Internal Family Systems: An Accessible Introduction

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that was developed by Dr Richard Schwartz, PhD. 

It’s built on the premise that each of us are made up of a system of sub-personalities, or “parts” which coexist within us like an “internal family” that influences our decision making and behaviour.

The IFS approach explores how the different parts of your personality system interact, with each sub-personality treated as a separate entity with its own motivations, fears and desires. 

Often these parts are in conflict with each other. 

Therefore, IFS aims to create internal harmony between them, so clients can heal deep-seated emotional wounds and flourish more in everyday life.

This is achieved by engaging in dialogue with parts, aiming to understand their points of view, and getting them working together towards the aim of wellbeing for the whole system. 

This post will explore the key elements of the IFS model, how they relate with each other, before concluding with some of the best practices for working with parts.

The IFS Model of the Psyche

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In IFS, the mind is made up of four key elements: exiles, managers, firefighters, and the Self. 

We will now briefly explore each of these in turn.

Before moving forward, it’s important to keep in mind that the terminology used, e.g., “firefighters” are best thought of as helpful metaphors to describe how different parts of the personality function. 

In other words, they’re a model or map that helps us to navigate the incredible complexity of the human psyche with its’ 80+ billion neurons. 

But of course, the map is never the same as the territory.

With that said, let’s begin…

Exiles

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Exiles are often referred to as “inner children” in our culture. 

In their original form, these are your sensitive parts that contain your best qualities. Things like creativity, curiosity, playfulness, exploration, etc. 

Unfortunately, their sensitivity also means they are extremely vulnerable. 

So if you get hurt at a young age, your exiles internalise the extreme beliefs and emotions that occurred during the experience.

And this causes them to shift from their fun, playful states into chronically wounded inner children that are “frozen” in the past. 

Because they are “stuck” there, this means that when exiles are triggered, you can be “pulled back” into those traumatic scenes where you experienced your deepest wounds — even years or decades later.

Depending on the severity of the trauma, this can be so overwhelming, that it can impair your ability to function in day-to-day life. In No Bad PartsDr Richard Schwartz explains that he’s worked with clients who were unable to get out of bed for a week after their exiles got triggered.

So, naturally enough, we do our best to “lock” our exiles away and prevent them from being triggered.

(If you need a mental image, just think of a younger version of yourself crying, screaming, and rocking back and forwards in a cage deep in your body.)

When we lock exiles away, we think we’re simply moving on from bad memories. 

In reality, we’re disconnecting from our most valuable inner resources – the parts of ourselves that are imbued with creativity, curiosity, compassion, exploration, and playfulness. 

An Obesity Study That Made No Sense

In the 1980s, Dr Vincent Felitti was running one of the most successful preventative medicine clinics in the USA. 

However, during an obesity intervention in 1985, something happened that made no sense. 

More than half of the participants dropped out. 

The strange part was — these were the successful participants who had been losing a lot of weight. 

This baffled Felitti and his colleagues. 

Why would someone, who weighed 300 pounds, lose 100, and then quit as the weight was dropping off in record time?

Felitti interviewed more than 200 of the participants to try and understand what was going on. 

After weeks of interviews with little progress, he accidentally asked a question that led to a paradigm shift in our understanding of trauma. 

One of the interview questions was: “How old were you when you became sexually active?”. 

However, on this particular day, Felitti was in a bit of a daze and mixed up the wording, instead asking: “How much did you weigh when you were first sexually active?” 

The female participant responded: “About 40 pounds”. 

Shocked, Felitti asked the question again, and she responded that she was 40 pounds (and 4 years old) when her Father had first sexually abused her. 

Having an inkling he might be onto something, the doctor and his colleagues asked about sexual abuse in future interviews.

And the pattern kept repeating. 

Of the 286 people who were losing weight and then rapidly putting it back on again, most had been abused. 

One example involved a woman who had been raped at the age of 24 and then gained 105 pounds the following year. 

In an interview, she muttered: 

“Overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be.”

Another involved a man who had regularly been beaten up as a skinny kid. However, when he put on weight, nobody bothered him.

The excess weight served as a kind of “body armour” that kept bullies away.

On some level, gaining weight for these individuals was adaptive behaviour. 

It solved a problem for them. 

They equated being attractive or skinny as dangerous because it could draw attention from potential predators. 

Therefore, obesity provided safety in that it would take them “off the radar”, giving them a level of invisibility from their abusers.

In IFS, this could be interpreted as “manager” behaviour. 

Managers

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If you have a lot of exiles, other parts have to leave their natural roles to become “protectors/managers”. 

The purpose of managers is to prevent exiles getting triggered. 

They attempt to control both your behaviour and external circumstances to avoid situations in which exiles may get triggered. 

