Internal Family Systems

I am NOT certified by the IFS Institute as an IFS practitioner. I am currently enrolled in several PESI IFS certification courses. I have studied IFS extensively. I have read several books on IFS that I recommend to my clients. I have utilized the steps and concepts of IFS and integrated it into my practice and include it with my health & wellness program. I have completed my own Internal Family Systems exploration and parts work. I have entered my name in every new certificate course being offered by the IFS Institute and will wait until the lottery draws my name.

I can say that I am currently practicing therapy that is influenced by IFS, and is sometimes referred to as “exploring your own system,” “self- therapy,” or “parts work.” I have engaged in parts work practice group lessons over Zoom with Bill Tierney, an IFS practitioner located in Spokane, WA. My integrated and holistic work with others is influenced by Richard Schwartz, Jay Earley, Bonnie Weiss, Derek Scott, Lucas Forstmeyer, Jennifer May, Tom and Laurie Holmes, Frank Anderson, and Marsha Linehan.

This introduction was written with the assistance of Artificial Intelligence (large language models) software with inspiration and corrections by James Fitzgerald, MS. Although several measures have been implemented to check for it, any possible or perceived copyright infringement or acts of plagiarism are purely accidental and unintentional.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is the approach I regularly suggest for use in therapy sessions. As my primary approach, it allows me the ability to integrate the other types of therapy into it. It serves as a guide and offers a structured approach to the work. Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy is a method of psychotherapy that helps people explore the different parts of their personality and the relationships between them. The goal is to bring awareness to these parts, which are often unconscious, so you can better understand yourself and have more control over your life. (IFS) is a way of looking at the self, relationships and life in general. It can be helpful when you want to understand why you do what you do and how your feelings, thoughts and actions impact each other.

IFS uses the concept of parts that have different needs or wants; for example, there might be an angry part inside which feels hurt by others but doesn’t know how to express itself appropriately; or there might be a scared part who hides from everyone because they think everyone will reject them if they get too close. Parts often have patterns of behaviour that repeat throughout life – for example if one part has been hurt by another person then it may keep trying again with new people despite all evidence that it won’t work out well for this person!

The basic idea is that we all have parts within us that can be thought of as people inside us. These parts are known as “subpersonalities” and they can have their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. For example, you might have a part of yourself that wants to do well at work and another part that doesn’t care about doing well but just wants to goof off instead.

The Internal Family Systems model is a theory of personality, based on the work of Richard Schwartz. It’s based on a metaphor of the mind as a group of subpersonalities that interact with each other. This model has been used to explain how people develop and maintain psychological problems, including addictions and eating disorders. The theory was originally developed to explain why some clients were not responding well to traditional psychotherapy methods or medications; it was later expanded by Drs. Sue Gerhardt and Peter Fonagy into what they call “mentalization-based therapy” (MBT), which combines elements from IFS with attachment theory and CBT techniques for treating depression in adults and adolescents. In the Internal Family Systems model, the human mind has subpersonalities that can take control of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. These “parts” (or “subpersonalities”) include child subpersonalities, which are sometimes called inner children; protector subpersonalities; victim subpersonalities; protagonist subpersonalities; persecutor subpersonalities and so on. Each part has its own beliefs about how things should be in the world, as well as its own needs and desires.

Internal Family Systems Theory was developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. It is based on the premise that our minds are made up of parts, or internal “families” of emotions, memories and behaviors. The theory suggests that these families can be in conflict with one another, which can lead to emotional distress or disorders. The goal of Internal Family Systems Therapy is to help clients identify their families and understand how they impact their lives.

There are many different types of therapy that utilize this theory—some focus on identifying specific family members and others focus on helping clients develop new skills for managing their relationships with those families. In IFS therapy, clients work with their therapist to heal these internal conflicts, allowing them to become more whole and integrated as individuals. It has been shown to be effective in treating people with PTSD, personality disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse issues.

IFS is often used in conjunction with other psychotherapeutic approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Gestalt Therapy. It can be used to treat everything from depression and anxiety disorders to substance abuse problems and relationship issues. One form of Internal Family Systems Therapy is Self Therapy, which involves helping clients discover and heal their parts through guided visualization techniques. Another form of Internal Family Systems Therapy is Parts Work, which involves working with a therapist to identify and heal dysfunctional parts. The Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS) posits that human beings are best understood as systems of multiple interacting “parts” or “subpersonalities.” As such, IFS is a relational approach to therapy that emphasizes the importance of relationships between parts.

