Parts Work: Understanding Internal Family Systems Therapy

Internal family systems is an evidence-based practice that treats a variety of mental health challenges, improves self-esteem, and establishes an inner sense of calmness and clarity.

Although ‘family’ is in the name, IFS isn’t family therapy. IFS is all about understanding your inner parts and how they connect within a system (similar to a family).

In IFS, the overarching idea is that there are ‘no bad parts.’ However, some parts act in ways that block or harm our core Self, causing us significant emotional pain.

Understanding the Internal Family Systems Model

Internal family systems assumes that we all carry multiple parts playing multiple roles. These parts often emulate sub-personalities, and they drive you to act in certain ways.

This can explain why we sometimes engage in behaviors that we know are problematic or even detrimental to our well-being. It can also explain why having insight doesn’t necessarily translate to direct change.

The IFS model is non-pathologizing in nature. The model’s founder, Richard Schwartz, even published a book titled, No Bad Parts, to emphasize how every part plays a role in the system. Parts aren’t bad, but they are wounded, and they often take on inappropriate roles.

Mental health professionals who practice IFS aim to help clients heal wounded parts. They also strive to help you build a greater conscious connection to your inner Self.

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What Is Self-Leadership?

Your Self represents your core. We all have a Self, and we can all access it. When you’re in your core Self, you feel curious, calm, confident, and compassionate. Life isn’t necessarily easier, but you are grounded in who you are, and you trust your self-leadership to take care of you.

That said, many of us don’t act within the parameters of self-leadership. Instead, our fragmented parts take over the core self and dictate how we act and feel. Over time, we often feel run by these parts and lose trust in our core Self.

Types of Parts

IFS therapists focus on how parts interfere with the ability to access the core self. Even though the Self has positive intent, parts have intense needs that often feel larger than life. Here’s how they work:

Exiles

Exiles are the youngest and most wounded parts of the system. They are the gatekeepers of some of the most primitive memories, and they are often associated with childhood trauma.

A part becomes an exile when the experience they overcome was so significant that other parts shut them out to protect the system from becoming overburdened. Exiles often present as needy or even childish, and that’s because they are quite literally stuck in the past.

Most everyone has exiles, and that’s simply because they’re reinforced in modern society. When bad things in life happen, we’re encouraged to move on, be strong, or forget it even happened. We may bury our pain and try to act as if it doesn’t affect us. 

We might associate having feelings with being weak. But the exiled parts don’t disappear. Instead, they get locked in a cage. But those parts emerge with needing intimacy, connection, and attention. They also hold the key to many positive traits, including creativity, spontaneity, and joyfulness.

Managers

The Manager parts aim to be attentive and proactive to the internal system. They want to keep you prepared for what will happen next, and they constantly assess given situations to determine potential risks. In simple terms, managers constantly work to minimize anxiety.

Healthy managers help people with basic regulations, such as eating, sleeping, managing daily responsibilities, and adhering to important social norms. They aim to keep you ‘on track,’ and they act as the inner chatter throughout the day.

But managers can act dysfunctional when they become hyper-controlling, perfectionistic, or highly phobic. When this happens, self-talk becomes critical and mean. You may feel driven to succeed at all costs, you might struggle with people-pleasing, or you may be overly judgmental toward others.

This cycle happens when the management system feels overburdened. They don’t know how to deal with painful emotions very well, so those feelings get exiled. As a result, the burdened manager gets stuck with trying to take care of the internal system, even though it feels underappreciated and disliked.

Firefighters

Firefighter parts are protective parts. They also step in when exiled parts show up, but unlike managers who anticipate danger, firefighters (just like firefighters in real life) react to danger when it’s already present.

A firefighter’s main priority is extinguishing pain. For example, an exiled part might be the residual trauma and shame associated with early experiences of neglect. Your firefighter moves into action mode once that shame emerges.

Consider what your first impulse is when you feel sad, angry, lonely, or insecure. If it’s engaging in an action that feels self-destructive, that action is likely led by a firefighter. It often comes in the form of either escaping or binging, whether that’s food, work, shopping, self-harm, spending time online, sleeping, substance use, or daydreaming.

