Sex Addiction Treatment with Internal Family Systems Therapy–IFS

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a highly effective therapy modality in sex and porn addiction treatment and recovery. Dick Schwartz invented this technique in the 1980’s, and it has really exploded on the scene the last ten years.

The basic idea behind Internal Family Systems Therapy is to view the human psychology as comprising of different parts. We intuitively have this idea. We use parts terminology often in everyday life dialogue. “Part of me wants to eat this piece of chocolate cake.” “Part of me is more worried about the calories I’ll have to burn tomorrow if I eat it.”

In IFS there are four types of parts. I will briefly define and then come back for a more thorough treatment, especially as it relates to sex addiction recovery.

The Self. This is who we are at the core. This part is undamaged from trauma, is essentially perfect, and has energy available for the nurturing, parenting, and healing of the system. An important part of Internal Family Systems Therapy is to cultivate the self and enable self-energy to heal our wounded parts.

Exiles, aka inner wounded children. These are parts that are stuck in the past and easy to get their feelings hurt, easy to feel shame. The other parts spend a lot of time protecting these parts from feeling shame or cajoling them to grow up and stop being babies.

Managers. These are parts that keep us on track, telling us what to do, scheduling and planning. When these parts become extreme they can become a harsh, self-loathing inner critic or an inner worryer part that produces anxiety.

Firefighters/Protectors. These parts are protecting the inner wounded child. They often use distraction, anger, escape, or addiction to accomplish their jobs.

Think of the whole system as a bus. All these parts are on the bus while one of them is driving. In a perfectly healthy system, the self is in charge of who gets to drive the bus and driver changes are done in an orderly way. In an unhealthy system, parts are fighting for control of the steering wheel while the bus is careening back and forth across the road.

Trauma causes these parts to become polarized and compartmentalized. This polarity and compartmentalization can become very severe in sex addiction. “Part of me wants to act out sexually.” “Part of me hates myself when I act out.” Our spouses ask us “How could you do this? What were you thinking about when you decided to do this?” We don’t usually have good answers for this. We usually have the sense that we compartmentalize. We take the part that loves our partner, and we shelve that part away to a corner of our brain so we don’t have to think about it while we act out. The truth is part of us loved our spouse and hated ourselves or acting out to hurt them. And part of us just wanted to act out and didn’t care about our spouse in that moment.

Many struggling with problematic sexual behavior come into therapy saying “I just want to blow up that part and kill it off.” “No!” It’s impossible to just get rid of bad parts. And more importantly, in IFS we understand there are no bad parts. Through compassion and curiosity for our parts, they become less extreme. We don’t kill them. We love them into change.

In sex addiction, it’s very common for a harsh inner critic to become diametrically opposed to an extreme acting-out part.  The addiction/shame cycle can be explained as a wrestle for control by these two polarized parts.



Cece Sykes, author of the book Internal Family Systems Therapy for Addictions: Trauma-Informed, Compassion-Based Interventions for Substance Use, Eating, Gambling and More said about addiction:

An addiction can be described in the Internal Family System model as a systemic, unremitting inner power struggle or polarity occurring between two extremely oppositional aspects or parts of a person’s personality. The primary intention of each position in the polarity is to offer protection to the system from the threat of emotional overload. This power struggle is fueled by the overwhelming fear of the perceived weakness, vulnerabilities and emotional pain in the system from becoming fully exposed.

This is a very different approach than the traditional addiction model. How we understand addiction affects the treatment of how we work to heal from sex addiction. I asked Dick Schwartz in an IFS training session on addiction about whether the addiction Twelve Step Program model is aligned with IFS or incompatible. He answered:

I’ve got a yes and no answer to that. We don’t see addiction as a disease. We see it as the way I described earlier as the operation of parts. AND Twelve Step meetings can be places where you can be very honest and vulnerable and get a lot of support. And that’s very valuable. But the emphasis on sobriety and counting the days and all that, gives the wrong message to these parts. It’s too rigid for me.

