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  • Writer's pictureJen Meller

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?


What is Internal Family Systems

Whether you realize it or not, you’re likely already familiar with the central tenet of IFS: parts. Ever felt like part of you wanted to make a relationship work, for example, while another part of you knew it was time to go your separate ways? There are some parts at play.

With Internal Family Systems (IFS), you’ll get to know each of your parts in a relational context. You’ll learn more about the roles that each part plays and you’ll discover how they can all work together instead of against each other.

In this post, I’ll explain

  • What IFS is (including somatic IFS),

  • What techniques are used in an IFS session,

  • Who IFS can help, and

  • Potential benefits of IFS.

Let’s dive in.


How does IFS work?

Internal Family Systems, or IFS, is an integrative therapeutic approach created by therapist Richard C. Schwartz. It’s built on systems psychology, which highlights the interconnectedness of people within systems like families, communities, and cultures. 

It also draws from family therapy approaches, conceptualizing a person’s many parts as an internal family of sorts.

Somatic IFS, developed by Susan McConnell incorporates the 5 practices (Somatic Awareness, Conscious Breath, Radical Resonance, Mindful Movement, and Attuned Touch) into the IFS model. 

In IFS, sub-personalities or parts each play their own role. The main types of parts include

  • Managers. These parts focus on control in an effort to protect the parts that come with uncomfortable emotions like rejection, fear, pain, and more.

  • Exiles. These are young, often traumatized, parts carry intense feelings and are often pushed away from the self in order to preserve the system.

  • Firefighters. These parts are activated and jump into damage control mode when an exiled part emerges, threatening the system.

Parts are meant to protect us and keep our system safe.  At the same time, all of these parts are distinct from the Self, which is the true essence that defines us regardless of which part is activated. 

A major goal of IFS is to help people embrace all of their parts and have them work together in harmony. In IFS, you’ll also learn how to differentiate your Self from your parts and become what IFS refers to as being  “Self-led” rather than “parts-led.” 

In my sessions with clients, I often use the image of an orchestra. Rather than all the instruments (i.e. parts) playing at their own pace and in their key–which can sound like utter chaos–IFS can empower you to step into the role of orchestra conductor and lead the parts in concert with each other. 

For more insight into how IFS works and how it can help, check out my blog post.


What happens in an IFS session?

As with any kind of therapeutic modality, IFS sessions are tailored to each individual. At the same time, the process has many consistent elements. IFS allows a client to become their own therapist of sorts and teaches them to interact with and lead their own system of parts. It’s a gracious, non-pathologizing modality as it teaches us to embrace all parts of ourselves with compassion and curiosity.

Here’s a general overview of what you can expect from internal family systems work. 

  • Identifying parts. First, you will work with to identify your specific parts. While the types of parts are the same from person to person, the way your parts show up will be unique to you.

  • Getting to know your parts. Once you’ve identified your parts, you will explore where these parts come from. You’ll dive deeper into each part and how they work together, as well as how their dynamics contribute to your current challenges.

  • Integrating your parts. Now that you have learned more about each of your parts and their dynamics, you’ll find ways to create harmony and deepen a sense of secure attachment between the Self and each part. By building this deeper connection, you’ll forge a pathway toward healing and growth.

In addition, Somatic IFS, developed by Susan McConnel, can further deepen our understanding and integration of IFS by incorporating the 5 practices

  • Somatic Awareness,

  • Conscious Breath,

  • Radical Resonance,

  • Mindful Movement, and

  • Attuned Touch. 

While building on the groundwork of traditional IFS, the Somatic Internal Family Systems approach also draws in a mind-body healing element. It is powerful in helping people heal from trauma, chronic pain, and other challenges.


What is Internal Family Systems IFS

Who is IFS for?

IFS can benefit people with a wide range of challenges and goals. You may be particularly interested in this approach if you identify with any of the following.

  • Trauma survivors. Going through traumatic events can cause pieces of ourselves to fragment, hence the term “parts.” With IFS, you can integrate your parts and find more peace in your day-to-day life. Plus, somatic IFS can help you heal the trauma in your physical body. 

  • People experiencing chronic pain. Certain forms of chronic pain are rooted in neural pathways in the brain that can be shifted and unlearned. Since somatic IFS draws in elements of mind-body healing, it can be a supportive piece of your recovery. Learn more about how I provide chronic pain support here.

  • Those seeking personal growth. There doesn’t need to be something “wrong” with you in order to benefit from IFS and other healing modalities. Internal family systems work can help you gain insight into your patterns and discover ways to improve your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of who IFS can help. If you don’t resonate with these descriptions but are still interested in this work, schedule a free connect call with me to learn more and ask any questions you may have about the process. 


How can IFS help?

Internal family systems can be customized to your specific needs and goals. Here are some ways that this approach may be able to help you.

  • Emotional healing. As we’ve covered, some parts are formed by traumatic experiences you’ve lived through. By working with an IFS practitioner, you can embrace these vulnerable parts and give them what they need in order to heal. 

  • Greater insight. IFS is deep therapeutic work. Through this process, you’ll learn more about yourself, including your struggles, strengths, patterns, and needs. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to better support your overall wellness.

  • Improved relationships. IFS is all about strengthening the relationships between your parts to ultimately improve your connection to yourself. This can act as a strong foundation to build healthy, fulfilling relationships with others.

These are just a few of the ways that IFS may be able to help you. Remember, your own therapeutic work will be tailored to your situation, and you’ll discover how this approach can enable your own healing journey.


What is IFS

Embrace all of who you are with the help of a somatic IFS practitioner. 

If you’re feeling cut off from parts of your mind or body, IFS can help you find harmony and connection. I’m here to support you through the entire healing process, no matter what that looks like for you.


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