Internal Family Systems  (IFS)

Internal Family Systems or IFS is a way of understanding ourselves and others that promotes greater self-leadership and self-compassion in ourselves and towards others.  Below are 5 key points to understanding IFS.

1.  Subpersonalities/Multiples

IFS proposes we are all multiple in some way and it is not pathological.  Multiple meaning we have subpersonalities within us that show up to help us navigate our lives.  If you haven’t seen Inside Out check out the short clip below for a great visual of what can be described as subpersonalities.

Emotions At The Dinner Table – Inside Out Clip

Dan Siegel’s complexity choir analogy takes this a step further.  In this analogy, which he usually demonstrates in a very captivating way during his lectures in-person, he invites many people to come up to the front of the room.  After a decent group has gathered he asks them to all start singing their own song as loud as they well please.  The outcome: chaos.  Very unpleasant to listen to, often times people respond in their nervous systems with anxiety, avoidance and dismissal.  Then, he asks the “choir” to sing the same note for an entire 5 minutes.  The outcome: rigidity.  Very unpleasant to listen to, often times people feel anxiety, avoidance and dismissal.  Both sides of the pendulum are the same; rigidity and chaos create similar outcomes.  So what are we to do?  How is it that we can go listen to a symphony or a concert and have those “goose bump” moments?  3 key things have to be present.  1. A conductor.  Someone to coordinate and integrate the entire range of sounds into a cohesive, inspiring narrative. 2. Distinctive parts.  You can’t have a symphony with just flutes.  3. Sheet music.  Everyone has to be on the same page, playing the same piece of music.

At the end of all this we want to see a conductor leading a varied group of musicians in the same piece of music to create those inspiring moments.  Our system is no different.  We need Self (see more on bullet #2 below) to lead as the conductor and we need parts to all play their varied roles within the leadership of the piece of “music” the Self has given them.  This leads to an incredibly inspiring, fulfilling and desirable life.

2. Self

Self is something we are all born with. Yes, all of us.  Not just some of us.  All of us.  Self generally has the following 7 qualities (in no particular order):

  • curious
  • compassionate
  • calm
  • creative
  • courageous
  • clear
  • confident

How do you know when you are in Self or if you are being led by a part? Check out your dominant energy.  If it is something other than one of these qualities above, chances are you are in a part and not in self.

Self acts as the chief of state of the system.  And just like the president, during times of attack, the president will retreat to an underground secret bunker until there is a relative degree of safety above ground.  In the meantime, he will use others appointed to run things above ground until safety resumes.  Self is the exact same way!!!! This means that during times of unsafe, neglectful or harmful conditions the Self will retreat to a undisclosed location until it determines there is a relative degree of safety in the system.  Until then parts (sub personalities) of the system are burdened with the tasks of Self until the Self can rightly resume its place of leadership in the system.  Self is NEVER damaged by things that have happened to us, or in cases of neglect never happened to us.

3. All parts are welcome

Really?  What about parts that want to hurt myself? Hurt other people?  Drink too much?  Work too much?  Judge others?  Judge myself?  Yes, all parts are welcome.  Working with internal family systems for several years now I have come to truly believe that all parts are welcome.  Remember what we discussed in bullet #2?  Parts have to take on these extreme roles in the system in order to try and act as “self” until Self can return to leadership.  These parts leave behind their designed roles in the system and take on these very extreme roles in the system to care of us until Self returns.  This means that many parts in our systems are burdened in some way with a task that was never theirs to begin with.  Knowing this you could say all parts have a light and a dark side to them in many ways.

4. Method to the madness

While it can seem quite chaotic in many ways when you first start to listen to the conversation going on inside, there are some general rules of thumb with how most systems are set up.  Please note, I draw this differently than most IFS diagrams because I have found it to be more helpful in understanding these concepts when I have used them with clients.  I also use the word distractor instead of firefighter because I also find it more relatable when referring to this subset of parts.

In general we have 3 different sub-sets of parts.

Managers: Managers are in the system to create calm out of control.  They can show up as inner critics, pessimists, perfectionists, caretakers, etc.

Distractors: Distractors in the system are there to create just that; distraction.  They can show up as self-harming, addictions, dissociation, suicidal ideation, anger, etc.

Exiles: Exiles are the parts in the system that hold the pain and hurt of our experiences when no one is there to help them unload them.  They can show up as shame, pain, loneliness, fear, etc.

In general, exiles are protected but managers and distractors (protective layers) in the system.  Sometimes exiles have one protector, sometimes they have many.  In therapy, our goal is to work with protectors to create space for exiles to be unburdened from their pain, shame, loneliness, etc from interaction with Self.  Then protectors can have the space to unburden themselves and go back to what they were always created to be.

Now this is anything but a linear process, however, these general ideas can help create a little bit of a trail to guide you along the way.

5. Goals of IFS

Ultimately, the goals of IFS is to create a Self-Led system.  Self-leadership is exactly what we are talking about in bullet point #1 in the complexity choir analogy.  We want Self to lead and integrate a system of subpersonalities  that each contribute their beautiful and meaningful way to the system to create an invigorating, dynamic and fulfilling life.

If you are interested in learning more about the IFS model please feel free to reach out.  My life personally and professionally has been transformed by this model and I consider it a pure privilege to work with this daily in my own life and with my clients in my private practice.  As a Certified IFS Therapist I have been through extensive training in this model and continue to remain engaged within the larger IFS community as a student and facilitator.