Internal Family Systems Therapy

Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a type of psychotherapy that considers the relationship between the different aspects of the self – our subpersonalities (or parts). In therapy, the therapist and client work together to identify these subpersonalities as individuals, address how they work together as a system, and explore how the individual’s system interacts with others and their internal systems.

Internal Family Systems is a model that was first developed in the 1990s by Dr. Richard Schwartz. Schwartz conceptualised a core self, one that is at the essence of a person and is undamaged by external circumstances. Schwartz believed that along with the core self, there are also different sub-personalities, known as Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters[1].

The idea of a person containing different aspects of the self was not new to Schwartz. In the 50s, Freud developed the concept of the ego, superego and the id, all as functional parts of the self. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis considered the parent ego state, the adult ego state, and the child ego state as they relate to our interactions with others.


Exiles, Managers and Firefighters


Exiles are the parts of ourselves we have suppressed. They are commonly associated with feelings of guilt and shame. They are the parts of the self that are wounded. These parts are placed in exile by the managers and firefighters, who prevent these wounded parts from rising to the conscious mind.

Managers are the parts of ourselves which are responsible for daily functioning. They direct our behaviour by orienting us away from potentially being hurt, perhaps by becoming too dependent on another person or by being rejected. They make decisions for us based on potential dangers and influence how we relate to others.

Firefighters are involved in survival or avoidant behaviours, such substance abuse, sexual risk-taking, compulsions, and self-harm. These behaviours happen when an exile begins to rise to the surface, perhaps triggered by a person, place or memory.

When we experience a trauma – like an attachment injury – we carry extreme beliefs and emotions, known in the IFS model as burdens. Guilt and shame are examples of burdens that are carried by the exiles.

When we assume that a part is a burden itself, it makes sense that other parts will go to war against it. Parts are not burdens, they carry burdens.


The Self in the Internal Family System


Other than exiles, managers, and firefighters, we have a core self that retains its essence despite external circumstances[2], like trauma related to neglect or abuse. The self is not a visible, compartmentalised aspect of the person; it is the ‘I’ that witnesses thoughts, feelings, behaviours, memories, and judgments.

Related to the self are positive attributes, such as confidence, compassion, connectedness, wisdom, acceptance, perspective, and leadership.

In IFS, the aim is to identify the exiles, managers, and firefighters and recognise them as parts of the self, not the full self. The therapist and client work together to address the burdens that parts are carrying and attempt to unburden them, restoring these wounded parts with a sense of trust and harmony alongside the rest of the internal system.

IFS believes that the self, when present, is able to speak to these burdened parts in a way that promotes release and healing, ultimately achieving harmony across the internal family system.


Who can benefit from IFS?


IFS is used in the treatment of psychological wounds and other mental health conditions. In particular, IFS may be used to treat those who have experienced childhood abuse or neglect, where a part of the self has come to believe it was inherently bad, shameful, or unworthy of love.

IFS has been used in the treatment of issues such as[3]:

  • Psychological trauma.
  • Various forms of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual).
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Issues with body image.
  • Fears and phobias.
  • Substance abuse.


What happens in IFS Therapy?


The structure of an IFS session is similar to that of traditional talk therapies, whereby a person relays their thoughts and feelings through a narrative. But, IFS also involves guidance towards noticing one’s internal environment in relation to how they feel, whilst paying attention to any ‘parts’ that are carrying a particular burden[4]. For example, a person who suffers from an eating disorder may be guided towards paying attention to the part of the self that wants to binge.

The client is then asked to identify how they feel towards that part. Their response may involve feelings of fear, hatred, guilt, or shame, to name just a few.

Communication is then encouraged between the self and the wounded part. With a clear mind cultivated and developed through mindful awareness, clients can begin to listen attentively to the part of themselves that is carrying the burden and potentially hear it explain its behaviour. With the guidance of an attained therapist, the part can be asked to take on safer, more effective coping mechanisms to deal with its pain.


Untangling the Parts, Finding the Self


IFS works by identifying and addressing the parts of ourselves that carry our burdens, and uncovering the deeper, unaffected self to help those parts heal from their pain. For healing to occur, those parts are guided towards letting go of the protective (yet simultaneously destructive) roles they have taken on as a result of difficult experiences. The result is a harmonious internal family system that is led by the confident, calm, connected, and curious self.


Get in touch

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma and could benefit from Internal Family Systems Therapy, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).




[1] n.d. The Internal Family Systems Model Outline | IFS Institute. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].

[2] n.d. The Internal Family Systems Model Outline | IFS Institute. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].

[3] Leading Edge Seminars. n.d. Clinical Applications Of Internal Family Systems (IFS) – Leading Edge Seminars. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].

[4] 2018. Internal Family Systems Therapy. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 August 2020].