For example, if you’ve experienced a devastating breakup that caused a deep emotional wound, “manager” parts of you may try to get you to avoid relationships in the future to avoid experiencing this kind of pain again.

Managers often take the form of a harsh inner critic, yelling at you like an overly critical parent once did. Other times they take the form of people pleasers, meaning they do everything they can to help others, while simultaneously neglecting your own needs. In some cases, managers may also be hyper-intellectual, always wanting to stay at a rational, cognitive, level, and keep you out of your body. 

Although they take many different forms, managers all share the aim of preventing exiles being triggered. 

Therefore, although they sometimes appear hostile, their intention is to protect you from the overwhelming emotional trauma that exiles often carry. 

And they will do whatever it takes to serve that purpose — whether it’s developing perfectionistic tendencies, people pleasing, or, as in the example above, putting on weight to keep off the radar of bullies and sexual predators.  

Therefore, in IFS, these parts aren’t seen as “bad”.

Instead, they are viewed as adaptations of your personality system to keep you safe. 

Thus, an IFS therapist does not seek to “get rid” of protectors. 

Instead, she engages in dialogue with them, aims to understand their point of view, ensures they feel safe, and asks for their permission to engage in the therapeutic work she would like to do with her client. 

When done right, this causes managers to release their tight grip on the personality system, paving the way for deep healing and inner transformation to take place.

Firefighters

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Despite the best efforts of managers, the world often has a way of triggering exiles. 

When this happens, it’s a major emergency. 

Because to your protectors, the pain that your exiles carry can feel unbearable. 

According to the IFS model, our personality system contains parts whose role is to deal with these emergencies when they happen. 

These are known as “firefighters”. 

While the job of managers is to prevent exiles being triggered, the function of firefighters is to “put out” the flames of intense emotion that arise when exiles eventually do get triggered.  

Unfortunately, firefighters don’t care about any collateral damage that might be caused by their actions — whether it be to our relationships, our physical health, or our longer term wellbeing. 

This can help explain why someone might binge eat after a breakup, become a workaholic after the death of a loved one, or go on a wild drinking session after losing their job.

All firefighters care about is getting you away from your feelings as soon as possible because they can’t bear the pain that your exiles carry. 

And they will employ a wide range of strategies to do so. 

The Self

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Central to the IFS model is the belief that each human being contains a core “Self”. 

This remains untarnished despite the traumas you’ve experienced, wants what is best for you, and when accessed, knows how best to heal your deepest wounds. 

Although many spiritual traditions and psychological approaches utilise a capital “S” Self, the IFS version differs in three important ways. 

Firstly, in IFS, there are 8 common characteristics of “Self” Energy: 

— Calmness

— Curiosity

— Clarity

— Compassion

— Confidence

— Courage

— Creativity

— Connectedness. 

We usually think of the qualities above as learned behaviours — things that we observe in caregivers at a young age and then seek to model in our own lives. 

However, when working with clients who came from intensely traumatic childhoods who were never shown these qualities, Dr Schwartz noticed that when he could help them access “Self” energy, they displayed many of the characteristics listed above.

If this is true, it’s a paradigm shift in our understanding of human nature because it suggests the 8 C’s are not simply learned behaviours, but instead innate and intrinsic parts of our being. 

A second differentiating factor is that the IFS conceptualisation of the Self plays an active role in the healing process.

This contrasts with most traditions which view the Self as a passive witness or observer of our experiences. 

In IFS, the Self is like the conductor of an orchestra. 

In just the same way that the conductor gets all of the different musicians playing in harmony to produce a symphony, the Self has the ability to get all of your different parts working harmoniously together to help you flourish in life. 

Blending

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“Blending” occurs when a specific part merges its emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and impulses with the Self, causing you to feel like you are that part — at least temporarily. 

When this happens, the Self’s qualities are blocked and replaced by those of the part. 

Temporarily, you become fully identified with the part. 

Sort of like being possessed. 

The difference between being blended and unblended can be compared to the difference between a smoothie and a fruit salad. 

Although the ingredients are the same in both cases, it’s impossible to differentiate the different pieces of fruit that went into making the smoothie after it’s been made. In just the same way, when you’re “blended”, you merge with the beliefs and emotions of a particular part, forgetting that it’s only one element of an interconnected and holistic system.

Parts blend because they don’t trust your Self to take care of you.

If you were abused at a young age, your parts may have lost trust in your Self’s ability to protect you, so they believed they had to step in and do it. 

Unfortunately, they are ill equipped to do so, as they are young and immature; often frozen in time around the point at which the initial trauma took place. 

Therefore, although you may technically be thirty years old and safe, your behaviour may be being dictated by a part of you that still thinks you’re the vulnerable child that experienced the initial trauma. 

