Internal Family Systems is a form of therapy developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz. It works from the idea that each individual person, just like a family, has different “parts” that perform specific roles in order to keep us going and survive difficult things.
Internal Family Systems offers us language to help organize our experience and name what’s going on. This can provide relief from anxiety or depression by giving us an explanation for why we feel the way we feel and why we act the way we act.
In my experience, Internal Family Systems is particularly well suited to people who want to go a bit deeper to understand what’s going on for them and why, who don’t just want a band-aid solution. Internal family systems is a helpful way of addressing many of the challenges people come to therapy for, including depression, anxiety, relationship issues, trauma, and substance use or addictions.
Internal Family Systems basically works from the premise that when we encounter overwhelming stress during childhood, we break off into different “parts” that help us cope with the stress through different strategies. That’s why Internal Family Systems is sometimes called “parts work”: because it means getting to know the different parts of ourselves that have helped us cope in the past, but may be contributing to unhealthy coping strategies in the present.
The “parts” in parts work refer to different ways of coping with stress. In IFS therapy, these parts are called Managers, Firefighters, Exiles, and the true self. Some of the work in IFS therapy is figuring out which parts are at work during particular situations, and learning to have compassion for these parts, instead of blaming, shaming, or trying to “get rid of” our various survival strategies from the past.
The first part that is often discussed in IFS is the manager part. Managers help us stay organized and keep doing our day to day activities. They are the part of us that keeps going and puts one foot in front of the other during times of stress. For people who have experienced trauma and have overactive manager parts, these are the parts that drive perfectionism and compulsive overwork. Sometimes having an overactive manager is hard to identify as a problem, because it can be quite socially acceptable to be highly productive and in charge all the time. However, those of us with overactive manager parts, whose managers take over in order to help us cope know that always being productive and being in control is exhausting. Having to prove our worth through perfectionism and over-control can lead us into the territory of people-pleasing, codependency, and psychological problems of overcontrol such as eating disorders and anxiety.
The next part is the firefighter. Firefighters make quick decisions in order to protect us from situations that feel overwhelming and out of control. Examples of firefighters taking over include outbursts of rage, and substance use. Both rage and substance use are ways of taking control of the present moment and making it more tolerable. Unfortunately, both of these coping strategies also tend to come with longer term consequences, although they are very effective in the moment. Firefighters are called “firefighters” because they show up in an emergency or a situation that feels like a crisis, and they do something drastic to shift the circumstances of that intolerable moment. Unfortunately when we have an overactive firefighter, it tends to look like impulsive behaviour and snap decisions that don’t benefit us in the longer term.
The next part in parts work is called the “exile.” Exiles are younger, wounded parts of ourselves that store our pain in a suspended state. They are called “exiles” because they are too small and vulnerable to deal with on a daily basis, so we send them “away” and try to avoid these parts of ourselves. People who live with trauma may feel much younger during moments when they are triggered – this can be understood as being in contact with an exiled part. The exiled parts are often those most hurt by past experiences – we send these parts away, or exile them, in order to not have to fully comprehend how hurt we were by the experiences. Instead, managers or firefighters take over so that we can stay strong and keep going.
The final part is the true self. No matter how wounded we may be or what we have been through, each of us has a true, authentic self that stays with us no matter what. While managers or firefighters may temporarily take over, or whether we may cast aside vulnerable exile parts, underneath all of these coping strategies we each have a true self. One of the goals of Internal Family Systems therapy is to connect with our true self. While we can thank our various parts for taking over and keeping us safe, and extend them compassion, we are all working towards letting our true self drive, so that we can live in the greatest alignment with our values.
Many people live with a great deal of shame for how they may have behaved when they were not aligned with their true self. I often speak with clients who are embarrassed about who they become when their firefighter takes over and they react with rage, or those who struggle with substance use because it is so painful to be in the present moment. I also speak with many people who have overactive managers and who live with constant anxiety that keeps them from being their whole selves. Sometimes this expresses itself as overachieving, perfectionism, and people-pleasing. Other times, it causes people to “freeze” and leads to self-betrayal, self-sabotage, and procrastination.
No matter which of our parts has taken the lead in helping us cope with painful experiences, the solution is always the same. Internal Family Systems work asks us to extend compassion to our parts, rather than living with shame and blame for the ways we’ve merely tried to survive in the past. If there was one message I could extend to you, it’s that although you are a responsible adult who is accountable for your past behaviour, it is also not your fault. You have done your best to survive, and each of your parts are important and valuable. I invite you to begin your journey with Internal Family Systems work, and to start to understand how each part has kept you alive. Through parts work, it is possible to come into a more positive self-concept, and to leave behind shame for the ways your parts have helped you to survive.