What is IFS therapy? Your Parts-Friendly Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model

January 4, 2023
an iguana eats scones in a funny take on IFS therapy

I… F… S… what’s that stand for again? … Inner Family Systems? Iguanas Full of Scones?

What is this wild-ly popular, word salad-esque healing approach called IFS therapy? (And how to remember the acronym? Quick tip: Learn about the IFS name here.)

In this mammoth-sized blog post I’ve sketched out the central ideas and feeling of IFS for you. Keep reading if:

  • You’re IFS-curious – read on to grasp the real gist of this therapy approach … without getting bogged down in technical language
  • You’re joyfully familiar with IFS – it’s quite likely this will refresh your view of IFS with a nuanced and soulful perspective (my specialty!)

Maybe a part of you wants to skim this article and get a quick answer. 

Another part wants to dive into this therapy model deeply. 

And yet another part of you is already pulling out your phone to multitask while …. Hello! You’re already doing IFS! That is, you’ve started identifying parts. 

Welcome to this intro article, written with each of your IFS-curious parts in mind. As a therapist – and in my own healing – I’m intimately familiar with the spiral nature of healing: We visit the same material again and again, each time at a different level. So let’s honor how healing unfolds in this article. (It’s how learning unfolds, too.) 

Let’s spiral into IFS to exactly the level of detail you – and your parts – want. I’ve described IFS with three levels of complexity here. 

Feel free to skip around to:

  1. What is IFS? The 1-minute read (for when you just want Google to tell you, now!)
  2. Your 5-minute exploration
  3. Your Just-Can’t-Get-Enough full explanation of IFS
  4. Bonus: What does healing look like in IFS?

Hint: Looking for descriptions of the parts? Click to jump to Exiles, protective Managers or Firefighers. Or, of course Self.

What Is IFS? The Quick 1-Minute Explanation

(I actually read this out loud to myself and it took 60 seconds!)

IFS is an elegantly simple model of the psyche. As with many therapies, the goal of IFS is to heal our deepest wounds, shed outdated coping techniques, and  – more uniquely – to free our true essence so we can become the person we were meant to be.

The IFS model says our inner world is made up of two main segments: Parts and Self. The special sauce of IFS? It provides an exceptionally clear roadmap for how to get into Self to heal our Parts.

So what are parts? They’re exactly what they sound like.

For example, you know how you sometimes notice, “Part of me wants to slowly savor every morsel of this mouth-watering scone while another part of me wants to scarf it all down in two giant orgasmic bites?” 

(“You’re a traditional therapist, are you sure it’s ok your clients know you like orgasms?” my proper British Therapist Persona part is commenting right now😂…)

Think of each of of your parts as its own individual personality, with its own memory and talents. And like any family: Over our lifetimes, our parts develop unique relationships to each other, ranging from loving alliances to simmering resentments.  

Even when they seem opposed, though – Deep down all our parts share one goal: Keeping the family “house” intact. (We can think of the “house” as the whole of us.) At the bare minimum, this translates into a drive to help us survive. 

As a complement to Parts, IFS says we have Self. Self is the deepest us, the way we feel when we’re our wisest, most compassionate core. Like the ideal loving “parent” of the family, Self is the one inside with the natural care, maturity and instinct to nurture parts into healing and health. 

Ironically, while all adults have a Self (all of us!) very few of us realize that. Typically, our parts don’t know Self exists. So the “kids” inside of us (our parts) are running all around trying their best to balance out each other’s well-intentioned (yet often narrow-minded, short-sighted and immature) behaviors.

bonfire with flowers growing in the life-affirming flames

So how does IFS therapy heal us? As mentioned, IFS gives us a reliable way to get into Self so that we can identify and truly heal our parts. It provides an unusually clear protocol which combines traditional western psychology with ancient shamanic technologies.

And it can bring life-changing results relatively quickly, which is why it’s spreading like wildfire globally (the transformative, life-affirming kind of wildfire!)

Case in point: Three years ago I was the first and only IFS therapist in the Netherlands. Now there are almost 30 of us!

