What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy? The Pros and Cons

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Published Date|
January 23, 2024

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy? The Pros and Cons

Have you ever felt like you’re battling against yourself to try and get things done?

You’re upset with a friend - but you feel like you can’t talk to them about your feelings, even though you want to.

You have a stressful work deadline approaching - but you feel like you have to ignore it rather than start the project.

Here at KMA Therapy, we know the different parts of yourself can feel complex, and it can often feel like the greatest hurdle you have to overcome is you.

Internal family systems therapy can help you understand and resolve this type of inner conflict - but is it the right choice for you?

After reading this article, you’ll understand how internal family systems therapy works, its pros and cons, and how to know if it’s the right choice for you.

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal family systems (IFS) therapy is a form of psychotherapy that explores your inner thoughts and feelings, and how they can be in conflict with each other.

These thoughts and feelings are categorized into three parts: Managers, firefighters, and exiles.

In IFS therapy, you’ll learn about where each of these parts came from, how they try to keep you safe, and how to balance them out in order to feel less inner conflict.

Internal family systems is often used for:

  • Anxiety
  • Trauma
  • Phobias
  • Depression
  • Behavioural issues

What are the Parts in IFS Therapy?

In Internal Family Systems therapy, you’ll talk about three types of parts.

Manager parts work overtime to try and avoid pain. If you struggle with perfectionism, you may rely on manager parts frequently. Your manager parts will try to do everything perfectly in order to control the outcome of frightening or uncertain situations.

Even though they’re intending to cause you less stress, these parts can end up causing you to repress feelings you need to process, and put additional, unwanted pressure on yourself.

Firefighter parts react to pain that already exists by trying to extinguish feelings of shame and guilt. The firefighter parts act as the protector part in internal family systems. For example, to try and numb out feelings of anxiety, you might binge-watch a comfort show (even though you have a million other things to do.) 

Even though they’re called firefighters, they aren’t necessarily doing anything to put the fire out. While your firefighter parts can temporarily relieve the stress you’re feeling, the root cause of your stress is still there.

Exile parts hold your feelings of shame and guilt. They can often be related to experiences you had when you were younger - including memories you buried because you didn’t have a safe space or the ability to process them at the time.

While the exile parts may seem like they have a negative connotation, they’re important for understanding your past experiences. Still, they can be some of the trickiest parts to explore during the therapy process.

The three types of parts are often in conflict with each other, which can feel distressing for you! 

For example, if you’re preparing for a big holiday, your exile part may have bad memories associated with it from childhood. These memories keep coming to the surface, and your pain is demanding to be felt, but your firefighter part refuses to let that happen. You might be tempted to have a drink to take the edge off, while your manager part kicks into overdrive, trying to plan out every detail of the perfect holiday to make sure no new painful memories are created.

Learning how to balance the needs of each of your parts, and turn the conflict into harmony, is the helpful goal of internal family systems therapy.

What Happens During IFS Therapy?

IFS therapy can be similar to traditional types of talk therapy. Your therapist will begin by getting to know you, learning about your history, and exploring what brings you to therapy.

They’ll help you explore each of the three inner parts and understand what they may be reacting to. This part of the therapy process is all about helping you understand what’s driving your actions and reactions - which can help you understand your need for certain coping mechanisms and how to implement any behavioural changes you’d like to experience.

internal family systems therapy pros and cons

The Pros of Internal Family Systems Therapy

IFS therapy can be a great way to learn more about yourself while changing behaviour patterns and coping mechanisms that no longer serve you.

IFS therapy could be a great fit for you if:

  • You’re interested in self-discovery
  • You enjoy thinking about abstract concepts
  • You want to explore and resolve past experiences

The Cons of Internal Family Systems Therapy

While IFS therapy can be extremely helpful for some people, it’s not as well-researched as other forms of therapy, like cognitive behavioural therapy.

IFS therapy may not be the right choice for you if:

  • You like to set and track measurable goals in therapy
  • You prefer more literal ways of discussing challenges
  • You find the idea of reflecting on different parts of yourself unrelatable or confusing

Alternatives to IFS Therapy

After learning about the pros and cons of internal family systems therapy, you may be interested in some alternatives.

Alternatives to internal family systems therapy include:

  • Existential therapy which lets you look at things from a broader perspective
  • Solutions-focused therapy which helps you self-reflect while creating meaningful solutions
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy which tackles your behaviours in a more literal and trackable way

Next Steps for Beginning Therapy

After reading this article, you know the pros and cons of IFS therapy, how to know if it’s for you, and alternative forms of therapy to explore.

Here at KMA Therapy, we’re here to help you navigate the therapy process. For over 15 years, we’ve helped our clients learn about the best types of therapy for their unique situations and we’ve matched them with their ideal therapists to help them thrive.

Register online for more information or book your first appointment today.

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Author |
Emily Weatherhead (Guest Author)
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