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An Introduction to Internal Family Systems Model

In this introduction to Internal Family Systems Model, I will give you a complete overview of IFS’s understanding of the psyche.

The Internal Family Systems was developed by Richard Schwartz as a result of discovering that his clients could describe their internal experience as different parts or sub-personalities forming complex relationship systems. He also found that his clients had a place of natural resourcefulness within them, that could be accessed by them.

After reading this short article, you will understand the different internal parts that are working behind the scenes of your personal experience. You will understand the different roles these parts play in your inner make-up. You will be able to recognize the positive intent of these sub-personalities and learn how you can relate to them from a place of resourcefulness.

The IFS Model is an amazing framework for working with all kinds of psychoemotional and psychosomatic issues.
It is simple to understand, intuitive to apply, and deeply transformative in its effects.

IFS opens up a whole new way of understanding your own emotions, internal conflicts, and so-called ‚irrational’ behaviors.

The internal Family

We normally like to see ourselves as coherent beings, acting rationally most of the time. There’s a good explanation for how we act in most situations. 

But sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances, where we are ‚out of control‘ and cannot understand why we feel or act a certain way. 

Take me for example: I like to be emotionally close with my partners and I crave this vulnerability of emotional sharing with them. As soon as it is not present I get very sad. On the other hand, when somebody comes too close, I get really afraid and even angry. I start pushing the other away, seeking autonomy and liberation of what feels like crushing expectations on me. The seeking of emotional closeness and the angry burst for liberation are contradictions in themselves and there’s often an internal conflict. When I can be emotionally close the desire for autonomy feels cut off. When I go for autonomy, I feel lonely and sad. 

I couldn’t make sense of this. If I would fight against or suppress the anger and wish for autonomy, it would just come back stronger another time. If I’d take side with the anger, I would start to feel lonely and insignificant in a short amount of time.

Sub-Personalities, not irrational reactions

The revolutionary approach IFS takes is to treat these internal happenings not as irrational feelings but as sub-personalities, with their own feelings, thoughts, world-views, and roles. 

Instead of trying to control, suppress or fight these impulses within ourselves, we can begin to relate to these parts within us and understand why they are feeling and acting the way they do. 

My angry part is actually trying to protect me from the fear of losing myself in connection with someone else. The closeness part wants to make sure that I’m deeply involved with people and feel significant. 

Both have good intentions for me. And in the understanding of IFS, there was a time in my life where these parts were incredibly helpful to deal with the circumstances I was in. They were doing – and still are – a great job, that would allow me to function in the world and avoid pain. 

Now, as a grown-up, I have way more possibilities and capacity to deal with the circumstances I find myself in. The job the Part was doing could now be done more skillfully by my adult self. 

But more often than not, these Parts have no connection to the adult self. And as soon as a situation comes up that seemingly requires their role, they jump into the driving seat and take control over our behavior.

The Internal Family System - Parts with Roles

We all have this ‚Internal Family System‘, with parts all relating to one another in different ways, trying to fulfill their role. Some control other Parts within us, some react to cues coming from other people, some hold pain and intense feelings.

When we open to the possibility to treat these internal parts like little beings within our psyche and start to relate to them with compassionate curiosity, a whole new way of understanding our inner world opens up. 

We can befriend our internal parts once we truly understand why they are acting the way they do. And once we befriend these parts and meet them with compassion and curiosity, they start to change in themselves. They can let go of their extreme roles, once your internal relationships change. They can recognize that there’s someone present who is able to navigate any situation more skillfully than them. It’s YOU.

The Self - An ever-present Resource

But who can meet these internal parts with compassion and curiosity? After all the conflicts and the mess, they created within our lives? 

That’s the other amazing finding that IFS has incorporated into its workings. There is actually a ‚place‘ within the consciousness of everyone, where we naturally have the qualities of compassion, peace, calm, openness, and curiosity. 

IFS calls this ‚part‘ of our psyche the Self. That’s the fully functioning, adult ‚part‘ of you. By accessing your Self and putting it back in the center of your experience, you can become the conductor of your internal experience and your life. Instead of letting the Parts run the show behind the curtains, you can start to interact with them. You can form relationships with them, understand them and even heal them from their hurt and pain.  

Not only allows IFS for a new understanding of your internal and external conflicts, seeing them as different Parts with different needs colliding. IFS also gives you possibilities to come into your Self and to tap this endless resource available within your psyche. 

introduction to internal family systems model

Parts, Self and the Seat of Consciousness

So what IS the Self? And how can you distinguish Parts? How does this all relate to YOU? 

