Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems

The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS), developed by Richard Schwartz, is a synthesis of two existing paradigms: systems thinking and the multiplicity of the mind.

IFS views a person as containing an ecology of relatively discrete minds, called “subpersonalities" or “parts,” each of which has valuable qualities and each of which is designed to -- and wants to -- play a valuable role within. These parts interact with each other, much in the way we interact with members of our families, and can become symptomatic, much as we can become symptomatic in the external world.  Our internal families have four components:

Managers: We all have parts that try to keep us functional and safe. These parts seem to be in protective, managerial roles and are therefore called managers.

Exiles: When a person has been hurt, humiliated, frightened, or shamed in the past, managers try to keep these feelings out of consciousness and, consequently, try to keep our vulnerable, needy parts locked in inner closets. These incarcerated parts are known as exiles.

Firefighters: The third group of parts jumps into action when an exile is upset to the point that it may flood the person with its extreme feelings or make the person vulnerable to being hurt again. Is such a case, this group tries to douse the inner flames of feeling as quickly as possible, which earns them the name firefighters. They tend to be highly impulsive and strive to find stimulation that will override or dissociate from the exile's feelings. Bingeing on drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or work are common firefighter activities.

Self: But in addition to having the above parts, all people also have — at their core — a healthy, resourceful, and healing Self that is calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, creative, courageous, and connected. The goal of IFS is to differentiate this Self from the parts, thereby releasing its resources. When the client is in the state of Self, the therapist can help the client work with their various parts, asking the subpersonalites to give up their extreme roles.

Once a person's parts learn to trust that they don’t have to protect so much and can allow the Self to lead, the client’s symptoms diminish.