In case you’re wondering: Here’s why it’s called “Internal Family Systems”

Extra credit info: IFS was developed by psychologist Dr. Richard C. Schwartz (known as Dick to friends and colleagues). Dick was originally trained as a marriage and family therapist. This field is known as “systems therapy” because it’s concerned not just with individuals, but with improving the family network as a whole. When Dick started working with individuals who described different parts of themselves, his background in family therapy primed him to recognize these parts were behaving like family members. In essence, Dick synthesized “systems therapy” with individual therapy. So it made sense to include “Systems” into the name of his new therapy. Voilà – “Internal Family Systems!” (It makes once we know all this, but if only Dick’s inner world had included a part talented at catchy names! …🤔😉)

Parts want to know more? Read on for the 5-minute explanation or the full description of IFS.

The 5-Minute Explanation: Core beliefs of IFS therapy

Let’s look at the key ideas upon which IFS is built:

  • Multiplicity is normal
  • Dwelling in the core of you is Self
  • Self has superpowers
  • Forever-healing comes from Self
  • Everyone has Self – yes, even that person 

It’s normal to have multiple feelings at the same time.

We have different thoughts and feelings all at the same time, and they often contradict each other. Let’s take another example. Tonight when it’s time for sleep, a responsible part of you might insist you need good rest.

But another soul-feeding part might be excited to stay up and keep watching a show.

(In fact, maybe it’s the Harry and Meghan Netflix documentary. And maybe it’s 1am. And maybe you’ve just finished a busy week with your therapy clients and circles are appearing under your eyes. But while your young child is sleeping and not interrupting, you so want to watch Harry and Meghan individuate … And maaayyybe that was me last week😉🤫) 

Multiplicity is normal! This idea isn’t new, just new to popular awareness. It’s psychology and neuroscience that are finally catching up to what wise ones throughout human cultures have known for eons. 

IFS-Self-like-a-beautiful-marble

The American poet Walt Whitman’s magnum opus Song of Myself speaks exactly to this. The poem is Whitman’s testament to being alive. Amazingly, he worked on this 52-part poem until the last years of his life – demonstrating how his parts were constantly unfolding:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

— excerpt from “Song of Myself”  by Walt Whitman

There’s a You in there, somewhere!

While we all have multiple parts, we have Self at our core. Every single person has Self. Amidst the multitask-while-reading-this-blog-post and Harry-and-Meghan and absorb-all-I-can-about-IFS and everything, there’s Self in there.

Being human means we experience all of these dissenting thoughts and feelings, and there are also times when we feel a sense of oneness. We might describe this as being in flow, inner peace, or that warm feeling that comes from your heart and fills you. In IFS we call it Self. (And yes, it’s capitalized on purpose.) The Self is us at our core, our truest, innermost being. In the IFS view, Self is the You that’s really, truly, deeply You! 

Self has superpowers.

We feel incredible when we’re in Self. Think of the best, highest version of you. When you feel equanimous, capable and engaged. That feeling of being in total alignment. 

IFS provides a reliable pathway to get into Self.

And this is worth its weight in gold because when we’re in Self:

  • Yes, we still feel those conflicting feelings and hear those arguing thoughts AND we can relate to them from Self
  • No, we don’t need to deny or escape or bypass those feelings or thoughts to have balance
  • In fact, Self enables us to witness and be with the many feelings and parts inside

When in Self, we connect to our emotional depths – without getting overwhelmed. From Self, we can contain the pain and suffering of our parts. Self-energy enables us to finally give our parts the deep listening and understanding they’ve been craving

Consciously getting into Self for the first time is like meeting yourself after a long, long absence. (That’s exactly how I felt when I first experienced Self in my early 20s. I still remember the moment.)

Healing done from Self is deep and lasting.

IFS-Self-like-a-beautiful-marble

Self innately has the power to heal.

This capacity is not something that has to be developed. It’s already there. IFS is not here to help us make Self better. (Self doesn’t need improvement.) 

But what IFS does help us do is get into Self.

IFS gives us a reliable way to tap into Self-energy. 

In Self, we can unburden the awful feelings, beliefs, and realities our parts have been carrying around. And once we unburden, the deep suffering, pain, the crushing loneliness and despair – these are gone from our system (at least, the part of the system we worked with). Permanently. I know it sounds unbelievable. And it’s true.

As you’d expect, this has a wonderful uplifting domino effect, freeing our other parts to drop rigid coping mechanisms and return to their true natural ways of relating to the world. 

Every adult has Self, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.

IFS founder Richard C. Schwartz (aka Dick) has himself worked with perpetrators of terrible violence. Dick firmly believes that every single adult, including whichever historical psychopath you’re thinking of right now, has Self somewhere inside.

So healing is not about constructing Self. Healing is a matter of reaching the Self, and making space for it to perform its wonders.

(Note: Self in children is another matter on which I plan to write a whole blog post.)

Is this empowering model resonating with you? Want to know more? (Scroll down for my most detailed explanation or return to the list.)

The Just-Can’t-Get-Enough Explanation: How IFS Works

Can’t get enough? Welcome to the club 😁

Let’s go deeper.

Of course, the deepest way to learn about IFS is to experience it. You can get a taste of IFS via my free IFS Therapy Audio Guidein which I lead you to dip into your own IFS session.

Back to the realm of knowledge! Now let’s explore:

Let’s start with the first layer of detail: We have two main types of parts: Exiles and Protectors

Exiles are our Vulnerable Parts (and Our Great Treasure)

silhouette of girl who resembles an IFS exile or vulnerable part

Exiles begin as the youngest, purest parts of us. They embody many of our most precious gifts – like joy, creativity, and kindness.

When we experience something overwhelmingly negative growing up (aka trauma), these pure vulnerable parts absorb the resulting shame, guilt and fear those traumas awoke.

In other words, Exiles take the negative experience to heart. As a result, they adopt a nearly intolerable understanding of themselves or the world. An Exile might sum up their entire understanding of themselves or life as: “I am worthless.” or “The world is unsafe.” Even more heartbreaking is: For an Exile, this is not one fact of life. It’s their entire understanding of themselves. It’s their entire reality. 

This pain is so big that if an Exile fills our consciousness – aka if we blend with an Exile – it can become incapacitating. When this belnding happens, we have trouble functioning because all we feel and see is the Exile’s reality.

That’s when Protectors enter. Protector parts are dedicated to to enabling us to function so we can get through the day. And they’re dedicated to preventing the Exile (and us) from getting hurt any further. To do this, Protectors push the Exiles and their debilitating feelings far away from consciousness.

To borrow a vivid metaphor from Dick’s book No Bad Parts: If our system were a house, Exiles would be the youngest children, desperate, lonely, and petrified as they’re locked in the basement by their older siblings (who themselves are terrified the young ones will destroy the family house). 

But when material is locked in the basement, it doesn’t go away. In fact, it becomes the soil on which our entire house is built. Our system’s pain, shame, grief, and anger gets exiled deep into the basement of our psyche so deeply we might not even know it’s there. But, of course, it stays there, whether we are aware of it or not. And it lives, makes noise and vibrations, and shakes the house of us until it gets the attention and healing it needs.

 

There are Two Kinds of Protectors: Managers and Firefighters

We’ve talked about Exiles, now let’s talk about Protectors. IFS identifies two main kinds: Managers and Firefighters. 

Before we get into that, let’s define Protectors a bit more. Protectors develop when we are young and overwhelmed in order to prevent us from being flooded with painful feelings. They develop so that we can function – as you’d imagine, this is an important contribution to make to our internal family system!

Both Managers and Firefighters have your best interest at heart, but… until there is a sufficient level of healing in the system, sometimes their actions can get self-destructive. Surprising fact: as passionately as Protectors defend why they do what they do, they often dislike their exhausting jobs and are desperate to be given a break. When an Exile has been unburdened and Protectors are free to take on a new job, it can be surprising which roles the Protectors choose: Their preferred, freely chosen roles are often the opposite of what they were doing before!

For example, after an unburdening I’ve witnessed many Protectors that had the role of controlling every little detail in someone’s life choose instead to help the person be SPONTANEOUS and flexible. (Really!)

Manager parts appear fantastic … until we scratch the surface

Managers are like kids playing dress-up as grown ups

Our Managers are typically the parts “in charge” of our systems. In fact, it’s not uncommon to identify with the particular Managers who regularly blend with us – and it’s not uncommon for us to mistakenly conclude these Manager parts are “who we are.”

Managers try to act like responsible grown-ups who secure safety via insisting on long-term principles of behavior. Which makes sense – who doesn’t need a trusted adult sometimes? 

