IFS is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy invented in the 1980s by therapist Richard C. Schwartz. (Image: Tina Tiller)
IFS is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy invented in the 1980s by therapist Richard C. Schwartz. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyJune 14, 2024

With Internal Family Systems therapy, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood

IFS is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy invented in the 1980s by therapist Richard C. Schwartz. (Image: Tina Tiller)
IFS is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy invented in the 1980s by therapist Richard C. Schwartz. (Image: Tina Tiller)

A look inside the astronomic rise of IFS therapy, from someone who has received it.

I recently found a diary from when I was 19, stickered with band logos and weighted with angst. In it, I found a story I wrote in which I identified myself as a building:

I am a building, a 19 storey building. I live in luxury in the penthouse. Forest green walls, copper fittings, mismatched tiles from flea markets and the type of blender that you only see in Starbucks. Up here, it’s the life I’ve always wanted. But the basement and bottom floors are rotting. Black, confusing mould rises up, searching for me. From my top floor, I could go anywhere, but any move I make risks crumbling the entire building from its base.

When I read it now, I feel for the young me who had such a profound understanding of what was going on and at the same time, literally no clue. Laden with questions and no answers, I would spend the next 10 years looking for something to help this feeling of being a building make sense. In my 30s, I found it, in a small therapy room in Petone, in the form of Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS). 

IFS is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy invented in the 1980s by therapist Richard C. Schwartz. Schwartz was a family therapist and noticed that the complex external relationships his clients had with each other were also happening inside of each person, between differentiable parts of themselves. From this he developed the theory that each person is made up of “parts”, each with its own motivations, needs and behaviours. He was able to map the relationships of his clients’ parts into a system, leading him to name it Internal Family Systems, or, as one of my looser therapist friends once called it, “inner child therapy on like, literally crack.”

Over the years, IFS has been supported by increasing research demonstrating its effectiveness in clinical settings. It is known to have particularly positive results with PTSD and childhood trauma. In a recent pilot study, 92% participants diagnosed with PTSD no longer met the criteria for their diagnosis after 16 sessions of IFS therapy. As a form of non-pathologising therapy, it can be hugely beneficial for people with diagnoses of mental illness, but it can also help us understand the everyday nuances and contradictions inside us: the way we might both want and not want a third cup of coffee; the way we might both love a family member deeply and feel exhausted the moment they tell us they’re coming to visit.

As a modality, it has exploded in popularity in recent years. The centre which runs IFS training in the United States has become so inundated with therapists signing up that it has needed to employ a lottery system, with some therapists waiting years for a place. Therapists have told me anecdotally that they use IFS because it can get results with a client after one session that they’d usually expect to see in months of therapy. Gabor Maté, the renowned mental health author and speaker, called it “One of the most transformational therapies to have emerged in the present century”. 

IFS therapy has exploded in popularity in recent years. (Photo: Getty)

In my early 30s, by chance, I found myself a therapist who worked in this modality. Every week, he would have me revisit a past trauma, or follow the “trailhead” of a thought that I couldn’t let go of. In the safety of his sessions, rather than avoiding my uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, I would turn right towards them and do the work of understanding them. In time, these sessions changed my life and helped me process traumas I previously thought I’d never get over.

A few weeks ago, I was about to go into a difficult meeting at work. One part of me was excited by the challenge and knew that I was ready for it. Another part of me was terrified, had plotted exactly how I could escape unnoticed from the office, and had even pre-drafted the email I’d write from the Uber – blaming explosive diarrhoea and asking if we could circle back on Monday.  

Using what I have learned from IFS, I took some time before the meeting to sit and try to listen to the part of me that was telling me to run out the door. I tried to work out where the feeling was in my body, to understand what I was actually scared of, and what this part of me thought running away would protect me from.

In this way, IFS helps to distinguish this fear as a part of myself, rather than my entire identity. As in, if only one part of me wants to run away, it helps me not feel like I’m a complete coward. And rather than some therapy modalities which would have me create strategies to push through the fear, IFS helps me get to the core of what I’m actually afraid of, and move past it for good.

When we go through something traumatic and aren’t able to process it at the time, that pain can get locked in that state, frozen in time. Sticking with the example above, when I tried to figure out why I was scared of my work meeting, I remembered a horrible teacher from school; one that made me feel constantly scared and like I was never good enough. IFS would suggest that, because I wasn’t able to process it, the pain of that relationship will be still locked up somewhere inside me. And now, as an adult, even though my manager is lovely and has never once criticised me, some part of me can’t tell the difference between her and my scary teacher. And it can’t listen to reason, it just wants me to get the hell out of there. 

In IFS, nothing is seen as “bad” – one of Schwartz’s books about it is aptly named No Bad Parts. Even if your behaviour is undesirable (eg running away from work meetings), IFS is about digging underneath the behaviour to find out what you, or a part of you, is trying to achieve with that behaviour. More often than not, we’re just trying to keep ourselves safe. This can come out in hectic ways, but if a therapist can support you for long enough to understand where your impulses and behaviour comes from, you can start to go easy on yourself, and in my experience, the negative behaviours can rapidly shift into more positive ones. 

In essence, IFS is a therapy that promotes self-leadership, the ability to go back into our pasts and build ourselves back from the ground up. To be the adult we needed when we were a child. Some call it “reparenting”. We shouldn’t have to, I know, but sometimes when you want something done well, you just have to go back and do it yourself.  

Through my work with IFS, I no longer feel like I live in the penthouse of a building with a dodgy basement. Now I see myself as more of a benevolent orphanage manager. Every part of me, every memory I have stored away, the good and bad, they live here with me. I walk the corridors and I do my best to listen to what they’re trying to tell me.  

Keep going!