Getting to Know Your Internal Family: The Internal Family Systems Model
Updated: Jul 15
The adorably hilarious movie Inside Out may seem like just a cute movie for children. What if I told you that everyone has a Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear--and a whole lot more-- internal states living inside them? This is the notion that is posited in the evidence-based approach Internal Family Systems Therapy, which I utilize often in my practice.
Developed by psychotherapist Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS for short), views the mind as not one whole, but multiple internal states, or parts, that influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on a daily basis.
Sound strange? It can sound strange on the surface, but think of a time when you were torn about something--for example: should I tell my crush that I like them? On one hand part of you says, "Just tell them. They've given you so many signs and signals that they're interested in you!" On the other hand another part of you says, "What if they reject you? That would be so embarrassing, especially if it happens in a public space!" Then yet another part says, "You're not attractive enough for them. Why do you even think you have a chance with scoring a date with them?"
The above example shows how one question--should I tell my crush that I like them?--could elicit so many internal reactions. Each of these parts had their own feelings and beliefs about you, about the situation, and about the potential action. Overtime, as you mull these reactions over internally, you come to a decision. This decision was influenced by these parts.
Common Parts in Every Internal System:
Every internal system is made up of three categories of parts, that all serve a role in trying (keyword trying!) to keep us moving along.
1) Managers: Think of the Manager Parts as protectors. These parts "run" our system, managing how we interact with the external world so that we minimize the potential of getting hurt or emotionally overwhelmed/triggered. Examples of Manager Parts include: Goal-Oriented Parts, Humorous Parts, Outgoing Parts.
2) Firefighters: These Parts go into action when we become hurt or overwhelmed. The goal of these parts is often to calm us down or divert attention from the overwhelm. Examples of Firefighter Parts include: Drinking Parts, Yelling Parts, Suicidal Parts, Compulsive/Impulsive Sex & Masturbation Parts.
3) Exiles: Exiles are Parts in our system that have been left to carry the burden of negative feelings or experiences. These parts have been pushed into the far corners of our system by other Parts so that we can function in the external world. Examples of Exile Parts include: Scared Child Parts, Low Self-Esteem Parts, Traumatized Parts.
So how do you get to know your Internal Family?
I always tell clients to begin checking in with themselves on a daily basis. How am I feeling right now? What is coming to surface? How do I feel about these parts that are coming to surface? What do they want to say about the day, about life?
The more you become aware of these parts the more control you will have, as they no longer will be working internally behind the curtain, but up front and center with you. In IFS we work to help out the Exile Parts and increase trust and confidence from the Manager and Firefighter Parts. This leads to feelings of confidence, internal wholeness, and a deeper connection to yourself.