What is the Internal Family Systems Model?
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an evidence-based model of psychotherapy. This system recognizes the mind as a naturally subdivided entity, capable of supporting many parts or sub-personalities. These sub-personalities, also called families or family members, develop as an off-branch of your central Self. A healthy person’s Self can corral, acknowledge, and resolve issues that arise from a person’s sub-personalities.
The IFS model operates by understanding that each part of a person’s mind is valuable and has something positive to offer the individual. There is no such thing as a “bad” sub-personality. IFS therapy focuses on creating harmony between the sub-personalities and the central Self of a person. The goals of Internal Family Systems based therapy sessions are:
Balance and harmony within a person’s internal system
Differentiation and elevation of a person’s central Self
Promoting the central Self to a leadership role within an individual
Nurturing a space where all parts of a person can exist and lend their unique talents
Understanding the IFS model of psychotherapy starts with these basics. From here, we can examine the sub-personalities, the Self, and the use of the model.
According to IFS therapy, a person can experience a sub-personality in several ways. They can appear as thoughts, feelings, sensations, or images, for example. As these parts develop, they form a complex system of interactions between the various sub-personalities, and this is when parts can become polarized. It’s important to remember that every sub-personality wants something positive for the Self. These parts develop as protectors of the central consciousness. Therapists categorize these parts into three general groups:
Exiles: These are young parts that develop because of a traumatic experience. They often isolate themselves from the individual to protect them from pain and fear, which often results in the individual feeling fragile. If isolation persists, these parts can become desperate and increasingly extreme.
Managers: Managers are the parts who run daily life. They want to keep the individual in control so they can protect other parts from feeling rejected. These parts present this behavior in several ways, including striving, evaluating, controlling, and caretaking.
Firefighters: This group of parts reacts when the exiled parts become activated. Firefighters want to extinguish feelings and may do this with drug or alcohol use, self-harm, and binging. They have the same goal as the managers but use different strategies to protect the Self.
This is the individual, a separate entity from the parts. The idea behind IFS is to promote the Self to a leader for the internal system. When the Self differentiates itself from the other entities or sub-personalities, they are self-assured, relax, and able to listen and respond to the parts. According to the IFS model, everyone has a Self, an innate individual consciousness.
When parts become overburdened, they can overwhelm the Self. This is called the Concept of Blending. When the Self is overwhelmed, they are no longer operating from a place of power or leadership. The sub-personalities and their extreme beliefs blend with the Self, and the Self adopts the extreme beliefs of those parts.
Using the IFS System
The first step of an IFS session is to work with your therapist to identify your parts and how they developed. Together, you will find the polarization between these parts or family members and other sub-personalities, as well as polarized views between the family members and the individual. A therapist will also review the language of the model and assess the individual’s awareness of the parts.
Once a therapist and client agree on the goals of therapy, they can begin working with the internal systems. This starts with assessing the fears of manager parts, identifying the firefighters, and contextualizing exiles. With this base knowledge, a trained IFS therapist can help you begin your journey to a more unified Self and better mental health.