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Discovering Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a type of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that believes the mind is made up of several different parts. As the name suggests, IFS approaches these parts as a family unit, pulling from different elements of structural, strategic, narrative, and Bowenian family therapy practices.

The different parts of the mind take up several district healthy and productive or extreme roles that live within us. It is important to emphasize that extreme roles are not necessarily bad parts, only the parts that have been forced into bad roles. However, internal roles are not static. This type of therapy aims to achieve balance within your internal system and elevate the Self so you can live in harmony with all of the parts of your mind.

IFS is particularly effective when treating general life stressors such as grief, relationship, and career issues. It is also effective for various mental health concerns and psychological wounds.

Some examples are:

  • Trauma

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse

  • Compulsive behaviours

  • Eating disorders

  • Depression

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Anxiety

  • Body image issues

  • Self-esteem issues

  • Phobias

  • Substance abuse

  • Dissociative identity disorder

It may be applied in family, couple, and individual situations.

What is IFS Therapy?

IFS pulls from the idea of the multiplicity of the mind and systems thinking. The mind is broken up into sub-personalities, and each part possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. Each part also plays a distinct role in the self-preservation of your mind. Again, these roles may be playing good roles or parts that have been forced into bad roles. IFS therapy believes that meaningful change comes from addressing extreme roles in isolation and from optimizing the relationships between the roles while also distinguishing the Self from the other parts and elevating it to be an effective leader.

It should be noted that some basic assumptions create the IFS model. First, the mind is made up of an unknown number of parts. Second, every human being has a Self, and the Self should be coordinating the other parts. Third, parts in non-extreme roles are beneficial to the individual, and therapy aims to discover these parts. Fourth, the inner family is developed by personal growth causing the interactions between parts to become more complex, and reorganization of the internal system may lead to rapid changes in the roles of parts. Lastly, the internal and external systems are connected. Therefore, changes to one will result in changes to the other.

The Main Parts

The Exile

The exile is a state of pain or trauma. A part can become an exile when one endures trauma so great that the other parts of the mind exile them to protect the consciousness and prevent the system from being overwhelmed. Exiles take an enormous amount of energy to keep out of consciousness. The other two main parts, the manager, and the firefighter, constantly work to keep the exile from emerging and flooding the system with memories of pain and trauma.

The Manager

The manager is the proactive protector of the mind. It maintains productive consciousness by warding off any and all unwanted interactions, emotions, or experiences resulting from external stimuli. It is constantly trying to avoid the resurfacing of exile by doing whatever it can to steer clear of anything that will bring you pain.

The Firefighter

The firefighter is activated when exile parts are resurfaced and acts as a reactive protector. It attempts to protect the system by distracting and ignoring the feelings of pain brought up by the exile. This can cause someone to act on impulse and engage in indulgent, addictive, and even abusive behaviors. This includes activities like smoking, drinking, binge-eating, or even self-harm.

The Self

Everyone has a Self. This is the innate presence within you that is the pure essence of who you are. The Self cannot be broken or corrupted and is inherently good. The goal is to be Self-led; this means to have a balanced internal system, and all the parts work in harmony. But too often, the Self and the other part become blended. It is important to learn ways to distinguish the self and differentiate the self from the other parts of the mind.

Once you can access the Self, you can be what's called 'in-self'; the 8 c's of self-energy mark this:

  1. Curiosity

  2. Calm

  3. Clarity

  4. Connectedness

  5. Confidence

  6. Courage

  7. Creativity

  8. Compassion

The goal of therapy is to unburden and restore extreme and wounded parts and establish the Self as the leader of the system.


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