IFS sees our personality as made up of various sub-personalities or “parts”. Each part is quite literally like a person, with its own perspective, memories, beliefs, emotions, fears and life purpose. For example, we all have parts of us that are like hurt little children. We all have parts that have skills for dealing with the everyday world. We all have inner critic parts, and parts that feel the effects of that criticism. And so on.
A key understanding of IFS is that every part of us, without exception, has a positive intention for us. This can be hard to grasp. However, when we look deeply enough we find that every part is in fact trying to help us succeed in our world, or protect us against pain, or hold memories of how we were hurt in the past so that we can understand and heal those hurts.
This means that we do not fight with, coerce, reject, skate over or try to get rid of any part; we always look for the way it is trying to help.
Often, in doing its job, a part may inadvertently cause harm, creating effects that are dysfunctional and counterproductive. This naturally makes us reject that part, seeing only the harm that it causes. But our rejection makes it dig itself in even more deeply, increasing both the “good” and the “harm” it is doing.
A part will only start to relax and transform when we understand and acknowledge its positive intent. It cannot transform while we’re rejecting it.
However, as we try to work with a target part, other rejecting parts will often arise. In keeping with the knowledge that these too are trying to help us, we do not push them aside in favor of the target part. We bring to them also our compassion and curiosity, which allows them to be heard and relax. As they do this, we are able to return to work with the target part.
There are two categories of parts, exiles and protectors.
Exiles are the wounded parts of us; our wounded inner children. They are usually formed during our early life, and hold painful feelings such as hurt, shame, rage, fear, terror, anger and trauma. They arise from childhood events such as emotional rejection, criticism, abandonment, abuse, illness and accidents.
They are called “exiles” because their pain has been partly or completely exiled from consciousness by our protectors.
Protectors are all other parts of us that are not exiles. Their role is to do whatever it takes to protect us from the overwhelming pain of our exiles, in other words, to keep it exiled so that we do not feel their pain. Traditionally, they have been called “defenses”.
As children, we simply don’t have the emotional skills or perspective to deal with difficult emotions. Because we can’t do it on our own, we need a lot of help, love and support to survive the inevitable emotional storms of childhood.
But often there is no adult who is able to give us the support that we need, or the support they do offer is not what we need, or not sufficient. When this happens, we are in danger of being completely emotionally overwhelmed and unable to cope with life.
Rather than have this happen, our innate survival mechanism swings into action, “exiling” the pain and making it unconscious.
Each time this happens, an exile is created.
Since childhood generally has quite a few overwhelming events, we all have a number of exiles within us. Each exile holds not just painful emotions, but also a memory of the actual event or events that caused them. It holds an accurate recording, from the child’s point of view, of the emotionally painful event in all its details.
So when we make contact with an exile, it will usually show up as a hurt inner child of a particular age. For example, it may show up as an abandoned toddler, or a shamed 5 year old.
The exile is literally frozen in time—the time that its particular wounding event happened. Whatever the cause of the wounding, exiles are stuck with all the emotions that arose in that moment. For example, they may feel terrified of physical or emotional abandonment; they may feel shame and guilt and the fear of being criticised; they may feel afraid of being smothered or rejected; they may feel angry, hurt, fearful or sad; and often at the core they feel terrified that their very survival is at stake, as though they could die at any moment.
In addition to painful emotions, exiles often carry negative beliefs about themselves, others and the world. An abandoned exile may come to believe that it is fundamentally unloveable. A shamed exile may come to believe that it is fundamentally flawed. A smothered exile may believe it is dangerous to act independently. And so on.
So that we can continue to function, we need to be protected against the overwhelming emotions of our exiles. So whenever an exile is formed, one or more protectors is also formed to help keep the emotions unconscious.
The job of protectors is to do whatever it takes to stop us from feeling our emotional pain.
Protectors are incredibly smart, intelligent and resourceful, and literally do whatever it takes to cover up our exiles and their emotions. Since most of our pain is held by our exiles, our protectors try to arrange our lives and actions so that the pain of the exiles does not break through. They do their best to create the exact match needed to repress the difficult memories and emotions of our exiles.
