Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is an evidence-based, psychospiritual practice, with broad applications in psychology and coaching. The model was pioneered by Dr. Richard C. Schwartz over twenty years ago, and has continuously evolved since then. Before describing IFS model and how it works, it would be useful to highlight its ultimate goal, which is to embody Self-Leadership in life. Self-Leadership is a state of mind and heart that manifests through positive virtues such as compassion, calmness, clarity, curiosity, confidence, courage, creativity, and connectedness, toward ourselves and others. When we fully embody such positive virtues in our daily life, we become calm, emotionally centered, and confident during challenging situations and ordeals in life. We become a “Self-Led” person.
The true value of IFS Self-Leadership reaches beyond its use as a practice. It is a refreshingly positive and integrating way of seeing ourselves. Embracing it is spiritual and can lead to healing, self-discovery, and lasting well-being. Above all, IFS view of our psyche is intellectually and spiritually stimulating, and raises our understanding of ourselves and others in our lives.
This post presents a primer of basic concepts in IFS Self-Leadership. I briefly explain the main structure of IFS model and highlight its practical and positive view of human psyche. The views presented here are based on my personal experience with the model. The official background and further information about the model and its applications are available in IFS Institute website.
Multiplicity of Our Minds
The IFS model combines two existing concepts, i.e., systems thinking, and the view that our minds consist of subpersonalities (or “parts”), each with own conviction and priority. IFS uses a system point of view to understand how these subpersonalities are organized and interact with each other.
IFS Self-Leadership was not the first approach to focus on subpersonalities and inherent multiplicity of our minds . This phenomenon was first acknowledged in the West by Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist, who developed an approach called Psychosynthesis to work with subpersonalities. Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung also recognized multiplicity and inner-dynamic between various conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche in himself and his clients. Aside from working with dreams, Jung also helped his clients enter a dreamlike inner world to connect, communicate, and integrate these aspects. He called this process “Active Imagination”.
The concept of multiplicity of mind implies that our thoughts, emotions, and actions related to an event or a subject can vary depending on subpersonalities expressing them. At first, this perspective may seem a bit hard to grasp, because we have always viewed ourselves as a single mind and personality. However, if we are open to contemplate on this idea, we can find many personal experiences that indicate otherwise. The following hypothetical example can be helpful in relating to what I mean by subpersonalities and their interactions.
An Example of Subpersonalities
Imagine Sue, who works as a manager in a large company. She is intelligent and doing very well in her professional life. Sue’s high career aspiration has been demanding long hours from her, leaving little or no time for her to focus on personal life. This has affected her health, happiness, and emotional well-being. At work, she is busy and distracted, and does not have time to think about her personal life. But off work, she has an inner critic that shows up, blaming her for neglecting herself. The inner critic voice shames her for not eating well, not exercising, and not socializing. The voice also reminds her of her dull and uninspiring personal life.
The shaming voices of Sue’s inner critic are not motivating, and instead make her feel guilty and overwhelmed with sadness. This is when a part of her personality emerges and invites her to unplug from all of these thoughts and emotions. This part expresses itself as distractions, e.g., sleeping long hours, shopping, bingeing on food, TV or Internet, etc. These activities calm her down and detach her from feeling sad. You can see how Sue’s weekends can become not as inspiring or energizing to her.
In this example, Sue’s thoughts, emotions, and actions are driven by various “parts” of her personality. One part of her is a successful manager with career ambition. Let’s call this part the “Professional”. Another part of her is a critic who uses shaming voices to make her care more about her personal life. We can call this part the “Critic”. Finally, another part of her personality comes to rescue her from the overwhelming sadness caused by the Critic. We can refer to this part as the “Distracter”, because it uses mind-numbing activities to unplug her from sadness.
Key Observations in Our Example
Let’s reflect on some observations in Sue’s example. First, we can notice that different parts of her personality seem to have good intentions for her. For example, the Professional part wants her to realize her highest career potentials. The Critic wants her to focus on her personal life, and live a healthier and happier life. The Distracter wants to protect her from overwhelming sadness by mind-numbing activities.
Second, we notice some polarization and interaction between these parts in Sue’s personality. This is because they have different agendas for Sue. For example, the Critic does not like what the Professional is doing. Because, the Critic believes there is more to life than having a successful career. The Professional wants to shut down the Critic, because of her shaming strategy to control Sue. Similarly, the Distracter does not like the Critic, because her critical voice overwhelms Sue with sadness. Likewise, the Critic does not like the way the Distracter numbs Sue with useless activities, instead of improving her life.
