Unlocking Your Inner World: An Overview of Internal Family Systems (IFS)
By Dr Kate Owen
Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Family Therapist
Have you ever felt like there are multiple voices within you, each vying for control of your thoughts and emotions? Well, you're not alone. Let me introduce you to one fascinating tool in my therapist toolkit to help explain this phenomenon: Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS is a way of understanding and soothing the complex inner dynamics that make up your being. In this blog, I will introduce you to the concepts of Manager parts, Firefighter parts, Exile parts, and the Self within the IFS model. Read through to the end if you also want to gain practical strategies for applying these concepts to your daily life.
The Basics of Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic model developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980's. It offers a unique perspective on understanding and addressing our inner psychological dynamics. Imagine your mind as a complex gathering of distinct characters or "parts," each with its own roles, emotions, and beliefs. For example, you may have a part that's confident and assertive, another that's insecure and anxious, and yet another that's critical and self-judging. The philosophy of this model is that “all parts are welcome” (Anderson et al, 2017: 32).
These internal parts can often be at odds with one another, leading to inner conflicts that manifest in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. For instance, consider the internal tug-of-war when one part craves a slice of chocolate cake ("Go on, you deserve it"), while another part wants to stick to a healthy eating plan ("I need to be healthy for my family"). IFS recognizes that these conflicts can cause distress for a person, feeling torn between multiple goals. In fact, hearing the expression of inner turmoil by my clients helps me to decide if I will use IFS techniques in a session.
IFS techniques help individuals navigate these internal complexities to create harmony and cooperation. It is like having a skilled mediator step into the boardroom of your mind, where various aspects of your personality sit around the table. IFS encourages people to engage in an open and empathetic dialogue with their internal parts. This means listening to each part's concerns, fears, and desires without judgment.
Think of it as a process of internal diplomacy where the goal is to get to know each part, befriend each part, and heal wounded parts to work together toward a more balanced and harmonious mental landscape.
To gain insight into the various parts inhabiting the boardroom of your mind, let's explore the three distinct parts within the IFS model and delve into the concept of the Self.
Imagine you have a set of inner managers that are responsible for maintaining order within. Manager parts are like the responsible, task-oriented managers we encounter at work. They set rules, establish routines, motivate us to improve, want to be in charge, and aim to keep us safe by preventing us from getting hurt emotionally or physically.
For example, have you ever convinced yourself to overcome procrastination to get something done? In those moments a Manager part has stepped up and taken over. They have taken control of the situation to steer you towards productivity and achievement as the Manager part doesn't want you to get into trouble for missing a work deadline. When you make a to-do list and prioritize tasks, you are essentially letting your inner Manager take the lead. These parts are hardworking, but problems arise when they become overly controlling or rigid. For example, when you become obsessed with your to-do list and feel stressed when unexpected disruptions derail your plans. In this situation, the once helpful manager part has transformed into a dictator.
Firefighter parts are like your emotional first aid responders. They rush to the rescue when you feel overwhelmed and their goal is to extinguish emotional fires. Firefighter parts use quick fixes like distractions or numbing strategies to help you cope in the moment.
For example, reaching for a tub of ice cream after a tough day at work or seeking solace in addictive behaviours is a Firefighter part in action. These strategies act like a temporary emotional band-aid. While these parts intend to be helpful by steering you away from negative thoughts and emotions in the short term, their excessive use of potentially unhealthy coping mechanisms can contribute to long-term problems.
Both Manager parts and Firefighter parts share the same goal of protecting vulnerable Exile Parts.
Exile parts are the vulnerable and childlike aspects of your inner world. These parts carry the emotional pain from past experiences that were too overwhelming to process at the time. They are often tucked away deep within your mind to protect you from re-experiencing that pain.
For example, if someone has a relationship breakup then their vulnerable Exile part may experience feelings of sadness, rejection, or betrayal. Perhaps beliefs of “I am unlovable” surface. These overwhelming feelings may be echoing similar wounds from earlier in life when someone they loved left them emotionally or physically. The Manager and Firefighter parts will work hard to keep these feelings locked away to protect the Exile part from emerging.