Protectors are usually quite effective at their designated job, but their actions often lead to unintended difficulties. For example, we may have an exile that feels painfully shamed and worthless, so we develop a protector that gets us to avoid any situation where we might be judged or devalued. One of the things it repeatedly does is get us to quit any job where there is any hint of disapproval. It gets us out of the situation before the exile can be triggered, but it leads us to repeatedly quit otherwise good jobs.
Protectors may or may not be 100% effective in hiding our pain. Usually, the greater the trauma of the exile, the more extreme and effective its protectors becomes. For example, the extreme distress of an abused exile often creates a protector that completely banishes the abuse and the distress to the unconscious mind. We literally have no memory at all that we were abused. It is only in adulthood, when we have far more resources to deal with the memory, that the protector starts to relax and allow us to reconnect with what actually happened. This mechanism is responsible for most cases of recovered memories of abuse and trauma.
When a protector is not 100% effective, we tend to be triggered into the emotions of the exile by current events that are similar to the original event. The exile is convinced that exactly the same thing is happening all over again, and emotions come up that are not actually about what’s happening now. But not understanding our history, we mistakenly assume that the emotions are all to do with the now. We don’t understand that most of our feelings are actually about the past rather than the present.
There are two main categories of Protectors. These are Managers and Firefighters.
These are the parts of us that allow us to function in the world.
They hold skills that we need to be effective, and often feel like the coping, rational parts of ourselves. They usually go about their job quietly and diligently. For example, we may have an exile that fears it is not very smart. So we develop a protector that works extremely hard at school. It figures out what it takes to get good grades, and applies itself very efficiently to the task. And it does succeed in getting the good grades that it strives for, and allows us to succeed in the world of school. But its hidden agenda is to make sure we are never seen as dumb, so that the “not smart” exile is never exposed with all its painful feelings. So we end up feeling driven to succeed, always anxious that we won’t, and do not really enjoy our success. When such managers run our lives, we may enjoy a great deal of success, but there is often a feeling of emptiness about our achievements.
These are the parts of us that do whatever it takes, no matter how extreme, to suppress overwhelming emotions.
These protectors act like their namesake—in other words, they see a “fire” of emotion about to erupt, and rush to the emergency on red alert, sirens blazing, to douse the fire before it takes over and destroys us. They are often quite extreme, and can cause a lot of trouble for us.
A typical example of a firefighter is an addicted part. That addicted part will do almost anything, no matter how irrational or even illegal, to access the substance or activity it needs to keep the exile’s feelings from erupting into consciousness. When we are in the grip of a firefighter, we often feel like a person possessed.
Protectors that distract us or blank us out are also firefighters. In this case the sirens may be silent, but the action is just as strong and sudden. For example, these firefighters allow us to dissociate so that we are no longer present, or they suddenly blank us out so that we completely lose our train of thought. Or they may fog us out or bring in lots of distracting thoughts so that we can no longer focus.
But however extreme or difficult our protectors, it’s important to remember that they always have our good at heart. They are doing their very best to help us in the only way they know how. Once we can truly acknowledge them for the good they try to achieve, they start to relax, become less extreme, and can even transform into true, valuable and appropriate support for us.
The Self is our own inner healer.
She is the “part” of us that is not a part, the part of us that is whole. She is healthy, wise, compassionate, curious, kind, calm and connected. The wonderful news is that, no matter how wounded or dysfunctional you feel you are, you have a Self. Everyone does.
The therapist’s job is to help you disentangle yourself from your parts and access your Self. Your therapist can also be a backup Self when you are having trouble finding your own. She’s the part of us that is able to connect, with love, interest and respect, to all our protectors and exiles, one by one, and heal them. In this way she heals us by healing our inner system of parts. The parts can then let go of their destructive and limited roles. They can enter into a harmonious collaboration, at her service and led by her.
Self is the true captain of our soul.
When we are Self-led, we are no longer merged with our parts. We no longer react to the world as our parts, but from a place of seeing what is actually happening. We see the truth with interest, compassion and openness to ourselves and others.
