Updated: Jun 15, 2022
IFS is . . .
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a mental paradigm and evidence-based therapeutic “parts” modality that works to understand and resolve inner tension, conflict, or disconnection that can lead to both physical problems and mental health issues. Richard Schwartz initially developed this framework and introduced it in the 1980s based on his work as a family therapist. IFS is therefore rooted in systems theory, but expresses the systems approach through the phenomenon of multiplicity. In short, IFS encourages us to recognize ourselves as consisting of “parts” (or “subpersonalities”) – more like having a diverse, ever-evolving inner family instead of being a singular entity with a unified perspective.
Multiplicity can sound strange or even scary to some people at first. Western mental health has pathologized the most extreme (or “split”) expressions of multiplicity, calling it dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). IFS, however, believes it is the nature of mind to be subdivided and that the natural, healthy state of all human beings is thus multiple. We can recognize this in our everyday language when we say things like, “A part of me wants pizza for dinner tonight, but another part wants Chinese food.” Or “A part of me is terrified to try skydiving, but another part of me is really excited!” Or contemplate this phrase in the context of multiplicity: “I am trying to build a better relationship with myself.” Who in this statement is the “I,” and who is “myself?”
Understanding ourselves as consisting of “parts” has been around for quite some time. For example, Freud’s “id” (impulsive part of us), “superego” (morally correct part of us), and “ego” (part of us that mediates the id and superego) can be seen as an example of multiplicity. The popular self-help book from the 1960s, “I’m OK – You’re OK” is based on transactional analysis, which understands people as having three distinct ego states or parts: “child,” “parent,” and “adult.” Astrology, Greek mythology, and tarot all represent the many ways we can express parts of ourselves, such as having a “warrior” part of us or aspects that are a “lover,” “magician,” or “fool.”
Multiplicity reflects the complexity and dynamic nature of human consciousness, and IFS is a framework and modality that can enhance our internal sense of connection, compassion, and clarity.
The IFS parts . . .
The IFS perspective believes that everybody has parts and that none of these parts is “bad.” All parts of us have naturally valuable gifts and resources from which we can draw. But as we go through life and experience adversity and trauma, particularly in early childhood, our parts can shift from their naturally valuable states to become more extreme or even destructive. This shift happens as an adaptive survival response, and unfortunately, our parts often get locked into these more extreme roles. Regardless of how problematic our parts may seem, though, each is an essential aspect of who we are, and they always believe their intentions are for our benefit. Therefore, the goal of IFS isn’t to try and get rid of any parts, but to relieve our parts of burdens (wounds) that keep them locked in roles that no longer serve us in our lives today.
IFS organizes parts into two categories: exiled parts and protector parts. Exiles are young parts of our personality that have been hurt in some way, usually in our childhood, and who, in our adult lives today, are still stuck in the past as if in a “time-warp.” These parts of us carry deep wounds – what IFS calls burdens – that we experience as negative or extreme beliefs, sensations, energies, or as painful emotions such as shame, rejection, loneliness, emptiness, or worthlessness. These parts of us have been “exiled” from consciousness because we wouldn’t be able to function if we experienced the full intensity of these emotions all the time. A primary goal of IFS is to relieve exiles of their painful burdens, which allows them to live in their natural, healthy states once again.
Protectors come in many shapes and forms. As the name implies, their job is to protect us from anticipated or perceived harm by others or from being overwhelmed by the intensity of our own exiled parts. Some protectors serve their role in proactive ways, which IFS refers to as “managers,” and some protectors behave in reactive ways, which IFS refers to as “firefighters.”
The proactive managers are responsible for our day-to-day life and have a “never again” philosophy. Their job is to keep us from being humiliated, attacked, rejected, or abandoned. Managers can be hard to detect because their opinions, strategies, and judgments can speak to us as our own internal voice. Managers are generally focused on trying to control everything – both the external environment and how we are perceived by others. Some common manager roles are critics, worriers, achievers, caretakers, analyzers, and approval-seekers.
The reactive firefighters tend to step in when the world breaks through our managers’ proactive defenses. When our protective walls begin to get shaky or crumble, our exiled parts enter consciousness, which can feel intensely threatening to our internal system. So, parts of us frantically go on high alert and jump in to put out the fires that could cause a complete meltdown. IFS appropriately calls these parts firefighters. Some common firefighter behaviors include illegal drug or alcohol use, rage or acts of domination, compulsions such as sexual acting out, stealing or thrill-seeking, or sometimes even self-mutilation or suicidal thoughts. The urgency firefighters bring makes them impulsively unconcerned about the consequences of their behaviors.