Well, this would be all fine and dandy if Managers were trusted adults… but they’re usually children masquerading as adults. (At least until the system has had a significant amount of unburdening. When that happens, managers can come into real maturity if they so choose.) But for most of us entering IFS therapy, managers are like parentified children, trying to hold down the fort until the parent (Self) gets home. 

Managers like to … uh, manage … which sounds useful – until it becomes too rigid and maladapted (think of “The Bobs” in Office Space). There’s nothing inherently wrong with using management strategies. The problem arises when their influence becomes too great, they become too rigid (as they inevitably do), and they flatten our personality. Because: This interferes with our one wild and precious life (nod to Mary Oliver for this wondrous phrase). In other words, the “harm” Managers cause can be insidious, because it’s under the surface, gradual, and we may not even notice its effects of inauthenticity until decades down the line. 

That said, Managers are really important parts of our inner systems. We need principles, codes and strategies to get through life. We need to identify patterns and the “rules” – when they exist – so we can chose how to deal with them. Even before unburdening happens, the ways our Managers protect us often have positive results in our lives. Thank goodness for Managers!

Common Managers strategies:

  • People pleasing, trying to mind-read, trying to be likeable, twisting yourself into a pretzel to take care of others’ feelings and avoid conflict
  • Never showing emotions, putting a wall between you and others, denying any vulnerability, not reaching for what you really desire to ensure you won’t face disappointment
  • Planning ahead, trying to predict the future and the perfect decisions, gather tons of knowledge or material items “just in case”

Our Firefighter parts get a bad rep, but we need them!

firefighter parts in IFS are like children with gushing hoses of water

Protectors also can show up as Firefighters, who are less about the twenty-year plan and more about, “AAAAHHHH!! There is something ON FIRE RIGHT NOW and I’m gonna do something drastic to fix this because WE ARE IN MORTAL FUCKING DANGER!”

Firefighters will choose urgent means of protection to “fix” something RIGHT NOW. They protect by urging us to self-soothe, run, or change the channel away from emotional pain – at any cost. 

Sidenote: Many Firefighters genuinely perceive overwhelming emotional pain as mortal danger! This might sound overblown, but as we get to better know our parts and their pasts, we understand why.

Before listing some typical Firefighting behaviors, I want to name that each of these behaviors has its place in a healthy system. Like we already discussed around Managers’ strategies: There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the Firefighting behaviors. (Arguing has its place. So do mind-altering substances – thinking of you, painful medical procedures!) 

Here are some examples of Firefighting strategies:

  • Mind: Disassociating, spacing out, intellectualizing and analyzing
  • Relationally: Getting defensive, short-tempered, arguing, accusing
  • Body: Drinking, taking substances, sleeping, headaches and other debilitating psychosomatic phenomena

Like the unstoppable gush of water bursting from a fire hose, these behaviors will put out the fire one way or another. But the water damage afterward can be a real soggy mess to deal with. Just like with Managers, Firefighters are compelled to do their jobs … but they usually don’t love that other parts feel animosity towards them for the collateral damage caused by their water bombs.

Is the fire hose worth it? Until there’s been healing of our deepest wounds, it certainly is – at least, if you ask a Firefighter. 

But what if there was another option? 

Everyone Has Self: The most loving, ideal parent you can imagine

image of mother filled with Self-energy in IFS

If you’ve been reading this far, you might have gathered that in the internal family system making up our “house” Self is the parent (the unconditionally loving one so many of us didn’t get in real life!) 

Self is our immutable, indestructible core, and Self is completely confident. Self doesn’t need development. As a recovering perfectionism-tending person, I try to avoid the word “perfect,” but Self is as close as it comes. 

There are characteristic, recognizable qualities of being in Self. Such as: Clarity, Creativity, Calm, Presence, and Patience. In fact, Dick has identified 8 C’s and 5 P’s which he explains with more depth in his book, No Bad Parts.

Sidenote: This book is the gold standard introduction to the model, easily readable for regular folks and therapists alike. Highly recommended!

Building trust between parts and Self

As mentioned earlier: In our system, it’s our parts that need help, not Self.  Our parts are the ones that don’t know about or trust Self, and therefore aren’t willing to make space for it. 

This matters because: As powerful as Self is, it’s only able to appear if parts make space for it. I think of this as a corollary of the concept of free will. (The concept, common to some Christian theology, says that while G-d is all-knowing, individuals still have free will. ) While Self doesn’t perfectly fit this doctrine – for example, Self doesn’t seem to be all-knowing or all-powerful – being in Self does feel like being close to the divine for most of us, so it’s a fitting analogy.

