What is Internal Family Systems and Why You Need to Learn More About It Stat

What is Internal Family Systems | Potentia Therapy Inc


Instead of trying to get rid of the part of you causing you so much pain, harm and distress – befriend it and acknowledge it has a purpose. Then get to know that purpose with curiosity and compassion.

Wait, what?

Flashback to 10 years ago when I was sitting in a large auditorium filled with several hundred other therapists listening to another keynote lecture – at the annual iaedp conference. This is not how the majority of the people I know would find as a fun way to spend time, but I am a consummate learner and a raging extrovert – so I was in nerd heaven.

As I was taking in all the wisdom from Richard Schwartz, PhD, I was scribbling notes at a fast pace and my head was bobbing up and and down as I resonated with so much of what he was saying. He was trained in a systems theory approach that I had also studied from the beginning of my clinical career and so it was easy to connect to what he was saying.

He shared how he discovered IFS in his work, with bulimic clients and how he truly began to listen to his clients. But then I took a pause when he shared the mindset shift he had around how he viewed problematic behaviors.

Instead of pathologizing, labelling, trying to get rid of behaviors, Dick was instead asking me and the rest of the attendees to start to:

  • Separate the person from the symptom
  • Pause and witness these protective parts with compassion and curiosity
  • Get to know the fears and concerns of these protective parts that often end up doing harm
  • Learn with my clients the real story behind the symptoms
  • Get to know our own relationship with our own various inner thoughts and emotions – as this impacts how we show up with our clients

I exhaled.

Who does not want to be approached and interacted with in this way?

At the time of hearing Dick’s talk, I was early in my clinical career and everything I had been taught was how to drill down on the problem behaviors and beliefs and change them – if not eradicate them. The “problematic behavior’ was the enemy and we needed to bid farewell to all of them as soon as possible. Change the narratives. Push through resistance.

While listening to Dick, something clicked for me. It made so much sense to approach these behaviors as protective instead of resistance – which felt so judgemental anyway – and instead of focussing on an agenda, truly listening to them with compassion and curiosity. I was determined to help my clients do the same with their inner system. IFS felt more congruent, more aligned with what I new about connection, sustained, healing, and change. It felt way more respectful.

No more goodbye letters to eating disorders. No more shaming and pathologizing behaviors that were just coming from protective places. No more blaming clients – or anyone else, for that matter – for not working hard enough or having too much resistance. No more over-functioning and burnout for helping professionals. No more buying into fear or scarcity and the false truth promises of quick fixes.

And now yes to the sustained change through compassion and courageous work. Yes to more curiosity. Yes to the vulnerability taking the time to do healing different than we have been originally taught. And yes to more peace, more freedom, more confidence.

Love up the part of you that is causing you so much pain.

The Lens of IFS

IFS sees the inner world of a person divided into three parts:

  1. Protectors (managers and self-soothers or fire fighters)
  2. Exiles (younger parts that hold the burdens of our pain, shame, despair)
  3. Self (the space within all of us that has the capacity to heal our inner world)

Self has these incredible qualities: Courage, Compassion, Connectedness, Creativity, Confidence, Calm, Clarity and Curiosity.

You can read in great detail about this model, Internal Family Systems, where Richard Schwartz outlines at length the beauty of this lens and how it can be a catalyst for much needed healing in our homes, schools, churches, businesses, and communities.

“The IFS model offers specific steps toward a more control over impulsive or automatic reactions. It can transform your inner critical voice into a supportive one and can help you unload feelings of worthlessness. It is capable of helping you not only turn down the noise in your mind but also create an inner atmosphere of light and peace, bringing more confidence, clarity, and creativity into your relationships.”


Dick Schwartz, PhD, from the book Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model

Let me be clear on a few things:

  • There are many ways to heal. My colleagues at Potentia and myself are passionate about mind/body and trauma-informed approaches that take into account the whole person: mind, body, soul. Find the best approach that makes sense for you and your core values and your present needs.
  • There is no such thing as a quick fix. It deeply saddens and, at times, infuriates parts of me when people are selling quick fixes to nuanced and complex struggles. Showing up day in and day out and doing the work to feel through pain, fear, uncertainty versus just think it through is where the sacred shift to healing happens.
  • Healing looks different for everyone.
  • Perfection and shame often push people to feel like they are failing in their healing journey

With gratitude –

Rebecca Ching, LMFT, Founder + CEO – Potentia Therapy, Inc.


To learn more about Potentia’s Internal Family Systems services, please see here.

Our Potentia team is here to help. Learn more about our experience and what we have to offer here.

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5 Relationship Insights to Inspire You to Add This Resource To Your Library – Stat!

You're the one pic

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Potentia’s featured book this month is all about relationships: You Are The One You Have Been Waiting For: Bringing Courageous Love to Intimate Relationships by Richard Schwartz 

While this book is geared towards married couples, this lens can be beneficial for all relationships. Truly. As a child of divorce, what makes relationships work and not work has fascinated me and terrified me all at the same time.

And if I have learned anything in my years as a therapist is that there is not just one way to heal. If there was, we would all be doing it. At Potentia, some of our our main lenses on healing and change involve EMDR Therapy, systemic approaches such a Bowen and Structural Family Systems Theories in additional to, Shame Resilience Theory, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and various action methods like Psychodrama.

Over the last year, we began really digging into an evidenced-based therapeutic approach which has been around for over 30 years called Internal Family Systems.

This approach is non-pathologizing, client-led and effective. The language and lens of IFS moves us away from a place of blame, shame and overwhelm to integration and clarity in our actions.

I have seen Richard Schwartz speak at conferences over the years which always led to fruitful insights on how I approached my clients struggling with immense shame about their story and how their were managing their shame and pain.

Instead of trying to ‘get rid’ of the parts that were causing clients distress, I started to help clients get curious about these parts and see that they were there for a reason – to protect. Though the protection often led to hurting self and/or others at times.

This was pretty radical for clients because they had such deep loathing for parts of their stories and inner lives. By identifying this inner conflict with their various parts and developing compassion for them, the charge and reactivity around their choices decreased their internal spinning so there was space for other ways of responding to self and others.

Below is a description of the internal parts Richard Schwartz refers to in this approach from his website selfleadership.org:

“Most clients had parts that tried to keep them functional and safe. These parts tried to maintain control of their inner and outer environments by, for example, keeping them from getting too close or dependent on others, criticizing their appearance or performance to make them look or act better, and focusing on taking care of others’ rather than their own needs. These parts seemed to be in protective, managerial roles and therefore are called managers.

When a person has been hurt, humiliated, frightened, or shamed in the past, he or she will have parts that carry the emotions, memories, and sensations from those experiences. Managers often want to keep these feelings out of consciousness and, consequently, try to keep vulnerable, needy parts locked in inner closets. These incarcerated parts are known as exiles.

The third and final group of parts jumps into action whenever one of the exiles is upset to the point that it may flood the person with its extreme feelings or make the person vulnerable to being hurt again. When that is the case, this third group tries to douse the inner flames of feeling as quickly as possible, which earns them the name firefighters. They tend to be highly impulsive and strive to find stimulation that will override or dissociate from the exile’s feelings. Bingeing on drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work are common firefighter activities. 

In You are the One You Have Been Waiting For, Richard Schwartz offers a provocative approach to our relationships.

The following are five nuggets that will hopefully encourage you to add this resource on relationships to your library:

1. “You will no longer expect your partner to make you feel complete, worthwhile, elated or safe  in other words, to be he primary caretaker of your parts. While your partner may elicit all of those feelings in you at different times, you know that you can help your parts feel that way, too, so their welfare does not depend on your them.” p. 209

IFS supports your agency in how to care for yourself and reduces feelings of helplessness when a partner cannot show up for you emotionally in ways you need.

2. “Attachment re-injuries are events in which you experience your partner as having betrayed, abandoned, or humiliated you, reaffirming the original message to your exiles that they are unloveable.” p. 85

IFS reframes those people who trigger our protective parts as ‘TOR-mentors’ – often beloved ones who help us learn and grow.

3. “Our culture, and many of the relationship experts in it, have issued us faulty maps and improper tools. We’ve been told that the love we need is a buried treasure hidden in the heart of a special intimate partner. Once we find that partner, the love we crave should flow elixer-like, filling our empty spaces and healing our pain. When that love stops flowing, even momentarily, we get scared…” p.6

Learning to respect your story and be responsible for healing the pain in it – instead of putting someone else on point for that role – is a powerful and challenging mindset switch to move from getting relief only from others and instead learn how to stay calm and connected when confronted with triggers.

4. “When each partner has courageous love for the other, many of the chronic struggles most couples face melt away because each partner is released from being primarily responsible for making the other feel good.” p. 4

This lens decreases feelings of helplessness because we cannot change anyone but ourselves. IFS helps gives couples a framework to feel relief and empowerment without relying only on the other person to make them feel better.

5. “Everyone is born with vulnerable parts. Most of us, however, learn early, – through interactions with caretakers of through traumatic experiences – that being vulnerable is not safe. As a consequence, we lock those childlike parts away inside and make them the inner exiles of our personalities.” p. 55

IFS integrates trauma and attachment theories in a way that offers sustained healing for both the individuals and the couple. It is nuanced and complex but well worth the journey.

Make sure to check out the questions at the end of each chapter. These questions will inspire powerful reflections for both the individual and the couple.

With love and gratitude –

Rebecca

NOTE: When a relationship is violent and uses physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual means to manipulate and coerce, safety is the number one concern. The cycle of violence in intimate relationships does not always involve bruises and it can be extremely confusing.  Help is available and you are not alone.