The Magic of Internal Family Systems
A new way of seeing that changed my life (with puppies)
Forgive the dramatic subtitle, but it’s true - learning about Internal Family Systems (IFS) really did change my life for the better in a big way. I have a radical new vision that helps me to make sense of myself and of other people, and to navigate relationships. It also helps me to go more gently.
I’ve written an introduction below which will give you all the basics, finishing with three things you can do which will help bring harmony to your interior landscape. If you’d rather listen, I’ve recorded a half-hour introductory video here. I say more about why I love it so much here. I’d also recommend reading either Parts Work by Tom Holmes (an easy read with pictures) or No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz, the founder of IFS. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…
Throughout history many great thinkers have made sense of humans as being made up of different parts. Most of us have had an experience of ambivalence - this is when different parts of us want different things. Right now I have a part that wants me to do some more writing, and a part that wants me to pause and eat breakfast. The writing part is winning, for now…
IFS holds that these distinct parts or voices not only have different agendas but different histories, jobs and emotional lives. Being able to identify these parts of us as separate from each other isn’t a symptom of Dissociative Identity Disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder), where the different parts have become extreme, separated off and debilitating, but a way of investigating how we function as ordinary human beings.
The three groups of parts
We can divide the kind of parts we have into three groups. All of them are working hard in their own way to keep our system ‘steady’, but they have different (sometimes opposite) strategies. You can think of all these parts working away inside us as like a big clockwork machine, or a complicated ecosystem, or a huge company. When something pushes us out of balance, certain parts of us will step in to keep us in some kind of equilibrium.
The first, managers, work hard to get us through our days. These are the parts of us that make plans, get things done, and keep a critical eye on us to stop us from ‘messing up’. They tend to be proactive and socially acceptable, especially in our capitalist society.
The second, distractors (or firefighters), are reactive and step in when we need to be soothed or distracted from difficult emotions. They also stop us from working ourselves to death. They get us to zone out in front of the television or drink too many glasses of wine.
These two groups together are called our protectors, because they all work to protect us both from the hurts of the world, and from the pain we’re carrying from our pasts. They often get into arguments (polarisation) with each other - one part tells us to do our tax return, and another tells us to go to the beach. It’s normal for parts to have disagreements but when these arguments get really intense (i.e. we experience addictions, depression or self-harm) it’s likely that our protectors are trying to protect us from being overwhelmed by intense pain or shame. This pain or shame is carried by our third group of parts.
Are you still with me? How are your parts doing? Are there ones that can identify with some of what I’m saying? Skeptical parts? Tired ones? Confused ones? They are all welcome! Here’s a photo of me & my friend’s puppy Otis to give you a little break from the theory. Look at those little button eyes…
Puppy break over. Our third group of parts are called exiles, and their ‘job’ is to carry the emotions or burdens we haven’t been able to process in the past. This could be seen as our ‘trauma’, although the origins of these burdens don’t have to be dramatic or abusive - for a two year old, an unexpected rejection can be absolutely devastating. It’s too much for our systems to cope with these events at the time, and so the emotion gets locked away with these exiled parts instead. These burdens can be sadness or grief, confusion, fury, terror, shame, or anything that has overwhelmed us.
There is one more wonderful thing to tell you about which is something that it is NOT a part. This is known as Self in IFS. Self is at the core of us. When we have self-energy present we feel naturally compassionate, curious, creative, courageous, calm, connected, clear and confident (the 8 Cs). This element of IFS theory can easily be made sense of through a spiritual lens if you already have spiritual beliefs, although this isn’t necessary.
When we witness a part from the position of Self, we stand outside of their web of complicated relationships with other parts and we get to know them as if for the first time. Suddenly we’re not seeing our bingeing part through the eyes of the manager part that wants us to lose weight (and so hates it), but as a hard-working part that is trying their best to distract us from our pain. We feel suddenly tender towards them, and they receive our tenderness.
The rules of IFS
One of my favourite parts of IFS is the understanding that ALL our parts have a positive intention for us. This isn’t to say that all parts have positive effects - many of our parts cause a world of trouble for us and for others. They are, however, doing the best they can with the tools they have.
