What is Internal Family Systems?
Internal family systems (IFS) or “parts work” is a holistic and evidence-based approach developed in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Schwartz, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Building on the fundamentals of systems thinking and family systems theories, the IFS model views people as having many different parts or subpersonalities within them (Schwartz, 1987). Dr. Schwartz conceptualized the model while working with clients who suffered from eating disorders, especially bulimia. Schwartz found that various parts of clients would surface in therapy, often conflicting with one another, highlighting the inner turmoil clients experienced on a daily basis (Anderson et al., 2023). Through observation and tracking, Schwartz found that these internal parts assumed unique roles and formed inner relationships, creating an internal system of their own (Anderson et al., 2023). Helping clients meet their internal system and learn how it interacts with and reacts to other people’s systems can assist them identify root causes of conflicts, manage and diffuse complex emotional reactions, and achieve inner balance and ultimately their life goals (IFS, 2018).
The IFS model categorizes consciousness into a primary Self and subpersonalities including “managers, firefighters, exiles” (Schwartz, 2021). The Self is always present; it is the wise, calm, and connected leader of the individual’s inner system (IFS, 2018). Each subpersonality or part has a different history, belief system, likes and dislikes, and unique emotional language. The exiles are known as the vulnerable parts; they are the younger parts who have experienced early original wounding and hold deep pain within them (Klinger, 2020). The managers and firefighters are known as protector parts; their job is to protect the exiles from being activated and from reexperiencing their pain (Rizzo, 2021). Therefore, each part takes on a unique role and set of actions to maintain a state of inner balance and self-preservation within the individual (Haragutchi & Fuller, 2020). Inherently, every part is valuable to the internal system and has positive intents—there are no “bad” parts (IFS, 2018). However, the dysfunction happens when some parts assume extreme roles and become burdened (IFS, 2018). The parts with such extreme roles, such as an addicted part, a critical part, or a self-sabotaging part, overtake the Self and create dysfunction, chaos, and disharmony within the individual (Haragutchi & Fuller, 2020).
The Vulnerable Parts: Exiles
Exiles are usually younger vulnerable parts who have experienced trauma or deep emotional pain (Klinger, 2020). They can be of varying ages; their ages usually represent when the original wounding occurred. These vulnerable parts essentially lose touch with their pure and essential qualities and become burdened by limiting narratives, beliefs, and distorted self-image (Klinger, 2020). In order to not overwhelm the system or become flooded by heavy emotions, these younger parts become exiled, or metaphorically speaking, locked into the basement. The exiles are usually stuck in the past and in their emotional wounds and will use different ways to make their presence known (IFS, 2018). IFS helps clients connect back to their exiles, process their emotional wounding, and bring them into the present moment so that the exile’s burdens can be released and they can get back to embodying their original qualities (Haragutchi & Fuller, 2020).
The Protector Parts
Protector parts are those who diverged from their natural role by assuming extreme roles to protect the exile parts (Klinger, 2020). Although their actions can have harmful impacts on the client, their intentions are always positive. There are two types: managers and firefighters.
Managers are proactive and consumed with making the individual ready to deal with any future circumstances (Rizzo, 2021). Their biggest fear is the activation of the exiled parts and having them overwhelm the system by feeling the emotional pain. Their goal is to keep the exile parts out of awareness and they achieve this by taking on some of the following extreme roles: hypercritical, people-pleasing, overly controlling, or extreme planner (Rizzo, 2021). These extreme roles of the managers are not representative of their true nature.
Firefighters are reactive and get activated when an exile part happens to breach the defenses created by the managers (Haragutchi & Fuller, 2020). Their goal is to put the exile part back into the basement or out of the individual’s awareness. Usually, a polarity exists between firefighters and managers that leads to the escalation of harmful protective defenses (Klinger, 2020). Firefighters can take on the following extreme roles: self-harm, binge-eating, purging, dissociation, addictive behaviours, or suicidality (Haragutchi & Fuller, 2020). Once the exile is out of awareness, the internal system has restored its balance in a dysfunctional way (Klinger, 2020). These extreme roles of the firefighters are not representative of their true nature.
