An Integral take on Internal Family Systems (IFS)

By Dr. Keith Witt
April 1, 2024

An Integral take on Internal Family Systems (IFS)

I love Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems approach. I’ve been using it a lot recently after being reminded of the work listening to a session he did with Scott Barry Kaufman on Kaufman’s Psychology Podcast.

I’ve followed IFS for many years and have incorporated much of Schwartz’s cosmology into my own understandings and practices. I like his approach of actively integrating distressed interior parts (or selves) to reduce symptoms and support development. This idea has been around forever in Gestalt, Psychosynthesis, Jungian psychotherapy, etc, but there are nuances in IFS that are particularly appealing to me and useful in psychotherapy.

I’ll describe the system and then focus on one aspect I find particularly transformative, the idea that there are no bad parts.

IFS is user-friendly

IFS is a user-friendly system. People respond well to the idea that we have different selves, experienced as separate personalities, generally divided into exiles, managers (of which there are two kinds: critics and firefighters), and our Self (almost identical to what I call Wise Self). What characterizes these selves?

  • Exiles are injured selves—isolated and unloved. They are usually children wounded by trauma and neglect.
  • Inner critics are like angry parents correcting, shaming, and never satisfied. They try to help exiles with critiques and attacks.
  • Firefighters are inner shock troops, mobilized by emotional pain to provide immediate relief. They are impulsive, addictive selves who run from pain into destructive impulses to drink, eat, use, transgress, neglect, procrastinate, surrender, or lash out.
  • Self is very much like the Wise Self at everyone’s core. Schwartz describes Self as compassionate, curious, caring, connected, and committed to serving the highest good.

What does IFS look like?

A piece of IFS work has a sequential progression, with infinite variations, kind of like 1/4/5 blues progressions. My shorthand version is:

  • Bond with the client and identify exiles, critics, and managers. As we do this, the client naturally joins me as an emerging version of his or her Wise Self.
  • Identify the strongest critic, the most painful and demanding self, and bond, heart to heart, encouraging the client to do the same.
  • Validate the critic’s mission to improve the exile, encouraging the client to share in the new understanding.
  • Respectfully ask the manager to step aside so we can get close and positive with the exile. Eventually the critic, feeling validated, complies.
  • Bond heart to heart with the exile. Facilitate the exile being known, heard, and cherished by us. All traumas, shames, and toxic self-identifications are unveiled and addressed with understanding and compassion.
  • The exile gradually feels more understood and validated, and eventually trusts me and the client’s developing Wise Self to protect, include, and never abandon them again.
  • Do the whole process again with the critic/manager, helping the critic become an ally who can guide and support more effectively. This always involves validating the historic drive to somehow solve problems by attacking.
  • Do the whole process again with the firefighter/manager, helping the firefighter to self-regulate and support effectively. This involves validating their historic mission to avoid pain and enjoy life.
  • Facilitate healing relationships with all inner selves, regularly eliciting and strengthening the client’s Wise Self.
  • Release the exile’s pain of past injuries into the universe, leading to experiences of relief, gratitude, and triumph.

I teach the critic, “Yes, it’s good to have high standards and to inform other parts when they are acting badly. Thank you for caring! But attacking is so ineffectual. It’s much better to kindly remind her of a needed correction and, as soon as she starts moving towards love and health, to shift instantly into, “Yes!  That’s what we want!”

I teach the firefighters how to create pleasure and gratification for joy and love rather than avoidance or sadistic release.

There are endless ways to do all this, with the ultimate goal of mobilizing the Wise Self as a wise conductor of a harmonious choir.

The IFS world is curious and compassionate about the light and dark of every self. This is natural polarity thinking—always referencing different aspects of any position or assumption, looking for integrative and transformative understandings and actions.

Pierre Janet in the 19th century said that the way to resolve trauma was to somehow progress through the memories, feelings, and stories to a subjective sense of triumph. IFS is organized to do this.

There are no bad selves

 A central part of IFS is recognizing that every interior self deserves respect and kindness and has something of value to offer the inner community of selves.

As student and generator of psychotherapy systems over the last 50 plus years, I’ve observed the adversarial subtexts therapists can have with people’s inner critics and insistent compulsive self-destructive demands. I’ve gone down that road myself. It’s hard to not be frustrated with the inner bully who viciously attacks your client for minor offenses. This is natural considering how much most of us fear and push away exiles and critics! It’s so tempting when a client says, “I hate that cruel voice who tells me I’m worthless,” to respond with, “Yes! What a creep that critic is; just like your abusive father (mother, brother, sister, boss, etc). Let’s get rid of that jerk!” In 1974 one of my best teachers, Herb Gravitz, was doing a gestalt empty chair dialogue with a client and her inner demon. The demon was an evil little creep she both feared and hated, even as she got sadistic pleasure in sitting in the demon chair and attacking herself sitting across the room. She placed the demon in his office drawer before she left the session. Herb was quite proud of the work, but I remember us both feeling a little tingle of wrongness with the demon-in-the-drawer thing. I thought, “That demon is a part of her that needs to be healed, not locked up alone.”

