Internal Family Systems Therapy

In the last few years, the IFS model has spread its wings and has become the most in-demand model of therapy training, according to the nation’s largest provider of post-graduate education, PESI.

This page is a resource for learning more about Internal Family System, and a gateway to Internal Family Systems training in 2022. 

Ever since the runaway bestseller by Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, in which a chapter was devoted to Internal Family Systems theory training, demand for IFS has bloomed. 

If you’re a therapist, coach or healer or agency that wants to start using IFS as soon as possible, this is a great place to start! 

How Does IFS Therapy Work? 

IFS Therapy recognizes that our psyche is made up of different parts (feelings, thoughts, beliefs, behavior patterns or somatic sensations), sometimes called subpersonalities. For example, one part of you might be trying to lose weight and another part might want to eat whatever you want. This is called natural multiplicity of the mind and is a radical paradigm shift from other psychologies that view the mind as either “normal” or “abnormal.”

Internal Family Systems theory teaches us that our parts take on distinct roles in order to protect us, navigate life, and survive. Two of these roles are what we call The Protectors: Managers and Firefighters. The third role is that of the parts being protected: Exiles. When you are working with parts using the Internal Family Systems model, you follow a set of steps that help you explore the parts from a consistent appreciative inquiry mindset. This is what Internal Family Systems calls Self. 

ATTENTION! Level I IFS trainings are full and have hundreds of people on waiting list. But you can start to learn this in-demand model of therapy today

How Do I Become an Internal Family Systems Therapist?

When I interviewed senior Lead IFS Trainer, Michael Elkin, Mike told me how he got started using Internal Family Systems. 

I was surprised to learn that Mike, a trained hypnotist at the time, said he only heard Dick speak once and immediately started getting results doing Internal Family Systems therapy with his clients. 

And after being a certified IFS therapist, Level III-trained, Advanced IFIO trained, and practicing IFS for 13 years I can attest to how quickly some skilled therapists are at integrating IFS concepts and techniques in their day-to-day clinical practice. 

Frequently Asked Questions About IFS

Although family therapy is not the focus of IFS, the name comes from creator Richard Schwartz’s background using family therapy interventions. The overlap between IFS and family therapy is discussed in more detail in the Quickstart Guide to IFS Live Webinar

Dr. Richard Schwartz created IFS in the 1980s when he realized that he wasn’t listening to his clients when he doubled-down on behavioral management interventions that seemed to make suicidality and self-harm worse. Instead of pathologizing this so-called resistance the way many of us have been trained to do in managed care systems, Dick had the creative insight to invite the part of the person that engaged in cutting or unwanted behaviors to have a place where it could be respected for how it’s trying to help. Listen to my conversation with Dick about his discoveries, and hear him use IFS to conceptualize the difficult-to-appreciate traits of the subject of Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough. 

Knowing the IFS model is not necessary for successful outcomes if you are working with an IFS therapist. There are many levels to knowing IFS, implicit and explicit, and it’s often best for you to follow your natural curiosity and honor your learning style. If you love to know the nuts and bolts about a thing before trying it, you might read some IFS books, or register for the Quickstart Guide to IFS in 30 minutes

Learn About Internal Family Systems Therapy

The following are in-depth interviews with leading IFS teachers, scientists, and lead trainers that can be helpful in your exploration with Internal Family Systems Therapy. 

Topics include: 

  • Richard Schwartz: Natural Multiplicity

    I talk to the founder of IFS, Richard Schwartz, about natural multiplicity and IFS and about his views of the Mary Trump book about narcissism, Too Much and Never Enough.
     
  • Bessel Van der Kolk: The Body Keeps the Score

    I speak with Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, a NYT bestseller list for 141 wks, 24 of them in the #1 spot. How can you heal from trauma? Has “trauma” become inflated in pop culture? Why does Bessel think we shouldn’t call ourselves “IFS therapists?”