Let’s walk through the IFS therapeutic process as we define the parts and go deeper into the IFS model as it relates to healing of sex addiction.

The Self

IFS asserts that the Self exists, cannot be damaged, can often be accessed quickly, knows how to heal, moves to correct inner or outer injustice with an open heart, and becomes the good attachment presence for parts and people alike.

–Dick Schwartz, Marthy Sweezy in Internal Family Systems Therapy Second Edition

The first job is to understand the self and learn how to connect to it and cultivate its presence. We are in self when we experience the 8 C’s

  • curious
  • compassionate
  • calm
  • creative
  • confident
  • courageous
  • connected
  • clear

It’s very simple. When we’re feeling the 8 C’s, we’re in self. When we’re not, we’re not. IFS believes everyone has a self. It cannot be damaged. Trauma, shame, anxiety, or depression may make it very difficult to access, but it’s there. Many religions have a concept of the self. The Light of Christ. The God within us. Buddha within us. The self has no agenda. Anytime we are feeling judgmental of ourselves or feel a pressing need to do something, we are not in self. Self might be allowing a manager to run with a plan, but Self needs no specific outcome. Self always knows everything will be OK no matter what.

There are Manager parts who are very self-like that we blend with often. Blending is a term in IFS where the part has taken over in a way we’re not aware. Unblending is the process of identifying the part we’re blending with and separating it out so we can be in Self.

At Karuna Healing, we incorporate guided meditation into our online programs and therapy. When we are meditating, we notice our thoughts and feelings. Then we notice there is a noticer. The noticer is the self. It is the one doing the noticing. If we’re struggling to access Self, meditation is helpful. Go into a relaxed, meditative state, focus on the breath, and note the thoughts and feelings, note the expansiveness within ourselves, lots of space, lots of room for thoughts and feelings to come and go. Bring to a mind a part of yourself causing distress, how do you feel about the part? If your reaction is disgust or fear, then you can know you’re not in self. When you can react with compassion or curiosity or calmness or confidence, you know you are in self. Keep trying. Therapy or coaching is very helpful for this, but it’s a skill you can cultivate on your own.

Now that we can channel Self when we want to, it’s time to meet our other parts. When we’re able to view our parts through Self, they feel the compassion and trust the curiosity we express and are willing to open up and be vulnerable. It’s this process that leads to healing and the extreme parts being able to calm down and allow for lasting change.

From Dick Schwartz:

When we are interested, even our own inner demons (contemptuous, racist, misogynist, self-attacking parts) sense the safety and opportunity to lead the way to the hidden treasure of vulnerability.

And it is hidden treasure. That’s where we unlock all those patterns buried 20 levels deep that have kept us in addiction.

The key to IFS work with pornography addiction is for the therapist, and eventually the client, to hold Self-energy while exploring the client’s central polarity: the part who loves porn and the part who hates the client for looking at porn. Traditional sexual addiction therapy sides with the managers who try to shame the client out of using porn to self-soothe. In contrast, IFS offers both therapist and client a way to care about the parts who love porn as well as the parts who hate the client for being weak and embarrassing.

–Nancy Wonder in the chapter Treating Pornography Addiction With IFS in the book Internal Family Systems Therapy — New Dimensions.

This may feel exhausting and impossible to always be in Self. We can’t be perfect all the time. We want to cultivate Self to be accessible when we really need it, but most of the time Self is deciding who gets to drive the bus. Another analogy is the system is an orchestra and Self is the conductor, deciding who gets to play and when.

Firefighter Parts

Firefighter parts, or Protector parts, put out the emotional fires. They appear when the parasympathetic nervous system has been triggered that threatens to overload the entire system. They see this neuropsychological response as the inner wounded child being overwhelmed with negative emotion like shame, stress, or anxiety and feel it is their job to protect through a fight or flight response. They literally believe they are saving our lives, so they are willing to resort to tactics that are incredibly self-destructive.