IFS is all over “No bad parts.” Any self is sacred and has a role in the larger community of selves, hopefully led by a robust Wise Self. Our selfish self? Check. Our psychopathic self? Check. Our narcissistic self? Check.  Our ashamed self? Check. Our violent self? Check! Our addicted self? Check. Our collapsed self? Check. Our guilty self? Check. And so on. All have worth. All are loved. All have jobs. All have contributions to make.

Who’s considering and reaching to love all these wounded selves? Wise Self, strengthened with each iteration—strengthened by each completed circuit of love to yearning, healing to injury, community to exiled.

Practicing this system creates recognition and respect for all selves, critics, firefighters, exiles, and especially Wise Self. From an Integral perspective, you can see how this work naturally leads to both vertical and horizontal health:

  • Wise Self at red egocentric sees the need for sacred norms that transcend egoic cravings, and the superiority of being a kind, just power-God.
  • Wise Self at amber conformist sees the need to reality test mythic assumptions with real data, while embodying the best of the sacred teachings.
  • Wise Self at umber recognizes inner resistance to new knowledge and the advantage of receiving influence for more beauty, truth, and goodness.
  • Wise Self at orange recognizes that winning and advancing feels best when you are also helping and caring.
  • Wise Self at green feels the necessity for growth hierarchies to arise from egalitarian worldviews.

To Integrally informed people, this all reflects the leap into teal. I believe most great therapy comes from therapists stable in teal inviting clients to more thoroughly embody the best of their current worldviews and consider deeper truths beyond their current understanding.

Teal sessions

Every person has their most comfortable and trustable language and norms. At teal, therapists instinctively attach to what they most admire about a client’s sacred beliefs and deepest yearnings. We can empower clients to accept, protect and cherish even the most apparently crazy or destructive parts because we know all parts have some positive intent and some healthy values.

I fiercely advocate for these values and yearnings, using language comfortable for the vMEME of whatever self I’m dealing with. People generally stable at orange, green, or teal can have exiles/managers/firefighters at red and amber who need their red/amber beliefs and missions validated. I want all the exiles and managers to know my job is to make them stronger, not isolate them.

This is exciting and sometimes exhausting.

Turquoise sessions

When my client is stable in teal, the session is often turquoise dialectic between two Wise Selves dealing with the conflicts and evolutionary demands of the client’s life. Regressions become guides to what requires attention, but there is very little resistance to new perspectives that help transform destructive Shadow into constructive understandings and actions. The discourse is mostly shared teal awareness of the polarities involved. These are ridiculously pleasurable sessions.

IFS as interior Bodhisattva vow

The essence of the Bodhisattva vow is to not leave the wheel of karma till all beings are enlightened—to leave no one behind. The Wise Self in IFS operates from a similar position of never abandoning any interior self. As Wise Self becomes more a central identity, difficult situations and regressions are increasing understood as disconnections from Wise Self. The work increasingly leads participants to always bring Wise Self into the conversation.


In psychotherapy when someone has a distorted negative meaning to a situation or narrative, therapists offer alternative understandings that are more compassionate, kind, and true. This is called reframing. All effective therapists do this throughout every session. Freud called this “Reality Testing,” and saw it as a central part of psychoanalysis. IFS reframes into the understandings and protocols surrounding “No bad selves.”

Occasionally when I reframe a negative belief into a more compassionate one, my more psychologically fluent clients will be dismissive, as in, “That’s a nice reframe.”

I ask, “Do you not believe what I said is accurate?”

One client said, “Yes, it’s accurate, but the distress I’m feeling and the self-critical beliefs I have are still there. I feel like an ugly fraud!”

IFS says, “Can I talk with those guys? The critic and the fraud?”

And so begins some version it the IFS sequences I described earlier. The reframe is a bridge into the parts work, avoiding the common but bizarre debate that can happen in therapy where a client vigorously defends their distorted beliefs and powerlessness over destructive actions.

You can see how the Integral core concepts of non-exclusion, enfoldment, and enactment are naturally mobilized by this process. No part excluded, all parts have contributions to make, and changed thoughts and behaviors are where the rubber hits the road.

Get my FREE Art and Science of Relationships Series

I’m a licensed clinical psychologist, lecturer and author dedicated to studying, teaching, and creating transformative healing systems. I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for 40 years.
I want to give you access to the really GOOD stuff. And I want to give it to you free of charge.

Program Includes:

1 eBook; "The Attuned Family"

1 School of Love Lecture Series Video

Monthly program emails containing insights and prompts, all designed to help you love better.