Internal Family Systems: A Guide to the Inside

By Jennifer Noel, LCSW

When people attend my Writing from the Self workshop, one of the things they learn about is Internal Family Systems.

This powerful model, often just called “IFS,” was developed by Richard Schwartz, PhD. Essentially, it is a way of categorizing people's parts. The word “parts” refers to subpersonalities, habitual ways of responding, moods and so forth. I think that calling this model Internal Family Systems is a bit misleading. IFS talks only obliquely about families, as in the family inside each of us. The term means to describe the family of our parts and how the parts relate to each other in a system.

You know that frustrating, confusing feeling of being split? Like you have two parts that are at odds with each other? Sometimes the issue is something low-stakes, such as:

IFS sculpture.jpg

“This cold is making me miserable and I want to stay in bed.”

vs.

“Everyone expects me to go to work today — I need to be there!”

Other times the split is so deep and involves such major consequences on either side that we can feel miserably torn. For instance:

“I committed myself to my spouse; I can’t possibly ask for a divorce.”

vs.

“I’m really not happy in this marriage. Maybe I should move on.”

Those of us who work with Internal Family Systems would say that each of those scenarios represents two different parts of a person, expressing two different needs. The Vulnerable Sick Person vs. The Diligent Employee. The Committed Spouse vs. The One Who Dares to Dream. In fact, we all have many parts, portraying various aspects of our personalities. Parts are not always pitted against each other, though. Taken together, parts are what comprise the whole of who we are.

For example, Nancy* works as an accountant because she has a strong Numbers Part that is good at understanding math and formulas. But she also has a Painter Part that is more intuitive and subjective when she is working on an art project. At the same time, Nancy has a very developed Mother Part that is highly attuned to the needs of her children, as well as an Entertainer Part that would love it if the kids would just sit quietly while she hosts her friends for long, laughing dinner parties.

In IFS, parts are often divided into Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters.

Exiles are the parts that we are always trying to bury and hide. The terror, the immobilizing depression, the rage — most of us have extreme moods and impulses that we cover so well that we might forget they exist at all. Much of our behavior is oriented around avoiding the feelings carried by the exiled parts.

Managers are protectors of the internal system. They attempt to keep the person in control of every situation and relationship. They prevent the exiled parts, those severe behaviors and moods, from rising to the surface. Ways manager parts do this include: manipulating the environment or other people, perfectionism, being judgmental, caretaking, denying problems, and worrying.

Firefighters are reactive parts. When they sense that exiles have gotten irritated, they do something to “put out the fire.” Many of the firefighter parts’ behaviors are extreme themselves, but they are effective in the short-term. They distract, dissociate and destroy, and can be very impulsive. Some examples of typical firefighter responses are: addictions, obsessions, suicidal thoughts, self-harm and violence.

There is also what we call The Self. At the core of each of us, distinct from all these parts that we have developed over our lives, exists the Self. A major goal, when using IFS in therapy, is to learn how to recognize these parts and get space from them in order to embody the Self. Those of us who meditate, practice yoga, or find release through exercise, might recognize that sense of total calm that seems to come from the very center of our beings. All our regular moods and problems fall away. That’s what it feels like to be “in Self.”

When Alan* discovers how to separate from an Angry Part, for instance, he feels a sense of relief and confidence. He is now able to consider the part from a safer distance. Alan is in Self. Ultimately, when he has enough perspective on his parts and what they are trying to tell him, he can develop a trusting relationship between the Self and the part. His Self can be a leader for his parts. This often proves to be transformative for people. Alan can now soothe his Angry Part on his own, by enlisting help from the Self. He no longer feels compelled to punch a hole in the wall or drive at breakneck speed to his girlfriend’s house to confront her.

The therapeutic process of IFS is similar to how people describe healing an “inner child.” Our parts are like bunches of inner children that took on these roles long ago. One part of Susan* became profoundly depressed at age 4 when her mother was in the hospital for several weeks. Another of Susan’s parts became burdened by anxiety when she was eight and the last kid in her class to learn to read. And so on. Now, as an adult, Susan is still affected by the Depressed Part and the Anxious Part. The Self is like the loving parent who comforts all these inner children, and even heals them.

I finished my training Level 1 training in IFS in 2013. It has certainly been transformational for me, and I have seen how it has revolutionized the lives of many others. Working with an IFS therapist is a truly fascinating experience. I’m very excited to have found a way to deliver the information though writing. But no matter how people become acquainted with Internal Family Systems, I invite them to give it a try.

* These are fictional characters.