An Overview of Internal Family Systems
We are all born whole, made up with lots of parts – just like the body.
For instance, the body has and needs many different parts to work as a coherent whole:
- arm bones
- leg bones
Those parts work together to create sub-systems:
- Heart is a part of the circulatory system
- Lungs work with other parts to create the respiratory system
- The arm bones and leg bones work with other bones to create the skeletal system
Those sub-systems work together to create systems.
For instance, the circulatory system works with the respiratory system to create the cardiovascular system
Sometimes one of the parts overfunction, leading other parts to underfunction, in turn disrupting the natural flow of communication between the different parts of the body. This disruption of communication can create dis-harmony or disease in the system.
Similarly, we have – and need – many different parts of our personality in order to live and function as a coherent whole.
The individual parts of us, sometimes referred to as “subpersonalities” work together in sub-systems or alliances with other parts of us. And those subsystems create larger systems.
When we are born, we are naturally Self-Led. Self is greater than the sum of our parts, and has qualities that IFS refers to as the 8 C’s:
With Self as the leader, the parts work together in harmony, and the systems function well – leading to an experience of well-being.
When we experience extreme conditions that Self was not prepared to handle (because our brains & bodies weren’t developed enough at the time), certain parts 1) got burdened by extreme beliefs, thoughts and feelings, 2) took on extreme roles and 3) like parentified children – began to lead the system they were not designed to lead. They “took-over” the system and thus became blended with Self. They took the reigns of the system in their best efforts to help us survive the less than optimal, non-empathic environment. In so doing, we became Parts-Led.
When we are Parts-Led, it means that some parts are overfunctioning from their natural state (Protectors) and some parts are underfunctioning from their natural state (Exiles), and the system is not working harmoniously. Overfunctioning parts can become extreme and are thus often in conflict other parts in what we call polarizations. It also means that we do not have access to the wisdom, flow and healing potential of the authentic Self, because a part has taken over it.
Contrary to other theoretical models, these parts do not “show up” when trauma happens. These parts are always there from the beginning. These parts simply take on burdens (extreme thoughts, beliefs & feelings) during traumatic events and they take on extreme roles in order to do their best to help the person survive.
In IFS we say: “Parts are not the burdens they carry.”
So our goal is never to get rid of parts. Our goal is to help parts offload their burdens, to release them from their extreme and rigid roles, to free the parts up to function in their more natural states, in turn leading to more harmonious interactions with the rest of the system.
Part of our work as an IFS therapist is to help our clients bring healing to the Exiles. (Exiles are the parts that have been split off by Protectors that came online to protect the Self from exposure to painful experiences. In so doing, these Exiles were cast into the shadows and are underfunctioning and stuck back in the time of the painful experience.) We facilitate this healing process by helping the client establish a relationship between Self and the Exile, and the client’s Self eventually helps the Exile offload the burdens they have been carrying. When clients do this, it frees the Exile to return to its natural state (often bringing important and very helpful qualities back to the system, such as increased energy, vitality, spontaneity, play, creativity, etc.).
At the same time, there is often an almost instant shift in the Protectors (Managers & Firefighters) that had been keeping the Exile safe in hiding all those years.
When the Protectors bear witness to the healing of the Exile and witness its return to its natural state, the Protectors no longer feel compelled to be in their extreme roles of protecting the Exile. There is no longer anything to protect.
So healing the Exile also frees up the Protector parts to release their burdens and their extreme roles of over functioning in the system. They no longer need to hijack the Self in an effort to manage the system. They have also gotten to witness the deep, healing powers of the Self and have established a sense of trust in the Self. So they are now much more willing to step back and allow the authentic Self to lead the system. The Protectors thus get to rest from the very hard work they’ve been doing in the system for ages. And they get to return to their natural state and functioning in the system, again increasing the harmony of the system as a whole. And the client gets to experience the sense of wellbeing that comes from exercising Self leadership.
In the IFS model, this healing does not happen between the therapist’s Self and the clients parts. This healing happens between the client’s Self and the client’s parts. It is when the client is coming from Self or is engaging a lot of “Self-Energy” can the client’s Self bring healing to the parts.
So it is our main focus as IFS therapists to help “unblend” the Parts from Self, and help the client establish a relationship between Self and the Parts, so the Self can bring healing to them, unburden them and help return them to their natural state within the system. This process brings greater harmony to the system as a whole and allows for a deep sense of ongoing resilience and wellbeing.
In summary, we all have parts – whether we are traumatized or not, whether we have fully healed from trauma or not.
It is natural, healthy and good to be made up of many different parts working together in a coherent whole.
We also all have access to Self.
Over time, as the parts begin to develop trust in Self, we come more Self-Led.
And when we are Self-Led, or exercising Self leadership, there is more harmony in the system. We function better, we experience a deep sense of resilience and wellbeing and we sense a deep connection within us and among all things. We realize we are so much greater than the sum of our parts.
If you would like to see more, here is an Overview of the Internal Family Systems model, with some definitions of terms such as: