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What is Internal Family Systems (IFS): Understanding The Approach

Updated: Mar 6

By Amber Kerby, MS, LMFT, IFS level 2 Trained

scattered blank puzzle pieces, one on top has a golden heart visible

Photo by Tara Winstead

It was a long day and I was just settling into my evening routine to wind down when my phone rang.  My friend just had an argument with her partner and wanted to talk about it.  Part of me wanted to be supportive and caring, holding space for this conversation.  And another part of me desperately wanted to tune out the drama of the day and burrow under my blanket.

Does this dynamic sound familiar to you?


Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a unique and powerful approach to understanding your internal world.  Developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, IFS is based on the belief that each individual has a system of different parts within them as well as a deeper Self that is the core essence of who you are.  These parts of us take on different roles within our system, often as a way to protect us from emotional pain and trauma. These parts can become extreme or rigid, causing internal conflicts and leading to emotional distress.

This framework deviates from the idea of a “mono-mind” and expands to acknowledge the multiplicity of self.  From this platform, we can deepen our understanding of who we are and move towards healing the different parts of our internal system.  So the internal tug-of-war I felt about the phone call could be reframed in terms of part of me wanting one thing while another part of me wanted another.  It's all still Me – a dynamic and multifaced Me.


IFS in Therapy

The goal of IFS therapy is to help clients develop a harmonious relationship with their internal parts, leading to greater self-awareness, healing, and personal growth. In IFS therapy, the therapist guides the client in exploring their internal system and understanding the roles and intentions of each part. Through this process, the client is able to identify the different parts and their specific characteristics, such as their emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. This awareness builds the foundation for developing a compassionate and curious attitude towards the parts of one’s system, rather than judging or suppressing them.

IFS therapy emphasizes the concept of the "Self”.  Some clients describe this as a higher self, deeper self, or true self.  This is the core essence of who you are when you don’t need to be anything other than You.  The Self is compassionate, curious, and wise –creating a safe and healing space for the different parts to express themselves. Through the process of IFS therapy, clients learn to connect with their parts, fostering understanding, empathy, and cooperation. This allows for the healing of past wounds and the integration of conflicting parts into a more cohesive and balanced whole.

IFS therapy has been found to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health issues, including trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction, and relationship problems. It provides individuals with a powerful framework for self-exploration and healing, empowering them to become more self-aware, resilient, and compassionate towards themselves and others.

IFS in Life

Before my work with Internal Family Systems, I would have completely disregarded my own needs to ensure I was there for my friend, stuffing down my exhaustion to make sure she felt heard and supported.  And the result would have led to a deep personal cost – bypassing my own needs and censoring boundaries.    

Luckily, there is now room in my system to acknowledge the balance between relationship and individual demands.  I can navigate each opportunity after hearing from all the parts and ensure I am holding connection and compassion for myself and others.  Perhaps I could answer the call, let my friend know I can give 15 minutes of undivided attention, and schedule time to continue the conversation tomorrow.  When I expand my perspective of who I am, who others are, and how the world can be, I am also open to new ways of moving through life.      

Internal Family Systems is a transformative shift in my life both personally and professionally.  This framework provides a powerful tool for navigating the complexities of the human psyche and creating lasting positive change.  The resulting shift towards self-awareness, healing, and compassion has reset my entire trajectory – and I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

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