The idea behind IFS is that our various parts have different roles and functions, but they also have different views of the world and how we should act within it. Some parts may be more “adult” or mature, while others may be more childlike—and these different perspectives can lead to conflict. These sub-personalities consist of wounded parts and painful emotions such as anger and shame, and parts that try to control and protect the person from the pain of the wounded parts. IFS-based therapy focuses on helping people identify their own parts and bring them into alignment with each other so they can function more harmoniously. This type of therapy uses techniques such as journaling and self-hypnosis to help people recognize their subpersonalities, understand their dynamics with each other, and develop strategies for resolving conflicts between them.

Internal Family Systems proposes the idea that we all have multiple selves within us, or “families.” These families consist of parts like our child self, adult self, inner critic, etc. But they’re not just things we have—they’re also relationships: each part has its own wants and needs, its own perspective on life, and its own emotional reactions to events. So how does this help us? Well, when we experience conflict with another person or situation in our lives (a boss or coworker at work; a conflict with a family member), it can be helpful to think about the relationship between these two people as the same sort of relationship we have with ourselves: there’s a part of us that feels angry at them; another part that wants to appease them; maybe another part that feels guilty about getting mad in the first place…and so on.

According to the website, Psychology Today, “IFS may not be appropriate for patients with severe mental illnesses that involve psychosis or paranoia, such as schizophrenia. Describing a person as having “parts” may be unproductive or harmful for those patients. In 2015, IFS was designated as an evidence-based practice on the National Registry for Evidence-based Programs and Practices, a database created by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. For example, a small randomized controlled trial found that IFS could help with pain, physical functioning, depressive symptoms, and self-compassion in rheumatoid arthritis patients. Another found that IFS was effective in treating depression symptoms among a sample of young women.” Retrieved 11/19/2022 from: (

It is important to note, IFS does not have as strong of an evidence base as other forms of therapy, like CBT or DBT. This is part of the reason I integrate IFS with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) informed practice and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) informed practice – in addition to the influences of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET), Motivational Interviewing (Socratic Dialogue), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Gestalt Therapy. Although much of the evidence regarding the efficacy of IFS is anecdotal, major research studies are ongoing and will hopefully provide scientific evidence to support what IFS therapists consistently see. Bessel van der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist and one of the leading researchers on trauma, has strongly backed the use of IFS. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk details his own experience using IFS with clients suffering from traumatic experiences and relationship conflicts. Frank Anderson, a psychiatrist and leading mental health professional, has also championed the use of IFS. He is the former chairman/director of the Foundation for Self Leadership, a non-profit working to advance IFS research.

IFS also posits that everyone has a core Self, a genuine self, waiting to be accessed. In an IFS session, you would work to identify and understand the specific sub-personalities or families that make up your internal mental system. Once you identify these parts, you can acknowledge your feelings about these suppressed emotions, learn how to release these feelings so you are freer to address the actual problem, and ultimately find more positive ways to manage conflicts on your own. There are tools you can use to help you do this, such as relaxation exercises, visualization, keeping a journal, and creating a chart that illustrates the relationship between Self and the different parts of you.

Common Roles of Parts

According to the IFS model, parts often play three common roles:


Pre-emptive, proactive, and future oriented. They live mostly in rational mind (DBT). They are located in the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning center of our brain). Managers are concerned with staying on top of things, planning, organizing, implementing plans, keeping the door to the exile’s cell locked and left alone. They are focused on planning, controlling, and achieving, keeping things going. They can be good organizers or stern taskmasters, encouraging or critical or people-pleasing. The more intense the affect of the exiles, the more extreme the tactics of the Managers. Their extreme roles don’t match their true natures.

They are responsible for maintaining a functioning level of consciousness in daily life by warding off any unwanted or counterproductive interactions, emotions, or experiences resulting from external and/or internal stimuli. Managers are protective parts that function to control people’s surroundings and manage emotions and tasks to navigate daily life. Managers in a healthy system are the parts that manage your responsibilities and reactions. They are the parts that make your bed, brush your teeth, complete difficult tasks, pay your bills, etc. They can be known now as helper parts.


The vulnerable and hurt parts of our psyche that we (our internal system) have suppressed. We have vowed not to recall that memory, feel those uncomfortable sensations, experience those painful emotions, or contemplate those negative thoughts. We have developed ego defense mechanisms to protect those exiles, which we will refer to as ‘parts.’ Parts can sometimes be in a proactive, passive, or passive aggressive role, and sometimes in a reactive, aggressive, or violent role. We call those part’s roles Managers (proactive) and Firefighters (reactive).