Protectors commonly use distraction such as food, alcohol, gaming, porn, procrastination. Protectors also use anger and narcissism. When a protector has developed a very effective strategy such as pornography or sexually compulsive behavior to put out the fire, this can develop into an addiction.

Amy Grabowski introduced the idea of viewing our protectors on a spectrum. In a healthy system, they work like advocates. Making sure our needs are met, that we’re doing proper self-care, and we are not being taken advantage. In an unhealthy system, they become extreme, aka troublemakers. Extreme protectors when they become troublemakers engage in addictions, abusive behavior, and even suicidality.

Manager Parts

Manager parts are also considered Protector parts. They are similar in type but opposite in function as firefighter parts. Their role is to get us to do stuff. They want us to act right. They want us to accomplish our goals. Meet deadlines. Be a good relationship partner, parent, employee, or friend. Wake up on time. Eat right. Stop acting out! A common Manager part that gets out of control and is involved in the addictive process is a harsh inner critic, the judge. Amy Grabowski calls them mentors when on the healthy side and bullies when they become extreme.

In sex addiction, we usually have a very strong dynamic between a harsh inner critic and an acting out protector part. This polarity is the main reason why IFS is so effective with sex addiction. Regular therapy doesn’t identify this polarity as effectively and the therapist and client might be confused and frustrated when they think they have reached a resolution, only to find out we didn’t reach any resolution at all. We need to check with all the parts to make sure they are on board with the resolutions. We want to heal and integrate this polarity. It’s imperative we come to the sexually acting out part with compassion and curiosity in Self. The only way to do this is to get buy-in from Manager parts. From Cece Sykes:

Generally, though it seems important to reduce the Firefighter behavior initially. What actually needs to happen to create safety is helping the client unblend from various Managers that have escalated to address the risk-taking behavior. This seems very unfamiliar and even dangerous to the client’s parts. It is often very difficult for the client to truly separate from a sense of severe self-judgment regarding the damage and fears and difficulties their acting out parts had wrought in their own lives and often their families as well. Yet this is essential in order for it to feel safe for the acting out parts to emerge fully and be available for the clinical work.

IFS Change Process

Listen. We want to get to know our parts. Especially when it comes to our sexually acting out part, we’re going to get some very good information that will help us in our recovery. But more than that, we want to listen because the part needs to feel heard before it can change. We must listen with compassion and empathy to our parts. All parts are good, and we need to listen to our parts until we understand their positive intent. A good resource to help us connect to the positive intent of the sex addiction part is Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing.

As we work with the harsh inner critic, we need to listen to it tell us about the severe consequences the addiction has given him, how he’s tried everything to get the acting out part to stop, and how angry and frustrated he feels.

As we work with the sexually acting out part, it will tell us the positive intent for why it feels the need to act out. It will tell us how alone it feels doing this important job for the system even while the harsh inner critic and other parts hate him for it.

Nurture, Validate, Appreciate. As we listen, we validate. We recognize the part’s positive intent. We thank it for the job it’s done. Operating as the Self, we are reparenting the part. Under a guided meditation, we might breathe compassion into the part of the body where we feel the part. We might say “I love you. Thank you.” We might apologize to the part for neglecting it and leaving it alone to do its difficult job. Reassure the part we are with it now, and we won’t go away. The part may be afraid you want to get rid of it. Reassure we don’t want it to go away. We love it and recognize its importance.

Update the Part. In the listen stage, we might find out the part is very young, or that it thinks we are young. It might be stuck in the past. Often, our acting out parts relate to the age when we first starting use sex as an escape. We update the part, telling it we are older now. We have more resources available to help us. We’re developing skills to regulate our emotions. We’re working on our shame so that we can sit with it when it comes. We don’t need to escape anymore. Show gently in a non-shaming way how the sexually acting out is actually counter-productive to the part’s positive intent, actually increasing shame instead of protecting us from it.

