Getting To Know the Subpersonalities: An Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
“Everyone (even those with severe inner turmoil) can access a state of spacious well-being by beginning to notice their more turbulent thoughts and feelings, rather than becoming swallowed up by them.” - Richard Schwartz
IFS therapy is a transformative evidence-based model of psychotherapy founded on the core tenet of family systems theory - the concept that states that as individuals, our feelings, behaviors, and personalities need to be understood in relation to our family units. The family is imagined as a system in which different parts perform different roles and adhere to specific expectations.
Family therapist Dr. Richard Schwartz originated and developed IFS in the early 1990s. The original idea backing this therapeutic approach came from the trend he heard when different clients would speak about inner parts of themselves. In IFS, the family systems model and its internal dynamics are adapted to be applied to the sub-personalities of a single individual’s mind. In other words, the mind is divided into parts that can conflict, limit each other, expand, and support each other in ways that add up to the behaviors and personality of the self.
The Internal Family Systems Model
The internal family is composed of three member types. Each of these exists in the mind, although they can take up different degrees of power in the system. In IFS, these sub-personalities each come with their own perspective on the experience of the self, as well as their interests and memories. As in a family, each of these parts has positive intent, but when they are out of balance or hurt, they can bring about dysfunctional outcomes in the self. IFS therapy is, at its core, about acceptance and transformation, not about casting out difficult parts of the self.
In the most general terms, exiles represent psychological trauma, often very deeply held from childhood. Exiles are the parts of the mind that carry guilt, shame, pain, and fear. The system tends to isolate exiles and silence them when they try to bring this pain to the front of our awareness. When exiles come to the front of our consciousness, we often act impulsively to cope with these feelings.
Managers take preemptive action to protect the self. They direct the way an individual interacts with the world around them and keep the person away from doing things that would be distressing. They prevent memories of traumatic experiences carried by exiles to surface and overwhelm our minds.
Trauma can’t be held back forever, and when exiles break out and cause distress, the firefighters are the first responders. To prevent us from thinking about our past trauma, they divert our attention by any means, intending to numb the negative feelings with external stimuli. This can lead to obsessive or impulsive actions such as overworking, binge drinking, cutting, or overeating.
These different parts interact with each other in three primary ways. The managers and firefighters aim to protect parts of the self from harm. Each part can also amplify its behavior in response to other subpersonalities’ extreme roles in a process known as polarization. Finally, they can build alliances to work together towards a common goal.
At the center of everything and behind each of these roles, there is the holistic self. The self is in an active leadership role and is what truly calls the shots after the influences of the subpersonalities have been heard. IFS requires that you tap into this higher self to lead, manage, and heal the subpersonalities that makeup who you are.
However, the self can also become fused with one of our protective subpersonalities.
This is a distorted position where, despite feeling that it is in charge, a different unconscious part of the brain controls what we do. The first stage of IFS starts with separating the self from the other parts in order to be able to build a dialogue with each part on its own.
How It Works
The first step in Level 1 IFS therapy is to access the self so the person can address their system from its leading role. After that, individuals in therapy can start the process of building a trusting relationship with the protective managers and firefighters, so that with their permission, the self can begin to uncover and unburden the pained exiles.
Eventually, this frees the protectors from their need to act dysfunctional and allows them to adopt more healthy protective roles.