KnowledgeWhat is IFS?

Introducing Internal Family Systems (IFS) – A discussion…

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a model and idea of personal and interpersonal interaction, which began in the early 1980’s and has slowly grown in popular recognition ever since. This is because, for many people, it is reported as helpful. IFS has helped them live better, they say. Extensive personal and professional testimonies of a qualitive kind about this “success effect” are now leading to developments in the form of IFS related empirical research. The discourse is moving away from only subjective personal reportage of great outcomes, towards the addition of publications of a scientific kind, based on objective inquiry.

The method of self-help that IFS represents, grasps and simplifies – mainly through the use of consent and compassion, mixed with paying attention and witnessing inner stories and feelings – the acute complexity of life and living, with which we all struggle.

IFS is often done with the guidance of a therapist or practitioner who has received some formal training in the modality. However, it is possible to engage with this therapeutic method by one’s self. How, and to what extent such self-work is effective, is still under scrutiny. What is clear is that, if IFS does work really well, it is imperative it can be accessible to all, if possible, independent of financial power to pay for a professional guide. For me, this issue is the heart of the matter in respect of the question “Is IFS interesting?” Should it really work well for any human, IFS is also a kind of politics of the Self, in a world suffering tremendously from a lack of such attention to inner worlds. In other words, we’re all suffering from things about ourselves that we don’t quite understand and which do us no favours. Some help is welcome. How to achieve such help, when the world order itself is monetised?

The core concepts upon which IFS hinges are Parts and Self. Parts are entities within people: parts of a person with distinctness. To be made up of Parts (which in PARTS & SELF we write with a capital P when we mean an entity that is a Part; when speaking about a part, as of a whole, this would have a small p. Elsewhere within IFS writing, a small p is often used for Parts) was noticed as a feature of human self-management by family therapist and author Richard Schwartz, PhD, who founded the IFS model. In dealing with therapeutic clients he was noticing that people were talking through – or with – Parts of themselves: “a Part of me…”. He paid attention to this and, it’s possible to suggest, thereby encountered a whole new world-view of how we manage ourselves internally. Whilst Parts-as-concept exists in many other forms of therapeutic interaction such as Gestalt, and there is a long history of work noticing “Parts” in people (called by other names), Schwartz paid significant attention to the concept. The other aspect key to IFS is the idea of Self. Self, with a capital S, stands for either the real you or the higher you. It is not unreasonable to consider that these two yous are one and the same.

What is clear is that Self is to be appreciated

and is a helper in being well and feeling good about living, but that its nature is fugitive, whilst simultaneously seemingly (or apparently) ever-present. Self as concept and experience – because a key goal of IFS is to encounter, trust and then be led by the Self, as best guide to action and feelings –  is possibly outside normalised, daily cognition. Such a type of “normalised” thinking, omnipresent in our lives and interactions, uses practical language to describe objects or actions and even feelings, but is language which would likely fall short of adequately describing Self. Again, the idea of Self is not unique or new to IFS, but Schwartz has given it an attention that it could be suggested is secular. This has enabled a broadening of its appeal, beyond religious frames? I put the question mark, because it is important for us to remember that nothing about IFS needs be a dogma.

These days, IFS is found all around the world, but is presently niche, rather than mainstream. My neighbour is unlikely to have heard of it.

Work by activists, who consider IFS a positive contribution to humanity as a launch-pad for healing, is being done to try and change that widespread ignorance of IFS, or Parts and Self, as an available conceptual framework for well-being. PARTS & SELF magazine could be considered a form of such activism. It is not, however, proselytism. We are not preaching here.

We are quietly curious and wondering. We are also listening: to you the reader, and to ourselves as having activist Parts. It is useful to do this to stay grounded; to keep enjoying this work, full of so many wonderful people and interesting issues.

A key element of that activism is the funding and organisation of scientific research, to show how IFS works and to what ends. This mantle for action is something the Foundation for Self Leadership (publisher of PARTS & SELF) undertakes, via their engagement with generous donors. However, the wonderfully difficult journey that is the establishment of truth and valid knowledge (usually validated by university activity in this world) is a safeguard, not an agenda. So far – as we see from the research reports in PARTS & SELF – the journey is progressing well. But that is never the end of the story. Well here means robust. Robustly tested. In research terms this is a compliment and a quality assurance mark. That is why it matters to do research in the midst of the fake news, multimedia manipulations and masking we daily encounter against our will.

