What is Internal Family Systems?

Internal Family Systems therapy is a powerful and transformative evidence-based model of psychotherapy pioneered by the incredible work of Dr. Richard Schwartz.  My favorite metaphor for explaining the internal family systems (IFS) model of therapy is an orchestra*.  What makes an orchestra powerful is the dynamic quality of all the different instruments offering their unique and individual beauty to the entire piece of music.  It is inspiring, humbling, inviting, touching and beautiful witnessing music like this.  A couple of key things need to happen for this experience to be possible.


1. You need a conductor.  It is not possible to have an orchestra without a conductor.  Someone who, on their own, doesn’t make music, but as the leader and orchestrator of the entire experience is vital to the success of the experience.

2. You need a diversity of instruments. A cello on its own is beautiful, but not the same thing as a true orchestra.

3. You need a piece of music. Everyone in the orchestra needs the same sheet of music.  Without it, chaos ensues.


Without these three things the orchestra simply would not play music at all, or if it did, it would be an extremely chaotic experience with each instrument playing their music as loud, fast or slow as they please.   Not an experience you would pay money for.


This orchestra is a powerful metaphor for the IFS model of therapy because we view humans in much the same light.  We see the experience of being human as inspiring, humbling, inviting, touching and beautiful.  And from the IFS lens there are a couple of things that we need to happen.


1. You need a leader (conductor).  In IFS we believe that everyone has an inner leader.  Other traditions and schemas would call this core self, the God within, inner wisdom, and other similar names.  In IFS we utilize the term Self with a capital “S” to describe this quality of inner leadership within the system.  One vital piece to this framework of understanding is the belief that EVERYONE has a Self.  Yes, everyone.  From that person you can’t stand in front of you at the grocery store, to a person who has committed a crime, to your partner, etc.  This does not mean that everyone has access to this Self all the time or, any of the time.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s lost.  Similar to the sun.  When it is dark at night, that doesn’t mean that the sun ceases to exist, it is simply situated in such a way that it cannot be experienced.  Self is much the same way. Why would the leader (Self) choose to go underground?  Well, that’s an entire blog post in and of itself. However, it’s important to note that for many trauma survivors their environment was one where it was not possible, let alone safe, to be curious, calm, compassionate, creative, courageous, or connected in any way.  So the system decides to situate the Self in such a way that it’s hidden until there is a relative degree of safety, much in the same way we do our world leaders.


If a country is facing a considerable threat, where is the leader? Underground. Generally in a secure bunker until it is determined there is a relative degree of safety.  Self is much the same way.  Self stays secured away until there is a relative degree of safety established in the system in order for parts to trust it is ok for Self to reemerge.  When we utilize the IFS framework for healing we work with individuals to help them learn techniques and foster an inner environment of safety which leads to the Self being returned to its desired role as the inner leader within the system.


It’s a game changer to know that the Self can never be fully destroyed. There is nothing you are lacking, no matter how distressed you are. It’s a matter of looking at what’s getting in the way of that inner Self and creating an environment that allows it to come forward.


2. You need a diversity of Parts (instruments).  In IFS we do not see multiplicity as pathological, we see it as an incredibly important aspect to creating an inner experience worth getting up for every day.  This is a divergence from many traditional schools of psychotherapy.   Remember, I am not paying money to see a conductor stand in front of a blank stage.  I also am not paying money to hear the chaos of multiple instruments playing out of sync with one another..


As stated above, parts are not pathological. However, the extreme burdens and beliefs we have to take on as survival strategies are. It’s exciting, because we know that under the distress and dysfunction, this part can be extremely helpful and life giving to our systems.


In IFS we work with parts that take over the system and try to lead on their own, sometimes one or two or twenty at a time, and help them to create some space for the Self to lead.  Remember, for many of these parts it has been dark for a very long time and they might have forgotten there ever was a sun. Our goal is to help these parts trust the Self, and return to their original roles to experience life how they’ve always wanted, and offer gives they always knew they had.  .  This is a  crucial piece to the experience that is often missed, even by many  in the IFS community.  Oftentimes they are so relieved  that  the orchestra isn’t screaming in chaos that they miss the journey of passing out  new sheet music and bringing everyone together for that truly inspiring and incredible experience of witnessing a functioning orchestra.


3. You need a relationship between Parts and Self (sheet of music).  As the Parts start to heal, they learn that there is a Self, and the Self is capable of leadership. They can throw off their learned behaviors and focus on their ideal role in the system. In this process, new sheet music is handed out to our orchestra.   It’s one thing to have a conductor and instruments, but if the conductor has passed out the music and the instruments don’t trust the conductor it’s a no go.


We bridge this gap through consistent connection within the internal family between Parts and Self.  It is no different than in a real life relationship.  You foster trust and relationship through time, consistency, compassion, etc.  This is one of the many areas where I see Sentur being such a powerful tool.   In sessions, individuals can  make powerful connections with their parts and start to see this relationship really take place.  It’s like a really powerful first date.  But if they don’t stay in touch nothing happens.  Through reminders and supported check-ins Sentur has a variety of tools to help individuals cultivate relationships with their inner family between Parts and Self.  If you would like to see more about how Sentur has helped individuals like yourself cultivate relationships with their inner family please visit www.Sentur.app/testimonials.


One of the most wonderful things about IFS, in my opinion, is the ability to utilize IFS in any emotionally charged or distressing situation.  It is not only for individuals struggling with depression or anxiety but relationship challenges, trauma histories, substance abuse, grief, and many more.  IFS is a tool, but it is also a framework for understanding the world.  A lens through which you come to view yourself and others around you.  Sentur is a wonderful companion tool for anyone to understand themselves and would like easy to access support for their self-transformation journey in between sessions.


*Dr.  Dan Siegel is known for his transformative work with interpersonal neurobiology and brought forth this powerful metaphor of the choir.  I chose to use the metaphor of an orchestra.  Same line of thinking.