Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a psychological theory that believes all of us are inhabited by different mental parts of ourselves. For instance—we may not act or feel the same at work as we do when we are at home. While we don’t change who we are, different parts of ourselves come out at different times based on who we are around, what we are experiencing, and how we are feeling. The different parts of ourselves can even hold their own beliefs, emotions, physical sensations, and worldviews. If we have experienced trauma, the beliefs and emotions our different parts hold can get us stuck. They can create a sense of safety—we may escape into a part of ourselves when we feel threatened or in danger. However, the ways in which we adapt to and cope with trauma can end up being harmful to our whole self in the long run, leaving us at times without a loving relationship with our own minds, bodies, and souls.
IFS posits the different parts within us operate like a family system in which members have different levels of maturity, wisdom, and pain. These parts are relational with one another, meaning something that happens to one part leads to all parts responding. IFS views each part as having valuable qualities and roles, even the rigid or extreme roles that are potentially unhealthy to the whole self. Health and improvement are not achieved when one of the maladaptive parts is removed or changed, but when these parts are seen, valued, and accepted.
IFS breaks our psychic parts down into three basic categories: the exile, the manager, and the firefighter. The exile is the childlike part that experienced the trauma and as a result became frozen in time, holding the burden of pain. Where the exile was once innocent, trusting, and spontaneous, it has become hurt and terrorized. Because it holds such intense and crushing physical sensations, the manager and the firefighter organize together to deny and lock the exile away. The manager ensures emotional safety through identifying and mitigating anything at risk of upsetting the exile. They do this through criticism (of self and others), perfectionism, and relentless productivity. When the manager’s tactics fail and the exile’s emotions are triggered, the firefighter rushes in with drastic measures to numb and escape the pain. They believe the exile’s feelings will crash the entire system, so they respond impulsively and frantically, often through methods of self-harm. The actions of the exile, manager, and firefighter are all done in an attempt to protect the whole self from danger.
Underneath all these parts exists the self, which is an active and compassionate leader of all the parts. When the self is operating at full capacity, it sends internal resources to all the parts to cope and supplies a vision for the whole person. Trauma leads to blending of some or all parts to the self so they eventually identify together. IFS views the primary obstacle to change as the lack of self-acceptance, so the goal of IFS is to cultivate mindful self-leadership, which leads to a sense of clarity, calm, curiosity, compassion, confidence, courage, creativity, and connectedness for the whole person.
If you are feeling disconnected from yourself or are struggling with a past trauma, please feel free to contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000.
Written by Kathryn
2021 Graduate Intern
Sources: van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.