These polarizations and differences in agenda manifest themselves in Sue’s thoughts, actions, and emotions. Sue seems caught up between conflicting voices of her parts, which drains her emotional and intellectual energy with no resolution in sight. It is not an ideal situation. She has all reasons to enjoy a well-balanced and inspiring life. But how can she resolve the inner conflicts within her? She may not even be fully aware of her subpersonalities, and how they are blended and in conflict with each other. That is where IFS model can help.
IFS Parts and Their Roles
In Sue’s example, we were able to differentiate several parts of her personality. We also noticed how each part has different agenda and strategy to influence her emotions, thoughts, and actions. Like Sue, we too have many parts in our personalities. They also compete to influence our decisions in life, and dictate how we perceive ourselves and others.
We have parts that are great caretakers, organizers, and doers. We also have parts that are more playful and want us to relax and enjoy life. Unfortunately because of traumas, some of our parts can become burdened and pushed to new roles. In IFS Self-Leadership, we categorize these parts as “Exiles”, “Managers”, and “Firefighters”. For reasons we see later, the latter two are also known as “Protectors”. Let’s briefly outline the main characteristics of these three categories here. Further details can be found in .
Exiles are parts of our personality that have experienced trauma, humiliation, helplessness, fear, and loneliness sometime in our past, usually when we were very young and vulnerable. We all have had such traumatic experiences in life, but tend to suppress and forget them. We do that by either trying to put them behind us, or isolating them through distractions. Exiles are parts of our personality that “hold on” to these traumatic experiences, and continue to live in the time of their occurrence. They remain hurt, burdened, and always in search of redemption. But until then, our psyche continues to isolate and suppress our Exiles, to prevent them from reemerging, and as a result, overwhelming us with negative emotional burdens they carry.
Manager are parts of our personality that run our day-to-day life. They like stability and order, and are happy to simply maintain the Status Quo in life. Their strategy is to control the situation in a preemptive way, so we never risk finding ourselves in a vulnerable position to be hurt, humiliated, or rejected. They do that through controlling the environment, and our interactions, appearance, emotions, thoughts, etc. Managers are also knows as Protectors because they want to keep our Exiles isolated and protected.
Managers protect Exiles by monitoring our relationships and life events. For example, if we have an Exile because we were rejected by someone we were once emotionally attached to, our managers try to block all emotional attachments, where risk of rejection exists. Our Managers wants us to be perfect, pleasing, and likeable, so we won’t be rejected or hurt. They use worry, shaming, criticizing, and even apathy to keep us focus on Status Quo, and deter us from adventures, or taking any risk.
Firefighters, as the name implies, are parts of our personality that come online to “put out the fire”. The fire here refers to a critical situation, where an Exile is about to emerge and overwhelm us with its emotional burden. Like Managers, Firefighters are also Protectors because they too try to keep our Exiles isolated. Firefighter parts of our personality take charge whenever our Managers fail to stay in control. Our Managers are diligent and dedicated to keep us safe and calm, but there are unforeseen events or circumstances that can catch them off-guard, triggering one of our Exiles to emerge.
The main goal of our Firefighters is to distract and disassociate us from our Exiles and their emotional burdens. Unlike managers that are preemptive, Firefighters are reactive in their approach and use everything possible to unplug us, without caring about consequences. Our firefighter actions are coping behaviors to protect us from being overwhelmed by shame or negative emotions. These actions are usually impulsive and mind-numbing, such as sleeping, shopping, binge eating, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling, sexaholism, bingeing on TV or Internet, etc. In extreme cases of shaming, Firefighters’ behavior can become destructive, e.g. road rage, alcoholism, or even suicide.
Going back to Sue’s example, the “Professional” is a Manager. The “Critic” is also a Manager competing for more control, specially in Sue’s personal life. The feeling of sadness that overwhelms Sue by hearing shaming voices of the Critic, comes from one of her Exiles. This Exile could be a childhood event, where she was treated unfairly, or felt unattractive or unappreciated. The Distracter is clearly a Firefighter that comes online to rescue Sue from the overwhelming sadness taking over her.
