What is Internal Family Systems?

The Internal Family Systems Therapy Model (IFS) is a therapeutic approach with guidelines to create a greater understanding of a person’s behaviors that ultimately leads to their healing. This is accomplished by a therapist defining and learning about a client’s subpersonalities and how these individual parts of the self contribute to situations, conflicts and emotions and disruptions. There are three levels of training therapists undertake to properly practice IFS for individuals, couples and families.

Our internal system is categorized into the Self and three groups of subpersonalities, or parts. The parts are the Managers, Exiles and Firefighters. Each of these parts perform a function. For example, the Managers are the parts who are determined to keep the system safe. They are protectors. Since they are on the outlook for any harm that might come your way, their modus operandi is controlling, judging, striving, care taking, planning and being passively pessimistic. If a person has been hurt, humiliated, shamed or frightened by something or someone in the past, the Manager will try to prevent the self from feeling the uncomfortable feelings. They want the vulnerable needy parts kept safe and unexposed, and therefore they shut them away.

The shut-away or isolated parts are the Exiles. In trying to be recognized, the Exiles can display rage, and or despondency. They carry fear and terror, grief, loss, loneliness and all the past wounds. Sometimes the amount of what they hold is too much of a burden and they erupt. Their reactions can be manifested by rage or an incapacitating flood of emotions.

Now it’s the Firefighters turn to protect the system. They move quickly to distract the Exiles. They want to put out those extreme feelings pretty darn quick. An easy way to accomplish the numbing out is through the use of alcohol, drugs and other methods like overeating or binging. Compulsive and impulsive activity can extinguish the feelings, too and lead to undesirable behaviors, and dangerous outcomes like addiction.

Where or how does the Self enter into this system of subterfuge? When first in therapy the client may not have access to what’s called the Core Self. There’s just been all this effort by the subpersonalities to keep them safe. This is understandable. Differentiating the parts and their roles is intended to create an opening for the Self to emerge. The Self is the leader of the pack and whose role is to be calm, curious, confident, courageous, compassionate, clear and calm. The goal of IFS is to gain access to all that is brilliant and beautiful within the client.

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