Meet the Self
The Self is the person each person is at their core; it is the seat of consciousness (IFS, 2018). The Self is not visible, but its presence is deeply felt within. In the inner world, the Self is the “I” that observes everything (IFS, 2018). This is the aspect of the individual that can recognize its thoughts and emotions and separate from them (Schwartz, 2021). For example, during an emotionally heavy experience, the Self recognizes that a part within the internal system feels triggered and overwhelmed and knows that gradually this part will go back to its balanced state. The Self does not blend with the thoughts and emotions, rather it maintains its centeredness and is able to differentiate and separate itself from the emotional experience (Schwartz, n.d.).
Schwartz found that when clients are in Self-energy or are Self-led in their day-to-day lives, they exhibit these characteristics which are called the 8 Cs: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage and connectedness (Schwartz, n.d.)
What Can IFS Help Me With?
The goal of IFS is to restore harmony and balance within the internal system by helping the parts find their nonextreme roles and reembrace their true nature and qualities (IFS, 2018). The latter is achieved through a process called unburdening (IFS, 2018). This process highlights the relationships between the parts because parts cannot heal in isolation. Once the parts are in their nonextreme roles, the internal system is back to being led by the Self (Klinger, 2020). The parts respect and follow the Self’s decision-making, so reorganization of the internal system occurs and harmony and balance within the individual are achieved (IFS, 2018).
Applying IFS in the Therapy Room: What Does it Look Like?
The initial goal of IFS is to differentiate the Self from the various other parts—exiles, firefighters, and managers—this step is called unblending (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019). At the beginning of a session, the therapist asks the client which part needs their attention. This process includes meeting the part, hearing its needs and fears and what would happen if it stops doing its extreme job (IFS, 2018). Then, the therapist assesses how the client feels towards that specific part; if the client’s response embodies any of the 8Cs mentioned above, then the client is in Self-energy, if however, the client expresses feeling anger, shame, or guilt towards that part, then, this means that another protector part is showing up (Schwartz, n.d.). The therapist will then guide the client to bring their awareness to this new part and work with it until it feels ready to step back (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019). As the client begins to form a more trusting relationship between Self and parts, a befriending process occurs. The protectors can start to step back, which facilitates the client’s access to the exiled parts (IFS, 2018). As the Self starts to meet the exiled parts, the unburdening process of these vulnerable and wounded parts begins (Klinger, 2020). In the unburdening process, the client is invited to meet the exile parts, listen to their inner experiences and needs and meet their needs (Klinger, 2020). Doing the latter helps reprocess some traumatic memories, releasing stuck emotions and reexamining some core beliefs. The client’s Self is then encouraged to invite the part that was exiled into the present and discover a new role for it (Klinger, 2020). Subsequently, protector parts meet this newly healed part and find healthy ways of interacting with it. The unburdening of parts relieves problematic behaviors in clients and ultimately establishes a connected, harmonious, and trusting internal system that is led by the Self (Schwartz, n.d.).
Here is a look at Kate’s case through an IFS lens. Kate is a 35-year-old woman seeking therapy due to feeling stuck in life. Kate has been focusing on her career for the past 10 years and achieved her dream of building a well-established veterinarian clinic. Kate feels that those past 10 years have been heavily career focused, but she misses being in a committed partnership and wants to embark on a path towards that.
In her therapy sessions, Kate shared how she survived living in an abusive household as a child, how she found herself in an emotionally abusive relationship in her early 20s, and how difficult her journey was. She started noticing that every time she met someone new or got emotionally close to someone, she experienced high anxiety, and at times, panic attacks.
In our work together, we took time to meet some of Kate’s protector parts and to notice the stuck cycle she found herself in; when Kate felt emotionally close with the person she was dating, her exile parts got triggered: Memories of the emotional abuse she experienced in the past resurfaced and overwhelmed her. In an attempt to manage and put out the emotional pain, Kate identified an anxious protector part that got activated and found solace in binge eating. While guiding Kate to meet this part and hear its needs, Kate found out that this binge-eating part believed that if she binged, she would gain weight and therefore be perceived as unattractive; then, her dates would pull away from her. That part was focused on keeping Kate protected even at the expense of fulfilling her desire for intimacy.
