Understanding the Inner Parts of You: An Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy

A profile of a feminine body with an inner natural landscape that is placed over the mind

Meeting Your Inner World: An Exploration of Internal Family Systems

As a senior facilitator of Janina Fisher, PhD’s Trauma-Informed Stabilization Treatment (TIST) training and among the first to be certified in TIST, I have delved deeply into the concept of ‘parts work.’ Many of the insightful tenets of TIST are rooted in Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS offers a transformative perspective, conceiving every individual as an intricate system of protective and wounded inner parts, all guided by a core “Self.” It suggests that our mind is naturally multiple, a trait that is not just normal but beneficial. These inner parts can be likened to family members, each valuable in its own right but sometimes forced into extreme roles within us. Our core Self, an ever-present aspect of our being, cannot be damaged and inherently knows how to facilitate healing.

Recognized as an evidence-based form of psychotherapy, IFS has played a significant role in assisting individuals on their healing journey by facilitating access to and healing their protective and wounded inner parts. It nurtures inner and outer connections by helping individuals reach their Self and, from this foundation, learn about and heal their parts.

Yet, the benefits of IFS are not limited to its application as evidence-based psychotherapy within a therapeutic setting. It also lays the foundation for a deeper understanding of personal and intimate relationships. It empowers individuals to navigate life with the 8 Cs: confidence, calm, compassion, courage, creativity, clarity, curiosity, and connectedness. It finds practical use across a spectrum of professional domains, from conflict resolution in legal contexts and decision-making in educational institutions to strategies in life coaching and guidance in religious leadership. Our continually growing educational programs aspire to educate therapists and engage the broader public and a variety of meaningful work.

This blog post intends to familiarize my clients with the IFS model, piquing their curiosity as we embark on a journey of growth, healing, and transformation. We’ll use IFS as our guiding lens to embrace the diversity within us and pursue a compassionate approach, free from judgment or pathologizing.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your feelings pull you in different directions? Perhaps a part of you buzzes with excitement, but another part is gripped by worry. Or there might be a moment when one part of you is raring for a jog, but another part would rather cozy up with social media. These experiences suggest that we host diverse “parts” within ourselves, each with distinct interests and motivations. This concept is not just a philosophical abstraction; it forms the crux of a globally recognized psychotherapy approach known as the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. IFS is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that provides us with tools to understand, navigate, and harmonize our multifaceted internal landscape.

The Internal Family Systems Model

IFS pictures the mind as a richly diverse system populated by various ‘parts’ or ‘subpersonalities.’ Each of these parts carries its unique traits, perspectives, and intentions. The IFS theory proposes that every individual’s psyche includes three main types of parts:

Managers: These parts are the proactive guardians of our psyche, striving to retain control and protect us from emotional distress. They regulate our behaviour and responses to avoid exposure to vulnerability and to shield us from discomfort or pain.

Firefighters: When the managers cannot keep emotional distress at bay, the firefighters leap into action. Their response is often immediate and can be extreme, aiming to ward off pain or distress, even if it involves resorting to destructive behaviours. Their primary objective is to distract or numb the individual from the immediate emotional discomfort.

Exiles: These parts are the repositories of traumatic memories or intense emotions. Given their potential to cause distress, other parts (mainly managers and firefighters) often try to suppress or ‘exile’ these parts to shield our conscious selves from painful or overwhelming experiences.

The overarching goal of IFS therapy is to cultivate “self-leadership.” In this process, the Self (your core characterized by attributes like confidence, compassion, and curiosity) is a mediator among the parts. It navigates interactions and negotiations between the various parts, fostering a balanced and harmonious internal ecosystem. By achieving self-leadership, we can heal wounded parts, learn to re-include exiled parts, and transform our inner world into a space of cooperation and mutual growth.

Foundational Principles of IFS

A few core beliefs lie at the heart of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. One such belief is that every part possesses a positive intention, regardless of how its actions might appear counterproductive. Instead of fostering internal conflict, the aim is to comprehend and accept each part for its distinctive role and purpose. IFS fosters internal cohesion and harmony, thereby facilitating healing and personal growth.

Drawing from the IFS Institute’s detailed explanation of the parts-based psychotherapy approach, let’s further explore the model’s underlying assumptions and goals.

Basic Assumptions of the IFS Model

  • The multiplicity of the mind: The mind is inherently multifaceted, comprising numerous subpersonalities or parts.
  • Existence of Self: Every individual possesses a Self. This Self has the capability and the responsibility to guide the person’s internal system.
  • Positive intentions of parts: Each part inherently harbours a positive intention for the individual. No part is inherently “bad.” The therapy’s objective is not to expel any parts but to help them embrace their non-extreme roles.
  • The interplay of parts: Our parts evolve and form a complex interaction network as we grow. Hence, systems theory can be applied to this internal system. When this system undergoes reorganization, the parts can transform rapidly.
  • Internal and external systems influence each other: Changes in the internal system impact the external system and vice versa. This interaction implies the necessity to assess both the internal and external systems.

