By Robin Arnett - August 29, 2022
Oneof the modalities that I draw heavily from in my practice is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. IFS can feel confusing and heady when you’re first learning about it, so I felt called to lay out the basics for anyone that’s interested to learn more. I’ve found IFS to be a guiding light in my work. It can clarify what’s felt muddy for years, and helps us to access self-compassion in a whole new way. When we get to know our internal system and get the “family” to communicate and appreciate one another, we experience another level of self-understanding and inner peace.
The Internal Family Systems approach suggests that our psyche is made up of inner “parts” that operate like a family. Our parts play roles in our lives, form our personalities, and shape how we’re embodied in the world. In addition to our parts, we all have a core inner “Self” that’s connected to a greater whole. Through IFS, we help to illuminate parts, their roles, and their motivations. We learn about the burdens that they may carry, and we can relieve them of those burdens. Most of all, we help our core Self to move into the leadership role that it was meant for all along. With the Self in the lead, the entire family operates with cooperation, grace, and maturity.
One of my favorite things about IFS is that it doesn’t pathologize any of our parts. All parts are assumed to have good intentions, and we do learn this to be the case when we communicate with them directly. Even the part of us that sabotages, drinks too much, or dissociates has a purpose to what it does. How it does its “job” depends on the part’s history, its age, and its relationship to other parts. We can help our parts to play their roles in healthier ways when the Self is in charge and burdens are released, but we start by accepting and listening.
Although IFS may sound a little “woo woo,” it is, in fact, an evidence-based practice. Anecdotally, I have experienced IFS to be a powerful healing tool, both in my practice and my own healing journey. I’m excited to spread the word on this powerful approach.
The Internal Family Systems Model
Our systems tend to be divided between protectors and exiles. Protectors are both “managers,” who try to prevent bad things from happening, and “firefighters,” who jump in when we’re triggered. All protectors work to keep “exiles” from coming to the forefront. Exiles are parts that are often very young, and because of that they’re super vulnerable. They carry difficult feelings like shame, loneliness, and pain, as well as traumatic memories that couldn’t be processed at the time they were experienced. In a “burdened” system, exiles get pushed away and shut out because their feelings can to be overwhelming. This dynamic creates tense polarizations among our parts; the more they’re pushed down, the harder exiles try to be heard.
The goal in IFS is to get to know protectors, develop trust, and get permission to connect directly with exiles. From there, we can help exiles to release the burdens that they’re carrying and get into a safe and loving relationship with core Self. We also help to facilitate healthy relationships between parts, building understanding and empathy.
Managers are the parts of us that try to keep exiles from being triggered by doing all the stuff they think they’re supposed to do. Managers are often concerned with approval from the outside world, and they really want to do a good job. Common protectors are perfectionists, caretakers, worker bees, people pleasers, and controllers, although they (like all parts) show up differently for everyone.
Firefighters are also protectors, but they do their job in direct contrast to managers, and often have tense relationships with managers because of it. Firefighters will do whatever they can to shut down the pain when exiles are triggered. Like a firefighter in real life, they will soak the house and break down the door with an ax if that’s what it takes to put out the fire. Firefighters may also show up as the last line of defense in a toxic situation. It can feel like they’re blowing up your life, when really they’re desperately trying to help you escape.
Some common firefighters are substance abuse, blow ups and rage, sabotage, dissociation, disordered eating, and even suicidality. Firefighters get a bad rep, but another way to think of them is as attempts at coping; they’re just here to help you manage and get through the painful parts of life. By creating relationships with exiles and releasing them from their burdens, we can let firefighters off the hook.
Exiles are desperate for comfort and connection. They want so badly to be heard, and they are lonely at the edges of our system. Exiles are some of the youngest and most vulnerable parts of us. They can be representations of versions of us that couldn’t handle what was going on around us when we were small. They couldn’t cope with or understand it, and got flooded and overwhelmed.
