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A Look into the World of Internal Family Systems Therapy (9min read)
***Today’s Blog Disclaimer: Today’s blog contains conversations about anxiety, depression, self-harm, abuse, sexual assault, and suicidal ideations. These conversations and relative language choices may be triggering for some readers. Please proceed with caution and care. If you are experiencing emotional distress or are feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org***
IFS is a form of psychotherapy founded by Dr. Richard Schwartz
It is focused on the concept of our "parts" creating who we are & the things we struggle with
What is “the Self”?
The 3 types of Parts: Exiles, Managers, & Firefighters
Exiles: Powerful emotions suppressed in traumatic moments
Managers: Our “Never Again…” Protectors
Firefighters: Our “React & Distract” Protectors
Today we will be talking about IFS, which stands for Internal Family Systems.
This is a therapeutic modality & methodology that has had a profound effect on my life personally, and the lives of my clients.
I’ve used it to help people with anxiety, depression, addictions, agoraphobia, trauma, & much more.
So, today, I wanted to introduce you to some of the basic concepts so that you can start to use these methods in your own life!
Where’d It Come From?
IFS therapy was developed in the 1980s by Richard Schwartz, a family therapist, and clinical psychologist.
Schwartz was inspired by his work with families and individuals to create a new approach to psychotherapy that focused on the concept of "parts" within the individual.
He noticed that these “parts” inside of us act like a family, and have similar problems, and dynamics as our actual family.
The basic premise of IFS is that each person has many different parts, or subpersonalities, each with its own unique characteristics, feelings, and memories.
Some of these parts can be helpful and adaptive while others can create problems in the individual's life.
Schwartz noticed that people who struggled with certain emotional difficulties often had specific parts of themselves that were causing the issues.
By identifying these parts, and the underlying issues that created them, individuals can learn to access their inner wisdom (the Self) and work towards resolving past traumas, healing wounds, and resolving inner conflicts.
What is “The Self”?
One of the key concepts in IFS therapy is the idea of a "Self," which is the part of the individual that is in charge of all the other parts.
According to IFS theory, the Self is the wise, compassionate, and resilient aspect of the individual that can help to heal the other parts and bring them into balance.
You can think of the Self as the inner parent of the system, a nurturing parent, there to keep the peace & balance the system.
The Self has 8 C’s, these are the basic qualities of Self that we are all born with:
As children, we all have these qualities until something outside of our control hurts us, or causes us to abandon these qualities.
Abandoning the Self
For example, let’s pretend it’s 4th grade, you’re 9-10 years old, and you raise your hand to ask a question because you’re a Curious little fella.
However, when you ask the question, the class laughs at how dumb they think the question is, and some of your classmates make fun of you for asking a question.
This makes you feel an intense amount of shame, rejection, & humiliation.
These are powerful emotions for a 9-year-old to have to deal with.
Because you’re so young, you don’t know what to do, so your Nervous System has to create a rule to keep you safe.
Maybe something like, “Never ask questions in a group again.”
Not only that, but since you are so young, and don’t have a concept of the Self yet, you create different Parts of yourself to keep your “Self” safe.
The two types of parts in IFS are called Exiles & Protectors, let’s break them down!
An "Exile" is a term used to describe a part that has been disowned, pushed away, or hidden away because of past traumas or negative experiences.
In moments like the one above, we bury these emotions down deep, and lock them behind bars.
These parts are often filled with intense emotions and memories that are too difficult for us to process and deal with in our day-to-day life, so we keep them locked away.
This means that this young part of us is mentally behind bars and stuck in the loop of the traumatic event until we go to heal them.
Exiles often carry a lot of powerful negative emotions, but they can also have qualities and strengths that are valuable.
Exiles can have a powerful impact on our lives and can cause problems such as depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, and even physical symptoms like chronic pain.
They can also be responsible for patterns of self-sabotage, self-criticism, and self-doubt.
Some of the most common Exiles are:
Terror, Horror, Fear
Shame, Rejection, Abandonment
Physical, Mental & Emotional Pain
Sexual Assualt, Disgust
An easy way to think about Exile is that they are past-oriented, overwhelming & absorbing emotions that are easily repressed.
Absorbing meaning they take over your Mind, Brain & Body when they are released and can be very scary & painful.