Overall Goals of IFS Therapy

  • Balance and Harmony: The primary aim is to achieve equilibrium and harmony within the internal system.
  • Promotion of Self-Leadership: Another goal is to differentiate and elevate the Self, enabling it to lead the system effectively.
  • Input and Respect for the Self: With the Self leading, the parts provide input but respect the Self’s leadership and final decision-making authority.
  • Coexistence and Contribution of All Parts: Every part should coexist and contribute its talents, reflecting its non-extreme intentions.

For those seeking a deeper understanding of these aspects of the Internal Family Systems model, I recommend exploring resources provided by the IFS Institute. They offer a comprehensive overview of the IFS model, the basis for the above information. You can find more details in their article Internal Family Systems Model Outline. The IFS Institute is a resource for professionals and individuals interested in learning more about the profound potential of IFS for personal growth and healing.

The Six Stages of IFS Therapy: Unveiling the 6 F’s

In dealing with emotional healing, especially with the echoes of trauma, the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model offers a distinctive perspective that veers from conventional therapies. IFS openly accepts even the most severe symptoms, acknowledges their protective intentions, and seeks their consent to reach the traumatic wounds. This method is encapsulated in six stages of IFS therapy, endearingly known as the 6 Fs.

1. Find: Identifying the Parts

The process begins by pinpointing the parts that need attention within oneself. It’s about locating these parts within, on, or around the body. The question here is, “Who needs your attention right now? Where do you notice it?”

2. Focus: Concentrating on One Part

Once a part has been identified, the next step is to hone in on it. This concentration involves turning your internal attention toward this part.

3. Flesh Out: Exploring the Part

The third step involves ‘fleshing out’ the part — exploring it in detail. This stage may entail visualizing or expressing how it manifests within you. It’s a chance to ask questions like, “Can you see it? How does it look? If not, how do you experience it?”

4. Feel Towards: Cultivating Compassion

This stage involves assessing your feelings towards the part in focus. It is akin to a Geiger Counter for Self-energy. Any response that doesn’t resonate with the qualities of Self-energy — the 8 C’s (Curiosity, Calm, Clarity, Connectedness, Confidence, Courage, Creativity, and Compassion) — indicates the presence of another influencing part. The task at this stage is to request this second part to relax and allow for a conversation with the target part.

5. beFriend: Building a Relationship

The fifth stage is about befriending the part by learning more about it. It seeks to establish an internal relationship (Self to part) and an external one (part to therapist). Questions like, “How did it get this job?”, “How effective is the job?”, “If it didn’t have to do this job, what would it rather do?” help unravel the complexities of the part.

6. Fear: Understanding the Concerns

The final stage involves understanding the fears and concerns of the part. Critical questions at this stage include: “What does it want for you?”, “What would happen if it stopped doing this job?” These inquiries can reveal any concealed polarization or unveil the exile it protects.

In the IFS model, each person’s journey through these stages is unique, guided by the individual’s comfort and readiness. The 6 F’s serve as an accessible guide to help individuals understand and work with their internal parts, embarking on the profound healing journey that trauma necessitates.

Applying the IFS Model: A Practical Guide

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model offers a constructive and practical approach to understanding and managing our internal experiences, emotions, and responses. The practical application of IFS revolves around identifying and interacting with the different parts within ourselves, helping us navigate our internal world with increased clarity, empathy, and efficacy.

Initial Steps: Beginning to Use the Model

The first step in applying the IFS model involves assessing the individual’s parts and sequences related to their problem. This process also includes identifying polarizations within individuals or among family members. Once these elements are understood, practitioners can introduce the language of the model, initiating the individual’s awareness of their parts — thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, and so forth.

In a family setting, it is essential to foster an understanding of each family member’s parts. After introducing the model, the practitioner collaborates with the client to establish the initial therapy goals. The fear and concerns of the manager parts are acknowledged, and the potential consequences of therapy are discussed.

The Interplay of Internal and External Systems

One’s relationship with their internal parts often mirrors how they interact with the parts of others. An individual’s internal system can influence and be influenced by their external environment. Recognizing these parallels can be a critical component of the IFS therapeutic process.

Working with Individuals

Evaluating and engaging with their protective parts is crucial when working with individuals. Establishing a direct relationship with these parts may necessitate negotiating the pace of work and respecting their concerns. To avoid overwhelming the Self with the part’s feelings, a process known as “Blending,” it’s essential to work with both the Self and the part to understand how to maintain their distinctness.