It is entirely true to suggest that, for some people, IFS is spiritual rather than scientific. That does not mean it cannot also have a scientific base. The nature of science is not a given and depends on a multitude of factors, as part of a game of “acceptability.” As part of a paradigm of so-called truth. As one interlocutor said to me: “better IFS is accepted science than some other therapeutic approaches which have gained ground as go-to treatments.” I agree. At least IFS has within its mechanisms a need for democratic consent protocols: parts must be consulted and heard; they must be given space to agree that the interaction of an IFS kind goes deeper into the internal system.

This structural element of IFS is something which for me underpins why it has safety nets against abuses of power and bullying of the Other built in. You cannot demand healing. It is allowed only by the one who heals.

Other models of therapy don’t work like that, and they operate far too closely in line with extant world problems of dominance and oppression of self/Self, even if it’s far from obvious how, given their Public Relations profile and seeming good intent to offer healing (as well as their officially sanctioned status).

Because the IFS therapy method sees the “inner self” as having non-problematic multiplicity it is a difficult “paradigm” (and paradigm it is) to accept at first. Society sees people significantly as unitary: I am me; I am whole. In IFS a person is a complex system of distinct parts (thoughts, feelings, and beliefs), each with its own viewpoints, desires and agendas. When these feel in harmony with each other a simplicity of ease reigns. So, wholeness is achieved through recognising segmentation of a natural kind.

The main agenda of these parts is to protect us from inner pain caused by the trauma inherent in living, but especially episodes where our internal system was overwhelmed by traumatic experience, such as shocking fear, abandonment, violence, etc.

The IFS model rejects psychopathology (judging elements of a person as defective and wrong and needing removal or harsh remedial treatments). It hinges this assessment of an absence of defectiveness on the presence of Self, as something undamaged and undamageable. Self is posited as having generosity and healing attributes; not unlike the personality profile of a holy figure.

This situation of a central core, immune to change or corruption by virtue of trauma, remains, even when people are behaving in extreme ways. The title of Dick Schwartz’s recent book (2021), “No Bad Parts,” says it all in the title by pointing to one of the key contributions to humanity of IFS: all of us inside is good, but behaviours are not necessarily good. This idea of parts of us all being on our side – what Schwartz calls “having good intent” for us – is a very powerful element of IFS. No one likes being told they are bad. I’d suggest it is a healing idea to believe that bad and destructive behaviours have, at least, good intent. It brings hope, I would say and if I’m not mistaken Dick Schwartz talks a lot about being a “hope-merchant,” when he talks about IFS.

I imagine many practitioners and therapists of IFS feel like they have access to hope. Necessary and life-changing hope?

The IFS model continues to generate growing interest outside the realm of psychotherapy. It is also popular within psychotherapy, which can be seen from the fact that the waiting list for training (via The IFS Institute trainings section) is very long. Coming to understand IFS is also available through other providers.

Some people think that there are specific protocols that need to be followed for IFS to be done safely. On the other hand, given IFS is a work in progress in terms of its methodology, science and applications, this is an open question, ripe for careful response and explorations.

The problem of capacity, for involvement in IFS as a professional, versus demand, may be a “good problem.” However, it is concerning if IFS is only available to the few, if IFS works as well as perhaps it does. At PARTS & SELF we sincerely hope that in slowly developing knowledge about IFS – in so many ways and with so many genuinely differing voices – we can open IFS up to more people. Put another way, we actively consider that introducing parts and Self to many people, is a good idea.

IFS in the world is not a simple situation.

Different practitioners and therapists will have differing perspectives, philosophies and approaches underpinning their views on therapy, healing and how IFS can, or should be, used. Different people, as individuals, will each have their own views.


If you want to speak and be heard about the issues mentioned above, all voices are welcome. Get in touch through our Contact Form.

A glossary for IFS terms is in development in PARTS & SELF.


Helen E. Lees, PhD, is Editor of PARTS & SELF and based in Italy.

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