What Is Internal Family Systems?

Oct 31, 2021 | PSYCHOLOGY

Do you ever wonder if there is more than one side to you?

I often feel like I have different parts of me that are actively in conflict with one another. One part of me might cheer me on and another part of me is that voice in my head that is my biggest critic. I used to long to be in a meaningful relationship, yet another part of me was scared of intimacy and kept a distance from others. There’s a part of me that wants to be a successful entrepreneur and another part that just wants to be a healer and hermit, living quietly and humbly. There’s a part of me that loves being organised & efficient – but another part of me finds that super boring and wants spontaneity… It can be really frustrating sometimes.

What if we are all our parts – and more?

So often we try to merge everything about us into the one neat package and identity and this can cause us to feel conflicted and constrained about who we really are.

Concepts such as Internal Family Systems (IFS) suggest that maybe we all have multiple parts to us and that all of them are important and deserve to be heard. Even the parts of ourselves that we may not like.

What is the IFS Model?

The suggestion in Internal Family Systems is that each part (or aspect of ourselves) plays one of 3 roles:

Exiles

Exiles are the parts of us that are locked up and don’t have permission to be seen – maybe our gender identity or talents. Exiles hold a lot of pain and trauma experienced through life, one of them might be like your inner child.

Managers

Managers are the parts of us that try to protect us by controlling our lives and the world around us, including our relationships. One might be the inner critic that is quite bossy and pushes you to succeed, or that tries to make you socially acceptable.

Firefighters

Firefighters try to protect us from our pain (the exiles) and may lead us to destructive behaviours to self-soothe or distract us from them. These parts could be the thrill seekers, the risk takers, addictive personalities in us and so on.

Self

Then there appears to be a part that is not a role but simply our “self” or “true nature”.

This is a really simplified overview, but when I first discovered IFS it was liberating to know that I could embrace all my parts and see them as a system or a team – and that I could actually collaborate with them – and this is extremely empowering in my view.

How is IFS put into practise?

IFS is a psychological model that various healing practitioners apply in their work. The most obvious example are psychotherapists trained in IFS, for example, Dr Gabor Mate has said that his approach with Compassionate Inquiry is inspired by IFS. But many practitioners across various healing and helping professions take inspiration from this model, myself included.

Many practitioners might apply various models and tools into their work, and in an integrated fashion, of which IFS is just one of them.

Where can I find out more about IFS?

You can learn more about Richard C. Schwartz PhD and Internal Family Systems on the official website.

What is a takeaway I can apply in my life from IFS right now?

The most valuable thing to take away from this is to simply realise that you can now see all the aspects of yourself as being equally valid and valuable. See your parts with compassion because they are all trying to protect you in their own ways, it’s just that sometimes their behaviours and strategies have outlived their usefulness. I have found it’s like having a whole cast of characters from a favourite film or sitcom that are all on your side – and like any drama or storyline there is always some friction but ultimately you love all the characters for their different strengths and unique traits that makes them endearing to you.

This is where you can start to collaborate with them, listen to what they have to say and befriend them.


Recommended Resources:

  1. If you want to hear more about what this is, start with one of the podcasts Dr Richard Schwartz has been interviewed on. I can personally recommend the Tim Ferris Show Episode #492 or Sounds True with Tami Simon “No Bad Parts” . These are great introductions into how it came about, what the concept is and how it might be put into practise.
  2. Most people would advise that you only ever try to do IFS work with a trained IFS practitioner, however, Richard Schwartz has released a very accessible audiobook called “Greater Than The Sum Of Our Parts” which is full of gentle and practical exercises that you can try at home on your own.
  3. If you’re really keen to learn more about IFS in depth, then you can read the book “No Bad Parts” by Richard Schwartz.

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