In the model of therapy I use, parts like our “drinking alcohol” part can be in any one of the roles, for instance it can be in the role of a passive manager or aggressive firefighter, depending on the exile activated, and the activating event. They can be holding hurt, fear, or shame from early experiences, and they carry the difficult emotions and memories associated with those experiences. Managers aim to keep exiles contained and hidden from conscious awareness to avoid distress and pain. In a healthy balanced system, exiles can exist in a place of their choosing, and serve as neutral memories that remind us of past experiences, and do not overwhelm our system with powerful emotions and negative thoughts, from maladaptive core beliefs. They have developed new positive core beliefs about themselves, the system, other people, and the world around you.


Firefighters serve as a distraction to the mind when exiles break free from being suppressed captives. In order to protect our internal system and conscious self from feeling the pain of the exiles, firefighters prompt a person to act impulsively and engage in behaviors that are dangerous, indulgent, addictive, and often times abusive. These are the reactive protectors – they are heroic, impulsive, and often seen as destructive, attention seeking, child like, and narcissistic by manager parts. The firefighter wants to keep exiles away from you – to distract you from or get rid of their feelings. They come into your seat of consciousness, and sometimes take over when the exiles are activated – they will distract you or make you dissociate in order to prevent overwhelming emotions from flooding your inner system.

Managers want you to look good and be approved of, firefighters only care about distracting you from the pain of the exile so your manager parts are often in polarized opposition to firefighters – disapproving and judging. Firefighters may redirect your attention to behaviors or practices such as self-harm, technology, social media, sex, work, food, alcohol, or drugs.

Firefighters are activated when exiles produce overwhelming, painful, or threatening emotions. Firefights aim to inhibit those difficult emotions by any means necessary, such as substance use or binge eating. Firefighters in a healthy system develop new coping skills, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and conflict resolution abilities. With the help of your core conscious Self, in the leadership role, firefighters respond in ways that do not make the situation worse.

For example, an exiled part might be carrying the burdens of shame, humiliation, and criticism from the experience of parents who thought of you as an extension of themselves and expected nothing less than perfection from you, These emotions are suppressed by the manager who takes on the role of a perfectionist, with hyper-focus on work, and strive toward success. And the firefighter may be an addiction to alcohol, technology, too much work, which distracts the person from facing and re-experiencing those difficult emotions.

Self Leadership

The Self can identify, observe, and help these parts become less extreme, more productive, and coexist effectively. The Self has many positive traits, according to Schwartz’s model, including the eight Cs and the five Ps. The presence of these traits can help identify how much of the Self is available at a given time and how much of the Self may still need to emerge. The eight Cs are: Confidence, Calmness, Creativity, Clarity, Curiosity, Courage, Compassion, and Connectedness. The five Ps are: Presence, Patience, Perspective, Persistence, Playfulness.

Therapists can help patients identify their parts and release the burdens that these parts carry. To do so, they can follow a six step process:

Find: Identify the parts of your mind and body that need attention.

Focus: Pay attention to the relevant part.

Flesh: Flesh it out by describing it and your experience of it.

Feel: Explore how you feel toward this part.

BeFriend: Express curiosity about this part and accept its presence.

Fear: Ask what this part fears and what it would fear if you changed its role.

Learning to recognize and explore these parts can help patients shift how their parts function and create positive change. In order to access parts, you should have a compassionate, connected, clear, and calm self energy. This energy comes from the 8 qualities of Self. We can enhance the qualities through a regular mindfulness and meditation practice. Meditation is used during IFS sessions, to find a space inside wise mind (DBT), in order to develop unconditional positive regard for all our parts, and practice loving kindness toward self and parts. It can be helpful to engage in some type of mindfulness based intervention before going too much farther in IFS.

Some approaches to consider:

(MBSR) Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

(MBCT) Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy

(DBT) Dialectical Behavior Therapy Mindfulness Skills Training

An informal mindfulness practice

A formal meditation and/or yoga practice

The process of unburdening is the key to healing exiles and other wounded parts. In Self, the client listens to the exile’s experience until the exile feels understood, accepted, and loved. Then the client offers the exile a do-over. The part tells the Self what it needed at the time, and the client does what the part needed. When the part is ready, the client’s Self helps the part to unburden- ceremonially releasing the painful memories, feelings, or beliefs using imagery. Then the client invites the part into the present and helps it find a new role. The protector parts are invited to meet the healed part and begin finding new, healthy patterns of interaction.

In a healthy system, parts like managers and firefighters are assigned jobs that protect us from the outside world, entertain us, and help us have supportive relationships. We can set and maintain boundaries. Memories of the past, stress in the present, and worries about the future no longer overwhelm our systems. In a healthy system, self is in the leadership role and parts are called on only when needed, they do not take over the seat of our consciousness.