  • Michael Mithoefer: IFS and MDMA

    Mithoefer is an IFS therapist and the lead investigator that has successfully piloted the first-ever study of MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, into the third and final stage of FDA approval for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

  • Lou Lukas: IFS and Mind-Body-Disease

    I speak with Dr. Lou Lucas, chief of Palliative Medicine at the Nebraska and Western Iowa Veterans Health Care Systems about the mind-body connection, stress and autoimmune disorders like gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, migraines, nerve damage, and even some cancers. We talk about how to utilize the power of the mind to transform and heal the body with IFS and psychedelics.|

  • Frank Anderson: Trans-Authentic

    I speak with IFS lead trainer and psychiatrist Frank Anderson about the surge of children exploring gender transition. 

  • Jay Earley: Making Peace With Inner Conflicts

    I speak with Jay Earley, author of Self-Therapy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Inner Wholeness Using IFS about working with inner conflict (polarized parts of you).
  • Jenna Reismerma: IFS and Spirituality

    Jenna says its possible to apply the groundbreaking psychological insights of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy—an evidence-based and mindfulness-based psychotherapy—to deepen your understanding of God as a Christian.

IFS Therapy vs CBT

The main differences between IFS therapy and CBT are that IFS is constraint-releasing, is mindfulness-based, and non-pathologizing, whereas CBT is solution-focused, directive, and categorical. 

Some therapists may interweave IFS and CBT therapy, but as a rule, these models are vastly different from one another. 

IFS therapy is based on the neurological and behavioral premise that “what you resist persists.” This doesn’t mean that an IFS therapist doesn’t take seriously behavioral or emotional symptoms that aren’t in a person’s best interest, like excessive drinking, or panic attacks. It means that your IFS therapist may invite you to notice how criticizing the part of you that drinks too much leads to more drinking, whereas curiosity and courage to explore how the part of you that drinks is trying to help you, can unlock the deeper root of the issue.

CBT is often correctly seen as a truly “solution-focused” form of psychotherapy. The client is encouraged to identify and correct flawed thinking that seems linked to problematic states or behaviors. No doubt this can initially be very helpful for someone craving guidance and structure. In contrast to cognitive-behavioral therapy, IFS therapy teaches you how to see that it is the relationship between parts of your psyche which create symptoms in the first place.

For example, let’s go back to the example above of drinking excessively. It’s typical that someone might have an inner “voice” that tells them to drink as much as they want. They may also have a voice that creates punishing self-criticism to make them feel bad and stop drinking. Rather than assuming that these parts are flawed and need a therapist to re-engineer their workings the way some CBT interventions can suggest, in IFS Therapy you might learn how to first give compassion and care for each of these parts to ease their distress and relieve any burden of shame they may have. Then, with their permission, you might ask them what they need to do the job they are doing in less extreme ways.      

In sum, CBT Therapy assumes there are good and bad feelings and tries to help you turn the volume down on the bad ones while turning up the volume of the good ones. IFS Therapy teaches there are no bad feelings. If emotions or behavior are out of control it is because we have an avoidant or antagonistic relationship to those feelings. When all parts of you feel welcome inside of you, they tend to care not just about their immediate agenda but about the whole You.  

IFS Therapy vs EMDR

The biggest differences between IFS therapy and EMDR is that the goal of IFS is functional Self-to-Part relationships within a person and the goal of EMDR is systematic desensitization of “dysfunctionally-stored memories.” 

Many therapists who use EMDR often supplement its somewhat narrow and proscriptive protocol with modes of treatment that account for the exceptionally diverse levels of comfort and insight each person has with their inner experiences. IFS and EMDR are frequently taught together since they are both based the idea that developmental trauma can account for symptomatic emotional or behavioral patterns.  

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It uses visual cues such as focusing on a finger moving back and forth in front of the eyes or a set of LED lights pulsing back and forth horizontally, to create “bilateral stimulation.” This rapid eye movement has the uncanny effect of producing emotions and memories that seem to “pop up” almost out of nowhere. For many people this ability to access deeper primary emotions itself is healing, relieves distress, and helps resolve puzzling aspects to certain beliefs or thoughts patterns. 

But for cases of complex PTSD, access to repressed states is over-arousing to the nervous system. A part of EMDR therapy therefore is the therapist’s assistance with gradually building tolerance to strong feelings. Naturally, the IFS motto “all parts are welcome” fits neatly along with learning to create a welcome and nurturing “home” to all memories, feelings and thoughts.  

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