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What is IFS (Internal Family System) therapy?


IFS it’s revolutionary as a philosophy, it’s effective as a regulation tool, and it’s challenging as a processing tool.


IFS philosophy: Grounded in systems thinking, Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems (IFS) in response to clients’ descriptions of various parts within themselves. He focused on the relationships among these parts and noticed that there were systemic patterns to the way they were organized across clients. He also found that when the clients’ parts felt safe and were allowed to relax, the clients would experience spontaneously the qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion that Dr. Schwartz came to call the Self. He found that when in that state of Self, clients would know how to heal their parts (IFS Institute).

The idea of having parts was not new. Many other ideologies have already talked about them, and ego-state like the “inner-child” were already part of the therapeutic repertoire. Even the fact that parts form families was kind of already explored. What IFS really provided to the community was the inclusion of a more “spiritual” component with the introduction of the Self. Promoting the point of view of the Self gives a different dimension to the work with fragmented of compartmentalized parts of the personality; it’s an invitation to awaken compassion, and the use of curiosity, courage, creativity, clarity, calmness, congruence, and connection to integrate the psyche.

In my opinion, the IFS philosophy is great, but it’s also challenging. Not having access to the Self is exactly the problem with most personality disorders and with traumatized individuals. Asking them to call the Self at will is almost impossible until the person regains a lot of regulation and access to executive functions. The capacity to reach out to the self resides in the frontal lobes. More recently, Dick noticed what I’m explaining here about the Self and modified the modality to accept a “good enough” manager as a substitute of Self until the Self becomes available.


IFS as a regulation tool: the introduction of “parts” normalizes the experience of many people with trauma that struggle with having polarized emotions fighting with each other. That’s what drives many people crazy: having internal opposites. By introducing “parts language,” the person can see that one part of them is the one that is angry, or manipulative, etc., instead of judging him/herself as angry, manipulative, etc. If we assign different reactions to parts, the person can start building a sense of self that is less “damaged.”

In my opinion, this is the most useful part of IFS. It allows people to feel less shame, and opens space for connection with “good” parts of the person that many times get blocked by the “bad” parts.


IFS as a processing tool: processing with IFS has to do with internal dialogs between parts. It’s beautiful and transformative, but as I mentioned before, it needs the Self.

In my opinion, IFS is useful in managing dissociated parts, and to normalize internal experiences. When the person goes into trance during an IFS session, some compassion comes up; when that happens, some Self becomes available. Therapists that understand the philosophy and master the modality could make wonders in helping people integrating.

There is another challenge for the effectiveness of the modality: the participation of the client. The modality asks the client to change the way they think about themselves. There is some humility needed in order to “play” the parts. many clients are too logical and rational and find offensive to talk to internal parts. I have several clients that consider themselves too “intellectual” to be able to have conversations with “strange” parts.

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