Polyvagal Theory (PVT) & Parts Work (IFS)

Polyvagal theory is not a psychotherapy per se, but it can be utilized underneath any therapeutic modality. Polyvagal theory is simply a way to understand the structure and operation of the autonomic nervous system. It is non‐shaming, non‐pathologizing, and non-judgmental. PVT also helps us design and implement safe and effective therapeutic interventions. With PVT there is a sense of hope and possibility. We can reshape the nervous system towards flexibility and resilience. We don’t have to remain stuck in survival responses.

Internal Family Systems Therapy is an empirically validated psychotherapeutic modality. IFS theory is a way to understand the organization and
functioning of the psyche. It is non‐shaming, non‐pathologizing, and non-judgmental. It is a compassionate, relational way to interact with our internal systems, including our biology and neuronal networks (neuroplasticity). With IFS there is a sense of hope and possibility. We can heal and unburden our wounded and traumatized parts in order to integrate them into our systems. IFS can bring/restore harmony and balance to our internal system.



More Information


Neuroscience & IFS

People could possibly see IFS as a spiritually healing endeavor, which I do not disagree with, however as a professional studying Neuroscience, I also understand IFS as a neuroscience of accessing and healing brain networks that cause and sustain various types of human suffering, psychologically, physically and behaviorally. Douglas Hofstadter, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for a book on cognitive processes and intelligence has this to say about sub-personalities from the perspective of neuroscience in psychology: “With its billions of neurons, the mind resembles a community made up of smaller communities, each in turn made up of smaller ones. I like to refer to the highest-level communities (just below the level of the whole) as ‘sub-selves’ or ‘inner voices’… These are competing aspects of ourselves that try to lead the whole system”.


More Information


Attachment Theory & IFS

Can we use IFS to differentiate common personality disorders into attachment styles to conceptualize your inner system and your possible exiled parts? IFS theory has been compared to attachment styles, which are also concerned with the way people relate to themselves and others, but it differs from attachment styles in several ways. For example, while attachment styles tend to focus on relationships with other people (such as romantic partners or family members), IFS therapy focuses on relationships between internal representations of self and other persons. Additionally, while attachment styles focus on forming secure relationships with others, IFS therapy focuses on helping patients build secure relationships between internal representations of self and other persons so that they can better function in society. We can think of the events and experiences that caused exiles to form, as similar to early childhood experiences that shaped our attachment style and maybe even one of the causes that leads to a personality disorder.

Attachment, or the attachment bond, is the emotional connection you formed as an infant with your primary caregiver—probably your mother. According to attachment theory, pioneered by British psychiatrist John Bowlby and American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, the quality of the bonding you experienced during this first relationship often determines how well you relate to other people and respond to intimacy throughout life.

If your primary caretaker made you feel safe and understood as an infant, if they were able to respond to your cries and accurately interpret your changing physical and emotional needs, then you likely developed a successful, secure attachment. As an adult, that usually translates to being self-confident, trusting, and hopeful, with an ability to healthily manage conflict, respond to intimacy, and navigate the ups and downs of romantic relationships.

If you experienced confusing, frightening, or inconsistent emotional communication during infancy, though, if your caregiver was unable to consistently comfort you or respond to your needs, you’re more likely to have experienced an unsuccessful or insecure attachment. Infants with insecure attachment often grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the feelings of others, limiting their ability to build or maintain stable relationships. They may find it difficult to connect to others, shy away from intimacy, or be too clingy, fearful, or anxious in a relationship.

Of course, experiences that occur between infancy and adulthood can also impact and shape our relationships. However, the infant brain is so profoundly influenced by the attachment bond, understanding your attachment style can offer vital clues as to why you may be having problems in your adult relationships. Perhaps you behave in puzzling or self-destructive ways when you’re in a close relationship? Maybe you repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over? Or maybe you struggle to form meaningful connections in the first place?

Attachment Styles/Patterns

  • Ambivalent/Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style
  • Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment Style
  • Disorganized-Insecure Attachment


More Information


IFS Introduction

Self Therapy & Parts Work

IFS Plan Protectors

IFS Therapy Outline

IFS Plan Exiles

IFS Therapy Outline

IFS Integration

Models & Approach

Self Leadership

Capacities & Strengths


Common Roles


Common Roles


Trailheads & Triggers


Terms & Concepts

IFS Resources

Books & Websites


Lessons & Meditations


Journal Articles & Research