The Parts of Us: An Introduction to Internal Family Systems TherapyFeb 28, 2023
All of us are born with many sub-minds―or parts. These parts are not imaginary or symbolic. They are individuals who exist as an internal family within us―and the key to health and happiness is to honor, understand, and love every part.
-- Richard Schwartz, PhD
We often think of ourselves as a single entity, one person with one mind. But what if we are made up of multiple selves, each with its own unique perspective, desires, and goals? This is the premise of Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy, a model of psychotherapy that sees the human psyche as composed of different parts of the self. In this blog post, we'll explore the main features of IFS, including the concept of the "Self", the multiplicity of mind, and the roles played by different parts of the self. We'll also discuss the importance of working with our "protectors" first in order to access the wisdom of our "exiles." Finally, we'll provide a brief overview of other parts-work psychotherapeutic modalities.
Internal Family Systems therapy was developed in the 1980s by Richard C. Schwartz, a clinical psychologist who was interested in building on ideas from family systems theory and Gestalt therapy. The IFS model is informed by systems thinking, which views human beings as complex systems made up of interacting parts. Unlike other models that conceptualize the human psyche as having two or three distinct parts (e.g., ego states in Transactional Analysis or reader and author roles in Psychosynthesis), IFS posits that there are many parts to each individual's psyche.
These parts are not static; they change and evolve over time in response to our experiences. Each part has its own perspective, emotions, beliefs, values, and goals. Some parts may be in conflict with other parts, while others may be in harmony.
The IFS model also introduces the concept of the "Self", which is understood as the fundamentally good core of each individual's being. The Self is compassionate, wise, and loving; it is our true nature. Unfortunately, our experiences can cause us to lose touch with our Self and instead identify with our protectors—parts of us that have taken on negative roles in response to traumas or difficult life experiences.
There are three primary types of protectors: exiles (parts that hold our pain), firefighters (parts that numb or avoid our pain), and managers (parts that try to control our pain). Our protectors develop early in life and continue to evolve throughout our lives. They often become so enmeshed with our sense of identity that we are not even aware that they are separate from us.
The first step in IFS therapy is to help clients become aware of their protectors and learn how to access their Self—the wise observer within them that can see all parts with compassion and neutrality. Once clients have established contact with their Self, they can begin to work with their protectors—not to get rid of them but to understand them better and help them fulfill their positive intentions. For example, an exile may need validation and love; a firefighter may need rest; a manager may need relaxation or playfulness. As clients work through these processes, they often report feeling lighter, freer, and more at peace with themselves.
IFS therapy offers a unique perspective on what it means to be human—one that sees us not as static beings with fixed roles but as complex systems made up of interacting parts that are constantly evolving in response to our experiences. By helping us become aware of our protectors and learn how to access our Self—the wise observer within us that can see all parts with compassion and neutrality—IFS therapy empowers us to better understand and work with those protectors to fulfill their positive intentions. As clients work through these processes, they often report feeling lighter, freer, and more at peace with themselves—a testament to the power of this therapeutic modality.
Photo credit: Clay Banks @Unsplash
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