To explain this in a simple way, I’d like to introduce another understanding:

There is a place in your consciousness, from where you are experiencing everything.

In IFS, this place is called the Seat of Consciousness.

The Seat of Consciousness is from where you relate to your experience. 

For example, you notice that you feel sad. But who is noticing the sadness? You are ‚looking at‘ the sadness from the Seat of Consciousness.

The Seat of Consciousness is like a flashlight that makes the things visible that are in its ray of light. But the flashlight itself isn’t visible in its light. 

The Self on the other hand is the deep resource that lies within every human being. It’s an inner place of creativity, openness, compassion, and curiosity. We could also say that the Seat of Consciousness itself is the Self. 

When no Parts are active, Self is present. Self is the ability to be fully present with what is, in any given moment.

Parts and their Formation

But most of the times Parts are present. We have all had experiences in our lives that made it necessary for Parts to form and take up roles to protect us. 

Imagine a child with limited resources to deal with a given situation. An angry father. Having to take the role of a mother for a younger sibling. Not being seen in its needs. 

So many things can happen at a young age, that cause us pain. To be able to deal with these circumstances we form strategies. We start to suppress needs that are not met. We form shame around sadness if we are punished for crying. We start to use anger if it’s the only way that we are heard. 

Parts are actively taking the role of acting out these strategies. There’s a Part that holds the pain of the unfulfilled need. There’s a Part that is ashamed of Sadness. There’s a Part using anger to suppress vulnerability and make himself heard. The list goes on. 

In our childhood, these Parts took on roles that were crucial for our survival and development. 

But these Parts tend to be so single-mindedly focused on their job, that they do not realize that meanwhile YOU are growing up and learning whole new ways of dealing with the world. These Parts are disconnected from YOU.

This protection, the Parts provide was surely needed in your childhood. Now in your adult life, these Parts tend to take control in situations where they sense danger. This happens even if there’s no apparent danger for the adult you. And you are left to wonder about these ‚irrational‘ reactions and feelings that you tend to have.

If you want to learn about the Formation of Parts from another angle, you can read this article:
What is Developmental Trauma?

A Part in the Seat of Consciousness

What’s happening is that Parts are slipping in and out of the Seat of Consciousness, letting you feel, think and behave in certain ways. It’s like looking through a filter. A Part sitting on the Seat of Consciousness is filtering your awareness through its world-view and experience.

This happens almost completely outside of our daily awareness.

Certain Situations ‚trigger‘ these Parts, so that they become active and take up their role in protecting you from pain. 

IFS directs its aim at realizing when a Part is in the Seat of Consciousness and ‚unblending‘ from it so that you can be in Self. This unblending happens by simply asking the Part to step aside and give you some space. 

With the Resources from Self available to you, you can then start to relate to and explore these Parts and work with them to heal their extreme roles.

Learn more about IFS!

Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy - by Jay Earley, PhD

Protectors and Exiles

Different Parts are fulfilling different roles. Some Parts are there to avoid pain, either being caused by the outside or coming from inside of you. Other Parts are in pain. They are holding the pain from unmet needs or situations that caused you pain in the past. 

The Parts that are protecting you from pain are called ‚protectors‘. 

The Parts that are in pain are called ‚exiles‘. 

Protectors can take many forms and roles. Anger, arrogance, criticism towards others or self, intellectualization, confusion, not feeling, being busy, etc. These are all strategies that are used by protector Parts to get you away from pain.  

Exiles are holding feelings like sadness, shame, guilt, or fear.

Protectors can help you to get away from pain, by reacting in a certain way, when they expect others to hurt you. At the same time, there are also protectors that are keeping your exiles at bay, so that there’s no pain coming up inside of you. Any situation that triggers an exile within you, will also activate these protectors, who will try to divert your attention from the exile using a strategy they have formed.

Building Relationships with your Parts

The usual procedure is to choose a part that you can notice in your daily life. You can also choose a recurring problem and then work from there, by identifying the parts that are involved in it.

The first step to building a relationship with a part is to check from where you are relating with this targeted part. Are you in Self? Or is there another Part sitting on the Seat of Consciousness, relating to the target Part?

By exploring how you feel towards the target Part you can easily determine if you are in Self or not. Whenever you feel compassion, openness, and curiosity towards a Part, there’s a big amount of Self present. If you feel anything else than the qualities of the Self (for example angry, fearful, ashamed, sad, overwhelmed, distant, etc.) there is yet another Part on the Seat of Consciousness, that needs to be unblended from first.

