MA(C), RP(Q)

The Internal Family Systems Model

What would it be like if you could learn to love and appreciate every part of yourself? For many of us, this seems impossible because we tend to focus on the parts of ourselves that we wish we could change. We try to hide or minimize pieces of who we are for many reasons and sometimes feel ashamed, angry, or disappointed that they are part of us. But what if I told you there are no bad parts? Would you feel the same way about those difficult parts of yourself if you knew their purpose was to protect you or help you function in some way? Maybe it’s time we stop beating ourselves up about the parts we don’t like and start getting curious about why and how they show up. 

Internal Family Systems (IFS) posits that our mind is subdivided into many subpersonalities or parts. While this may sound like an odd way of looking at our minds, there is research to back this up. Looking at the mind as a mono-mind, or one mind, can be detrimental. The difficult, shameful, and socially unacceptable parts of ourselves leave us feeling like we need to censor and control who we are, resulting in feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-hatred. Instead, we can use the IFS model to explore and understand these parts of ourselves and how they both help and hinder us in everyday life. 

Our life experiences and relationships can lead to the development of protective parts that helps us manage our behaviour and emotions. Many of these parts serve as ways of coping with difficult events and relationships throughout our lives. These parts can take on different roles such as inner critic, people pleaser, or controller. There are 3 categories of parts:

  1. Exiles. These are the parts that have experienced trauma and often isolate to protect us from feeling the pain and terror of those traumas. By burying these parts of ourselves, they grow to be extreme because they are desperate to be healed and heard. 
  2. Managers. These parts help people to function. Their goal is to keep us from feeling hurt, embarrassed, or rejected by helping us feel in control of our relationships and interactions. Managers show up as self-criticism, people pleasing, etc…
  3. Firefighters. The firefighters show up when our exiles are triggered. They help us to control and extinguish the difficult feelings we experience and keep our exiles at bay. Firefighters often show up as numbing behaviours, such as drug and alcohol use, binge eating, etc…

According to the IFS model, everyone has a Self that should take the lead of the individual’s internal system. The Self is the truest part of ourselves and the source of our inner wisdom, compassion, and confidence. When you work with a therapist utilizing the IFS model, the goal is not to eliminate or banish any of your parts. Instead, the objective is to find balance and harmony. Doing this will help you uncover the Self and learn to let the Self lead. So next time you are struggling with a part of yourself, instead of beating yourself up about it, get curious. Ask how the part is protecting you. Where did it come from and how is it serving you? You may just learn to love all of your parts. 

Schwartz, R.. (2021). No Bad Parts: How the Internal Family Systems Model Changes Everything. Sounds True.

Schwartz, R. C., & Sweezy, M. (2019). Internal Family Systems Therapy, Second Edition. Guilford Publications.