Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an integrative approach based on the understanding that our inner world can be full of plurality, multiplicity, contradiction, conflict and confusion. Developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, IFS has had truly transformative effects for individuals with trauma. It gives a voice and explanation to all those moments when we feel, "I am not acting like myself", "This is not me, why did I do that?", "What is happening to me, who am I turning into?", "Sometimes I don't know what takes over me".
The Plurality of the Self
IFS is a different paradigm for understanding the mind that says that rather than being a sign of pathology, it’s the nature of the mind to have what I call “parts”—what other systems call sub-personalities, or ego states, or voices. – Richard Schwartz
The perspective of IFS is that each person's internal consciousness is not a singular entity but rather a collection of various sub-personalities or parts. These parts represent different aspects of our personality, each with its own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It's like there are many "selves" inside, and there's a mental process – like a computer process – that ties all the parts together. The explorations in IFS invite us to build an awareness of all these different parts and meet them with compassion and acceptance.
That's where the name, Internal Family Systems, comes from – we can think of ourselves as a "family" of parts within our own mind and body. These parts may not necessarily conflict with each other, but they can sometimes hold different beliefs, emotions, and desires that seem out of touch with who we believe ourselves to be.
Types of Parts
These are the different types of parts in the IFS model:
Managers: These parts are like the protective managers of our inner world. They usually aim to shield us from emotional pain by imposing rules, expectations, and defenses. For instance, a “perfectionist” part might strive for excellence to avoid feeling inadequate.
Firefighters: Firefighter parts are the ones that react when the manager’s protective measures fail. They seek to extinguish intense emotional distress through impulsive behaviors or distractions, such as overeating, substance abuse, self-harm, or "acting out" in defense or rage.
Exiles: The exiles are the vulnerable and wounded parts of our psyche. These parts carry the emotional scars from past traumas or painful experiences. They are often hidden away from our conscious awareness to protect us from their pain, and we unconsciously carry the energy of past traumas. This exiling and locking away tends to happen because what that version of us experienced felt like more than we could handle at the time.
IFS therapy is designed to help individuals explore, understand, and ultimately integrate these various inner parts. The title of the definitive book on IFS is "No Bad Parts", and that's really the central idea. We may be tempted to see these parts as our enemies, "weak", or the sources of our obstacles. But underneath it all, these parts are working based on their idea of what protects the whole. They truly believe they are keeping us out of harm's way. There are no absolutely "bad" parts.
Tying the experience and activity of these parts together is the Self, a concept that has parallels to the Atman, or true self, in Eastern philosophy. Some consider it equivalent to the "Soul". The basic qualities of the Self are compassion, wholeness, and wisdom. We can think of it as the ever-aware observer of our psychic experience, and the process that ties it all together. When we attend to the Self rather than the parts, it functions as a kind of internal zooming out. It lets us see the modularity of our parts and treat them as people – maybe even children who need nurturing and healing.
The Internal Family Systems process
The therapeutic process involves some key steps. Note: this is not an exhaustive list, and there can be many steps based on individual experience.
Self-Leadership: In IFS, the Self refers to the core of our being—a place of wisdom, compassion, and calm. The consciousness that witnesses the parts and is aware of them. The goal is to access the leadership of this Core Self and use it to guide our interactions with our inner parts – our managers, firefighters, and exiles. It's like becoming the wise and loving parent of our inner family.
Identifying the parts: Healing and integration comes through awareness of the different parts within us. By recognizing the various roles these parts play and the emotions they carry, we can start to understand the complexity of our inner world, and how these parts are trying to help us in their own way.
Developing relationships between parts: IFS encourages us to build compassionate relationships with our inner parts. This means approaching them without judgment or criticism. We learn to listen to their concerns, fears, and needs with empathy. They will also begin to talk to each other and be able to support each other with empathy, and above all, realise that they are not alone in having these experiences.
Healing the exiles: The heart of IFS therapy often involves working with the exiled parts. By gently and lovingly tending to these wounded aspects of ourselves, we can help them release their pain and integrate back into our inner family.
Negotiating the establishment of harmony: As we become more skilled at communicating with these inner parts, we can help them work together harmoniously. Managers and firefighters can learn to relax their roles as protectors when they trust that the Self can lead and heal. When we allow the exiles to speak and extend compassion towards them, they can find closure about their painful experiences.
It can be deeply beneficial to have an IFS trained professional to help you safely and non-judgmentally establish these connections, approach your parts with compassion, and embark on this journey of self-healing, self-acceptance and awakening to the core Self. Our team at Healing Exchange can support you in this experience of self-discovery, acceptance and compassion through either therapy or coaching.
Learn more about our team and contact us for a consultation to explore working with us.