By accessing the Self and the Self-energy, Kate was able to gradually hold this binge-eating part with compassion, hearing its fears and how it tried to protect her. As the relationship between Self and part became more secure and trusting, Kate was able to ask the binge-eating part to step back and let her meet her exiled part, who for Kate looked like an 8-year old. This exiled part was holding on to fear and terror of being abused and oppressed in relationships, which had been her childhood experience.
As we worked through unburdening Kate’s protectors and bringing the 8-year-old exiled part back to the present moment, the binge-eating part was able to step-back and trust Kate’s Self-leadership to lead her internal system. Over time, a more trusting relationship occurred between the protector and the exiled parts and between each part and the Self. Kate shared that after this process, she felt more balanced within and found her protector parts more cooperative, able to trust in her adult’s Self-energy and leadership. Kate is now more able to manage her anxious thoughts and feelings around dating, and she continues to work with her protector parts to befriend them.
A creative way of meeting the parts while using family constellation toys
Who Is IFS for?
IFS is a holistic and evidence-based approach that is used to treat various mental health conditions and complex emotional issues (Anderson et al., 2023). IFS is used with individuals, couples, or families seeking therapy and has been found to have promising outcomes for clients experiencing the following: depression, anxiety, specific phobias, trauma, addiction, body image issues, obsessive compulsive behaviours, and histories of different types of abuse (Schwartz, 2021). Many research studies are being undertaken to assess the effectiveness of IFS in treating other conditions.
How Does IFS Differ From Other Therapeutic Approaches?
Compared to other psychotherapy approaches, IFS is less solution-focused and is not focused on changing the client’s way of thinking or teaching a set of skills to do so (Haragutchi & Fuller, 2020). Instead, IFS acknowledges the multiplicity of the mind and relies on Self-leadership to bring harmony and healing to the inner parts that hold various emotional experiences, narratives, and beliefs (Schwartz, 2013).
When IFS is used in conjunction with other therapeutic modalities, a space of empowerment, inner cohesion, and compassion towards the whole being is naturally created. As clients build a deeper understanding of their internal system, fewer shame and pathologizing narratives show up and more curiosity, connectedness, and empathy take up space.
I look forward to employing IFS principles and combining it with other modalities in our work together to honour the various parts of you and help you connect back to your sense of agency and inner strength. This is what we aim to achieve at Solidarity Therapy.
Anderson, F., Schwartz, R., & Ginter, P. (2023). Internal family systems (IFS): Development, application and transformational model to effectively help clients improve well-being [Online training]. PESI.
Haragutchi, H., & Fuller, K. (2020, August 25). Internal family systems therapy: How it works & what to expect. Choosing Therapy. https://www.choosingtherapy.com/internal-family-systems-therapy/
Internal Family Systems. (2018, February 12). Good therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/internal-family-systems-therapy
Klinger, D. (2020, March 19). All parts are welcome: Using the internal family systems model with individuals and partners, with (or without) trauma history. UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work Clinical Institute. https://cls.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/3019/2020/03/Handouts-for-IFS.pdf
Rizzo, A. (2021, February 21). IFS protector parts (managers and firefighters) - What are they? Therapy with Alessio. https://www.therapywithalessio.com/articles/ifs-protector-parts-what-are-they
Schwartz, R. C. (n.d.). Evolution of the internal family systems model by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. IFS Institute. https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/evolution-internal-family-systems-model-dr-richard-schwartz-ph-d
Schwartz, R. C. (1987). Our multiple selves: Applying systems thinking to the inner family. The Family Therapy Networker, March–April, 21–31. http://www.hakomiinstitute.com/Forum/Issue10/OurMultipleSelves.pdf
Schwartz, R. C. (2013). Moving from acceptance toward transformation with internal family systems therapy (IFS). Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69(8), 805–816.
Schwartz, R. C. (2021). No bad parts: Healing trauma and restoring wholeness with the internal family systems model. Sounds True. https://ifs-institute.com/nobadparts
Schwartz, R. C., & Sweezy, M. (2019). Internal family systems therapy (2nd ed.). Guilford Press. https://www.guilford.com/books/Internal-Family-Systems-Therapy/Schwartz-Sweezy/9781462541461