Internal family systems (IFS) and ACT

What do we mean by internal family systems (IFS)?

Internal family systems (IFS) is a form of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. It is a type of family systems therapy that views the human mind as having multiple interconnected “sub-personalities” or “parts”, each with its own perspective, emotions, and behaviours.

What are the core principles of IFS?

The key principles of internal family systems (IFS) are:

  • The self: IFS posits that at the core of each person is a “true self” or “core self” that is capable of calmly and compassionately observing and relating to one’s various parts.
  • Parts: The different facets of personality, such as the inner critic, the perfectionist, the people-pleaser, etc. are seen as parts that have developed to cope with life experiences.
  • Multiplicity of the mind: IFS views the mind as naturally multiple, rather than a single, unified entity. The various parts are seen as having their own perspectives, emotions, and behaviours.
  • Unburdening: The goal of IFS is to help clients unburden or “heal” their parts by encouraging self-awareness, self-compassion, and integration between the different parts.

In IFS therapy, the therapist helps the client build a relationship with their core self and various parts, understand the function and origins of these parts, and guides the client towards integrating and healing the parts. This is believed to lead to increased self-awareness, emotional regulation, and overall wellbeing.

IFS has been found effective in treating a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma, and addictions. It is considered an evidence-based practice with growing empirical support.

What are some common “parts” that IFS therapists work with?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a comprehensive approach that views the human psyche as being composed of multiple, interconnected “parts” or sub-personalities. Some of the common categories of “parts” that IFS therapists often work with include:

  • Firefighter: When a person is experiencing intense emotions, these parts may emerge to quickly numb or distract the person from the painful feelings, often through addictive or impulsive behaviours.
  • Exiles: These are the vulnerable, wounded parts of the self that were shamed, abandoned or traumatised in the past. They hold intense pain, fear or shame and are often pushed away by the other parts.
  • Manager: These parts are responsible for organising the person’s life and maintaining control. They may manifest as perfectionism, workaholism or rigid rule-following.

More specific examples of parts might include:

  • Inner critic: This part is highly judgmental and critical of the self, often setting unrealistic standards and berating the person for perceived flaws or mistakes.
  • Protector: These parts are dedicated to keeping the person safe, often by avoiding perceived threats or risky situations. They may manifest as anxiety, avoidance, or people-pleasing behaviours.
  • Caretaker: These parts are focused on nurturing and supporting others, sometimes at the expense of the self.
  • Emotional validation: These parts want to be seen, heard and validated. They may crave attention or approval from others.

The IFS therapist works to help the client identify and develop a compassionate, curious relationship with their different parts, with the goal of  integrating and balancing within the personality. This is believed to lead to greater self-awareness, emotional regulation and overall wellbeing.

What is the basic process of IFS therapy?

The core premise of IFS is that these parts have distinct personalities, emotions, behaviours, and even physical sensations associated with them. The goal of IFS therapy is to help clients develop a compassionate, collaborative relationship with these different parts.

The basic process of IFS therapy involves the following steps:

  • Parts awareness: The client begins by becoming aware of the different parts or sub-personalities within their inner experience. This could include an inner critic, a people-pleasing part, a fearful part, etc.
  • Part dialogue: The client is guided to engage in an internal dialogue with these different parts, learning about their perspectives, motivations, and roles.
  • Unblending: The client works to differentiate themselves from their parts, developing the ability to observe and relate to these parts with compassion rather than being completely identified with them.
  • Part unburdening: Clients are supported in releasing the burdens, fears, or negative beliefs that may be weighing down on certain parts. This can involve techniques like visualisation, inner child work, or gestalt-style dialogues.
  • Self-leadership: As the client integrates the different parts, they develop a stronger “Self” – a centred, compassionate presence that can then guide and direct the various parts.
  • Symptom relief: As the client establishes greater inner harmony and self-leadership, problematic symptoms, behaviours or emotional patterns often begin to naturally resolve.

The overall goal is to help the client move from a fragmented, conflicted inner experience to one of greater wholeness, self-compassion and effective self-regulation. IFS views this as the path to lasting healing and optimal functioning. The role of the IFS therapist is to facilitate this inner exploration and self-leadership in a supportive, non-pathologising manner. It is a highly collaborative approach that empowers the client’s own inner resources for growth and transformation.

How are IFS and ACT related?

IFS (internal family systems) and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) are two distinct but complementary therapeutic approaches:

IFS is a specific form of family systems therapy that views the human psyche as having multiple interconnected “parts” or sub-personalities. The goal in IFS is to help the client develop a compassionate relationship with these different parts in order to achieve greater integration and well-being.

ACT, on the other hand, is a form of contextual-behavioural therapy that emphasises acceptance, mindfulness, and value-guided action. The focus in ACT is on helping the client be more psychologically flexible – to accept difficult thoughts and feelings, while also taking action towards their values.

While IFS and ACT have different theoretical foundations and primary therapeutic techniques, they can be compatible and are sometimes used together in clinical practice:

  • Compassion: Both IFS and ACT emphasise the importance of developing a compassionate, non-judgmental relationship with oneself. IFS helps clients build self-compassion towards their different “parts”, while ACT focuses on acceptance and mindfulness. Integrating these approaches can deepen self-compassion.
  • Working with “parts” and inner experiences: IFS provides a framework for understanding and relating to the different aspects or “parts” of the self. ACT can complement this by helping clients accept and make room for difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise from these parts.
  • Values-guided action: ACT champions taking committed action that is guided by one’s personal values. IFS can support this by helping clients build awareness and integration between different parts, allowing for more clarity and alignment around values and committed action.
  • Developing psychological flexibility: The core aim of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility – the ability to be present, accept difficult experiences, and take action guided by one’s values. IFS can enhance this by helping clients understand and transform rigid or conflicting parts that may hinder flexibility.
  • Trauma-informed care: Both IFS and ACT have shown promise in treating trauma. Integrating the two approaches can provide a more comprehensive trauma-informed framework, with IFS addressing the fragmentation and parts associated with trauma, and ACT supporting acceptance, present-moment awareness, and values-aligned behaviour.
  • Understanding internal experiences: IFS can deepen the ACT process by helping clients develop a nuanced understanding of their internal experience.

However, IFS and ACT are distinct modalities developed independently. IFS is not a formal part of or subsumed under the ACT framework. They can be used together but are separate therapeutic approaches. The choice to integrate them would be up to the clinical judgment of the therapist working with a particular client.

Where can I read more about IFS?

“Internal Family Systems Therapy” by Richard C. Schwartz and Martha Sweezy is the primary textbook on IFS, written by the founder of the approach, Dr. Richard Schwartz. It covers the theory, principles, and application of IFS in depth. Also take a look at our internal family systems reading list in our resource hub.

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