Check for Other Parts. As the sexually acting out part witnesses its positive intent, it will be very hard to stay in Self and not blend with the Manager part who hates the acting out part and has zero compassion for this “nonsense it’s giving us.” The therapist or coach will ask the client how it feels about what the part is saying and if the answer is not one of the 8 C’s, then we acknowledge another part is blended and, while showing compassion to that blended part, we ask the part to step aside just for a moment to allow Self to talk to the other part.

It’s important to work with both the harsh inner critic and the acting out part because often neither will be willing to change without some allowances from the other. The acting out part will say “I won’t change until the critic stops shaming me non-stop.” And the critic will say “I won’t ease up my harsh tactics unless you can get the acting out part under control.”

Explore Alternative Options. Invite to Change. We work with the part like a good parent. We don’t shame the part or force or control it. As we dialogue with the part, there comes a time we ask if the part is willing to try something new. Maybe the part can succeed in its positive intent for us with a different tactic. We invite the part to move from troublemaker to advocate. Instead of porn or affairs, the part can be responsible for self-care to make sure we have balance. Ask if he’s willing to widen the window of tolerance when that fight-or-flight response comes.


Protector Backlash

The more gentle, compassionate, and patient we can be with our parts, allowing them to change on their own without us controlling them, the more successful and permanent the change will be. Be careful about “protector backlash.” If we use or managers to bully our protectors into submission and go about sobriety “white knuckling” it, we can usually grind out sobriety. This may be a few weeks or months or years, but this is very precarious sobriety, and usually coexisting with a lot of unhealthy manifestations that the internal system is out of balance: anger, frustration, feeling of being “on edge”, or switching to other addictions. In addiction terms we call this a “dry drunk” and relapse is usually around the corner.

The key to IFS work with pornography addiction is for the therapist, and eventually the client, to hold Self-energy while exploring the client’s central polarity: the part who loves porn and the part who hates the client for looking at porn. Traditional sexual addiction therapy sides with the managers who try to shame the client out of using porn to self-soothe. In contrast, IFS offers both therapist and client a way to care about the parts who love porn as well as the parts who hate the client for being weak and embarrassing.

Nancy Wonder in the chapter Treating Pornography Addiction With IFS in the book Internal Family Systems Therapy — New Dimensions.

Integrating Parts and Healing the System

As we listen to and validate our different parts, and nurture them with self-energy, they become less extreme and more integrated into the system. The two main parts we need to get on the same page when it comes to sex addition recovery are the manager part that wants to eliminate problematic sexual behavior and sometimes going about this job in a shaming or extreme way, and the acting out protector part whose job it has been to protect the system from shame, boredom, or other negative emotion through problematic sexual behavior.

Once we get to know these parts and have started to heal them and calm then down a bit, it’s now time for the “conference table” exercise, where we get all parts to the table and discuss what we’re going to do about this sex addiction problem. All parts should put forward their motivations, desires, and concerns and agree together with Self as the guide, how we will go forward.

When this kind of process is followed, true transformation takes place and change is long lasting. I put together these guided meditations to help you with you with a practice of daily parts check-in


IFS is my favorite and primary therapy modality for sex addiction recovery. I also integrate ACT and EMDR for individual therapy and Gottman method, RLT, and EFT for couples counseling. Internal Family Systems therapy offers a unique and effective approach to treating sex addiction. By viewing the human psyche as comprised of different parts, IFS allows individuals to understand and address the various aspects of their personalities that contribute to their addiction. This includes the Self, Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters/Protectors. Through compassion, curiosity, and understanding, individuals can begin to heal their wounded parts and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Internal Family Systems Therapy also emphasizes the importance of self-energy in facilitating recovery. This approach differs from traditional addiction models, but its emphasis on understanding and compassion has proven effective in treating sex addiction. Ultimately, Internal Family Systems Therapy promotes lasting change and recovery by fostering self-awareness, self–compassion, and self-regulation.

Also Read:
EMDR Therapy for Sex & Porn Addiction Treatment
Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT in porn and sex addiction recovery therapy
Best Sex Addiction and Betrayal Trauma Books

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