February 21, 2024

Internal Family Systems and Parts

As Spring approaches, I'm thinking about growth and the factors that lead to it. In recent months many of my clients have become familiar with me referring to a therapeutic model called Internal Family Systems, this has become key in facilitating growth both in myself and others. This model was developed by a US based therapist called Richard Schwartz, who initially trained and practiced as a relationship and family therapist. Since the 1980s he has been developing and refining the IFS model, which in recent years is gathering increasing recognition as an evidence based means to effectively work with and treat trauma. There is a growing body of resources and literature on IFS, some of my favourites I will share at the bottom of this post, so I won't go into the ins and outs of the model in depth today. But I did want to give a brief overview and share my thoughts on why both personally and professionally I have felt the great benefits of it and what it can teach us about healing.

What I have found to be radical about this approach is how it offers a coherent means to understand ourselves as systems, with a multitude of different self organising parts. From looking through this lens we can start to understand the function of different parts and how they interact with each other. Inherently we are all socialised beings and what I appreciate about IFS is that it simultaneously acknowledges the aspect of us that is natural and essential beyond conditioning known as the 'Self' and also our numerous different socialised parts. It bridges the gap between the age old question of nature Vs nurture and works systematically with both philosophies. The systems we are born into are fractal, in that they are one inside of another. For example we are born into our family systems, within wider cultural, class, ethnic, racial, religious, national and many more gross and subtle systems. I often use the analogy of a fish swimming in the ocean but not realising it it surrounded by water. We are similar to that fish, it is difficult to even realise the waters we are swimming in and the systems we are immersed in as they are all we have ever known. Very often we mistake our responses to these systems and the defences we have developed within them as our true 'Self'. IFS provides a means to start to understand ourselves in relationship to our environments and how the external has become internal in the form of parts.

This allows for far greater compassion to be developed as we become less self-identified or 'blended' in IFS terminology, with our behaviours and less critical of them as we start to comprehend and untangle where they were born and what their function was from conception. We can begin to integrate the different parts of ourselves and live in more coherence and wholeness. Schwartz's first book is called 'No Bad Parts' and breaks down the belief that all our behaviours however seemingly dysfunctional or self harming are born out of a need to protect ourselves in relation to our environments. However over time these behaviours become atrophied and harmful and can greatly hinder our ability to live healthy lives, what we need to survive and thrive are at odds.

In basic terms in the IFS model we have 'exiles' these are the parts of ourselves which are in pain and often traumatised. In order to remain functional we develop 'protectors' who try to keep us from feeling our pain and being overwhelmed by it, these come in the form of both 'managers' and 'firefighters'. 'Managers' come in many different iterations but examples are, our inner critics, our perfectionism and our addictions. All these are means to keep our wounded 'exiles' numbed and safely boxed away. 'Firefighters' become activated when 'exiles' unexpectedly break free, for example we may have an argument with a partner, be criticised by our manager or experience an emotional shock. 'Firefighters' grasp for a means to quickly numb the painful emotion, such as drinking, shopping or sex, none of these pursuits in themselves are harmful but it is how we are relating to them that is of significance. Both 'managers' and 'firefighters' play essential roles in enabling us to survive overwhelming life events and traumas, the difficulty is they are not programmed to take their leave once the danger has passed.

We can therefore spend our lives 'blended' with our 'protector' parts, mistaking them for ourself or in IFS terms our 'Self'. A huge amount of self hate and judgement can go with this as we struggle to understand why we are hindering our happiness and acting out in self sabotaging ways, this becomes cyclical and we can get trapped in self harm. The IFS approach transforms the way we start to view these behaviours and their function and creates the potential for more self compassion to be developed, so that the cycle may gradually be broken. Through this process our inner systems come into focus as we 'unburden' our exiles and generate more ability to be in contact with our natural state our 'Self'. Residing in the 'Self' generates greater curiosity, creativity, kindness, trust and openness to life. Our 'Self' functions like an inner parent which has the ability to soothe and settle us and find solutions to problems from a place of coherence and regulation rather than fear. Making contact with our 'Self' therefore has a significant impact on our relationships, through being more regulated we can therefore better co-regulate and in turn be more securely attached.

Tragically as I touched upon in my last post, most of our man made systems are top down and are usually 'manager' led. I strongly believe this is a fundamental aspect of the chronic rise in poor mental and also physical health conditions, as a result of stress and anxiety. The author and physician Gabor Maté speaks about this in his recent book 'The Myth of Normal', we are living in a toxic society where people are leading from and living in trauma responses rather than their 'Self'. It has therefore become the norm for our nervous systems to be completely dysregulated, which we are all reacting to and synchronising with. Being in a world where our systems and leadership are based on being 'Self' led from a place of regulation would lead to a profound shift on every level, as compassion and safety would become the norm and replace fear and judgement. This is my greatest wish, but we are all units of a whole and parts of a system far beyond ourselves, so the only place it can ever begin is from within.

If you would like any support understanding your parts and tapping more deeply into your innate 'Self' I would be very happy to hear from you. May we all continue to unburden our exiles of their heavy loads and live freely in the present.


No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz

You are the One You've Been Waiting for by Richard Schwartz

Somatic Internal Family Systems by Susan McConnell

The Myth of Normal by Gabor Maté (not specifically IFS but explores our societal systems and their impact)

IFS demonstration