Internal family systems, or IFS, are an evidence-based model of psychotherapy. IFS is a non-pathologizing approach to psychotherapy. The premise of this model is the idea of multiplicity – that is that the mind is made up of different parts.  We all have different parts and sometimes they’re on the same team and sometimes they’re in conflict.  The grounding assumption is that there are no bad parts, only parts forced into bad roles. There are two core concepts of IFS – the existence of the Self and the existence of parts.

The Self– The first core concept of IFS is the existence of the Self. The Self is present within each person which is the pure essence of who they are. It is inherently good as a whole and cannot be broken or corrupted. When a person is Self-led, their system is balanced, and all parts are acting in harmony with one another. This brings the whole system into harmony and allows us to become Self-led.
Being in Self is marked by the eight C’s – curiosity, calm, clarity, connectedness, confidence, courage, creativity, and compassion.

Parts – The second core concept of IFS is the existence of parts. Parts are sometimes referred to as sub-personalities or families. Each part has its own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. They may be of a different age or gender than the person. All parts act from a place of positive intention. There are no bad parts, only bad roles. When a party feels threatened and does not trust the Self, they act out to try to protect the system. Because parts are often stuck in time or polarized with one another, the behavior may be extreme, or out of sync with reality. When parts trust the Self and feel understood and appreciated, they take on positive roles in the whole system accessing harmony.

Sometimes, the Self and other parts become blended and scare the Self. When this happens the first step is to differentiate the Self from the blended parts. When we learn how to access the Self, we can then heal our wounded parts.

There are three general categories of parts:

Exiles– Exiles are the parts that carry the most extreme memories and feelings. Exiles hold painful emotions that have been isolated from our conscious Self for protection. They want to care for a but can leave the person feeling exposed and vulnerable. Protectors fear this will stabilize the system. They are often part of some of the youngest parts of the system. They hold the experiences of abuse, neglect, humiliation, and shame. A part becomes an exile when the trauma they have is so great that other parts effectively lock them away in an effort to protect the system from becoming overwhelmed. It takes an incredible amount of energy to keep the exiles out of conscious awareness. Examples of exiles include  rage, dependence, shame, inadequacy, fear, grief, and feeling like “too much.”

Managers– Managers are the proactive protectors of the system. Their goal is to protect against pain, vulnerability, and instability.  The role of managers is to act to keep the person feeling secure by controlling people/situations, events, and other parts. They bear huge burdens of responsibility for keeping it all together and fear that relinquishing control will lead to the worst outcomes. Their motto is “Never again.” Their role includes keeping the system stable and being prepared. Managers look for ways to control the system so that exiled parts are kept out of awareness. The fear of most managers is that the exile parts might come to the surface and overwhelm the system with the intensity of the memories and feelings they hold. They often imitate the Self was such effectiveness that they appear to actually be the Self. Examples are the comptroller, criticize her, self-critical, planner, judge, caretaker, people, pleaser, perfectionist, overachiever, and pessimist.

Firefighters – Firefighters are the reactive protectors of the system. Firefighters step in when an exiled part has broken through the manager’s defenses. Their goal is to stop the system from feeling the pain that exiles carry. Firefighters act, powerfully and automatically to repress emerging exiles, release pressure, and get out of danger fast. They can overpower managers’ efforts to control the system. Their motto is “When all else fails. “ Examples are anger/rage, sleep, work, sex, diet, exercise, video, games, addictions, eating disorders, self-harm, so suicidality, dissociating, distraction, session, and fantasy.

This may initially start with less intense behavior, such as smoking cigarettes, seeking out adrenaline-producing experiences, or overworking. However, firefighters are often polarized by managers who despised the ways fire affect firefighters act out. This polarity can cause the tactics firefighters use to escalate to extremes such as binge, eating, self-harm, suicide attempts, or drug use.

The unburdening process – the process of unburdening is the key to healing, exiles other wounded parts. In Self, the client listens to the experience of the exile until the exhale feels understood, excepted, and loved. Then the client offers the exile a do-over. he part tells the Self what it needed at the time, and the client does what the part needs.

When the part is ready, the client Self helps the part to unburden- ceremonially releasing the painful memories, feelings, or beliefs using imagery. Then the client invites the part into the present and helps it find a new role. The protector parts are invited to meet the healed part and begin finding new, healthy patterns of interaction.

The initial goal of IFS therapy is to help the client access their Self and befriend the managers and firefighters. Then, in Self, the goal is for the client to access exiled parts and heal them through the unburdening process. The ultimate goal of IFS is to increase the client’s access to Self so that they can become more Self-lead. This process naturally loves clients to reach other goals. They have such as decreasing anxiety, improving their relationships, or recovering from trauma.

For more information on IFS, please click the link to the IFS Institute:

Dr. Richard Schwartz explains Internal Family Systems (IFS)