Internal Family Systems Therapy: A New Paradigm for Healing

 At the end of September 2012, I am completing my final weekend of a year-long course in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model.  This training has been a life-changing experience and has sharpened my skills as a therapist.  The model is recent in terms of the history of psychotherapy.  Dr. Richard Schwartz, originally trained as a family therapist, developed this model out of his work with bulimic patients in the 1980’s.  He combines a theory of the multiplicity of the mind with systems theory to devise a truly innovative way to work with clients and view the human condition.

The model ascribes to the personality a multiplicity that is normal and views a unity of personality as myth.  It posits that the human mind is made up of a variety of subpersonalities or “parts”.  This view provides a non-pathological paradigm in which to view the human person.  For example, I may recognize jealous or selfish parts of me which I don’t like; thus, view myself as a jealous and selfish person which lowers my self concept.  However from the IFS point of view, just because I have jealous or selfish parts, doesn’t mean that the whole of my being is jealous and selfish. I can have loving and compassionate parts as well.  In fact, instead of judging those parts, I can become curious about them which frees me to understand their purpose and perhaps release them from these roles.

The model also posits that every person has a Self which can and should lead the individual’s internal system.  Self is present at birth and is the true essence of who we are.  From a religious or spiritual perspective, the Self is our soul or “seat of consciousness.”  It has all the “necessary qualities of leadership, such as compassion, perspective, curiosity, acceptance and confidence.”  The model also assumes that all parts want to play a constructive role in the life of the individual, but often are forced into extreme roles due to trauma or other destructive influences in the person’s environment. Even within their extreme roles, parts often cannot see the harm they are doing to the individual overall. 

Dr. Schwartz says that the parts operate as a system.  The parts are resources for the Self.  The system seeks balance, harmony, leadership and development.  The system functions better when the Self is in the lead.  The ideal is that the Self decides how to respond to a situation rather than a part trapped in an extreme role.  The system is in turmoil when it experiences two different parts in conflict with one another—in IFS this is called a polarization.  For example, one part may have a strong urge to overeat to soothe the system and may be in intense conflict with a part that wants to restrict eating because of its concern for weight gain.   

In IFS, there are three types of parts: exiles, firefighters, and managers.  Exiles are the young parts of us that carry the pain or burdens of past hurts and trauma.  The protective system usually isolates them hence the term, “exiles”, because it often fears their pain will overwhelm the system.  The firefighters and managers comprise the protective system to shield the entire system from the pain of the exiles.  The firefighters often become triggered in response to an exile trying to exhibit its pain, have its story told or have its needs to be loved and nurtured met.  Firefighter parts can vary among less dangerous behaviors such as compulsive exercising, overeating, withdrawing, or appeasing others to more dangerous such as suicide, addictions, and explosive anger.  Firefighters are reactive and want to distract the individual from his or her pain.

Managers, the other half of the protective system, engage proactively.  They try to prevent an exile’s pain from appearing in the first place and prevent the triggering of firefighters at all costs.  Managers are parts who can be striving to achieve, people pleasing, perfectionistic, hypervigilant, or controlling. The most common polarizations often occur between managers and firefighters.

By having compassion and curiosity for these protective parts, we can help them to relax, trust the Self, and reach the exiles to witness their stories and unburden them from their pain.  In fact, both protectors and exiles may need to be unburdened.  Once the parts are relieved of their burdens, they can heal, return to non-extreme roles within the system and recapture their original roles of spontaneity, creativity, vitality, compassion, love or other attributes.  Living in more Self energy is a life-long spiritual journey.  IFS therapy provides a way to work with clients to help them along that path. 


The source of quotes and much information for this article came from the book, Internal Family Systems Therapy, by Richard C. Schwartz.  Level 1 Training Manual for Internal Family Systems by The Center for Self Leadership was also a source of information.  For more information on IFS, see the Center’s website at: