What is IFS?
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
IFS is based on two key ideas: that everyone has parts, and that everyone has a Self.
The first key idea is that people have different parts inside them, and these parts do not always agree with each other. Have you ever had a hard time making up your mind, because you had two different opinions about something? That is an example of having different parts that don’t agree with each other. The concept of ‘parts’ helps people gain clarity about what’s going on inside of them.
Instead of trying to deal with the abstract idea of ‘anger,’ it can be productive to think about it as a part, almost like a person inside of you who feels the anger. People deal with other people every day—we instinctively know how to relate to other people. Why not think of the feelings and urges inside of us as if they were like other people inside of us who are expressing those emotions? That way, we can use our natural abilities to deal with other people in the exterior world, to deal with our parts in our internal world. It makes working with parts very natural and intuitive. However, this doesn’t mean you have to think of parts as if they’re people inside you—all you have to do is separate out some parts of yourself and get to know them.
The second key idea is that everyone has a Self. The Self is a positive way of feeling or being that is separate from the parts. The Self ALWAYS feels positively towards the parts. This is the main difference between Self and parts. It is not unusual for parts to feel scared of each other, or angry at each other, or upset by each other. They may ridicule, criticize or scare each other. The Self NEVER does these things. The Self regards absolutely ALL parts with equal acceptance and interest.
These are two simple concepts—everyone has parts, everyone has a Self. Inner Parts Work invites people to take time to introduce the parts to the Self. Most of the time, we only know our parts through our other parts—a part of me gets angry at another part of me that eats too much; a part of me gets upset when another part of me works too much; a part of me gets frustrated when another part of me forgets to take out the trash; and on and on.
When do I take the time to find out why the part of me eats too much in the first place? When do I take the time to find out why a part of me works too much? When do I take the time to find out why a part of me forgets to take out the trash? Usually, I just side with the part that criticizes these parts.
In real life, with real people, this kind of tactic does not work. Criticizing people for eating too much doesn’t help them stop—but listening to them, and hearing about the stress that drives them to eat for relief, can help them to find better ways to relieve that stress. Getting upset when a friend works too much doesn’t solve the problem—but taking the time to listen to why the friend is working too much, and lending an ear to help them come up with solutions, just might result in some! Being frustrated with a child for not taking out the trash is ineffective; taking some time to sit and talk, to find out exactly what train of events results in a stinky kitchen, can ultimately result in solving the problem.
In the external world, the best results happen when we approach others from our Self—from a place of interest and care. So it is inside ourselves as well. A side benefit of practicing this type of inner work is that the way we treat our parts also carries over to the way we treat other people in the real world!
Parts and Self: Recap
Within us, there are many different parts in the same way that in an orchestra there are many different musicians. We are each an orchestra unto ourselves.
In other words, the natural state of the human mind is multiplicity.
Of course, if we only had parts, that would be chaos. That would be like an orchestra with no conductor.
The solution to the problem of the chaos of parts is the SELF. The Self is the conductor of the orchestra. The self leads the parts.
The Self has 10 powerful qualities that enable it to do this. The Self is:
The Self is not superior to the parts. It’s just the leader, in the same way a conductor is not “superior” to the musicians in an orchestra.
The goal is for the Self is to be in relationship with the parts. Self = A MEDIATOR.
Now that we’ve talked about the Self and its relationship to the parts, I’ll talk about the parts in more detail.
How do I learn to sense my parts?
First, it helps to be aware that different people experience their parts differently; there is no ‘right way.’ Parts work is concerned with what works, not what’s right. The goal is to be able to find, within yourself, something you can repeatedly identify. People have experienced their parts:
As inner images:
Of characters from movies or books
Of themselves at certain ages
Of animals or objects
As inner voices, words, sounds or thoughts
With or without accompanying images like those described above
As physical feelings, such as sensations in the body, a general felt sense, or physical symptoms
By themselves, with no accompanying images or voice
Or related to an image and/or voice
By themselves with no accompanying images, voices or physical feelings
Related to images/ voices/ physical feelings
As movements or behaviors
It may be easier, at first, to locate two parts who are in opposition to each other. For example, sometimes I eat when I’m not hungry. Listening to the thoughts going through my head, and noticing my behavior, I can distinguish two parts: a part that wants to eat and a part that criticizes me.
I hear the ‘Critical part’ as a thought in my mind:
Critical part: “You’re not hungry! Don’t eat! You’ll get fat! What’s wrong with you?!”
I experience the ‘Eating part’ as a behavior:
Eating part: (doesn’t say anything, just continues to eat ice cream mindlessly)
Parts work helps resolve ongoing inner conflicts. Using simple techniques, it is possible to begin a dialogue with the parts. The eating part can talk about why it feels the need for ice cream; the critical part can talk about why it feels the need to criticize. The resolution comes from bringing compassion to the conflict, not from externally forcing either part to change.
How do I know when I’m in Self?
Everyone has experienced being in Self. It could be the last time you listened to a good friend when he or she was feeling upset. It could be the last time you played a great game of basketball and really felt ‘in the flow.’ These two examples are very different, for a good reason: different people experience Self differently. Not everyone experiences EVERY quality of the Self, nor do they experience the qualities in the same way.
When in doubt, the easiest way to check if you are in Self is to ask yourself, “How do I feel about this part?” If you do not feel one of the “C” qualities of curiosity, compassion, connectedness, courage, confidence, creativity, calmness or clarity, most likely, you are in another part, not Self. Hang in there—just keep asking the question! Eventually you will find all the parts, and once you’ve found them all, what’s left? Self!
How much Self is enough Self?
To make progress, you don’t need to have a Nobel-peace-prize-winning level of Self; sometimes just good old-fashioned curiosity is enough. IFS is a real world tool for personal growth. It is absolutely NOT a pie-in-the-sky, unrealistically idealistic theory. You don’t have to meditate for hours before being able to practice parts work. You don’t have to be perfect. If you can learn how to sense your parts and bring a ‘good enough’ level of Self to them, you’re set!
How will parts change if I don’t get other parts to convince them to change?
There is a saying that “Self attracts Self.” When parts are exposed to Self, they begin to align themselves in that direction, and eventually embody the qualities of Self themselves. No part is unaffected by the presence of Self. It is a magnetic quality which can be blocked by protective and suspicious parts, at first, but will ultimately bring out the best in every part it encounters.
Understanding parts in more detail
The parts that people have inside them are truly endless, because each human being is unique and irreplaceable. A friend of mine has a catalogue-reading, mail-order purchasing part that sometimes overspends; some of my relatives have outlet-store shopping parts; I have a part that urges me to go to the thrift store sometimes when I feel anxious. Although these parts express themselves in different types of activities, they all have one thing common—they all like to buy things.
To make it easier to talk about parts in general, these specific parts could be referred to as “shopping parts.” These parts are not the same, because they have different reasons for their behavior and they choose different ways of expressing their urges—but for the purposes of making generalizations about parts, calling them all ‘shopping parts’ is a useful shorthand.
In fact, there are as many general parts as there are activities that they make people do, such as:
As you can see, this list is a kind of shorthand, because each of the parts on the list may show up very differently for different people. Some people’s overeating parts only make them overeat when they go out to eat; at home they do fine. Other people’s overeating parts make them overeat at home but nowhere else. The variations are endless.
It would be difficult to talk about parts in general, if there weren’t a way to make very broad generalizations about them. In order to reduce the endless number of parts into very broad general categories, IFS talks about three main categories of parts: managers, firefighters and exiles.
Please remember that these are extremely broad generalizations that exist only for the purpose of being able to talk about how parts function in general. These descriptions are intended to help give a very simple idea of what each type of part is like— not all people will experience their parts in these ways at all. Also, it is NOT necessary to know which kind of part you are dealing with when you work with your own parts. In fact, many people who use IFS professionally—from tutors to life coaches to therapists— do not use the terms ‘manager,’ ‘firefighter,’ or ‘exile’ with their clients. You don’t have to either!
Parts range from extreme to mild
All parts exist on a continuum from very extreme to very mild. You can find parts anywhere along the spectrum.
Another way of thinking about this is that the Self is like the sun, and parts are like the weather. Some parts are mild like an almost cloudless sky, and some parts are extreme–like a thunderstorm or a tornado, which totally blocks out the sun.
Like people, some parts are helpful, some are mildly annoying at first, some are generally difficult to get along with, and some have severe issues that make connecting almost impossible. On the helpful end of the spectrum, it’s difficult to say where the parts end and the Self begins. On the extreme end, the delineation between parts and Self is very clear.
So when we talk about parts in general, it’s important to be clear about where the parts are on the spectrum.
To start with, I want to talk about our moderately extreme parts. And then we’ll go back and talk about the rest of the spectrum.
In IFS, all parts are either protecting you from something, or they are being protected.
The protected parts are called exiles because they’ve been exiled from consciousness–for good reason. Extreme exiles carry all our deepest wounds.The feelings of the exiles are exiled because if we felt these things all the time we would not be functional. So that’s why we have two types of parts who protect us from being overwhelmed by the exiles: firefighters and managers.
Extreme firefighters (addictions/present) use addictive behavior to numb the feelings of the exiles. If the bad feelings of the exiles are leaking through to consciousness, firefighters rush to put out the fire of their pain, dousing it in food, alcohol, drugs, tv, shopping, or some other distraction. They are reactive to the exiles in the present.