Here is our paradox: As small as a part seems in comparison to Self, a single part can block Self from our consciousness. A part can refuse to make space for Self – parts have that free will. And Self can’t force its way through. We only get filled with Self-energy when our parts allow that to happen.

IFS has a systematic way of building trust between Self and parts so that the whole system gets on board with Self-led healing. It’s a beautifully gentle, respectful, and collaborative approach to therapy.

(Return to list)

IFS Creates a Revolutionary Level of Healing

feeling healing in the body and soul

What does it look like to heal through IFS therapy? 

IFS provides a precise roadmap for healing, and I mean precise—down to the very phrasing of questions we ask our parts. (And this is very intentional: through years of trial-and-error, Dick identified the exact wording that minimizes miscommunication and ushers us to healing.)

The pot of gold at the end of the IFS healing rainbow? We call it Unburdening. This process truly feels like lifting a heavy weight from your shoulders (or soul). It merits its own post, but for now …

Here’s a broad overview of the IFS therapy journey – including Unburdening:

1. Using the IFS methodology, we get into Self and make contact with the Protectors who have been trying so hard to keep us safe.

2. We build an authentic, mutually rewarding relationship with these Protectors. And when there’s sufficient trust, they allow us to make contact with our Exiles. 

3.  While in Self, we go to our wounded Exile. This is where the IFS process becomes exceptionally moving and astonishing (and so distinct from traditional therapy):

  • We enter the Exile’s environment (which, by the way, is often dark and scary—like a basement might feel to a young child)
  • We show the Exile we’re here with them right now, and let it bathe in our compassion and care as much as it wants
  • The Exile gets to share anything it wants with us
  • The Exile can ask us to change anything about the originally painful situation
  • When it’s ready, we help the Exile with Unburdening 

4. Afterwards, there’s reintegration.

Our Exile gets to call into itself any qualities lost along the way, and dwell exactly where it wants to (not that stinky basement!) Our Protectors get to ditch their calcified, restrictive jobs and pick a chosen role that delights them

In short, the other side of the IFS rainbow is a new world, a world full of curiosity, openness, and compassion for who you are, exactly as you are, right now. 

What “healing” means in IFS

Healing means you can finally make contact with your Exiles, and lead them out of the dark basement of the subconscious, into the light. It means the pain and fears that haunted you are transformed into deep wellness. It means you reclaim your native qualities that were lost along the way.

Ultimately, healing through the IFS model looks like a return to our essence, to our real, integrated, cohesive Self.

It means your Protectors don’t have to be vigilently awaiting an alarm bell, because your system is no longer fagile. It’s robust.

Your Firefighters don’t have to rush in with a self-destructive, self-soothing behavior. Your Managers can take their legally-mandated breaks already!

Or course, your Firefighters can still be available for quick action. Your Managers can still be strategic over the long-term. The difference? Your Protectors can now respond in a way that’s adapted to the actual demands of the situation right now. (Before, they were calibrated to the overwhelming traumatic situations that occurred in childhood.)

What IFS gives us is the confidence that we’ve got it. That we can handle any situation that comes our way.

Healing in IFS feels like reducing the inner conflict and awakening your essence so you can be who you truly are.

Let’s say that again, because it’s big. 

IFS helps you become who you really are.

And that’s the main point of all this healing, isn’t it? (For me, at least, it is.)

Want to Know More? 

Are you getting tingles around how incredible IFS therapy is? Having practiced IFS for over a decade, I can tell you from experience: IFS really is as transformative as it sounds. 

If you’re eager to meet your own parts, try my free IFS Therapy Audio Guide mp3 – with workbook! It leads you through your own IFS session in which you’ll start a dialogue with your parts. Who will you  meet – a manager? A firefighter? Self-energy? Try out the IFS guide now!

 

an iguana eats scones in a funny take on IFS therapy

Pssst! Want to do IFS on yourself?

Sail into self-healing in my IFS Mastermind!

It’s an enriching, 9-month live mentorship that helps guide you to becoming your own inner healer. Our intimate cohort of seekers launches in February and is already filling up. I (and my parts) can’t wait to meet you – Learn more here.

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