Various techniques can be employed throughout the process, from assessing internal dialogue, and location/sense of a part in the body, to using diagrams, journaling, or even imaging techniques. These methods can offer valuable insights into the relationships among the parts.

Working with Young Children

When applying the IFS model to young children, assessing their developmental level and using age-appropriate techniques is essential. These may include art or play techniques that externalize parts and then involve interacting with the parts, such as sand trays or puppets.

Working with Families

Introducing the IFS language is a pivotal first step in a family setting. The language of IFS allows for a more nuanced understanding of oneself and others, mitigating the likelihood of viewing themselves or others in powerful ways. The process involves identifying parts activated during sessions, setting up enactments, and ensuring safety agreements are in place. Each family member must understand that they are responsible for their parts regardless of others’ actions.

The IFS model’s practical application is a journey toward personal understanding and growth. It is a helpful tool to navigate better individuals’ and families’ internal and external dynamics.

Benefits and Strengths of the IFS Model

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model presents many strengths and benefits, contributing significantly to its popularity in therapeutic circles. Key among these is its focus on individual strengths, respect for personal experiences, and ecological understanding of the entire therapy system. Additionally, the model fosters a culture of self-disclosure and accountability and presents a novel method to address resistance and denial in therapy.

Emphasizing Strengths and the Self’s Undamaged Core

IFS inherently focuses on an individual’s strengths, believing in the undamaged core of the Self. Acknowledging the positive roles that parts can shift into empowers individuals to channel their internal strengths and capabilities. Acknowledging potential and empowerment enables clients to take a more active role in their healing and growth.

The Power of IFS Language

The language used in IFS provides a transformative lens through which individuals can view themselves and others. Using such language fosters a culture of self-disclosure and taking responsibility for one’s actions. By enabling individuals to externalize and objectify their experiences, IFS language helps reduce shame or guilt, promoting self-acceptance and understanding.

Navigating Resistance and Denial

IFS offers a unique approach to working with resistance and denial in therapy. It views these not as obstacles but as protective parts of the Self that carry important information. By acknowledging and working with these parts, IFS helps individuals understand the reasons behind their resistance, enabling them to move beyond denial and embrace change.

An Ecological Understanding

The IFS model presents an ecological understanding of the therapy system, including the therapist. It recognizes the interconnectedness of parts within individuals and how they interact with the external environment. This systemic approach provides a comprehensive perspective that can facilitate healing and growth.

Respecting Personal Experiences

IFS upholds a profound respect for each individual’s personal experience of their problem. This respect enables a more empathic and client-centred approach, where therapy is driven by the client’s narrative and interpretation of their experiences. It allows for a therapeutic process that is respectful, understanding, and compassionate.

The Therapist as a Co-therapist

In IFS, the therapist regards the client’s Self as a “co-therapist,” valuing the wisdom of the internal system. This view allows clients to lead their therapy process and take ownership of their journey. The therapist’s role shifts from the sole source of ideas to a supportive guide, helping clients harness their internal resources and innate wisdom.

The IFS model offers a holistic, empathetic, and empowering approach to therapy, enabling individuals to understand their complex internal dynamics, embrace their strengths, and navigate their path toward healing and growth.

Embracing the Journey: The Transformative Potential of IFS Therapy

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is an innovative and transformative approach to psychotherapy. This unique method invites us to embark on a profound self-discovery and healing journey. It encourages us to delve deeper into our inner world, identifying and understanding the diverse parts of our mental system.

Through the IFS lens, we learn to acknowledge and accept our complex internal family of parts, each with its unique roles, perceptions, and needs. We begin to appreciate that even those parts that initially appear disruptive or negative serve a purpose – they aim to protect us and maintain our psychological equilibrium.

Cultivating self-leadership is a pivotal aspect of the IFS therapeutic journey. As we develop the ability to differentiate the Self from the parts, we unlock the potential for self-guidance and autonomy. The Self, embodying qualities such as calm, curiosity, compassion, clarity, and courage, is an internal leader capable of maintaining balance and harmony among the parts.

This journey with IFS fosters an enhanced awareness of our inner world and equips us with the tools to navigate life’s challenges with greater resilience and understanding. We can transform our relationship with ourselves through compassionate self-exploration, fostering a more self-aware, empathetic, and integrated way of being.

It’s important to remember that the journey through IFS is a deeply personal and nuanced one, often best undertaken with the guidance of a trained IFS therapist. These professionals possess the necessary knowledge and skills to facilitate your exploration of your internal parts, help negotiate with your protective parts, and guide you toward uncovering and healing exiled parts.

So, if you find yourself intrigued by the possibilities offered by the IFS model and believe that it may be beneficial in your journey toward self-understanding and healing, it could be worth your while to explore this therapeutic approach further. Remember, exploring your inner world is not just an investigation—it’s a journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and transformation.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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