Extreme managers (thinking/future) are always on guard for events that might trigger the pain of the exiles and they’re always strategizing ways to avoid those events. Managers try to control your relationships and environment so you’re never in a position of being hurt. They avoid emotion, and try to control everything. They are proactive in relationship to exiles, and are therefore future-oriented.
That’s a look at parts on the extreme end of the spectrum. Now, let’s look at the full range of each part.
Managers, firefighters and exiles
Very generally speaking, managers are interested in getting work done and being productive. At their best, they keep you organized, on-time, and engaged in meaningful work. At their worst, they criticize and overwork you, giving you a guilty feeling when you try to relax. At their very worst, they never loosen their grip on you for a second. Extreme managers may isolate people so that they never take time for themselves, their families or friends. Very extreme managers may turn people into robots who never seem to feel anything or connect to anyone. They may work people so hard they get sick.
Very generally speaking, firefighters are interested in having fun and relaxing. At their best, they keep you from getting burned out and overwhelmed by stress, encouraging you to go see a movie or take some time to unwind after work. At their worst, they seek stress relief obsessively, insisting on overeating, overdrinking, or smoking. At their very worst, firefighters can drive people to do extreme things, in a misdirected attempt to get some relief from inner pain by lashing out at others. These very extreme firefighters may shoplift, engage in crimes, scream at other people, or become violent.
Very generally speaking, exiles are interested in experiencing the world just as it is. At their best, they fill you with child-like awe at the sunset, or make you stop to look at the fuzz on newly unfurling leaves in the spring. However, because exiles are the most vulnerable and sensitive parts of people, they are easily hurt. They are the ones that were ridiculed in second grade when they said something wrong in school. They are the ones that take criticism to heart, developing beliefs that they are worthless and unlovable. Over time, exiles may accumulate so many hurts that they end up appearing as hurt and unhappy parts. At their worst, they may sometimes surround people with a fog of despair. At their very worst, they may zap all the energy of a person, bringing them down into a pit of hopelessness for long periods of time. They may trap people in a chronic state of depression.
How Self helps parts
Here is another example of two parts in action. Before the Self steps in, the parts fight back and forth in an endless cycle. It’s a struggle that is only resolved when one part wins.
Firefighter: Writing this is boring. I really want to go to the movies.
Manager: We have to write it. You’ve procrastinated enough already and now it’s late. So start concentrating.
Firefighter: But I can’t! It’s boring! I have to go to the movies! (Starts surfing the web, looking for movie times)
When the Self steps in, the system gains a leader. Instead of incessantly focusing on changing each other and getting their way, the parts focus on themselves, and what they want, instead.
Manager: We have to work!
Firefighter: You never relax! You need to chill!
Self: So I hear there is a lot of tension around what to do today. Managers, I hear you want to work. Firefighters, I hear you want to relax.
Firefighter: You got that right!
Manager: That’s all the Firefighters ever want to do.
Self: What about this. Can I find out more about you both? Who’d like to talk about what’s going on with them?
Firefighter: I understand that we need to work, but the Manager NEVER lets me relax. Then I have to get my revenge by distracting her and making it hard for her to work. If she’d just let me relax after we work, I’d leave her alone while she’s working.
Manager: If you’d stop distracting me, we’d get more work done in less time, and then we’d have time to go to the movies afterwards.
Self: How about if we negotiate a deal, so that the Managers work without disruption from the Firefighters, and in exchange, the Firefighters get to see a movie tonight?
Firefighter: It’s a deal!
Manager: All right, but you have to live up to your end of the bargain.
Self helps parts communicate, overcome patterns of fighting and criticizing, and negotiate solutions.
How do you begin to use the parts and Self in IFS?
Here’s a simplified list of steps to using IFS on your own as a beginner. (This is not the complete IFS process, it’s just a very simplified, beginner’s process).
1. Go inside yourself.
2. Recognize parts.
3. Check to make sure there’s enough Self to work with.
4. Get to know parts, proceeding at a pace that is comfortable for you.
5. Thank the parts and go back outside yourself!
Here’s a more detailed description:
First, ‘go inside’ yourself. This means you take some time to sit down and focus on yourself. You need to be in a place where people aren’t going to disturb you, so that you can focus on your inner experiences, instead of external experiences. You might want to close your eyes, but you don’t have to. You can focus on how your body feels, your thoughts, images that come to your mind, memories, aches and pains, your breathing—anything that comes up. All of it is a part of ‘going inside,’ because it all comes from inside of you.
