Internal Family Systems

Self Therapy ~ Parts Work ~ Exploring Your Own System

A Journey with Parts

Have you ever heard yourself saying or thinking, “A part of me likes it when, or a part of me wants to…” In the approach to therapy I use, we can use that language to describe our internal experiences and behaviors. Our experiences of our decisions, reactions, thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Is there a part of you that gets upset with people and in certain circumstances, with life events and daily living experiences, when things don’t go the way you had expected them to go? Are there different parts that show up around different people? Are there different parts that show up around different circumstances. Parts will often be called other words, get described differently, and get labeled by others and ourselves. We sometimes consider these parts good, bad, right, wrong, uncomfortable, negative, or positive. Labeling these parts – our experiences – only causes more harm. Labels can reinforce and support stigma, discrimination, and mistreatment. Labels don’t educate. Labels are words like Addict, Bipolar, Crazy, Schizo, Borderline, Narcissist, Controlling, Manipulating, Anti-social. Labels like these don’t tell the whole story though.

Wise mind is a concept in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Wise mind is the synthesis between our logical and rational thinking mind, and our emotional and reactive mind. In IFS, the concept of a Self states that we all have a Self. Self is the innate qualities of moral and ethical behavior and embodies several characteristics, or character strengths and virtues. These qualities include playfulness, presence, patience, perceptiveness, persistence, compassion, connection, courage, confidence, calmness, clarity, curiosity, and creativity. In a state of wise mind my pure conscious self feels and thinks, if I stay in control of the internal system, how I respond to others is entirely up to me, how I show up in the world is my choice. My ultimate happiness is a decision I make in every moment. If I can stop and take a breath, I can observe my inner reactions, then proceed in wise mind.

Although you may not know this, your Internal conscious mind, your Psyche and personality is made up of many parts, like a family. Any internal family system can have parts that work together, and parts that are polarized. In IFS, other than the pure conscious Self, your conscience, there are several types of parts. Managers are the parts of us that tend to attempt to control everything and everyone around us to prevent any uncomfortable or negative experiences; pleasure, joy, wonder, awe, and peace. They are proactive, attempting to avoid, distract, and manage your day to day life. They live in your logical mind, and can be aggressive, passive aggressive, or assertive depending on the circumstances. Firefighters are the parts of us that react and attempt to stop our suffering by any means necessary. They are emotionally reactive, exhibit unwanted behaviors, and are often criticized by our manager parts. They exist in our emotion mind. We also find concerned parts when we start working with manager and firefighter parts. They are the last line of defense protecting managers, firefighters, and exiles. Exiled parts of our system are the parts holding on to the pain of the past, and are burdened with carrying the pain of stress, trauma, loss, and painful memories. They have been suppressed, repressed, ignored, and all but forgotten.

Every part has their own memories, sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, schemas, worldview, expectations, perceptions, and behaviors. Parts sometimes do very distorted things to protect us from harm and keep us functioning in daily life. Some protect the Self from people, experiences, circumstances, and other parts. Some protect the wounded, extreme, and vulnerable young (inner child) parts of us. These parts take over our conscious mind sometimes and are blended with self, throwing wise mind out of balance. It becomes difficult to know what part is actively in control of your seat of consciousness at any given moment.

Some of these parts are tired from protecting your self; some are tired from protecting the wounded vulnerable parts of you. The vulnerable parts that were hurt, and suffering in pain, shame, guilt, and sadness. The exiled parts that have been hidden from the outside world, exiled. Exiles can be activated by any type of external or internal stimulus, experience, person, or event. It can be overwhelming to be taken over by an exile, uncomfortable, painful, unwanted, and distressing.

