Internal Family Systems Therapy

Offering a variety of therapeutic modalities is an integral part of truly individualized addiction treatment services. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are two of the common approaches used in the majority of treatment programs. Not many provide lesser-known alternatives like Internal Family Systems (IFS). This uncommon and often underutilized modality is a revolutionary way to work with people struggling with substance use disorders.

What is Internal Family Systems?

Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS, is a unique form of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1990s. It operates under the idea that every person has numerous subpersonalities that drive thoughts and behaviors, and are the cause of many troublesome attitudes, actions, and symptoms.

Some people hesitate when they first hear about IFS. How can one person have multiple personalities? Doesn’t that mean multiple personality disorder? Unfortunately, the vicious stigma against dissociative identity disorder (DID) feeds into the reluctance to accept IFS. The pathologization of multiplicity keeps people from recognizing the truth behind many concepts in IFS.

To limit some of this hesitation, Dr. Schwartz developed the concept of “parts.” IFS refers to the various subpersonalities within an individual as parts because it’s already part of the common language. How often does someone say, “One part of me feels this way, but another part of me feels another way,” in casual conversation? This idea is the primary basis of IFS.

Primary Concepts in Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems therapy operates on a few primary concepts.


Parts are the sub-personalities within every person, and all parts are naturally valuable and good. The mind naturally subdivides into these parts to accomplish everything that needs to be done throughout the day. However, problems arise when traumatic experiences force these parts out of their naturally-valuable states, parts become stuck in unhelpful or harmful roles that feel necessary to keep a person alive. The goal of IFS is to allow space for every part to feel heard so it can heal and transform back into its naturally valuable state.


Self is who a person is at their core, the central iteration of all subpersonalities. It has eight “c-word” qualities: curiosity, calmness, confidence, compassion, creativity, courage, clarity, and connectedness. The true Self has inherent healing capabilities and therefore has the power to transform all parts back to their valuable states. IFS therapy first focuses on accessing Self and then using that empowered central iteration to relate with and heal all other parts of the internal system.

Unburdening and Healing

The goal of IFS isn’t to strip away or get rid of parts but to transform them through a process called unburdening. All parts carry burdens, or extreme beliefs and emotions that developed through trauma, attachment injury, or other negative experiences. Allowing parts the space to share and express themselves leads to their unburdening and healing.

The Development of IFS

Family systems are responsible for much of human behavior. An individual’s relationships with their mother and father often dictate how they operate for much of their adult life. Unless they develop some sort of mental illness, many never stop to question the basis for their lifelong behaviors. 

However, when someone develops a mental health disorder or substance use disorder and finds themselves in therapy, they’re encouraged to dig into and question these long-accepted parts of themselves. Some mental health and substance abuse treatment programs include family therapy as part of their services to challenge and change long-standing family dynamics.

Internal Family Systems developed as Dr. Richard Schwartz began applying family therapy practices to a single person. Dr. Schwartz originally started his practice in family therapy with extensive training in attachment theory. When something isn’t going well between two people in a family, there are usually additional parties that take sides. If those additional parties are present during therapy, that dynamic plays a role in the work going on between the two original individuals.

While working with clients individually, Dr. Schwartz observed the ways his clients talked to and about themselves. He recognized that sometimes there seemed to be a third party judging the relationship between two parts. He encouraged clients to ask that judgmental third party to step back and allow space for these often-silenced parts to express themselves. This led to transformational results and, over time, the development of IFS.

IFS for Substance Abuse Recovery

Internal Family Systems therapy is a revolutionary approach to substance abuse treatment and recovery. Family dynamics are often responsible for ongoing problematic behaviors and refusing to recognize their importance leads to difficulties in achieving recovery. IFS suggests that a similar harmful system exists not only externally but internally, and addressing these destructive dynamics is the first step toward healing.

Emerge Recovery offers Internal Family Systems therapy as part of our continued aim to do rehab differently. We not only stress the importance of working with the external family to achieve recovery, but also with the internal family to sustain and strengthen recovery. To learn more about IFS and our other available services, schedule your no-fee recovery activation call today.

Emerge Recovery: Drug Rehab Done Differently

Too many traditional treatment facilities impose a one-size-fits-all approach to recovery. There are limitations to individualized programming when working with a large number of clients. Scaling down the client ratio is what empowers the difference at Emerge Recovery. You’re not simply another client in the center; you’re a person with dreams, goals, and desires that were stolen by drug addiction.

Emerge Recovery exists to separate you from substances, heal the things that keep you stuck in the cycle, and guide you to reconnect with what it is you want from life. You aren’t here to live in a drug-induced haze; you’re here to build a beautiful life worth living. We’re here to help you every step of the way.

Reach out to learn more about Emerge and find out how we can help you today.

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