So your basic orientation towards life is one of fear and self-protection.

In an external family, if a parent is missing or unable to care for the family due to illness, often one of the children will take on the responsibility of caring for their siblings. 

In family therapy, children who take on these roles are referred to as “parentified children”. 

Although they can provide some support (e.g. by cooking meals, doing household chores, etc.), it will not be at the same level that a mature adult would be able to provide. Furthermore, the heavy burden of responsibility this places on the child is a lot to carry and may stunt their development in other important areas. 

Similarly, when parts of your internal family sense a lack of safety or experience a trauma, they too will “step in” to protect the system. 

So much so, that they take over the personality entirely. 

These protector parts are often “one-sided”, narrow-focused, and unable to think holistically about what would be best for the person as a whole. Therefore, if we are blended with an immature part, we are disconnected, fragmented, and ill-equipped to thrive in life. 

However, it’s important to remember that no matter how blended you may be, your Self is always there. 

Kind of like the sun on a cloudy day. 

Image credit – Em bé khóc nhè on Unsplash

Although the clouds temporarily block it from view, the sun doesn’t disappear. 

It’s always in the background, shining its rays upon the earth. 

Similarly, although our parts often block it from our awareness, the Self is always there and accessible when called upon.

A key goal of IFS therapists then is to empower clients to access “Self” energy, so that a process of organic healing can take place. 

This is achieved by working with protector parts; treating them with respect and ensuring they feel safe enough to temporarily relax and subside, so that the Self can shine through. 

Best Practices for Working with Parts

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Before concluding, let’s examine some of the most important principles when working with parts. 

The first is that we should never “bypass” protectors and go straight to exiles. 

Exiles are extremely vulnerable and often carry intense emotion and trauma from our past. 

Therefore, not only is going directly to them potentially going to trigger a release of negative emotion from exiles, it’s also likely to cause a “backlash” from protectors. 

Your protectors are like gatekeepers to your most vulnerable wounds, who have spent a lifetime trying to keep you, and everyone else, away from your exiles. Inner systems — particularly those that have been burdened with intense trauma, are sensitive ecological environments and need to be treated accordingly.

This is why IFS therapists first consult protectors and request their permission before working with exiles. 

The second thing to keep in mind is that your parts are young. 

They’re “inner children” that are frozen at the time when your deepest emotional wounds occurred. 

In the same way that external children need love and attention from their parents to flourish, your inner children need attention too. 

They need to feel seen, heard, and understood. 

Therefore, IFS practitioners recommend regular “check ins” with your parts, where you engage in dialogue with them, and ask if there’s anything they want to share with you. 

By doing this, you’re creating the conditions for internal secure attachment between the adult “Self” and the various parts (e.g., managers, firefighters, and protectors) that make up your personality system.

You’re “re-parenting” yourself.

The third is that you should do your best to keep the promises you make to yourself. 

Can you imagine how a parent-child relationship would be if the parent continuously broke its promises to the child? Over time, it’s likely the child would lose trust in the parent and be uncooperative when asked to do something.

In the same way, we create similar conditions internally when we break promises to ourselves. 

However, if you keep your inner promises, your parts begin to sense that they are being led by a fair and trustworthy Self they can depend on, which creates an inner integrity that flows out into the world.  

Conclusion

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To recap, in IFS, the psyche is made up of the following key elements:

1.) Exiles (wounded inner children and rejected parts of the personality that carry traumas from early in life).

2.) Managers (protector parts whose job it is to prevent exiles being triggered). 

3.) Firefighters (emergency protector parts who put out the “fire” of intense emotion that occurs when exiles do get triggered).

4.) The Self (the wise and compassionate part of you which knows how to heal and get your entire personality system working in harmony – like the conductor of an orchestra).

Blending” occurs when one part of us (e.g., an overly controlling manager) takes over the personality system entirely, often causing narrowly focused, short-sighted, and rigid behavioural patterns.  

A key goal of IFS then, is to help parts “unblend”, so that you can: 

  • Access the qualities of the Self 
  • “Reparent” yourself and create internal secure attachment 
  • Heal wounded parts of your personality
  • Become the leader of your internal family system, provide direction to your parts, and get them working in harmony together. 

Follow Up Resources

If you are interested in a “deeper dive” after reading this post, the following resources may also be helpful: 

Books:

— No Bad Parts – Richard Schwartz

— The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel van der Kolk (Chapter 17)

— Introduction to Internal Family Systems – Richard Schwartz

Video Content:

— Internal Family Systems and Trauma – Richard Schwartz

— Internal Family Systems: A Guided Meditation – Frank Anderson

— Derek Scott’s YouTube Channel

Websites

— The IFS Institute

— Foundation for Self Leadership

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Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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