Qualities of Our Parts
IFS Self-Leadership has a very positive perspective of our personality and its parts. This is unlike majority of other psychological or coaching approaches, where parts of our personality are vilified, shut down, and labeled as inferior or deficient. To highlight this positive perspective, we list some of the key qualities of our parts here. These qualities hold true irrespective of the roles our parts play or how they manifest. Our Parts
– Are all valuable and inseparable dimensions of our personality,
– Have good intentions and always look for ways to protect us in the best way they can,
– Are fully aware of each other and interact internally like we do with each other in daily life,
– Can become burdened and destructive, but only as a results of traumatic life experiences,
– May form alliance or polarization, to collaborate or compete with each other, respectively,
– Have the mind of their own, but are also objective and will adjust to changes in our life circumstances,
– Are open to respond to us and express their point of view, when asked and given the opportunity,
– Have their own agenda and usually need “mediation” to operate in full harmony with each other.
The need for “mediation” in the last sentence is important to highlight. Because personality parts have their own agendas, they always find themselves in either alliance, competition, or polarization with each other.
Our parts are intelligent, but highly myopic and narrow in their perspective. So, despite their good intentions, parts are unable to see our personality and well-being as a whole. For example, Sue’s Professional part does not care much about aspects of her personal life. This means even if we manage to recognize all parts in our personality, there is no guarantee of stability or harmony among them, and in our psyche as whole.
Where do we go from here? If our parts are for themselves and unable to co-exist in harmony with each other, how would we be able to invite and cultivate that harmony in our psyche and our life? That is where “Self” comes to rescue through its mediation.
“Self” (with a capital S) is an aspect of our psyche that is fundamentally different from our subpersonality parts we discussed so far. As the name reveals, Self is the core or inner most essence of our being that transcends beyond normal aspects of our personality and Ego consciousness. The concept of Self may not lend itself well in words, but fortunately, is seeded deeply inside us and can be experienced directly by virtually all of us.
The concept of Self manifests itself as a tremendously positive and connecting energy. IFS calls this “Self Energy”, which is behind healing and integrating power of the model, and its ultimate goal of Self-Leadership. When Self Energy emerges in us, we become centered, confident, and more connected internally as well as with people around us. Our Self Energy is transpersonal and once activated can be felt by people interacting with us. As indicated before, Self Energy only radiates and extends positive virtues such as compassion, calmness, clarity, curiosity, confidence, courage, creativity, connectedness, etc.
Unfortunately for some of us, specially those with many childhood or past traumatic experiences, Self and its energy may not be as readily accessible. This is due to highly burdened Exiles, and Managers and Firefighters that had to assume extreme protective roles to contain their intense emotions. However, if we somehow manage to create a little bit of space in our minds by working with our protectors, Self and its healing energy could emerge and grow within us. How do we create that space? That is where IFS model as a positive, holistic, and integrating view of our psyche is most effective.
“When parts are listened to, loved, and respected, they relax inside, which opens up space. This is the way that IFS quiets the mind. Just as is true with all other systems, once the mind is emptied, Self emerges spontaneously.”
Richard C. Schwartz, Robert R. Falconer, Many Minds, One Self (2017)
IFS Self-Leadership In Practice
Practice of IFS Self-Leadership is intellectually and spiritually stimulating, and even more intriguing than its basic concepts covered here. Among others, there are two key aspects of IFS Self-Leadership that make its practice effective and stimulating. First, we respect all parts during IFS practice and “listen” to their voices and concerns. In other words, parts will get the opportunity to have inner dialogues and “explain” why they are in their respective roles. So, there is no need for IFS practitioners to “interpret” what their clients’ parts do. Allowing parts to speak up leads to relief and redemption during the process, which are necessary steps toward healing and harmony.
Second, IFS effectiveness relies on practitioners’ ability to embody and hold Self Energy, in order to help their clients do the same. But once clients embody Self Energy, their Self can engage with and care for all their parts directly. In other words, IFS practice devotes much respect and confidence to clients’ Self to do most of the connecting and mediating work. This way, clients build direct and intimate relationships with their parts, and once unburdened can maintain that personal relationship going forward, without any support from IFS practitioners. This feature of IFS model makes Self-Leadership more accessible and natural to all who embrace it.
The practice of IFS model can be imaginative and inspiring. Many who witnessed the healing power and the positive effects of the IFS Self-Leadership, have incorporated it into their daily life as a psychospiritual way of seeing themselves and the world around them. The model continues to extend its well-deserved and respected place, not only as an effective approach in psychotherapy and coaching, but also as a hopeful and life-promoting path for all who simply embrace it for Self-Discovery or as a refreshing perspective in life.
 Schwartz, R.C., Introduction to Internal Family Systems Model (2001)