The protector parts are just doing their job of protecting your self and the wounded vulnerable parts of you. With no thanks and no reward, with contempt and criticism from other parts in the system. If the protector parts didn’t do their job, the wounded vulnerable parts feelings and physical sensations will overwhelm your system. Although the protector’s intent is to keep you safe, the roles they play and the way they do their job isn’t always healthy, graceful, or in a clear, curious, and calm state of wise mind. It isn’t always compassionate, connected, creative, confident, or courageous. It will sometimes appear as manipulation, control, critical, judgmental, avoidance, isolation, perfectionism, people pleasing, and care taking. It will sometimes appear as anxiety, anger, fear, sadness, procrastination, distraction, numbing, and dissociating, to name a few.

In IFS and through parts work, a theory of human consciousness, a new theory that sees a multiplicity of the mind, we can talk to those parts while being self led, and in a state of wise mind. So let me guide you through the entire process from start to finish

First, you should learn and practice mindfulness, meditation, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation skills. You will be providing your parts with temporary tools to help with the difficult work ahead. Then, FIND out what circumstances, people, experiences, or parts you would like to work with. You will find the parts and learn how to access and identify the parts. Accessing parts can be done through recognizing, observing, describing, and participating in the sensations, images, thoughts, memories, beliefs, perceptions, emotions, inner sense, behaviors, shapes, colors, and elements. Once you have learned how to access the parts, FOCUS your attention inwards on the parts, learning about the parts and their qualities. Learn how to FLESH OUT the parts, learning more about the part in a way that supports the separation between the parts and Self. Learn how to speak to the parts, and for the parts, not from the parts, or as the parts. Check for self leadership and determine how you FEEL about the part. Learn how to test for the presence of Self, and unblend from the parts as necessary to establish a strong connection between Self and the parts. Learn how to be FRIENDS with the parts, learning even more about them. Establish a trusting relationship between Self and parts. Learn about the part’s FEARS and ask them about their concerns, their experiences, their perception, their deepest fears, what makes them act the way they do. This is how you will locate the exiled parts.

In silent meditative and mindful self therapy sessions in a Self leadership role, in a state of wise mind. Let the protective parts know you appreciate and respect them. Express your gratitude and say things like “Thank you so much” “Your job is very important” “I appreciate what you do for me” And make sure you mean it, with integrity, honesty, authentically, genuinely, and holding fidelity to the process. Please be honest, sincere, genuine, authentic, and trusting. Ask the protective parts “Can you, will you, soften?” “Can you, will you, step aside?” “Can I help you with your job?” “Can you trust me?” Ask the protective parts “What is wrong?” “What is happening?” “What are you afraid of, what would happen if you didn’t do your job?” Ask “What are you trying to do for me?” “What are you hoping to accomplish?” “What do you think we need at this moment?” Those parts may be feeling: neglected, rejected, disrespected, alone, shame, guilt, harmed, defensive, angry. Those parts might believe that “we will be all alone and afraid” “we will never be loved because we are unlovable” Those parts may believe that “we are not able to love others” “we can’t trust anyone” “we should not try because we will fail” “if we look perfect and do everything perfect, we will not look incompetent” “we are not good enough and will never be good enough” “we are not living up to our fullest potential”

There are no bad parts in IFS. This idea is the bedrock upon which the foundation of the work is built. Parts are not “bad.” They have a positive intent. They are protective and they all have roles to play, and jobs to do, sometimes they are proactive, and sometimes they are reactive. They can be assertive, passive, submissive, manipulative, passive-aggressive, dominating, controlling, and/or aggressive. They watch over the wounded parts of us holding burdens. They have suffered for your entire life. They carry around all your vulnerability, suffering, memories, harm, trauma, grief, loss, loneliness, shame, humiliation, and guilt. Wounded parts may be experiencing co-dependence, neediness, insecurity, inadequacy, worthlessness, powerlessness, impotence, hopelessness, and helplessness. Your exiles have so many stories to share; it gets so overwhelming sometimes, and it might seem unbearable to them.