The “Self” – the part of us that isn’t a part
As Richard Schwartz was working with clients in therapy and developing the IFS framework, he discovered a “part” of people that clients would consistently say was not a part: “This aspect of me isn’t a part – this is just me . . . my ‘self.’” Schwartz began calling this “non-part,” the Self (with a capital “S”). From working with hundreds (and eventually thousands) of clients, he realized that everyone seems to have this central aspect that could be described with eight common characteristics, all beginning with the letter “C”: calm, clear, curious, compassionate, confident, courageous, connected, and creative.
Drawing from family therapy techniques, Schwartz discovered that if the more extreme parts of a person, usually protector parts, were willing to settle down a bit and, in a sense, take a step back, then the person’s Self energy would naturally emerge. And when the person’s Self became less enmeshed with their parts, a process IFS calls “unblending,” then the qualities of the 8 C’s would become more accessible and present in the person. As this happens, Self energy can then be accessed to unburden both exile and protector parts – a central practice in the IFS healing process.
Again, the idea that humans have a central aspect of themselves that is uniquely connected to qualities such as compassion, courage, and clarity is nothing new. Most of us have probably heard references to a person’s True or Authentic Self, Higher Self, Healthy Self, Adult Self, or Whole Self. Other philosophies, frameworks, and therapeutic modalities might synonymously speak of one’s Inner Healer, Inner Loving Parent or Caregiver, or one’s Inner Wisdom or Knowing. Religious and spiritual communities might refer to Christ Consciousness, Buddha Nature, Atman, or one’s spirit or soul. Secular mindfulness meditation practices refer to The Watcher . . . a central innate awareness that can calmly recognize and observe one’s thoughts, feelings, and senses. IFS suggests utilizing this same core “Self” to work with all other parts of us (exiles and protectors) to facilitate growth and transformation towards greater health and well-being.
IFS Practitioners . . .
I am an IFS-informed practitioner, having received my initial training through the IFS Institute’s Online Circle program and now my ongoing, advanced training through their Continuity Program. Some professionals with similar IFS training might refer to themselves as IFS-informed practitioners or mentors. I have my own coaching business, and I use IFS with my clients in that capacity as an IFS-Informed Coach. I am also a Master of Social Work student at the University of Central Florida, working as a psychotherapy intern at Cypress Wellness Center, and I use IFS with my clients in that capacity, too.
When utilizing IFS principles and techniques in my work, my most fundamental goal is to be connected to the energy of my own Self as much as possible. To access my own clarity, connectedness, curiosity, compassion, and calm when working with clients, I must constantly watch for my own parts that can get activated while working with others. For example, I have a robust “rescuer” part of me that consistently believes he has more power to “save” people in distress than he does. I also have a “crusader” part of me who can get intensely fired up, wanting to take on the injustices of the world. So as an IFS-informed practitioner, I am in a sense a parts detector . . . first and foremost keeping an eye on my own parts, and then helping others to identify and work with their parts.
I genuinely believe that everyone has the capacity to transform their lives and heal themselves, which aligns well with IFS theory. When initially working with clients, my job is usually to utilize my own Self energy to work with other people’s parts directly – to build trust and help their parts to settle down a little and step back. This process allows my client’s Self to emerge. Then, as my client becomes more skilled at accessing their own Self energy, my job is to support and facilitate my client’s Self to work with and heal (unburden) their own parts. I understand this as a process of building internal trust, and it’s powerful and beautiful to witness as it unfolds.
In time, my job as an IFS-informed practitioner is to not be needed by my clients anymore. Of course, when my clients “graduate,” they know I am available to help them reconnect with their Self energy if they lose their footing . . . life can still be painful and overwhelming, and we all inevitably stumble at times. But IFS is a life practice of compassionate empowerment that we can all eventually learn to do ourselves. It is a way of connecting within to enhance internal harmony, which inevitably leads to greater external peace in our lives.
Lou Bardach is currently a life coach and student intern at Cypress Wellness Center, working toward LCSW licensure as a master’s in social work student at the University of Central Florida. He has also studied the Internal Family Systems psychotherapeutic model through the IFS Institute’s Online Circle program. He believes health and well-being are cultivated through self-care -- by learning to become one’s own compassionate caregiver. As a gay man experienced in working with LGBTQ+ adolescents and adults, Lou is particularly interested in helping others heal from the effects of homophobia, transphobia, and other types of social oppression. Contact him/them at Lou@CypressWellnessCenter.com