John Choi, MA, LPC" />

Insights from IFS Therapy: What part of you is running your life today?

I recently had the opportunity to learn about one of the fastest growing fields of therapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS), an evidenced based practice used to treat a broad range of mental health issues. Over the course of this year (80 hours of live training!), I learned about this fascinating model that was developed right here in Chicagoland 30 years ago by Dr. Richard Schwartz. While I’d love to share all that I’ve learned, for this blog, I’ll keep it to two fascinating insights that helped me in understanding myself and others.

An interesting piece of history about this model is that it organically grew out of Dr. Schwartz experiences in hospital and clinical settings focused on symptom management by intervening with the unhealthy dynamics in the family unit. Over time this external focus of the family system, through clinical experience, developed into a model utilized at the individual level. To do so, it required a way to dialogue, differentiate, and understand different “parts” of ourselves.

Insight #1: “Parts language” and doing “parts work” in therapy can be powerful.

The IFS model frames our inner world of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in an intriguing way. IFS describes our identity and personality to consist of different parts, these parts play a role in making up our internal system, and form inner relationships like a family.

It may sound odd to think of us there being “parts” of us. IFS defines parts as inner subpersonalities with their own feelings, thoughts, and memories. While this language may sound new, you will also notice that in common experience it isn’t all too unfamiliar. How many times have you had an internal dialogue of saying “a part of me wants ________ (ex. a new relationship), but another part of me does not?” There is a common saying that “I have two minds about this.” Lastly, counseling in general can often play as the backdrop for processing this internal dialogue, discrepancy, or inner conflict: I see often the dance of parts of us desiring change and simultaneously parts ambivalent or reluctant to change.

As a therapist that strives to integrate various theories and interventions, I’ve seen how each one focuses on interventions with different “parts.” Trauma therapists often focus on helping clients tend to their “inner child,” the part of us that is vulnerable and sometimes can be stuck in past early trauma, memories, and core beliefs. CBT, or cognitive behavioral, therapists might call out the “inner critic” — the perfectionist, black-and-white-thinking, or rigid parts of us. And it is not uncommon to hear the use of the term, “the addict self,” encouraged in recovery programs, naming the parts of us that seek to escape and to soothe pain.

Interested? Read more about the 3 types of parts: manager, firefighter, and exile.

Insight #2: Experience can burden our “parts” and lead to a “burdened internal system.”

A core concept of family therapy is homeostasis, the idea that families resist change and seek to maintain balance and equilibrium. The same is true for the individual. We may seek equilibrium, even if the status quo is unhealthy for us.

One example of this is when we have a overfunctioning part that keeps us stuck on “on mode.” You might think of a workaholic. This is the person that is always keeping busy and high functioning. This way of being makes us feel in control and steady. But when we peel back the covers, we might find that this part has its origins at a time when this survival energy was necessary: it provides a protective response in maintaining balance at a point when life felt chaotic and there wasn’t adequate support. A rule I learned here is that “the more extreme our parts, the greater the past storm.” The workaholism, we are noticing, is the part of us that developed and survived early hurt or trauma.

This insight is helpful because it shows that (1) a burdened part is trying to protect us from future harm and (2) this part operates from a place of past hurt. In my training, I learned that “vulnerability is the capacity to feel and the capacity to be wounded.” An unfortunate fact of life is that it comes with painful experiences, and sometimes it leads to burdens. Burdens are the negative beliefs we have of ourselves due to painful events such as “I am not worthy, enough, or adequate.” The core burden of a workaholic may be the belief that “no one will help me or I can’t trust anyone” which may have come from a painful time when support was needed but not available. The pain of this unmet need is an experience the workaholic wishes to omit from their emotional lives.

To help the workaholic part, we must reckon with the wounds of the past, embrace our vulnerabilities, and let go of burdens that required us to develop this protective function or job in the first place. The burden system occurs when a vulnerable “younger” part holds unresolved past trauma and a protective part takes on a role to prevent more pain. While this role was necessary for a time, this response may be an outdated relic of the past, no longer needed to achieve safety. IFS intervenes by helping clients unburden these internal parts, roles and beliefs.

Learn more about how to unburden and be “Self-led” in an article by the founder, Dr. Schwartz.


The goal of this therapeutic approach is to increase awareness of your internal family system – the pattern of interactions and inner workings of our emotional experiences. IFS is a relationship building framework that helps us connect to each part of ourselves. The hope is to increase our choice so that we can be more adaptive and achieve healthy balance and safety. You might be surprised to hear that a conceptual understanding of IFS is not necessary for it to be effective. This is because an IFS session is an experiential approach whereby a therapist helps guide you in connecting with different parts of self. For most of the session, this may look like a client focusing internally on what’s going on inside by closing their eyes. While this “focus inside” may feel new at first, I’ve seen how it can open a door to greater agency and self-understanding. I hope this blog will encourage you to find ways to deepen your inner work and engage in therapy from emerging perspectives.

If you are interested in learning more about IFS or doing IFS with a therapist at Spring Tree Counseling, Contact Us today.

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