What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?
Internal family systems therapy (IFS) is based on two very simple ideas: every single person has Self energy and every single person has parts. When we talk about Self energy, we are talking about qualities of compassion, connectedness, calm, curiosity, confidence, courage, creativity and clarity (we call these the 8Cs and how much of any one quality you have at any one time will vary). When we talk about parts, think of “internal family members” with unique qualities and personalities who take on roles or carry burdens for us. Our parts can mesh well or be polarized against each other.
Here’s the best part: IFS is a creative, strengths-based, client-centred and empowering approach that does not pathologize these parts or you.
IFS was first conceptualized over 30 years ago by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
Every Part Is Welcome
Sometimes, we have trouble noticing one or more of those 8Cs of Self. For example, think of a time when a part of you has felt such intense anxiety that it squished those 8Cs so much that you felt the anxiety was the boss of you – it would not let you think, feel or do anything that was not geared towards saving you from anything that would make you feel more anxious. I bet that another part of you was looking at that anxious part of you and flipping out at how much it was shrinking your world and maybe another part of you was judging you for not being able to lean into your fears or “fake it til you make it”. In IFS, every single part is welcome and we don’t need any part to disappear. Instead, we help make space for your Self by releasing parts from their burdens and extreme roles, so they get to take on roles that make sense after that unburdening.
Parts are Protectors with Positive Intentions
Our parts show up in different ways for us: feelings, thoughts, sensations, images, colours, beliefs, fantasies, behaviours, or other ways. We have three kinds of parts:
- Exiles: These parts carry our emotional wounds, hurt, trauma and disturbing memories so far out of our mind that sometimes we forget (or cannot believe!) anything bad even happened because how could we have survived it!? Shame and fear are great examples of wounds we carry that we don’t like to feel … so we quite skillfully exile them as far away from our day-to-day life as possible. Exiles are past-oriented and overwhelming unless they stay repressed. Exiles can become extreme and desperate to tell their story and be cared for at long last. It is important to remember that exiles carry wounds and are not wounds themselves.
- Managers: These parts prevent our exiles from being seen or triggered – like when adult elephants surround the baby elephant to protect the baby elephant from being hurt by predators. Managers are future-oriented and proactive. They help us function in our day-to-day life and try to keep us in control and safe from rejection and hurt. Examples are parts of us that want to be liked, please others, be perfect, minimize vulnerability with people, prevent abandonment by people, perform well at home, school or work, cope with whatever comes our way, soothes us, worries, fears hope, judges our extreme behaviours, thoughts or behaviours and avoids conflict.
- Firefighters: These parts swoop in after an exile has been exposed to stop the pain or distract from the pain. They are present-oriented, reactive and easily judged by the managers. Binging, purging, restricting, self-harm, sex binges, substance use, suicide thoughts, raging, spending, dissociation and numbing are examples.
These parts are all protecting us. They all have a positive intention. They don’t always agree with how to protect us, but they are all on the same page: they don’t want us to hurt.
IFS is about harmony and healing. Instead of your parts leading your world, your Self leads your world with input from your parts, knowing that all parts are welcome with positive intentions. Read “How I Became a Warrior” by Jeff Foster to get a real sense of what this can look like.
Videos for the Curious …
An overview of IFS:
A good fairy story written by a client of Tara Brach, as told by Derek Scott starting at about 24:30, that beautifully sets out how parts help us get through whatever we need to get through to survive:
Tara Brach tells the good fairy story here (starting at about 43:55) as well:
Our parts relate to each other:
If you don’t mind language, see what can happen when we listen to more than one part of us and allow our Self in to our world: