Internal Family Systems Model

Internal Family Systems Model

Developed by Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D., the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is an integrative approach to individual psychotherapy developed in the 1980s. It views the mind as made up of relatively discrete sub-personalities, each with its own unique viewpoint and qualities. This simple but complex model describes how we learn to cope, as children, with the suffering inflicted upon us at an early age. It explains clearly how developmental trauma and the behaviors we engage with to feel safe nurtured and loved cause deep repercussions in our adult life.  Re-integrating these young parts by honoring their protective nature and welcoming them “home” is an effective tool used toward healing and wholeness.  

The Exiles

The exiles are the wounded young parts inside of us, the ones attached to memories of grief, terror, humiliation or abandonment. For good reason, we have tried to keep these memories and their related sensations and emotions at bay. By doing so, we have also exiled the young parts who suffered the most. These young parts were innocent and vulnerable and more prone to get hurt. They are childlike and rather then help them heal, we have kept them away from us, locked up in a basement. This added insult to injury, even though it is what we had to do to survive the pain. 

Although these young parts have been cast away with their memories, they keep knocking at our door and the knock keeps getting louder and louder. They want to be heard in their pain. They show up in our lives when we least expect them to appear and they take over. They can pull us back into our painful past, interfere with our good functioning and judgment or keep us attached to the people who hurt us in our adult relationships.

IFS graph wheel

The Managers

So what do we do? We hire Managers early on: responsible for our daily protection, anticipators of what could go wrong, they maintain control over relationships and environments to make sure we are never in a position to feel humiliated, abandoned, rejected or hurt. They monitor how we show up in relationships (personal and professional), scan for cracks in the system, interpret the world to us and create the narratives we live by. These narratives can be negative as well: if you believe you are unlovable or a loser, you won’t take many risks and won’t be disappointed.  They are our “reality makers” and control us with beliefs like “Life isn’t supposed to be fun”, which we come to adopt without even questioning. They become the voice of authority. In other models of therapy, they can be called “false self” or “introjects”.  In the Pre- and Perinatal world, they might be called “imprints”. 

Their goal is our protection and in doing so, they preempt anything that might touch the exiles. They protect them but also disdain them for being weak or needy. They are always on guard and will always strategize to avoid bringing up the exiles. They operate like a parentified child: overburdened with responsibility and fear, rigid and punitive. They are usually “pleasers”.

They came up during scary and traumatic moments in our lives and swore they would do anything so it would not happen again. They decided to shape us up in the most acceptable form possible so we would survive. They sacrificed their enjoyment of life to protect the rest of our system.

The Firefighters

As much as the managers try to get a grip on daily situations, sometimes they fail. The fortress cracks, the exiles show up and it feels like a red alert in a nuclear facility. This is a call to all stations for the firefighters to come to the rescue. The word is: do whatever it takes to get us out of the red alert, the pains of abandonment, the dark hole, the endless pit of nothingness.  For some of us, the scream of the child is so loud that the adult self disappears. 

Contrary to the Managers who protect in anticipating, Firefighters are reactive. They jump into action without weighing the consequences: out of control, they usually displease people. Firefighters often rebel against the shame that managers heap on them by increasing the destructiveness of their activities. They are fierce in their protection!

The first line of firefighting might be what is socially acceptable: too much work, food, exercise, TV, shopping, cigarettes, coffee, Netflix, gambling etc…When the first line of firefighting fails, we get into the hard stuff: illegal drugs, alcohol binges, suicidal thoughts, rage, self-mutilation, stealing etc…For some of us, the first line of response does not work, so we go immediately to the second one. This can be damaging to Self and to personal and professional relationships. 

Other responses to managers failing to control the exiles can be an increase in medical symptoms (pain) or plainly going into freeze and numbness (dissociation).

In short, these destructive impulses come from good parts in bad roles. As long as we work compassionately with exiles and the suffering that comes with them, there is less of a need for managers and firefighters. Not that your parts disappear: they just transform into roles they prefer.