Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

10 mins read

Internal Family Systems: What is IFS therapy? 

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is an evidence-based psychotherapy that views the mind as composed of multiple parts, like a family with many sub-personalities. Each of these parts holds incredible value and unique qualities. 

IFS teaches that our intense feelings, thoughts and behaviors are parts of us, not our whole identity. These parts often form due to childhood experiences. Sometimes, during traumatic experiences, these parts can become “frozen,” carrying intense beliefs and emotions into our adult lives. 

The goal of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is to help you recognize and understand these parts, allowing you to relate to your inner self with compassion and kindness. By connecting with these parts calmly, you can help them feel safe.

With IFS, we can lovingly unfreeze and heal these parts, allowing them to integrate into our lives, bringing us closer to wholeness and inner peace. 

Benefits of the Internal Family Systems Model

What I love about IFS is that it puts you in the driver’s seat of your own healing. 

Internal Family Systems is a compassionate approach to healing that encourages curiosity and kindness toward all parts of yourself. Instead of trying to fix or change, IFS helps you understand and accept your inner world, fostering greater self-love. With curiosity, compassion, and courage, you can heal and integrate your different parts, leading to a more fulfilling and joyful life.

For anyone struggling with the effects of trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction or other challenges, Internal Family Systems therapy offers so much hope. It reveals that your symptoms and behaviors aren’t evidence that you’re fundamentally flawed, but that there are hurting parts of you stuck in the past that need your love and attention. 

Internal Family Systems Parts (IFS Parts)

We all have unique defense mechanisms that activate when triggered by external situations or people. These patterns develop to protect us from unresolved past emotional disturbances, often unconsciously. Consequently, when these emotions remain unaddressed, they become persistent energy patterns, leading us to instinctively fight, flee, or freeze. To avoid experiencing these intense emotions, we adopt behaviors to manage and suppress them.

In Internal Family Systems therapy, we learn that what we often perceive as our bad habits, knee-jerk reactions or addictive behaviors are actually just misunderstood parts of ourselves trying their best to keep us safe. IFS calls these our Protector Parts.

We all have Protectors like this: parts of us that lash out in anger when we feel threatened, shut down when things get hard or turn to numbing behaviors when our feelings seem too big to handle. 

Protector parts are named for their core mission, which is to protect against impermissible emotions from the past. Feelings that were established early, often in childhood, such as feeling unsafe, unlovable or even traumatized.

Internal Family Systems Parts are categorized as Managers, Firefighters and Exiles. These parts show up to protect us from feeling deeper, often unresolved, wounds from our past.

The Goal of Internal Family Systems Therapy

Above all, the goal of IFS therapy is to help these protective parts release the extreme roles they took on in an effort to keep us safe. When we turn towards our parts with curiosity and compassion, they can begin to trust that it’s okay to let go of their old survival strategies and pain.

In Internal Family Systems Therapy, there are no bad parts. Each IFS part has its own unique perspective, feelings, memories and motivations that developed to help us cope with challenges, often from past traumatic experiences.

IFS Parts – Managers

Managers are often in control and act as our daily protectors. Their job is to shield us from anything that might bring up the painful, unhealed feelings from our past.

IFS managers include parts of us that try to control everything or judge others to avoid feeling inadequate. They can seem extreme and difficult, but they are the parts we rely on most to feel safe.

When something really upsetting happens and the managers can’t control our feelings, the firefighters take over.

IFS Parts – Firefighters

The firefighters are the most extreme protectors. They can include addicted, harmful and even suicidal parts.

IFS firefighters step up when an exile (a deep inner feeling) is activated and the manager’s coping mechanisms are ineffective. 

When we feel intense fear and terror, the firefighter steps in to put out the fire. These firefighters are often the addicted or suicidal parts that will do anything to numb the pain. 

IFS protector parts (managers and firefighters) keep us from facing painful feelings from the past. Childhood trauma can make us lose trust in others, so protector parts work hard to keep exiled parts safe.

Protectors take on the role of parenting the exiled parts. As we grow, these exiled parts rely on protectors for safety. Our unconscious mind fears the exiled parts, worried they might trigger intense emotions like anger, panic, shame, anxiety or worthlessness. Therefore, protectors are always on guard to prevent these triggers from surfacing.

IFS Parts – Exiles

In Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, “exiled parts” are the wounded aspects of ourselves that carry the pain, shame and beliefs of unresolved past experiences, often from childhood. These parts hold the “impermissible” feelings that, at a young age, seemed too overwhelming for us to process.

When we experience trauma or adversity, especially as children, the emotions can be so intense that they threaten to destabilize our whole system. In an effort to protect us and regain a sense of safety, our parts learn to exile this pain deep into our subconscious.

We all have exiles, whether from “big T” Traumas like abuse or neglect, or “small t” traumas like feeling ignored or misunderstood. While pushing away this pain helped us survive in the moment, those exiled feelings don’t just disappear. They live in the shadows, informing our thoughts and reactions in ways we don’t even realize.

To avoid the discomfort of this buried hurt, we develop protector parts that work hard to keep us distracted. For example, we turn to work, achievements, relationships, addictions – anything to keep us from feeling the inadequacy, fear and despair of our exiles.

IFS protector parts manage our exiled parts to keep us from facing painful feelings from the past. Childhood trauma or attachment injuries can make us lose trust in others, so protector parts work hard to keep exiled parts safe.

Protectors take on the role of parenting the exiled parts. As we grow, these exiled parts rely on protectors for safety. Our unconscious mind fears the exiled parts, worried they might trigger intense emotions like anger, panic, shame, anxiety, depression, worthlessness, or grief. Therefore, protectors are always on guard to prevent these triggers from surfacing.

IFS Parts – Self

In Internal Family Systems therapy, the Self represents the undamaged, resourced, enlightened essence of who we are. Self is compassionate, wise and accepting of all of our parts, almost like a nurturing parent. This Self knows how to take care of our exiles and protector parts. 

The qualities of Self are described by eight C words: calmness, clarity, confidence, curiosity, compassion, connection, creativity and courage. The goal of IFS is to access and operate from Self.

IFS therapy guides you to connect with the core essence of your authentic Self. From the perspective of Self you’ll develop the capacity to be the loving inner leader for your internal family of parts. One by one, you can witness each part’s story, appreciate its efforts to protect you, and help it finally feel seen, heard and honored. From this empowered place, you work together to find new, healthier ways to get its needs met in the present.

The Self is a wise, undamaged, loving part of you that acts like an internal parent. 


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Internal Family Systems IFS Therapy

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When you learn to see your parts through the compassionate eyes of Self, you can help them reintegrate, unburdened by limiting beliefs, and transform your inner landscape. Little by little, your true essence emerges to lead your life.

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Internal Family Systems IFS Therapy

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Want to learn more about Internal Family Systems?

Check out my conversation with the Founder of IFS.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) was founded by Richard Schwartz, PhD. Watch the video below to hear my conversation with him and learn more about this groundbreaking therapy.

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