Over time, firefighters become more extreme and drastic in their measures. They want to extinguish pain because that’s their job. And they won’t stop stepping in to ‘save the day’ until you heal your tender, wounded parts. If there’s a fire to be fought, they will keep you acting out in the same, impulsive ways.

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How Does IFS Therapy Work?

IFS entails increasing awareness of the parts that most need attention and compassion. Separating the exiles from the managers and firefighters is vulnerable work, and accessing these painful emotions often feels extremely tender.

But in therapy, the goal is to become more curious about your parts and the roles they play. IFS focuses on honoring each part’s needs and co-creating new relationships with them. Over time, this can promote significant transformation.

You can’t “erase” your parts. Exiles, managers, and firefighters are reactions to the inevitable hardships of life. It’s unrealistic to know how to heal with every challenge optimally. Your body is always working hard to protect you and keep you safe.

But the more you can tap into your Self, the more you heal those wounded parts. You can better drop into yourself and be centered with who you are and what you do. Your protective parts learn how to advise you rather than instantly take over. Ultimately, you trust yourself to lead yourself, and that’s the crux of emotional wellness.

How Long Does IFS Therapy Take?

It depends, although it’s generally a longer-term therapy model. Change takes time, and it’s common for people to initially feel activated when they become acquainted with their internal family systems. Accessing your exiled parts often results in the firefighters and managers trying to take over. Symptoms may feel more intense at first, and you may find yourself feeling ‘stuck.’

This experience (even though it can feel like a lot) is a very normal part of any therapy. Most people find that working through the discomfort and learning new ways to cope with old feelings allows them to experience a freedom they have never known.

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What Types of Issues Does IFS Treat?

IFS can be beneficial for anyone who relates to feeling compelled to act in ways that they know are harming their well-being. IFS can also be helpful for people who have had previous experiences in therapy but value a more depth-oriented approach.

An IFS therapist can help you with:

Trauma

Unresolved trauma often leads to hypervigilant managers and firefighters. These protective parts want to shield you from experiencing more pain, but they take on extreme roles to seemingly maintain a mental balance. In IFS, working through trauma entails truly getting in touch with these exiles and examining your own related feelings, beliefs, and bodily sensations.

Compulsive Behaviors

Compulsive behaviors can show up as excessively doing anything. Often, this is a result of both the managers and firefighters trying to distract you from your deepest pain. Treating compulsive behaviors requires making peace with your protective parts and encouraging them to “keep their jobs” in more prosocial, healthier ways.

Relationship Struggles

Lack of trust, feeling misunderstood, or staying in unhealthy relationship dynamics can seriously affect your emotional well-being. IFS focuses on understanding and self-regulating emotions, which inherently translates to your relationships.

Depression

Depressive symptoms are often a result of an overactive management system. When your own beliefs are chronically negative, it’s hard to feel motivated or good about yourself. IFS for depression requires taking care of your managers and understanding their needs with a softer and kinder approach.

Anxiety

Anxiety symptoms also tend to emerge from an overactive management system. Your manager parts are sensitive to danger, and the world feels unsafe as a result. From an IFS framework, treating anxiety often entails practicing more self-compassion for your anxious parts and learning how to soothe their distress.

Begin Internal Family Systems Therapy With An Online Therapist in Seattle, WA

IFS therapy can be incredibly transformative. Because this work can feel so raw, forming a trusting therapeutic relationship is essential. It’s so important that you feel safe in this work.

I am here to support you on your journey toward healing and wellness. From a trauma-informed lens, I blend IFS along with other modalities, including EMDR and somatic therapy. I provide online therapy for clients in Washington State.

You deserve to live wholeheartedly within your highest Self. Start your therapy journey by following these steps:

  1.  Contact me today to schedule your initial consultation.
  2.  Get to know me and my approach to therapy
  3. Start better understanding the different parts of yourself!

Other Services Offered By Inner Wisdom Counseling 

As a therapist, I know there are a number of mental health concerns you may experience. Inner Wisdom Coaching & Counseling offers an array of services including EMDR therapy, depression treatment, treatment for anxiety, and life transitions therapy. LGBTQIA+ therapy and online therapy are also offered across the state of Washington. Contact Inner Wisdom today!

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