without training. Anyone can buy the books, watch demos of seemingly magical sessions, listen to podcasts, and be convinced they can do this on their own. If anyone – clinician or not – is using IFS without solid training, the risk of causing harm or delivering unsatisfactory IFS increases. Providing more training worldwide will secure the future of the model, maintain its integrity, and protect IFS facilitators and clients alike. Ethics should be added to Level 1 trainings; many non-therapists would like to help draft this work and become more involved in the evolution of trainings. And if truly needed – difficulties with such boards not withstanding and needing attention – an IFS facilitator board could be created.

We also desperately need more research on IFS, but it doesn’t need to be a therapy for this to take place. Yoga, meditation, and self-compassion all have more research supporting their therapeutic capabilities than IFS at this point. Nor do therapists need IFS to be a therapy in order for them to use it, bill for it, or be trained in it. It seems the only reason to currently label IFS a therapy is because someone at the IFS-I wants to keep calling it that, even if the arguments for doing so are weak.

I have always felt that one of the things holding IFS back has been what appears to be an insecure desire to be accepted by the rest of the psychological community. Yet IFS cannot claim to be both revolutionary and conformist, saying both “We offer a new way forward!” and “I’m just like you, please let me in.” We will either let the extraordinary light of IFS shine and attract others to it, or we will dim ourselves so we don’t make others uncomfortable as we assimilate.

Let us be the flame, instead of the moth. This model, like us, was born to be free. Let’s embrace it for its true nature and step forward with confidence.

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  • James J. Stamatelos

    James J. “JJ” Stamatelos is a Level 2 IFS practitioner & professional coach for self-critical high achievers & men. www.jamesjstamatelos.com

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