Understanding The Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy Model

Understanding The Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy Model


Have you ever faced a serious case of procrastination? You are faced with a challenging project at work or school, and instead of focusing all your attention on the task at hand, you find yourself procrastinating and thus avoiding the task? or perhaps in close relationships, you find yourself pulling away from your partner and into isolation? The emotional closeness makes you feel overwhelmed and you end up running away or avoiding them. We humans sometimes experience painful feelings or have destructive impulses.

These feelings hinder our day-to-day functioning. At times, these feelings don’t make sense to us, like avoiding your partner in a close emotional relationship. We don’t want to do that, but a part takes over us, which we feel no control over. This article is based on a form of psychotherapy that helps us understand the different parts we have within us. According to Internal Family Systems Therapy, these subpersonalities have varied interests, experiences, and thoughts. One element common among all of them is that they want what is best for themselves.

Nature of the Mind According to Internal Family Systems Therapy

Let’s consider the Self of a person in the middle, acting as the core of a person. Around it are the different parts of you (the procrastinator part or the avoidant part). According to this psychotherapy, the mind is subdivided into multiple parts which we refer to as subpersonalities. The Self acts as an active, compassionate leader of this internal system. This model says that there are no bad parts or subpersonalities.

The extreme roles that some parts may play, for example, substance abuse or risky activities, are seen from a very compassionate point of view. The Internal Family Systems Therapy does not hold cynical or self-serving views about human nature. Every part is said to have an extreme emotion that it needs separation from. Dr. Schwartz has stated that he helped his clients separate from their extreme emotions and beliefs. This led to the revealing of the core, the Self. The Self is pure joy and peace. It is said to have leadership and healing qualities.

According to Assistant Professor, Dr. Mitali Jha, Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, is based on the idea that the mind is made up of different sub-personalities or “Self,” which represents the undamaged essence of the individual and is characterized by conflicting emotions and beliefs and these all “different parts,” has its own perspectives, traumas, conflicts, memories, and roles.

In IFS therapy, individuals learn to connect with and strengthen their relationship with the Self, which can offer stability and guidance in dealing with life’s challenges. IFS therapy helps individuals understand and harmonize their internal parts, resolving the conflicts between these parts and the core Self. IFS has been used to treat a wide range of issues, including trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction, and relationship problems. It’s considered a holistic approach to therapy, as it honors the complexity and multiplicity of the human psyche while promoting self-awareness, self-compassion, and personal growth.

What are the parts?


This is a younger part that has experienced pain and carries traumatic memories or vulnerable emotions. The psyche pushes these parts away from consciousness and hides it to protect you from going through the pain and hurt again. A trauma history especially makes it difficult to access this part of yourself, so you just end up feeling fear, rage or pain. In the Internal Family Systems Therapy world, these feelings are associated with the wounded inner system carrying all the pain of what happened to you as a child.


Managers are protective parts. The goal of this part is to prevent exiled parts from being triggered. They strive to maintain a sense of control and safety. They run the day-to-day life of the individual. And manifest as perfectionism, self-criticism, rigidity, or overachievement. Managers develop coping strategies in response to difficult life circumstances, they are the protectors from any hurt or rejection. This manifests in any number of ways like;

  • Babysitter: This aspect of IFS cares for everyone around it, but not itself as a means of escaping its feelings.
  • Perfectionist: If something is flawless, it won’t be rejected and, as a result, it won’t cause you to experience painful rejection.
  • Controller: This part craves total control because it believes that anything unexpected or unwanted will lead you to feel emotions associated with your trauma.
  • Passive pessimist: This part avoids social interactions by withdrawing and being passive to avoid becoming too close to others, as this can lead to the release of intense, repressed emotions.

Firefighters are reactive parts that emerge when exiles are activated and overwhelmed by intense emotions or memories. This is the group of parts that react when exiles are activated to control and extinguish their feelings. They act as emergency responders, attempting to distract or numb you through impulsive behaviours such as substance abuse, binge eating, self-harm, or other compulsive behaviours. The goal is to still keep exiles away but strategies are different. Firefighters provide temporary relief but can contribute to long-term negative consequences.