Only from Self can you form a new relationship between You and the Part.

What is needed?

Building Relationships with you Parts involves everything that is needed in building a relationship with other people.
Most Parts have experienced disconnection, abandonment, and hurt either by others or by yourself in the past.

Because of that, a lot of the Parts do not trust you at first and need time to get used to this new type of connection that is coming from you being in Self.

Most of the Protector Parts need acknowledgment for the work they have been doing in order to protect you from pain. They need understanding and compassion for the situation they find themselves in.

Building these relationships means to be really curious and present with these Parts, without an agenda. It’s not about building a relationship with your Protectors in order to get to the Exiles. It’s about treating every Part within yourself with compassion and curiosity, acknowledging its role within your internal system.
Coming from Self, this is possible in a natural and intuitive way.

Neither intellectualizing, nor diving into feelings

Instead of ‚feeling through‘ your internal conflicts or forming a solely rational understanding of your inner world, IFS takes the approach to be directly in contact with the experience of the Parts, while at the same time being firmly rooted in the resourcefulness of Self.

Like this, you can explore even the most difficult parts, without getting lost in their feelings and worldviews.
And you are able to really understand these Parts and their experience, instead of just forming a theory about them from afar.

When we approach Parts in this way, we can simply ask them what they are feeling or experiencing. We do not need to form a theory on why this Part acts this way. We simply ask it: ‚What do you fear would happen if you wouldn’t fulfill your role?‘

The answers of the Parts will often surprise you. Their answers are very precise and open up a whole new way of understanding your overall experience.

You can also ask Parts what they try to achieve by acting the way they do. If you have a self-criticizing Part, for example, you could just inquire into its motive with self-criticism. Hearing from the world-view and experience from this Part while being in Self is a completely different approach to working with your psyche, than to either dive into the – often overwhelming – feelings or intellectually understanding your problems.

Healing and Transformation of the Part’s Role

The Parts are still doing the job they have taken on in your childhood because they are not connected to the rest of you. They do not realize that there is the Self. They are often not aware of the Self being present.

So the first step in healing these parts is to come into contact with them and rebuild the internal relationships that have been lost.

If a part realizes that You in Self are there, some relaxation is already possible. Most often, what keeps protector Parts in their extreme roles, is that they have nothing to relax into. They fear that if they would stop doing their job, all hell would break loose, and nobody else would be able to keep chaos at bay.

So when you can build a trusting relationship with these protectors, they can already relax to a certain degree and allow you to work with the exiles they are protecting or suppressing.

Healing this exiled Part is what is essentially needed for the protector Parts to be released from their extreme roles. As long as the exile is still hurt, the role of the protector still makes sense and cannot be relinquished.

Reaffirming and Acknowledging your Protectors

When working with Protectors, we find out what they are afraid of would happen, if they wouldn’t react the way they do. If a trusting relationship with Self is established, you (in Self) can then affirm these Parts. If you can really meet the Part in its role and acknowledge what it does and has done for you, they are normally willing to allow you to work with the exile.

Working with Exiles

Working with an exile involves reparenting these hurt parts in ways they have lacked in childhood. It also involves unburdening them from the pain and the negative believes they hold and transforming this burden. This allows the exile parts to come forward in your consciousness with the positive attributes they naturally hold.

Since exile parts are often our most vulnerable parts, they are often also the parts of ourselves that connect us deeply with our humanity and our individual expression. When freed from the burden of negative and traumatic experiences from the past, these parts are able to rediscover their positive cores and can start to find their expression again through a new healthy relationship with your Self.

Protectors are then also able to relax their extreme roles and, heal from their pain and find a new role within your internal system if they wish to.

Experiential Work with your internal Family System

Instead of trying to get past ‚resistances’ to the traumatized parts below like other therapies, IFS offers a truly non-invasive approach that includes all of our internal worlds, while still effectively and sustainably transforming and healing the deepest wounds in our psyche.

Being able to work with resistances and traumatized aspects while relating to them as sub-personalities with their own feelings, thoughts, motivations, and world-views is a real game-changer for therapy!

Even if it is possible to reach the hurt parts, without taking into account the level of protectors or ‚defenses‘, all benefits that are gained through this kind of therapy are very short-lived. Protector Parts are reinstating themselves quickly when they are not being addressed in the therapy itself.

Working with all our Parts with the understanding that they have our best interest at heart, allows us to compassionately relate to our whole experience.

Do you have questions? Thoughts on the subject? Opinions? Please let me know in the comments below!

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