Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an evidence-based, client-centred therapeutic model. Developed in the 1980s, IFS is derived from the idea that each person is made up of many parts, which then interact with one-another like members of a family or household. Therefore, each part has its own thoughts, feelings, idiosyncrasies, and jobs to do to maintain the functioning of the overall system. As such, parts may experience both conflicts and alliances among themselves. For example, one part within you may hate
your job and dread going to work each day, while other parts motivate you to get up and out the door each morning. While these parts are prioritizing your need to be responsible and take care of your practical needs (for example, to earn money), the first part is in conflict with these (for example, perhaps this part is concerned with the way aspects of your job are impacting your emotional or physical health).
IFS also understands that we have a Self that is indestructible and incorruptible. The Self is not a part, but sometimes it can be difficult to connect to Self because it is obscured by parts.
Self is composed of 8 primary characteristics, also known as the 8 C’s: Confidence, calmness, creativity, clarity, curiosity, courage, compassion, and connectedness.
The goal of IFS therapy is to eventually develop into a Self-led system where Self is driving the bus and all other parts are operating as a cohesive unit.
How do I know if IFS is right for me?
The idea that we all have parts just clicks for you
You recognize that there are parts of you that feel differently about situations in your
life. It can be a relief to know that “it’s just a part” of you, rather than your whole self
who feels a specific way. It is normal for a part of you to be upset about something
while the rest of you understands the situation.
You’re feeling torn – stuck between competing thoughts or beliefs
Relationships between parts can be as complicated as those between people, with
tension arising when there is a conflict in values, priorities, and fears. An IFS therapist
can help you better understand how to listen to each part and identify these underlying
needs, then invite parts to be in relationship with each other and with Self. When each
part is heard and its needs and fears are better understood, it often becomes easier to
make decisions and better connect with Self.
You’ve been through trauma and want to try a new approach for healing
The IFS approach allows for internal trauma processing, which allows less chance of re-
traumatization and can happen at your own pace. The concept of Self, which is
described as indestructible and incorruptible, may be additionally helpful for those who
have experienced trauma.
You want to develop more self-compassion
Particularly when faced with difficult situations, it’s natural for many of us to be harsh
toward ourselves in an attempt to change or gain control of the parts we don’t like. The
IFS approach offers a way to be in relationship with your entire system through
understanding and compassion toward these parts and the Self.
You’re tired of feeling guilt and shame about your thoughts and actions
The IFS approach reframes this and allows us to distinguish between the core Self and
the parts which may have conflicting thoughts and feelings. This reframing can help us
approach these thoughts, feelings, and actions with openness and curiosity toward this
part to discover its strengths, needs, and burdens. This can help us work through
challenges and conflicts rather than remaining stuck in unproductive cycles of shame.
When your relationship to your parts change, so do your feelings toward them and the
You’re seeking a therapeutic relationship that provides guidance rather than instruction or rules.
While this distinction applies to therapists across all modalities, an IFS therapist’s goal is
to help you develop your relationship to Self, which allows you to build trust in your
own decisions, values, and instincts.
You’re struggling with disordered eating and body image issues and traditional treatments haven’t worked.
You’re feeling tired of trying the same things over and over again, expecting different
results. You may have heard that your behaviours have functions – IFS can help uncover
those functions in a new way and create space for your parts to choose to do things
Alexis is a Registered Social Worker and psychotherapist in Hamilton, Ontario. She most often works with people who have a history of trauma and have used food to cope. She is an IFS trained therapist. She’s probably walking with her wife and dog, right now. More questions? Reach out here.