Relationship between internal and external systems

The internal (Self) and the external (environment) systems affect each other. We have ongoing relationships with the different parts, i.e., our thoughts and emotions. The relationship that the person has with their procrastinator self is one of fear exhibiting as anger and frustration. It stems from an overwhelming fear of failure, judgment , and deeply imbibed inadequacy. This leads them to avoid the task leading the procrastinator to protect them in a way. People form authoritarian, dismissive or coercive relationships with these different parts of them. The by-product of which is that you will form similar relationships with people around you who have the qualities of those inside you.

For example, at work, if your boss tends to be very critical or controlling when team members don’t meet deadlines or perform to his/her high standards, your boss is showing the authoritarian relationship they have with their procrastinator part. The one where they call themselves lazy or incompetent, with ongoing negative self-talk. This internal system and the relationship with it then reflects in their external behaviour towards the team.

Relationship with parts of ourselves

In IFS, the act of thinking is regarded as inner dialogues or conversations we have with different parts of ourselves. For example, think of a situation that makes you anxious like getting up on the stage and giving a presentation. What usually happens is that you would try to reassure yourself that you know what you are going to talk about on the stage, or no one wants to criticize you. However, this kind of rational self-talk will work only briefly. Naturally, you will be frustrated and angry, yelling at the anxiety as to why it brings you down and why can’t you do it as easily as the others.

IFS says that all the parts need to feel safe and secure. The way you try to handle your extreme emotions and irrational beliefs makes all the difference. You have to ask questions of emotion. The anxious part that shows up is more than just a bundle of anxiety. If you separate the emotion you feel from yourself and talk to it in a curious manner you will realize that it is a protective part of you. It is protecting you from harm, fear of judgment or failure.

You separate yourself from the anxiety, sort of taking a “step back” and begin intentional conversations with your emotions and thoughts. Rather than the negative inner dialogue of criticism and frustration you routinely show with parts of yourself, you change the narrative. You instead have to start feeling curious and compassionate for your emotions and beliefs. This will help you learn not only what the emotions are upset about but also how you can help calm them down and what they need from you.

The 8 Cs of Self

During therapy, Dr. Richard Schwartz found that when people focus on their emotions and consequently separate from them, they tend to display qualities of good leadership. It seems that we all have qualities of curiosity, compassion, calmness, confidence, courage, clarity, creativity, and connectedness at our core. There exist 8 Cs of the Self that are evident in the therapy process.

Initially, when separated from their extreme emotions, clients feel less fear and start to feel calmer. This is usually manifested as “feeling more space” in their body. Additionally, the parts that, at first, were attacked by other parts with judgment, start to be addressed with more patience and confidence. From this state, clients show the ability to connect to the parts, which was not available before.

First of all, there is more curiosity towards parts rather than judgment, fear or desire to get rid of them. As they feel the presence of the client’s self, the parts start to spontaneously open up. Once parts start to open up, the client starts to appreciate why the parts were behaving and feeling in certain ways. The increased understanding of the reasons behind a part’s behaviour leads to more clarity. Once the parts start to share the difficult situations that caused or still cause their responses, a sense of compassion develops.

According to Dr. Balbinder Singh, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, emphasizes the multitude of issues like as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, eating disorder, substance use disorders. The therapy considers an individual as a family or community that has subparts (and hence an individual can have sub-personality(ies)/sub-parts). Therapy focused on identifying the subpersonalities or subparts within an individual and eliminating painful ones. It can offer significant benefits to individuals dealing with challenges like aggression, depression, anxiety, panic, and phobias. It helps attain internal balance, develop self-compassion and a positive attitude towards life.

From a place of compassion, the Self spontaneously shows the courage to help the parts in the way they want to be helped. Thanks to the Self’s creativity, new ways can be found to give the parts exactly what they need to unburden, change, heal and assume new roles in the system. Often, once parts heal, the Self shows features of playfulness when engaging with parts.

References +
  • What is Internal Family Systems? | IFS Institute. (2024, March 26). https://ifs-institute.com/
  • The Internal Family Systems Model Outline | IFS Institute. (n.d.). https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/internal-family-systems-model-outline
  • “These parts will fight to the end to protect you.” (2024, April 2). BPS. https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/these-parts-will-fight-end-protect-you
  • The Larger Self | IFS Institute. (n.d.). https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/larger-self

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