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"Welcoming All Parts": An Introduction to IFS

In Western society, we have largely been taught to think of the psyche as a “mono-mind.” If we’ve been conditioned to see ourselves through this limited lens, we can feel deep distress if our behavior (or that of others) doesn’t align with our ideal. But what if we were to challenge this monolithic view? IFS (Internal Family Systems) invites us to do just that. 

Developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz (author of “No Bad Parts”), IFS recognizes that our psyche is actually composed of a system of subpersonalities, or “parts”, as Schwartz calls them. These parts serve different roles and can sometimes cause us to act in ways that may seem unhelpful or limiting at first glance. 

Upon closer inspection, IFS teaches us to see that all of our parts are trying to help us in the best way they know how. It’s just that some of them are going about it in a way that is outdated or self-limiting. 

According to IFS, our personality is not a mono-mind, but rather consists of three primary components: The Self, Protectors, and Exiles. Let’s explore…

The Self is who we really are at our core. It is that unchanging, wise essence that we can tap into at any time--but which can feel hard to access when we are in states of fear or trauma. We know that we are in “Self-Energy” when we experience what Schwartz refers to as “The 8 C’s”: Clarity, Compassion, Caring, Courage, Curiosity, Calm, Creativity, and Connection. The primary goal of IFS is to increase the amount of time we are in Self Energy (also called being “Self-Led.”)

Why is staying in Self Energy such a challenge? Examining the roles of Exiles and Protectors will help provide some answers….

Exiles are the parts of us that have been wounded in the past. Because of the tremendous pain they experienced due to this wounding, our psyche works very hard to make sure they are not hurt again. To do that, it locks the Exiles away in the basement of our consciousness and creates parts called Protectors. These Protectors can take on one of two roles to do their job: they can act as Managers, who are proactive and go about the business of running our day-to-day life. Examples of Managers could include an Achieving Part, a Care-Taking Part, a People Pleasing Part, or a Harsh Critic. If, however, we do end up re-experiencing the pain of our Exiles, a second type of manager steps up: The Firefighter. Firefighters are reactive parts that use numbing and distracting devices to keep us from feeling pain. Examples of possible Firefighters include Workaholic Parts, Reactive Parts, and Alcoholic Parts. 

A helpful image to visualize IFS parts is that of a house. We can think of “the Living Room” as the place where the part that is currently active in our psyche shows up, and “The Basement” as the place where dormant parts stay hidden, waiting to be called into action by a stressor, the threat of a stressor, or a perceived need. “The Self” is always present (we might picture it as a little circle at the very center), but depending on which parts come into the living room, we may or may not be able to access and lead with Self Energy. 

If the goal of IFS is to increase the amount of time we are in Self Energy, how, exactly, do we do this? We begin by taking the time to really see and get to know our parts. When a trigger comes up, instead of being upset, we get curious. Schwartz calls these triggers “Trailheads”, because if we are willing to follow them where they lead, they will teach us--and free us to be more Self-led. 

Ideally, as we get to know our parts, we can find out what motivates them and how they are trying to help us. As we gain their trust, we can help them to see that there may be a better way to accomplish what they’ve been working so hard to do. In fact, they may want another role in our system entirely. We can also learn to speak on behalf of our parts, rather than becoming blended with (and activated by) a triggered part that has “entered the living room.” 

There are a number of great books that can be used to embark on the journey of IFS “Parts Work.” Here are a handful of my favorites: 

~No Bad Parts (Richard Schwartz)

~You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For (Richard Schwartz)

~Introduction to Internal Family Systems (Richard Schwartz)

~Self Therapy (Jay Earley)

~Self Therapy Workbook (Bonnie J. Weiss)

~We All Have Parts (Colleen West)

~Parts Work (Tom & Lauri Holmes)

IFS work can be powerful, and sometimes challenging, work. Many times it can be helpful to have an IFS therapist to support you along this path--I have certainly benefited from working with mine. The IFS Institute Directory has a list of IFS certified practitioners, which can be filtered by geographic area. Check it out here:

Using IFS principles in my own life has been a wonderful way to bring in more compassion, gratitude, and space for all the parts that show up day to day. I’ve also found that IFS changes the way we relate to others when they (or we!) are triggered. It helps us to see the good intentions and common humanity that reside in each of us, if we are just willing to look a bit more deeply. 

Imagine a world where all of us had the tools to be Self-led more of the time--and to nurture and speak on behalf of parts that were triggered. By learning and sharing IFS, I believe we take a step toward creating such a world. 

Wishing you peace and cohesion amongst all of your “parts”! 


~Abby Ampuja

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