Internal Family Systems (IFS) – What it is and how it works

IFS is a trauma healing method developed by family therapist Richard Schwartz, PhD.

According to Internal Family Systems, everyone has multiple ‘personalities’, referred to as ‘parts’, that live inside their psyche, and that have their own thoughts, feelings and needs. Let’s imagine them like children passengers on a bus. There is also the Self, which is like the driver of the bus.

In IFS, all parts are welcome and valid, and none are considered bad. This is because all of them are only trying to help in the best way they know how.

Self-leadership

“Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry; an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologians call it the Soul, Jung calls it the Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qalb, and Jesus calls it the Center of our Love.” – Mark Nepo

In IFS, this is referred to as the Self. In ideal circumstances, the Self would be the driver of the bus, so to speak, and all the parts would be the passengers.

Richard Schwartz believes that no parts are bad, not even addict parts, eating disorder parts, cutting parts, rage parts, psychopath parts, or even suicide parts. He says that these parts just need compassion and understanding, and they need a strong Self to love them and guide them. If you approach these parts with curiosity and compassion, in the same kind of way you might approach a traumatized puppy, they can relax and allow the Self to heal the wounded parts they protect, which in IFS are called exiles.

Types of parts

Parts are classified as either protectors, or exiles.

Exiles are traumatized, wounded parts, that carry the fear and pain of trauma. They are sort of like little versions of yourself that split off and got trapped at the age you were when the trauma happened. You can have many exiles, and they can be very specific to just one event, or one exile could be holding the trauma from multiple similar events, or broader things as well.

There are two different kinds of protector parts: Managers and Firefighters.

Managers keep the exile parts suppressed, by influencing how you interact with the world, preventing painful experiences from coming into your conscious awareness.

Examples of manager parts might be your inner critic part, or perfectionistic parts. Their main job is to prevent the exiled parts from flooding you with painful emotions so that you don’t get overwhelmed.

Firefighters are there to distract the Self from the pain of the exiled parts when an exile manages to break out and get your attention.

Firefighters can resort to intense tactics to distract you from the pain. For example, alcoholic parts, rage parts, abuser parts, dissociative parts, suicidal parts, narcissist parts, and more. Basically, pretty much all the mental disorders listed in the DSM.

Firefighters can also show up as physical illnesses, like migraines, chronic fatigue, or even cancer. That doesn’t mean to say that physical illnesses are always caused by Firefighters though.

Why would Firefighters think that what they’re doing is protecting you? Because parts have limited awareness – they can only act with the information they have. From where the Firefigher is, protecting you from the pain of the exile is the Most Important Mission, and if there’s a risk that the exile’s pain will flood you and overwhelm you, the Firefighter will try to stop it at any cost.

Different protector parts can also interact with each other

For example, you might have a binge eating Firefighter part, which is trying to make you feel better by encouraging you to eat more cake, which you find delicious. It is doing what it thinks is best, even though it isn’t necessarily the best for your whole body. So the binge eating part might only know that eating cake makes you feel good, and it might not be aware of the adverse health effects that eating too much cake might cause.

You might have another part, which is aware of the binge eating part, and tries to shame that part for trying to encourage you to eat cake, because it can see that you feel ashamed of gaining weight from all that cake. The shame is painful, and thus it wants to protect you from that pain. This part doesn’t understand that the binge eating part is only trying to help in the best way it knows how.

And so you might have parts arguing and fighting with each other. Sometimes, a part can take over control of the bus entirely, and then you “become” the part. For example the binge eating part, where all you can think about is food. Or the binge-eating-shamer part might take over, and then all you can feel is shame about your weight and eating habits. In these cases, the Self is not able to drive, and you literally lose sight of your Self. In IFS terms, this is called Blending.

Exiles

If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that there was some sort of trauma at some point in your life. Everyone has exiles though, even people who had “good enough” childhoods. Exiles are all different and have different stories that led to their exile, but the core feelings are usually similar: shame, feeling unworthy, unlovable, feeling broken or fundamentally flawed somehow.

The protector parts lock these exiles away because they’re uncomfortable with those feelings. While this helps to make you generally functional in daily life, it makes things worse for the exiles because all they really want is love, attention and understanding. They want you to remember what happened to them instead of pushing it away. They need to be acknowledged. Being locked away makes them feel even worse, so they cry and beg for attention all the time.

The more severe the trauma, the louder the exiles will cry for attention, which in turn means that the protectors have to work harder to keep them locked away. Manager parts might be able to keep things under control for a while, but intensely wounded exiles will over time be too much for the managers to handle. This is when the Firefighters step in, and you start having uncontrollable urges to do things that on some level you know are not good for you (drug abuse, dissociating, etc), or for others (raging, being abusive, etc).

It takes a lot of energy from the protector parts to keep the exiles locked away, energy which could be used for other things, like being creative, playful, enjoying life. You might feel tired all the time, or depressed and anxious, or a general lack of motivation because of all this energy being used up to keep the exiles at bay and keep you distracted.

My experience

I personally find IFS extremely fascinating and helpful. At first it was very strange and confusing, but once I got used to the concept, I’ve found it very helpful in getting to know myself better, and why I have so much internal conflict over things.

Like for example, I have a Defender Part, that pushes people away. This part feels suspicious of people, because I have exiled parts that have been hurt and abandoned while trying to connect with people. So the Defender wants to keep other people at a “safe” distance, so that they don’t get close enough to be able to reject me. It will find any minor flaw I perceive in a person, and blow it way out of proportion to turn me against that person. Basically it tries to keep me safe from abandonment by ensuring that I have nothing to lose in the first place. I know that The Defender is active when I find myself thinking negative thoughts and inventing worst case scenarios about people who care about me. It’s fair to say that The Defender is very good at its job!

Explaining how to actually do IFS therapy and unburden exiles is way beyond the scope of this post, and it’s probably best if you can find an experienced IFS facilitator to help you through the process. With that said, I have had some success doing it myself with the help of a book by Jay Earley called Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy, but I had to do a lot of other self-growth work to get to the point to be able to work through stuff like that on my own without becoming overwhelmed. It’s not easy stuff!

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