Because they are so painful & powerful, we create Protectors to keep the Self safe from these Exiled emotions & memories.
Protectors come in two flavors, Managers & Firefighters. These Protectors were created when we were young in moments like we’ve been talking about to keep the Self safe.
Keep in mind that, “younger” is any version of you in the past, not just when you were a small child.
In moments of intense pain or trauma, these Protectors step in because they see the Self getting hurt and no one is doing anything about it, so they step up!
It’s in these moments that these parts of us lose trust in the Self to protect the parts of the system.
They have no idea how young you are, and that there’s nothing that you could do to control what happened to you, they just know the Self is in danger & hurting.
Managers (Never Again)
The first type of Protector in IFS is called a "Manager" and is the part of us responsible for keeping everything in order and running smoothly.
They are often perfectionists, controlling, and highly self-critical, and can be described as the "inner critic" or "the judge.”
Managers arise from difficult past experiences and trauma, and they work hard to keep the individual safe from these experiences by avoiding anything that might be similar to them, or anything that might trigger feelings of shame or vulnerability.
A manager’s moto is “Never again…”
Never again will we feel that rejection, shame, humiliation, rage, etc.
They are future-oriented, proactive, generally very high functioning & can easily take over our actions, beliefs, & thoughts.
When a part of you has taken over like this, IFS called this “blending”, meaning that part of you has blended with the Self & is now in control instead of the self.
You can tell you’re blended by pausing & asking yourself if you are acting from the 8 C’s of Self or not.
If you aren’t Curious, Compassionate, Calm, Connected, Creative, Courageous, Clear, or Confident at any moment, you are blended with a part!
Managers are very easily blended because they are so high functioning…
However, managers can have a negative impact on our lives by creating patterns of self-criticism, self-doubt, and rigid perfectionism.
They can also lead to feelings of burnout, fatigue, and even physical symptoms.
They can also be responsible for limiting beliefs and can block individuals from reaching their full potential.
Some of the most common Managers I see are:
Anxiety and/or High Functioning Anxiety
Somatic Pain (Body Aches)
While all of these things may sound terrible, remember that these rules/roles were made by a child trying to protect its inner parent, the Self!
Their main goal is to protect you from the pain and vulnerability of your Exiles, which they believe will hurt the Self.
Firefighters (React & Distract)
The second type of Protector in IFS is called a "Firefighter" and it’s described as a part of you that tries to suppress or distract from intense emotions or difficult experiences.
Firefighters are typically activated in response to difficult emotions or traumatic experiences that set off our Exiles, and they work to "put out the fire" of intense emotions by diverting the individual's attention away from them.
The motto of a firefighter is “React & Distract” and it does this by using different forms of avoidance or numbing mechanisms such as overeating, substance abuse, overworking, etc.
These protectors are presently focused, and they take over when our managers get tired or worn out and can no longer control what’s happening around us.
When this happens our Exiles start to come up, so our firefighters have to react to keep the powerful emotions at bay, and the Self safe.
Firefighters are very easily judged, and this judgment often comes from our inner critic manager.
This judgment could also come from managers like religious managers that shame the firefighter & tell it that it’s going to hell.
Some of the most common firefighters are:
Addictions (Drugs, Sex, Alcohol)
Dissociation, Shutting Down
While all of these things may sound terrible, remember that these actions/behaviors were created by a child trying to protect its inner parent, the Self!
Their main goal is to protect you from the pain and vulnerability of your Exiles, which they believe will hurt the Self, firefighters are often a last resort.
While they may provide temporary relief, firefighters can also create problems in the long run by perpetuating cycles of avoidance and numbing, leading to addiction or other compulsive behaviors.
Understanding our Parts
So, what now? You have an awareness of your parts, and are probably starting to understand where they came from, but what do you do with this information?
We will be covering exactly that in Part 2 of this IFS post! Over the next week, start to notice your parts.
Say hi to them, be aware of them, and start to build a relationship with them.
Try to bring curiosity & compassion to them, even if they are hard to understand at first, all they want is to be heard, understood & validated!
Next week, I will walk you through how to start healing & reintegrating these parts back into the Self so that you can heal.
Until then… Live Heroically. 🧠