The Self is the spiritual part of who we are, but it isn’t necessary to recognise her underlying nature to access her healing qualities. She will work through us and for us no matter what we conceive her to be. In this way, IFS can provide the whole range of healing, from psychological healing to spiritual development.
Once the parts have relaxed, all the skills and intelligence that they were hiding, or using to protect us, become available to the Self. She takes on all her rightful capacities and grows ever stronger, deeper, wiser and more joyful. This allows us to grow, not just psychologically, but also spiritually, coming Home to the radiant, peaceful beings that we truly are.
IFS aims to restore the Self to her natural place as leader of our life.
When she leads and guides us, there is a sense of inner harmony, and we find that our lives are working as they should. She is the natural leader of our internal system.
However, because of wounding incidents or relationships in the past, protectors have stepped in. They do this because at those times, the Self was overwhelmed, and was not able maintain her role of compassionate holding of the wounded parts. In her absence, various protectors appear. One protector after another is activated and takes over the system, but in protecting us, they also cause harm and dysfunction. These protectors are also frequently in conflict with each other, resulting in internal stuckness and confusion.
To allow the Self to take her rightful place, two things need to happen. The protectors need to stop running the show. They need to come to trust the Self so they can allow her to lead. And the exiles need to be healed so that the old role of the protectors is no longer needed.
The Self is naturally compassionate and curious, and can approach our protectors with kindness and interest. This allows the protectors to feel safe in telling us who they are, what exile they are trying to protect us from, and how they are doing that. As a protector feels that its concerns and its protective role has been truly heard and appreciated, it stops barring us from the exile. It relaxes, becomes softer, and steps aside. It allows the Self to become the true protector.
With the protector’s permission, we are then able to make contact with the exile. We never start work with an exile until we have permission from all its protectors. This makes IFS a very respectful, safe method of therapy, even when working with trauma. The exile will usually tell you or show you the particular childhood situation that created its painful feelings. If those feelings are still overwhelming, the exile will always pull back to give you more space and time to get to know it.
It is contact with the Self and the holding that she provides that starts to heal the exile. The emotional burden it is carrying starts to dissolve, and the exile, freed of its burden, transforms into a naturally playful and carefree child. It is no longer stuck in its painful past. Now that the exile is no longer in pain, its protector can fully let go of its protective role and assume a healthy one. It will often transform into a true, wise protector who is now willingly in the service of the Self. The Self then becomes our true internal protector, guiding us through life with her wisdom, kindness, connectedness, peace and calm.
This section gives an overview of the typical healing process using IFS therapy.
The journey of healing usually starts when we notice that we are acting or reacting in a way that seems out of synch with what’s actually happening, and it’s causing problems in our life.
The first step is to invite the troublesome part to come forward into our awareness. This part may show up as an image, a memory, a body sensation, an emotion or words in our head.
Once our target part has started to appear, we then need to check how we feel towards it. Given that this part has been causing us a lot of trouble, we often have feelings of anger or rejection towards it. However, just like a real person, this part will not feel inclined to tell us more about itself until we clear the rejection. So our next step is to ask the rejecting parts to step back, or find out what they might need to feel OK about doing so.
Once the rejectors have stepped back, we check again how we feel towards the original troublesome part. If we still feel rejecting in some way, we simply repeat the process to clear whatever other rejecting or blocking parts are present. Once we have cleared all rejecting parts, what is left will be Self. At that point, we are “in Self”. We feel interested, open and curious towards the target part.
Once in Self, we invite the target part to tell us more about itself. As we ask questions and it gives us more information, we usually come to understand that this part is a protector who is doing its best to protect a particular exile. Once we are clear on how and why it has been doing this, we acknowledge and thank this protector for the job it has been doing.
As the protector feels seen, appreciated and acknowledged, it will usually soften and relax and allow us to connect with the exile it has been protecting.
We then invite the exile forward. It will usually show up as an infant or a young child of a certain age. We ask it to tell us why it’s in distress. What was it that happened at that age that was so overwhelmingly painful? As it tells us what happened, we encourage it to let us know all the feelings it holds about that situation. We let the exile know that we hear them all. This step will usually help the exile relax a great deal as it feels seen and supported.
