Internal Family Systems (aka “IFS”) is a powerfully transformative, evidence-based psychotherapy that helps people heal by accessing and loving their protective and wounded inner parts.

Every major school of psychology recognizes that we all have different parts of our personalities: Freud calls his “id”, “ego” and “superego”, while Transactional Analysis calls theirs “parent”, “adult” and “child”.

As an IFS-trained therapist, I believe that, just like members of a family, our inner parts (called “managers”, “firefighters” and “exiles”) are forced – through trauma – from their original, helpful states into extreme, polarized roles. Here’s a brief bio of each:

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Managers

Managers protect us from being hurt by others by keeping our lives as stable and safe as possible. They try to prevent painful or traumatic emotions from flooding our awareness. In their zeal to keep us safe, however, they often become rigid taskmasters who resist any changes in our life circumstances, no matter how beneficial they could be.

Firefighters

Firefighters distract us from feeling painful emotions by engaging in behaviors like overeating; excessive alcohol, marijuana or recreational drug use; unfulfilling, repetitive sex…even obsessive video game play.

Exiles

Exiles are parts that are in pain, shame or fear, usually a result of childhood experiences that we’ve not yet worked through. Managers and firefighters try to prevent this pain from coming to the surface, each in their own unique ways (see above).

The Self

The “Chief Executive Officer” of the internal family system is called the Self. Its job is to work with the Managers, Firefighters and Exiles to create a harmonious Internal Family System.

In IFS, every part has a positive intention – it only wants to help us – even if its actions are currently counterproductive. There is never any reason to fight with or try to eliminate a part: any “negative” or “self-sabotaging” parts are like wayward children who have lost their way. As an IFS-trained therapist, my job is to help you, the client, access your Self and – from a place of courage, compassion and curiosity – come to understand and heal your parts, creating a harmonious, happy, high-functioning Internal Family System.

Recently, IFS has begun popping up everywhere, from the bestselling memoir by Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness to an essay on Oprah.com by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame to podcasts by Alanis Morissette and Van Ness to Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop. British cartoonist Mardou is publishing an ongoing series of comics about it. Pioneering neuroscientist Ed Boyden recently revealed that although he has devoted his professional life to studying the brain using optogenetics (genetically modifying animals so their neurons can be controlled with light), he studies his own mind using IFS therapy.

The originator of IFS, Richard Schwartz, PhD., likes to joke that he is planning to rewrite the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – psychiatry’s “bible” – to explain the basis of each disorder in non-pathologizing terms of protectors and exiles, thereby challenging the dominant “chemical imbalance” view.

Experts in conflict resolution, anti-racist education, high school guidance counseling, mediation, 12-step addiction recovery, and a growing list of other fields have begun adopting IFS techniques and developing pilot programs based around its principles. Just as important, Dr. Schwartz wants IFS to transform the way we connect to each other one-to-one.

“This is a radically different paradigm for understanding human beings than the ones that dominate our culture,” he says. “If it’s true that the things we think of as our inner enemies are really heroes stuck in time, this shift allows us to relate to ourselves with a lot more compassion and love, which translates to how we see outside ‘enemies’ and relate to them.”

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