Parts are often afraid, with good reason, that exiles will flood our systems if they’re allowed to show up. Luckily, we can ask exiles to commit to not overwhelming us as we’re in the process of connecting. I’ve never experienced a time working with clients when an exile wasn’t willing to make that commitment. They really just want to be heard, and they’re desperate to connect. Connecting with exiles most often requires that we get permission from protectors first. Our protectors need to trust us before they allow us to access these vulnerable places. When we are given that permission, the core “Self” can step in for profound healing to take place.
“Self” is the part of us that isn’t really a part at all, but an energy that we can access that both connects us to our highest self and a greater energetic presence. Core “self-energy” is courageous, compassionate, connected, confident, creative, curious, and calm. It also has access to profound clarity. When you’re able to access any of these “C’s,” you are accessing self-energy. Self-energy is not a binary, as in you’re in it or you’re not. In some moments, for example in a state of deep meditation, we might feel awash with self-energy. In other moments, we might have access to about 10% of self-energy. Sometimes a part takes over, and we have very little. Over time, we can grow our access to self-energy until it becomes our default. Self can’t be damaged or made to go away, but it can be obscured through traumatic experiences and fear-driven perceptions. Fortunately, just a little bit of access can be grown and nurtured.
At the beginning of the IFS journey, parts are often suspicious of the Self. They can even be indignant (Where have you been this whole time??), or they might think we’re younger than we are. The most powerful question that I have clients ask their parts is “How old does this part think you are?” Bringing parts into the present moment has a tremendous impact on building trust, establishing appropriate roles, and creating an overall sense of safety.
One of the goals of IFS is to establish Self in the role of the leader of the system, or the natural “parent.” Our parts are almost always younger than who we are in the present day, and that comes through in their energy. Even though parts might be playing an adult role, they will bring the energy of a teen or a child to that role if that’s their actual age. Having young parts is not pathological, and some of them will never “grow up.” This is a good thing! We want to access that youthful energy in our lives. However, when parts play roles that they’re not actually old enough to be equipped for, that’s when we run into problems. With Self as the leader, we can approach our lives with all of the C’s that self-energy entails, and our entire system will operate with greater peace and fluidity.
What does IFS Therapy Look Like?
“Doing” IFS in the therapeutic space requires tuning into a different kind of listening. Many of us have thinking parts that want to have all of the answers right away, but connecting to parts means slowing down, creating space, and listening for insights, feelings, and body sensations to give us messages. It’s amazing what can come through when we make room and listen. My clients are often surprised by what comes up for them when they take a beat and just see what happens.
IFS in the office can look like a lot of things. Even just starting to think of ourselves as having parts and talking about it on a high-level can have profound effects on how we think. As we move deeper into the work, therapists will lead clients through guided visualizations and meditations to connect more deeply with parts. These can take shape as “in-sight,” where we lead clients in connecting with parts from a place of core Self, or “direct access,” where therapists communicate directly with parts. This approach can feel a little strange at first, and is very different from many of the ideas that folks come into therapy with on what to expect. Coming in with an open mind can do wonders for helping this process to emerge fruitfully.
Protectors are commonly on the front lines when we get deeper into IFS work. We first need to establish relationships between Self and these parts before we’re allowed to go any further. This process involved learning parts’ stories, what jobs they are doing, why they’re doing them, and the genesis of their roles. We’ll also learn what they might fear if they were to do their jobs differently. Introducing parts to Self, and bringing parts into the present day can have a powerful effect in helping them to relax in their roles. Many of these parts feel that they’re being listened to and validated for the very first time.
With permission from protectors, we move on to connecting exiles directly with Self. In this process, we help exiles to understand that they are no longer alone, and that they are connected with a reliable internal parent. We then hear their stories, witnessing what they need to show them, and helping them to release beliefs and memories that are holding them back. When they’ve been freed of their burdens, these little parts are liberated to play, explore, and bring joy to our systems. “Unburdening” brings tremendous relief and clarity, and can reset our entire way of showing up in the world.