Then we go to the final step, which is to help the exile let go of the painful feelings that it carries. This is done in a number of different ways, but almost always leads to a wonderful transformation of the exile. Instead of being burdened with pain, it transforms into the carefree, loving, joyful and beautiful child it once was. This is often a touching moment of healing as we experience and understand who we truly are.
When we return to the protector, it can see that the exile is no longer in distress, and that its job is no longer needed. At that point it will often let go of its protective but troubling role. Often its role will transform into one that is genuinely helpful, one where it can take care of us in a true, whole and harmonious way.
So let’s look at an example of this whole process.
Perhaps we notice that our heart feels shut down, unable to give or accept love. So we invite forward the part that is shutting us down, and it shows up as an image of a wall around our heart. Let’s call that part the Heart Protector.
When we check how we feel towards the Heart Protector, we notice that part of us (the Angry One) is angry at the Heart Protector, because it cuts us off from love. But rather than going along with the rejecting agenda of the Angry One, we can let it know that it makes sense to us that it is angry. Of course it is angry at the Heart Protector for shutting down our heart! As it feels understood, almost magically it relaxes and is willing to step back.
As it does, we return to Self. We notice that we feel loving and curious towards the Heart Protector. This allows it to feel safe to come forward again and let us get to know it.
We discover that the Heart Protector arose at a time when we were quite young, and one of our parents really pulled back from us due to emotional difficulties of their own. We felt painfully rejected and unloved, and those difficult feelings lodged in our heart. We come to understand that the Heart Protector has been protecting us from the pain of an Unloved Exile by walling off the pain. We acknowledge and appreciate how the Heart Protector has been working so hard to keep us from pain. As we do that it relaxes and is willing to step back and let us get to know the Unloved Exile.
As Self, we can then start healing this Unloved Exile. We ask it share all its painful feelings of hurt, grief and fear, and we let it know that we hear and understand. Once all the feelings have been witnessed, the emotional burden may spontaneously dissolve, but if it doesn’t, we find a way that will allow it to be lifted.
The Unloved Exile then transforms into the natural, happy, playful and loveable child it once was.
Now that this exile is no longer in pain, we no longer need to be protected from it, and the Heart Protector sees that it can completely let go. The wall dissolves, and the protector transforms into true protection for our heart, a true protector who can offer true help when needed. It may decide to take on the new role of quietly checking out others to help us determine whether or not it is actually wise to be openhearted with a particular person. We can then be truly open hearted when we are with people who are safe, or have appropriate heart boundaries when we are not. But what is important is that we now have a choice, rather than always having that wall whether we want it or not, or whether or not it’s useful.
Once the Heart Protector has transformed into a true helper, there’s no longer any need to be angry with it, and we find that the Angry part has disappeared completely.
Thus the healing of the exile is also the ultimate healing of all the protectors associated with it.
And as the exiles heal, the Self gains access to their original qualities of spontaneity, love, joy and curiosity. As our protectors transform, the Self can take on their intelligence, wisdom and true help.
The ultimate goal of IFS is actually twofold—to heal and relax all our parts, and to strengthen our Self. The Self can then become the leader of our soul, and the wise presence that we truly are.
You can access more information about IFS at the official website, ifs-institute.com
I also highly recommend the following books:
- Self Therapy. A Step by Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing your Inner Child using IFS, by Jay Earley A very user-friendly book which offers clear, simple explanations of basic IFS theory and many real-life examples of this method in action. It also offers a multitude of step-by-step self-help exercises. I recommend this book to all my new clients.
- Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model, by Richard Schwartz A broad and thoughtful overview of the basic theory, and how it came to be, by its founder, Richard Schwartz.
- The Mosaic Mind. Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors, by Regina Goulding & Richard Schwartz A fascinating and detailed account of the healing of an abuse survivor using IFS therapy. It shows how the theory is put into practice, including session transcripts and the client’s journal entries. An illuminating and moving account that speaks to both therapists and trauma survivors.
- Internal Family Systems Therapy, by Richard Schwartz Written for therapists, this is a scholarly approach to using IFS with many examples taken from actual sessions. It includes sections on the therapist-client relationship, different techniques for working with parts, and using this approach with multicultural families.