When we think of our identity, or our ‘self’, people often talk about it as this undeterminable whole, changing and evolving, yes, but always as one. However, in reality, even in our day to day, that whole or self, is made up of slightly varying parts. The part of us that presents itself when we have a meeting at the bank is slightly different to the part we present at work to colleagues, which is likely more different again to the part we present to friends and family.

Understanding ourselves as parts of a whole is a useful tool outside of therapeutic practice, it can help us to recognise the parts that, although well meaning, come in all guns a blazing when we feel threatened or questioned.

Within the therapeutic environment, it can be vital in understanding that the ages we were when difficult or traumatic things happened to us, still live within us, and every so often need their voices to be heard.

Internal Family Systems and distinguishing parts from identities

“So everybody’s got parts and, they’re all good.”

Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, and founder of the IFS Institute, describes IFS on the Institute website in a recording of a talk he conducted on the therapy:

“We think people have parts, and parts are sub personalities, and in distinction to a lot of other systems we believe we’re born with them. It’s in the nature of the mind to be sub-divided. We’re all actually multiple personalities, and people who carry that diagnosis aren’t any different to us, except that theirs got blown apart more, from the horrific trauma they suffered.”

This is an important distinction to make, IFS, although insightful, powerful and hugely therapeutic, when misunderstood, can lead people to misinterpret the ‘Parts’ of IFS as the distinct personalities of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

As Dr. Schwartz says in the video, we have more in common with those who have DID than we might think, however the personalities, parts or ‘alters’ that are central to DID, differ in a few crucial ways:

  • they are often totally autonomous, with different names, appearances and views
  • amnesic barriers are often present between the parts or alters, so one alter might remember something another can’t
  • the central ‘self’ that is referred to in IFS has a similar counterpart in DID, what many call the ‘host’ or ‘host self’ – this means the alter that is ‘out’ and present the most, however the host might not have access to all alters and can still be affected by those amnesic barriers.

The Internal Family Systems model

On the IFS Institute website, they outline some ‘basic assumptions’ of the IFS model. Some of these assumptions echo the statement quoted above by Dr. Schwartz, it also emphasises that at their core, the intentions behind each of our parts are positive, ‘There are no “bad” parts’ and that ‘the goal of therapy is not to eliminate parts but instead to help them find their non-extreme roles’.
These basic assumptions also address a key element of IFS that makes it a highly affective type of therapy for a number of mental health conditions. It says that parts are a natural element of our development, and that they ‘form a complex system of interactions among themselves’ as we develop. As such, systems theory, originally developed for family therapy can be applied to this ‘internal system’.

It concludes by establishing how ‘Changes in the internal system will affect changes in the external system and vice versa’.

The main goal of IFS is to reach harmony and balance between all the parts that make up the internal system. To do this, an IFS Therapist will help a client or patient to differentiate the Self, which the theory believes is capable of being calm, understanding, patient, and even compassionate toward all parts of the system.

Differentiating the Self allows it to mediate, to lead and to have open dialogue with other parts that feel as though they need to be heard. Importantly, the Self will listen to the parts, and welcome input from them, but ultimately parts will respect and acknowledge that the Self is the one in the central role.

When this Self is established, it can do, what IFS theory calls ‘unburdening’. This is where the Self talks to, or visits parts that have felt the need to protect, control or avoid in extremes and who don’t know or understand that the self might not need their help in this way anymore.

All this talk of parts, what are they?

IFS understand parts as a kind of ‘subpersonality’, they interact internally through specific styles, patterns and sequences: a system. We can experience our parts through feelings: for example, a part that knows you were once hurt by being out of control might jump into action by making you feel anxious, alert and hypervigilant, or it might make you want to plan ahead in a way others might find excessive.

We can also experience our parts through thoughts, sensations and images. A part might surface as distrust in the form of a thought, or a nauseous feeling in the form of a sensation, or you might suddenly remember something from long ago.

In IFS the person in therapy will come to understand and accept that all these ways in which we experience our parts, are coming from a good place. Although the end result might seem, on the surface, inconvenient or unpleasant, often the motive behind the function of a part is simply to protect a version of a person who was unable to protect themselves, often a young child.

How Internal Family Systems groups parts

Exiles: These are often the parts that all others rush around to protect, or to repress. They’re frequently young, or even infant parts who have experienced some kind of trauma. This trauma doesn’t have to be what many would consider ‘extreme’, such as abuse. They are called exiles because other parts might isolate them. They’re often associated with feelings of pain, terror and fear. However, the longer these parts are exiled, they can become extreme and desperate: remember these parts are often formed as a child when an individual has undergone trauma, they need to be listened to.

Managers: These are what likely surface most often, they intervene and run the life of a person on a day-to-day basis. Their characteristics are in the name, they manage and are often obsessed about being in control of every situation or relationship. They enact this control through a number of guises: criticising and terrorising is a common trait for a manager, many people would call this their ‘inner critic’. Another common guise is that of a caretaker, they can come across as nurturing and caring, when in actuality they are still acting out of fear. It is also essential to understand that although a manager might seem more adult, they were created at the same time as the exiles.

Firefighters: These are the reactive and most extreme parts that surface when an exile is activated. Their role is similar to the manager, but only kicks into gear when the usual management and controlling tactics don’t work. Their extreme reactions in an effort to repress the exiles can look like: drug or alcohol use, self-harm, binge-eating, promiscuity.

What does Internal Family Systems look like in practice?

At the beginning of IFS therapy you might establish a contract or goals wished to be achieved through engaging with the internal system. In the early stages a therapist might work with a client on establishing awareness of parts and how they fall into the above categories. Often an IFS therapist will start with the protective, ‘manager’ parts first.

This can look like envisioning a manager part coming into the room and taking a seat next to you, then, you might be asked what that part has to say. Another dynamic played with in this example can be getting a client to physically move around a room and ‘embody’ different parts and then return to where originally seated as the self.

Imaging is also a frequently used technique in IFS. This is usually done through a visualisation technique of some kind, where a client is taken into a space in their mind, where they can ‘meet’ a part.

Other common forms of practice in IFS are: actively using the IFS model language to relate to and conceptualise parts, journaling, writing exercises as a part, sensing a part of the body relating to a part and journaling.

Internal Family Systems isn’t for everyone: deciding if it’s right for you

From the service user perspective: because in practice, IFS is often reliant on things like visualisation, imaging, sensing body parts and feelings, people who experience dissociation might struggle to feel present. It’s also, generally quite an experimental type of therapy that many people might feel silly, hesitant or uncomfortable engaging with.

For practitioners: being trained in IFS is a really valuable tool if you are interested in offering therapy to people with complex mental health conditions, especially complex trauma. This is because it acknowledges that everyone, at some stage in their development has gone through trauma and seeks to treat everyone on that even basis, and it uses it’s framework of parts to help a client to begin to heal from that trauma.