When it comes to working with traumatized clients, it helps for them to have a strong attachment figure, says Richard Schwartz, the originator of Internal Family Systems. And often, he adds, a good therapist fills that role by being present and attuned. But what if clients could become their own best ally in healing, and take fuller agency in their own recovery?

According to Schwartz, IFS allows exactly this. “There’s an essence within people that already has the qualities of a good attachment figure and can become a good parent to wounded inner parts,” he says.

In this clip from his Networker Symposium keynote address, “The Inner Game of Psychotherapy,” Schwartz explains how getting to know inner parts can help clients unload the wounds of trauma.

“The primary obstacle to treating ourselves more kindly is the fact that most of us are addicted to self-criticism,” Schwartz says. “Who among us hasn’t had the experience of learning to be judgmental of ourselves as a teenager, when we’re so worried about how we’re going to appear to others?” IFS, he adds, allows us to better understand our inner critics as vigilant protectors, and embrace the full range of all our parts and achieve an inner harmony.

“In my own work, I greet my inner parts fondly before sessions, especially when I suspect they’ll be triggered, and ask that they leave the office until the session is over,” Schwartz says. “Then I check with myself frequently during the session to ensure I’m present and my heart is open.”


Richard Schwartz

Richard Schwartz, PhD, is co-author, with Michael Nichols, of Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, the most widely used family therapy text in the United States. Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems in response to clients’ descriptions of experiencing various parts–many extreme–within themselves. He noticed that when these parts felt safe and had their concerns addressed, they were less disruptive and would accede to the wise leadership of what Dr. Schwartz came to call the “Self.” In developing IFS, he recognized that, as in systemic family theory, parts take on characteristic roles that help define the inner world of the clients. The coordinating Self, which embodies qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion, acts as a center around which the various parts constellate. Because IFS locates the source of healing within the client, the therapist is freed to focus on guiding the client’s access to his or her true Self and supporting the client in harnessing its wisdom. This approach makes IFS a non-pathologizing, hopeful framework within which to practice psychotherapy. It provides an alternative understanding of psychic functioning and healing that allows for innovative techniques in relieving clients symptoms and suffering.