We’ve all had moments where we feel at odds with ourselves. Maybe it happens when our partner says something hurtful. In that moment, part of us wants to run out of the room; part of us feels vulnerable and hurt; part of us knows they didn’t really mean it, and part of us might feel ashamed of having these feelings at all. We might even tell a friend later, “Part of me wanted to scream at him and part of me was so embarrassed that I even cared.”
Internal Family Systems
Internal Family Systems or IFS, a type of therapy originated by Dick Schwartz, tells us that our internal worlds are intricate systems of “parts.” An example of a part might be an inner critic that judges how we behave. Another might be one that suggests a few glasses of wine will take the edge off. IFS tells us that our parts fall into three categories: managers, firefighters, and exiles.
Managers serve to protect us by preventing painful experiences. We would call an inner critic part of a manager because it’s likely trying to help us stay in line in order to avoid being embarrassed or criticized by others. Firefighter parts jump into action after we have already started to feel emotional pain. The part of us that drives us to have a few glasses of wine when we’re overwhelmed or sad would be a firefighter. Both managers and firefighters are protective parts who see it as their job to help us out, even if their methods might be extreme or end up causing us distress.
The third part that IFS describes are exiles. Exiles are usually very young, seemingly vulnerable parts. For example, imagine that you’re giving a presentation at work and have received negative feedback from your coworkers. Maybe others snickered at something you said or questioned your work. In those moments, many of us can feel like we’re in middle school again, vulnerable and ashamed. Difficult moments like this might trigger a young, exiled part.
Embracing our Self
Fortunately, along with our family of internal parts, all people also possess a Self. IFS describes the Self as compassionate, curious, and calm, along with many other positive attributes (Schwartz, 2001). Our self is at the core of our being and is the best leader of our internal family of parts. We run into trouble when other parts, like that inner critic or that one who thinks a few drinks will solve our problems, take the lead.
We all have parts and IFS doesn’t suggest that we should try to get rid of any of them - quite the opposite. Instead, IFS helps clients get to know all of those parts with compassion. Instead of pushing away anxiety, an IFS therapist would help you get to know that part so that your internal system can function harmoniously. In IFS therapy, the therapist helps a client to identify their Self and their parts and help restore balance within the internal family system.
This idea of human beings containing multiple parts is not as new as IFS, nor is the idea of the Self. In fact, writers and philosophers have discussed it for centuries. Rumi writes about it in his poem “The Guest House,” deeming the wise Self as the host who mindfully welcomes all of the parts that come to visit.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
For more information about IFS therapy visit the Center for Self Leadership’s website.
Hailey Palmer, Master’s Level Intern
Clarity Clinic NWI
Schwartz, R.C. (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications.