Exploring the Internal Family Systems Approach to Therapy

by Apr 27, 2023

This coming October will mark the 10 year anniversary since founding The Couple and Family Clinic. Back then, I was a solo practitioner and the practice was named, Your Couples Therapist. Yet, I knew I wanted to build something larger. I envisioned a group practice that would be a professional home for providers in different stages of their careers. The practice has always aimed to destigmatize mental health. The assumption is that when we destigmatize, we increase access to care, and leave our clients filled with more well-being and renewed energy to share the benefits of healing and transformation with others.

Before therapists graduate from their programs, they usually need to develop a philosophy of therapy. This helps the developing provider share their rationale for why they help in the approach they do. It helps them synthesize everything they learned in grad school and bring it to life in the consulting room. It also serves as a snapshot in time, because as we grow, our philosophies can change. I won’t bore you with what mine was back then, but this article will help you understand what guides how I and other Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapists practice. After I took the training in 2021, I was never the same again.


What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal Family Systems therapy is not like other models of psychotherapy. It is the most respectful and powerful model that I have found in my brief career as a healer. And, fun fact, it happens to be well suited as a model to help people navigate psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, which is becoming more and more popular as you may have noticed. Through the IFS lens, practitioners see their clients (and everyone else in life) as a system of parts, led by a core Self. 

First, let’s talk about parts. The mind is naturally multiple, and that’s not a bad thing. Your parts are a sort of inner family, or inner society. The part of you that wants to quit your job and go do what you’ve always wanted to do is not an impulse, belief, or dream. It is a full-fledged being. And if your skeptical part is having a tough time digesting this claim, you can discover for yourself – either in therapy or on a psychedelic journey that this claim is verifiable.

There are countless parts, but don’t worry; In therapy, we’re mostly only working with the parts that are burdened. In IFS, just like members of a family, inner parts are forced out of their naturally valuable states into extreme roles. We’re human. If you prick us, we bleed. We come into this world with terribly vulnerable parts on board. When these parts get hurt (The Exiles – we’ll get to them in a minute), we have other parts “take up arms” and vow, “never again” and so some parts take the role of protector (you can think of these parts as being seen by traditional psychotherapy as a coping mechanism, or a defense mechanism). 

Protectors come in two classes: Managers and Firefighters. Managers protect you through preemptive measures to avoid you getting hurt – to avoid triggering your Exiles. Firefighters protect you by springing into action the moment you’ve been hurt – the moment your Exile was triggered – and get you away from the pain as quickly as possible. Let’s take a very brief tour of some protectors you may have encountered in yourself or in someone you care about.

Some common Managers:

  • The perfectionist part
  • The analytical part
  • The inner critic part
  • The people-pleasing part

Some common Firefighters:

  • The binge part
  • The drinking part
  • The cutting part
  • The suicidal part

The roles these parts take on are extreme in nature, because they are doing everything they can to keep you away from the pain that Exiles are burdened with. No one makes it out of childhood without experiencing feelings of terror and/or humiliation. It is our nature as vulnerable children to experience these feelings. It is normal – not pathological. We’ve all got Exiles. And these Exiles are left carrying the burdens of our past. In IFS, burdens are extreme beliefs and emotions that are in need of a software update. That is to say, they get stuck in the past. Stuck in time. Cue the therapists – The provider’s Self, and the client’s Self.


The Philosophy Behind Internal Family Systems


Internal Family Systems Therapy Session

In the 1980’s, family therapist, Dr. Richard Schwartz made a major contribution to the field of psychotherapy when he stumbled upon a unique process for how a human being can discover their core Self. Note: The core Self is common knowledge amongst many wisdom traditions and indeed psychedelic adventurers. IFS is simply another pathway to experiencing, first hand embodiment of your true nature. The Self of the therapist, and the Self of the client are the entities that do the healing in IFS therapy. IFS clients heal and transform because of the healing nature of the Self.

When we look at a person as a collection of parts and Self, it is no wonder why this approach to therapy is going to look radically different from other approaches. And there’s a few more very important things to say about the Self. It is in everyone. It is our birthright. No matter how terrible of a childhood you had, the Self is still in there, undamaged, not even dirtied. Remember that the Exiles are the parts that take on the pain. It is because Self cannot be damaged, that Self is the one who does the healing. Self is never in danger. Pretty unbelievable.


How Internal Family Systems is Applied in CFC’s Practices

What does the healing process look like, you may ask? There are many demonstrations of IFS work available online, and instead of detailing a transcript of what it might look like, you have to see it for yourself to understand what this work entails. Budget for yourself an hour to watch this demonstration. You’ll see Dick Schwartz working with a client, befriending the client’s protectors, getting them to open space inside, to step back in order for the client’s core Self to go back in time to when the original injury happened in the client’s mind. They retrieve the Exile who is stuck back there and bring it into the present day and help it to unburden – to release the extreme beliefs and emotions that it was carrying for decades. This does not mean that the person is re-experiencing the pain in an unbearable way. This healing process is about witnessing and letting go. And Self helps us to do this without being overwhelmed.

Now, Dick is a master clinician. Every IFS therapist has their own unique system, their own set of parts. If you choose to work with me, I will be doing my very best to get my parts to relax and let me stay in session so that my Self can help to earn the trust of your protective parts – in all likelihood, including the part of you who is reading this article. Then your protectors will be much more willing to step back and let you earn their trust as well. One thing I haven’t said yet about Self, and how it is so effective at earning trust, is that Self shows the same qualities in all people. Self energy shows up through these 8 C words: Confidence, Calm, Compassion, Courage, Creativity, Clarity, Curiosity, and Connectedness.

The client and the therapist benefit from Internal Family Systems therapy. For the client, they are experiencing permanent healing of emotional wounds from their past. In many cases, folks are actually able to successfully go off meds, because the reason for the medication no longer exists in the person’s system. The medication may have been needed to put the Exile to sleep, or perhaps even put the Protector to sleep. Because IFS reorganizes the parts, helps them to unburden, and transform back into their naturally valuable roles, this external pharmacological intervention becomes unnecessary. The same can be true for people who heal with plant medicines.

For the therapist, IFS buffers against clinician burnout – this was a huge selling point for me! I tell people now that when I go into session with my clients, when I go into supervision with my supervisees, when I enter the Self state, it feels rejuvenating. My cup is not empty, it runneth over.   


The Path Toward Healing

IFS therapy is not just a psychotherapy model. It truly is more of a psychospiritual life practice. One of my clients reflected this back to me once, when I was just beginning working in this way, and one of my parts jumped up and got defensive, trying to minimize this realization. Yes, it’s true… when parts are involved, sometimes the client has more insight than the therapist! Having a unifying theoretical basis that provides a framework for assessing change is important in any approach to therapy. The providers at the CFC span a healthy variety of different approaches. 

Healing doesn’t just have one approach. And it is super important that you and your provider have a shared understanding and agreement on how you work together. If you don’t trust your provider, the work will be very limited I’m afraid.

Are you still wondering how you should go about finding important changes in your life? I would invite you – as I do often with my clients and supervisees – to pay attention inside. That is the most important thing to listen to. Bring curiosity forward. And if you find that is hard to do, I know a few IFS therapists who can help. 

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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