The other thing I love about IFS is that it is simultaneously very gentle and very powerful. This is a result of us never proceeding without full permission from all our other parts. If we want to get to know a vulnerable exile but a protector (e.g. a part that makes us feel fuzzy or that gives us an anxious stomach) doesn’t want us to go there, then we respect it and we stop. I sometimes imagine these protective parts as beefy bouncers outside a nightclub - and you know what happens if you try and push past a bouncer!
As we slowly get to know them, our protectors do begin to trust Self. They willingly step aside and allow us access to our vulnerable exiles. When we finally connect with our exiles and witness their distress, they can release the burdens they’ve been carrying for a very long time and they become free. Our protectors are no longer needed in their extreme protective roles, and they can choose to do a new job for us (we never get rid of parts - they’re all valuable). This process of unburdening is always moving, deeply healing and, well, magical.
So this is all very well, but how might all this IFS theory help YOU?
What can you do?
Three things. Firstly, you can trust your system. Experiment with the idea that all your parts are all working really hard to help you, doing the only thing they know how to do. Rather than falling into hating or criticising different parts of you (of course, the hating one and the critical one are parts!), become curious about how they might think they’re helping you. Maybe your mean self-critical part wants to protect you from making mistakes and being shamed? Maybe the annoying daydreaming one is trying to lower your blood pressure? What if they’re all doing the best they can?
Secondly, you can notice your parts. When we are completely blended with our parts, they have the metaphorical driving seat and they are driving our metaphorical car. This happens when we lose our temper (the angry one is in charge) or fall into a funk (the depressed one takes over) or work without breaks (the getting-stuff-done one is in charge and overrides the hungry or tired ones). When we notice that this is happening, it allows us to find a teensy bit of Self-energy. ‘Oh, I seem to be screaming at my partner - the angry one is definitely driving. Let’s see if walking round the block will help Self to get back into the driving seat’. Maybe later we’ll be able to speak FOR our angry part (‘I was really upset and angry when you did that’) rather than FROM it (‘you are the worst human being on the planet’).
Thirdly, you can get to know to your parts. When does the insanely jealous part of you pop up? Which part might be around when you’re listening to the radio and suddenly feel sad? What are the biggest arguments inside you? Could you spend a little time listening to both sides? An excellent question to ask is always: What are your parts afraid might happen if they stopped doing their job? Just like people, parts yearn to be seen, understood and appreciated. They want to know that we see their suffering, and that they’re not alone.
Maybe IFS will give you more patience with a tricky relative, or a new insight into why you can’t stop scrolling on your phone. Who knows - maybe it will even transform your life as it has transformed mine. Let’s see what sprinklings of magic you’ve received from these words!
I use a lot of IFS in my weekly mini-essays here at Going Gently & I’ve also written a four week course which is available to paid subscribers. If you’d like to become a free or paid subscriber you’d be very welcome - click below.
Do feel free to share this article with anyone you know who is struggling at the moment with their own internal landscape, or any friends who are curious about their own systems. It always makes me happy to share what’s helped me, and it would make me even happier if you wanted to pass it on.
Maybe just one more picture of a puppy if you’ve got this far. I hope you don’t have any puppy-hating parts - if so, look away now. Here’s Aiko again when she was VERY little. Thanks so much for being here and keep in touch.
Those books again - I’d recommend starting with Parts Work by Tom Holmes and No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz. There are many other good books out there - on using IFS in relationships, with addiction, the spiritual aspects of IFS etc - they’re all gathered together here.
Here’s a good longer introduction post about IFS by Niall McKeever.
You can find lots about IFS on Youtube. Here’s a five minute introduction by Richard Schwartz, here’s an interview with Schwartz and Elizabeth Gilbert, here’s an example therapy session with Schwartz, IFS trainer Derek Scott has an amazing library or resources here, here’s a nice little short video to explain IFS to children.
If you’re looking for a therapist who’s trained in IFS then the UK directory is here. It’s a very popular mode of therapy at the moment and so do keep trying if everyone says that their practice is full (mine has been for a long time now).
If you have your own favourite IFS resources do let me know and I’ll add them to this list. Happy exploring!