Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an approach we can use in seeking to understand ourselves and find joy in our lives. It is a paradigm in which our psyche is understood to include Self and Parts. It is the Self from which we are aware of our Parts.
We have Parts of ourselves that are involved in managing everyday life – parts involved in doing our jobs, managing our households, raising our children. In our lives, we also have Parts that carry the burden when we have been hurt – when we have felt lonely from neglect while growing up or when we have felt inadequate from criticism while growing up or when we have felt fearful from trauma we have experienced in our lives. But we also have Protective Parts that have found ways for us to hold in hurt and pain that we have experienced in our lives. In IFS, we call these wounded parts Exiles because our Protective Parts have managed to keep the painful emotions out of our consciousness.
From Self, we can be aware of an Inner Critic, a Perfectionist, a Guilt Tripper, a Conflict-Avoider, a People Pleaser, a Caretaker, a Controller, an Intimacy-Avoider, a Procrastinator, an Indulger, etc. From Self we can be aware of Parts that are obsessive, phobic, depressed, prideful, reckless, callous, anxious, impulsive, dependent, passive-aggressive, self-effacing, deceptive, judgmental, rebellious, angry, etc.
But the Self is calm, grounded, centered. The Self is compassionate with ourselves and with others. The Self is relaxed and accepting of ourselves and others. We are all born with a natural Self. You can see the Self in young children who have not been wounded. They are curious. They seek connection. They are playful and creative. They are caring, and they are compassionate. They know when someone is upset, and they ask what’s wrong. They are courageous. They want to try everything.
In IFS, our mind is called the “Seat of Consciousness.” It is our mind with which we are aware of our experience – all that we think and all that we feel. In IFS, we understand that the Self is the natural occupant of the Seat of Consciousness. It is aware of all our Parts, and it is the natural leader of all our Parts.
But as we have experiences in life that leave us feeling badly, Protective Parts develop. A perfectionist part protects us from the bad feelings that mistakes could cause. An angry part protects us from the bad feelings that being mistreated could cause. A caretaking part protects us from feeling unvalued. An intimacy avoider part protects us from rejection. An indulger part protects us from feeling lonely or sad. A compulsive part protects us from uncertainty. A depressed part protects us from feeling anything. A reckless part distracts us from whatever pain may otherwise overwhelm us. In IFS, we call the Protective Parts that enable us to continue functioning by containing our painful feelings Managers. We call the parts that try to quench the flames when we’re overwhelmed with distress Firefighters. Examples of Firefighters includes abusing alcohol or drugs, overeating, compulsive shopping or gambling, rage, dissociation, thrill-seeking, sexual acting out.
When events in our lives activate a Protective Part, it is most helpful when, from Self, we are aware that the Part has been activated. From Self, we can bring understanding and compassion to the Part. When, with IFS, we have developed a good relationship with our Parts, the Self is able to provide leadership and the Part is able to relax, trust the Self, and receive the guidance provided.
But when a Part is activated and overwhelming, the Self may be dislodged from the Seat of Consciousness. In IFS, we understand that a Part is “blended” with Self when we are flooded with the feelings of the Part. We are no longer grounded. We get caught up in the beliefs of the Part and can see things only from the Part’s limited perspective.
In IFS, our goal is to release the pain Exiled Parts hold and the burden that Protective Parts carry in their effort to protect us from that pain. Toward this end, we are open and interested in getting to know each part of ourselves. Each Part has its own perspective, feelings, and memories. Each Protective Part has its own goals and motivations. Each part of ourselves is like a “subpersonality.” Our psyches may be complex, but we can learn to map out and work with our Parts including the ways they form coalitions or polarizations especially with the help of a therapist.
In IFS, all Parts are welcome, and we usually start our IFS work with our Protectors. Rather than merely analyzing ourselves intellectually, we use a meditative approach to make contact and get to know our parts by asking questions and listening to their responses which may be in the form of words, images, body sensations, or emotions.
As we “befriend” our Protector Parts, we work our way slowly and carefully to being there, from Self, for our wounded parts, the Exiles. From Self, we can be there to see where, when, and how our wounded part was hurt. We’re able to see where our pain came from, and we’re able to be with our wounded part. We witness the burdensome memories, intense feelings, somatic experiences, beliefs, and confusion our Exiles hold. And from Self, we’re able to nurture healing by providing the care, intervention, love, and support that we needed but did not receive in our childhood. We are with our wounded Part in the way it needed someone to be with it at that time. With this experience, we can lay down new positive pathways in the brain to replace those painful phase sequences.
With IFS, we cultivate, nurture, and support our experience in Self. We learn to recognize Parts and develop a trusting relationship with them. From Self, we befriend Protective Parts and are able then to witness our history with wounded Parts. We can bring healing to those lonely, Exiled Parts. We can retrieve them, unburden them. In Self, we are grounded, centered, calm, compassionate, able to appreciate our Protector Parts, heal our Exiled Parts, and provide leadership for all Parts.
With IFS, not only are we able to identify our own Parts, but we learn to recognize when Parts are activated in others. We learn to recognize when we are being triggered by others Parts, and we learn how to respond to Parts in others from Self. In these ways, we are able to improve the experience in our relationship with ourselves and with others. With compassion, we become more loving. In this way, the Self is our spiritual center. For Christians, the Self is Christ-centered and Spirit-filled. While our own capacity for healing from the wounds we’ve experienced in our lives is limited, God’s capacity is unlimited. In Psalm 51, we read about God’s unfailing love and great compassion. In Verse 6, we read, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.”