At this point, ask the protector parts, “Are you willing to let me meet the other parts and maybe help them?” “Can I talk to the younger parts?” Let the protectors know, “If I talk to them and find out what they need, we can work together to help them heal, and care for them” “Together, we can integrate them into the family, and live with those returned exile parts in harmony” Different concerned parts may appear and express themselves, “we’re not so sure about this.” So, ask the concerned parts, “What are you concerned about?” They might feel like, “It won’t work. It will make it worse. We will feel terrible. We will feel overwhelmed. We never want to feel those feelings again.” It is acceptable here to reassure the concerned parts, “Let’s try it, I was not ready before but I am ready now, I have improved my character strengths and capacities” “You can help and monitor the process, and take over if needed” When they agreed to try it, and assurances are made, they will monitor the progress closely.

In a state of mindful awareness, pure conscious self feels that mindfulness and meditation brings the system into wise mind, and a flow state. In a state of wise mind, in self, ask the parts, “do I have your permission to meet the exiles?” Ask them, “Can I help you so you are not so tired?” “Can I help the parts who are hurting?” “Do you trust me?” Let the parts know, “I truly appreciate your efforts and positive intent for me, I finally understand” When you have made CONTACT with each exile, in a trusted and healing mode, Ask each burdened exile, “what are you feeling?” They might wonder, “where have you been?” They might hold some resentment toward self. Trust will have to be gained. Let them know, “I wasn’t able to protect you before, but I can love you and protect you now” Let the exiles know, “I am feeling compassion, connection, curiosity, clarity, and calm, around you and for you” Then, play the role of a WITNESS, and ask each exile, “What do you want to show me?” “What do you want me to know” “What do I need to know to understand how this was for you?” Then take on the role of a trusted and caring PARENT and ask each exile, “Is there anything you need from me to change this situation?” Then, you can RETRIEVE the exile, and ask each one, “Do you want to leave this place?” “Do you want to be in a different place?” Then, ask them if they would like to UNBURDEN themselves, and ask each one, “Where do you carry your pain?” “Are you ready to let go of that pain?” In a supportive and compassionate way, let each exiled part know, “Those burdens were never meant for you. You should not have had to carry them for so long. Whenever you’re ready, you can let all that pain go. I can show you how” The exiles will probably be enthusiastic, “yes please, we are so tired and alone.” At this point, a word of caution is necessary. While working with one exile, other exiles may notice, and they may also want your attention and help. They may rush the gates and overwhelm the system. You can let them know that they are also important but you have to work with one at a time. It is up to you to determine which ones need your attention first, while also reassuring and soothing the rest.

All of you exiles, protector parts, concerned parts, and Self will have the option to engage in healing and restorative ceremonies. The vulnerable child parts, the concerned parts, and the protective parts will choose the way they want to unburden the pain and responsibilities. Each one has a voice, and they can choose from a variety of healing ceremonies. Common ways of unburdening and healing include ceremonies involving imaginary fire, water, air, energy, earth, poetry, song, and even role playing. The Exiles can then begin the INTEGRATION process. Protectors and concerned parts can choose their new jobs or be less extreme in the ones they have. Ask each and every part, “What do you want to do now?” “Where do you want to live in the mind?” “Do you still need anything from me?”

After the healing ceremonies and reintegration are done, all the parts of your internal family will be able to exist in your mind in a place of their choosing. And now, they have the ability to gently remind you of the past without overwhelming the whole system. They will be able to protect you and your system in nonextreme ways as you maintain healthy boundaries, with confidence, and assertiveness. They will be able to watch over you while you make your way in the world. They will assimilate new, rational, logical, and healthy beliefs, about yourself, others, and the world. Now you (Self) can remain, compassionate, connected, calm, clear, curious, creative, courageous, and confident with self in the lead, in a state of wise mind. Self will reside in your wise mind, able to navigate through the middle path. For a majority of the time, you should be able to regulate your emotions, control your anger, tolerate distress, maintain resilience to stress, and respond to circumstances and people instead of reacting.


Namaste, love and light, wishing you abundance of health, serenity, and absence of suffering, my fellow human beings.


This article written and edited by James Fitzgerald, MS, NCC, LCMHC, Author, Counselor, and Life Coach. As always, please let me know if you spot any grammatical or content errors. Please let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.