As you practice ‘going inside,’ you will become more and more comfortable with paying attention to your inner experiences. It may feel a little unusual at first, which is only natural—so does riding a bike when you first try it. Unlike riding a bike, the learning curve for IFS does not include scraped knees. The parts are organized so that the managers and firefighters, the protective parts, will not allow you to go deeper inside yourself than you are ready for.
While focusing on your inner experience, you may notice thoughts, voices, physical feelings, images, or emotions. There is no ‘right’ thing to focus on—just focus on what interests you the most. Once you have chosen a particular aspect of your inner experience, congratulate yourself! You have just recognized a part!
The next step is to check to see that you have enough Self energy to work with the part. This means making sure that you feel positively towards the part. A simple way to do this is to ask yourself, “How do I feel toward this part?” If you feel upset, uncomfortable, or scared by the part, those feelings are ANOTHER part, not your Self. The Self does not feel negatively about parts. It is very common and completely natural to encounter a part that does not like the initial part you started to try to work with. In fact, frequently there are a number of parts that feel negatively in some way about the initial part. This is normal!!
William tried to look at a part that criticizes him. All day long, this part keeps up a running commentary about everything that William does. “Why did you take the expressway? Look at the traffic! Now you’re going to be late!!” At work, the part keeps on: “Why are you drinking coffee? You know it’s not good for you!” And on and on, all day long.
William wants to be free of hearing this part criticize him all day. He’s tried affirmations and he’s tried just blocking it out, but it hasn’t worked. William heard about IFS from a personal coach who had been helping him improve his performance at work. Although at first it sounded contradictory to listen even more to a voice he wanted to get rid of, William found that there was more to this part than met the eye.
When he first went inside and asked himself, “How do I feel toward this critical part?” William found he felt scared of it. So, he had just found another part—a part that was scared of the critical part. After realizing this, he ‘separated’ that part from his Self. One way to do this is to ask the part to step aside to allow the Self to emerge. After getting the scared part to separate, William again asked himself, “How do I feel toward the critical part?” William found he felt angry at it. So, he had just found another part—a part that was angry towards the critical part. After realizing this, William separated that part from his Self. Once again, William asked himself, “How do I feel toward this critical part?” Strangely, he found himself laughing! So, he had just found another part—a part that thought the critical part was ridiculous! It is absolutely normal to find quite a few parts that have different attitudes about the original part. It is a standard IFS technique to simply ask the question, “How do I feel toward this part?” over and over, until the answer is some type of positive feeling about the part, which indicates that the Self is present.
After using the simple “How do I feel?” question to make sure he had enough Self energy present, William proceeded to get to know the critical part. He opened up a dialogue with this part, and to his surprise, he found that the part did not mean to make him miserable! All parts have good intentions, and this part only wanted to make sure that William was making good choices. Over time, William was able to deepen his relationship with this part, to the point that the part realized that constantly criticizing William was actually so distracting that it did not help William make better choices. Over time, the part was able to speak directly to William when he ‘went inside,’ instead of indirectly pestering him all day long. Feeling that its concerns were being directly addressed through their inner conversations, the part shifted from being critical, to being encouraging and supportive. It didn’t happen over night: these changes took place through a series of conversations William had with this part over a span of months. However, it was a small investment of time and effort compared to the payoff—a life finally free of that endless nagging voice in his mind.
Maria has been under a lot of stress, and as the day has progressed, she’s noticed a feeling of anxiety taking shape in her stomach. She decides to take some time to ‘go inside’ and listen to her anxiety. She tells her family she needs some quiet time, and heads up to her room. Sitting on the bed, she focuses on the feelings in her body. She notices the ‘ugh’ in her stomach more clearly—it’s an anxious part. Checking to make sure she has Self energy, she asks herself how she feels about the anxious part. She feels curious, and would genuinely like to understand it—so she knows she has enough Self to proceed. She asks the anxious part: “Can you tell me a little more about yourself?”
She hears a voice in her mind that says, “You always say you’re going to take some time for yourself, but you never do. This is the only way I can get you to pay attention to me!”
Maria recognizes that the part has a valid point. She asks, “What can I do so that you could feel less anxious?”
She hears the voice say, “Well, what about just taking a fifteen minute nap right now, and going to bed early tonight?” Maria agrees to this, and asks the part what she can do to keep it from creating anxious feelings in her stomach in the future
The voice says, “Get enough sleep every day!”
Maria thanks the part for spending some time with her, and takes a nap
Maria realizes that this is not a problem she’s going to be able to solve instantly, because she has a long-standing habit of skimping on sleep to meet all her obligations. However, taking the time to ‘go inside’ and work with the part of her that causes her anxiety is a positive first step. And by taking a nap as the part advised, her stomach stops feeling tense, enabling her to spend a much more enjoyable evening with her family.