A great deal of internal energy goes towards keeping Exiles out of conscious awareness. Manager parts will “banish” them, and Firefighter parts will react quickly and powerfully without considering consequences to distract from feelings that Exile parts inevitably bring.
THE SELF: Your Compassionate Core
Alongside Manager parts, Firefighter parts, and Exile parts, there exists a central and essential concept: The Self. The Self is often referred to as the compassionate core of your inner world and is often described as “the you who is not a part” (Anderson, et al, 2017: 9). It's the essence of you that embodies compassion, curiosity, clarity, creativity, calm, confidence, courage and connectedness, which makes the Self the best inner leader.
When you recall a time when you felt calm, grounded, and capable of making decisions, this was a moment when your Self was in the driver's seat. For instance, picture an argument with a loved one. Suddenly, you pause, take a deep breath, and respond with empathy and understanding instead of reacting defensively. In that moment, your Self is in control and all other parts trust that the Self can manage the situation.
The IFS model recognizes that everyone has access to the Self and these qualities, but the Self can be hijacked by the other parts who believe that they have the important job of protecting the internal system. That is, protecting by "managing" a situation or "reacting" to a situation. The goal of IFS is to help individuals access and strengthen the Self, allowing them to lead a more balanced and harmonious life. If we return to the boardroom analogy, the Self is both CEO and HR who cultivates relationships with all parts, mediates relationships and conflicts between parts when needed, and provides a compassionate and supportive environment for all.
Applying IFS Principles To Your Daily Life
If these concepts resonate with you...or a part of you...and you want to experiment with unlocking your inner world, consider engaging in these exercises:
1. Self-Reflection and Journaling: Dedicate time to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Journaling can help you identify which parts are active in various situations and how they relate to your Self. Ask questions like, “In that situation which part came to the rescue, and what was its intention?”, and "What is my Self's perspective on this situation?"
2. Mindfulness and Meditation: Regular mindfulness and meditation practices can help you connect with your Self. These practices create a space for you to observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment. Over time, this connection with Self can grow stronger.
3. Inner Dialogue: Engage in conversations with your inner parts. When you notice a Manager, Firefighter, or Exile part taking over, ask it to step aside temporarily and allow the Self to lead the conversation. Yes, literally in your mind, or out loud, talk to your parts. First ask the part to dial down in its intensity of emotion so that you can understand better. Then ask yourself, "What are my parts reacting to?”, “What do they want me to know?” and “What does my compassionate Self have to say about this?"
4. Seek Professional Support: Consider working with an IFS therapist. They can provide guidance, facilitate exploration of your inner world, and strengthen your connection to the Self.
5. Practice Self-Compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend. Acknowledge that all your parts, even the challenging ones, have valid intentions. Self-compassion can help create a safe space for your parts to trust and connect with the Self.
Thanks to Janina Fisher, whenever I explain the concept of parts to clients I use a set of rubber ducks, with each duck representing a unique part of the person. Yes, I literally have a family of ducks sitting in the drawer of my office and I usually get some puzzled looks and a few giggles from my clients. So I just had to include this image before I bring this article to an end.
In conclusion, Internal Family Systems (IFS) offers a way to understand the complex dynamics within your psyche. The concept of the Self as the compassionate core provides a guiding light in this inner journey. By nurturing your connection with the Self and allowing it to lead interactions with your Manager, Firefighter, and Exile parts, you can cultivate a more balanced and harmonious inner world. Ultimately, the aim is to help you become your own best ally and find a sense of wholeness and well-being in your everyday life.
References and Resources
Anderson, F. G., Sweezy, M., & Schwartz, R. C. (2017). Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual: Trauma-Informed Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, PTSD & Substance Abuse. Pesi Publishing & Media.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing The Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self Alienation. Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Schwartz, R. C., & Sweezy, M. (2020). Internal Family Systems Therapy (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.
Please note that this article is educational in nature and is not a substitute for therapy, or intended as therapeutic advice. Please seek the support of a professional if required.