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What is Internal Family Systems Therapy? An Interview With Dr. Richard C. Schwartz

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June 18, 2011
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Katie Novick

An Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy


To learn more about Dr. Schwartz’s model of therapy, I attended a conference where he was presenting. I had the opportunity to hear him lecture as well as interview him about the theory, practice, and thought processes that helped him to create Internal Family Systems Therapy.

In addition to a summary of key concepts that I took from his lecture and writings, this article also includes audio clips from my interview with him.

Dr. Schwartz theorizes that the mind is not a unitary entity, but is instead a system that contains multiple parts that work together for the greater good of the whole being. In addition to these multiple parts, we also have a Self that has the capacity to lead the system.

After a person experiences a traumatic event, disharmony can develop among parts. In his book, “Internal Family Systems Therapy”, Dr. Schwartz writes, “A developing system will also be constrained if it accumulates burdens along the way. This happens when the system is traumatized (thrown out of balance) before it has fully developed. Trauma also has the effect of freezing or fixating members of the system at the point in time of the trauma. These frozen members are not only no longer available to help, but their extreme emotions further constrain the system and force other members into hyperprotective roles” (p. 21).

Dr. Schwartz believes that it can be valuable to get to know, understand, and show respect towards these protective parts before the therapist and client begin to explore the injured parts that they protect. Once they have done this, the client's protective parts will show enough trust to step back and allow the client to see those parts that have been exiled. The client and therapist can then begin to nurture and console these injured parts who remain frozen in past trauma. Additionally, they help the client's parts to once again place trust and confidence in the Self, who innately has the capacity to lead and care for the system.

Dr. Schwartz practices what he preaches. Despite following him through crowds of people as we talked, he remained soft-spoken, cool, and managed to exude a palpable calmness.

I started our interview by asking him to speak about what other therapeutic models, or systems of belief, had contributed to his creation of the Internal Family Systems model of therapy. Click here to hear the interview with Dr Richard Schwartz about his influences

I proceeded to ask Dr. Schwartz to speak in more detail about how he helps his clients, and himself, to stay in touch with the Self when they experience internal and external stressors. Click here to hear the interview with Dr Richard Schwartz about staying with the Self

Still amazed by Dr. Schwartz’s ability to appear so grounded and present in the moment, I asked him to speak more about how to help therapists to hold onto their sense of Self in session. Click here to hear the interview with Dr Richard Schwartz about therapist and self

One of the applications of his approach that I found most interesting, was how it could be incorporated into couples and family therapy. I asked Dr. Schwartz to speak about how this is accomplished. Click here to hear the interview with Dr Richard Schwartz and family therapy

Dr. Schwartz also spoke about how to help family members address anger they might hold towards each other, by helping them to check in with their parts and access their Selves. Click here to hear the interview with Dr Richard Schwartz and family therapy part two

Dr. Schwartz and I ended our interview with him describing to me how therapy and trauma work is like a bulb of garlic. Click here to hear the interview with Dr Richard Schwartz about trauma and the garlic metaphor

I would like to thank Dr. Richard Schwartz for taking the time to be interviewed for this piece.


The author of this interview,Katie Novick, LICSW, is a clinician in Massachusetts.

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