In the evolving landscape of psychotherapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS) stands out as a transformative model that honors the complexity of the human psyche. This approach to psychological wellness is based in a compassionate and inclusive framework for understanding ourselves, transcending the conventional mono-mind perspective of Western psychology.
With IFS, we embark on a journey that not only heals painful life events and trauma but also nurtures our spiritual wellbeing, allowing us to relate to ourselves and others with unparalleled authenticity. At its heart, IFS introduces us to the concept of the mind as a system of “parts” or an internal family—a dynamic system that makes us far more multifaceted than previously imagined.
IFS is a model by which we can find, befriend, help, and heal the protective and wounded parts of ourselves so that we can live wholeheartedly, feeling empowered and connected to ourselves and others. IFS is also a model by which we can find and reconnect to our true Selves—the core of who we are that cannot be damaged or broken and can become a resource and guide to our parts for a more harmonious internal system.
Letʻs delve into the foundational components of IFS to better understand its transformative power.
What are “parts” in IFS?
The easiest way to understand parts is to look at a situation in which you had many different or conflicting feelings or perspectives. Take the example of being in a romantic relationship – there is a part of you that might want to stay for fear of being alone, and a part of you that wants to leave because they donʻt like some of the behaviors of your partner.
Our parts are distinct states and neuropathways in the brain that have their own thoughts, emotions, memories/experiences. Their roles in our internal and external worlds are formed in response to our life experiences, especially traumatic or challenging events. They are also impacted by each other in the system, operating much like a functional or dysfunctional family, depending on the level of pain and trauma experienced. These parts represent the myriad experiences and emotions that contribute to our internal complexity.
The Protective Parts: Managers and Firefighters
Within our internal systems, some parts take on protective roles. These roles are necessary throughout our life span, but can become extreme in relation to how much trauma and pain we experience.
These parts are proactive and preemptive in nature, striving to keep the individual safe from harm and emotional suffering. They are the planners, organizers, and caretakers, attempting to maintain control and order. When they become extreme, these sides of us can become extremely rigid and dogmatic, causing us more difficulty in tapping into creativity, joy, play and connectedness.
These parts who also are necessary are often reactive and responsive when distress breaches the defenses established by managers, leaping into action. They serve to extinguish emotional pain, often through impulsive behaviors like substance abuse, binge-eating, dissociation or doom scrolling social media. These parts do behaviors that can offer immediate relief but often have consequences, and the more extreme firefighters become in their roles, the more single focused they become in putting out these fires despite the consequences (like severe addiction).
The Wounded Parts: The Exiles
Then there are the exiles, the parts that carry our pain, trauma, and deepest wounds. Managers and firefighters work in tandem to suppress these vulnerable parts, often burying them deep within our consciousness to keep their distressing memories and emotions at bay. This dynamic often causes our exiles to flood and overwhelm us when an opening arises, which will cause our protective system to work harder (more rigidity and/or more chaotic behavior), causing this cycle to continue.
However, just like our protective parts are not the roles they took on, these exiled parts are NOT the pain they carry and are often the source of our greatest gifts, if they could be liberated of their suffering and the trauma they carry and supported into new integrated roles in the system.
The Self: Our Compassionate Courageous leader
Central to IFS is the belief in the Self, an indomitable spirit at the core of us characterized by the “8 Cs”: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness. The Self is the center of our true essence, untouched by life’s bruises and a natural leader capable of healing and leading our parts.
Much of the process of IFS therapy is helping to uncover your Self or self energy that may have been buried/taken off line for survival and in response to a difficult life, not recognizing that our Self energy is required to lead a fulfilling life.
The Healing Process in IFS
The healing journey in IFS involves helping you reconnect to your Self energy and engaging with your various parts in a compassionate and curious manner. By recognizing and respecting the intentions of both protective and wounded parts, the Self can help transform them, allowing for a harmonious integration into the internal family.
Through this internal dialogue, exiled parts can release their burdens, managers can relax their rigid control, and firefighters can soften, recognizing that their emergency services arent needed in the same ways. The outcome is an empowered individual, liberated from the confines of internal conflict, able to live with authenticity and connectedness.
In essence, IFS is not just a therapeutic model; it’s a pathway to self-discovery and inner harmony. By offering a lens through which we can view our mental ecosystem, IFS equips us with the tools to nurture and help our parts, engage with our true Self, and ultimately lead a fulfilling life imbued with intention, authenticity.
As a Certified IFS Therapist and Approved IFS clinical consultant, I provide IFS therapy as well as consultation and training to practitioners who want to learn and deepen in their understanding of the IFS model.
Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about this post and what you think of IFS therapy. Iʻm listening.
Images courtesy of Noelle Schwarz https://www.etsy.com/shop/ifsselfshop