Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems Therapy Self Help Articles

Internal Family Systems Therapy is a therapeutic approach that views the mind through the lens of multiplicity. Internal Family Systems believes that although we are a whole person, we are made up of different parts that can sometimes take on extreme roles and/or become in conflict with one another. Internal Family Systems views the parts of self as an inner family, trying to get along and help us to cope, and trying to assist us in making choices. We’ve all said it before, “part of me wants to stay with my partner, and another part of me wants to leave”. Or, “part of me is being kind to myself, and another part is being critical!” Having different parts of yourself does not mean there is anything wrong with you, it’s a perfectly normal process, as we are such complex creatures. However, having conflicting inner experiences can be challenging. Internal Family Systems Therapy is a helpful tool in understanding, and harmonizing your inner world.

Using Internal Family Systems therapy, your therapist will guide you through an experience that will help you to get to know the different parts of yourself instead of pushing them away or deeming them as “bad”. You will build up a tolerance to sit with challenging parts of self, and learn about how they’ve come to be. Perhaps some parts came to be due to a traumatic event, and they feel the need to pre-emptively protect you against danger. Your traumatized part is on the lookout for danger in order to keep you from being hurt again. However, it’s likely that the part is working too hard, making it difficult to relax when no danger is present. The Internal Family Systems approach is not purely talk therapy, but more like a meditation guided by your therapist that invites the different parts of yourself to be understood, to speak and ultimately to be befriended. Internal Family Systems theory also views “the Self” through a kind of spiritual lens. “The Self” is our core, true self that operates with compassionate wisdom, and who knows how to lead us to more inner harmony. You can view the Self as something strong, unscathed, protected and less negatively affected by life experiences. In IFS, the Self wants to be in a leadership role, leading your internal family system with courage and compassion. When parts of us are understood, held and harmonized, the Self can lead.

Who Can Benefit from Internal Family Systems?

The Internal Family Systems approach can be used to treat personality disorders, trauma, complex trauma, depression, anxiety, addiction, relationship issues and can even be used as a tool in couples counseling. Internal Family Systems can also be used in conjunction with somatic therapy, a form of therapy that focuses on healing through the body-mind connection. IFS is also used in play therapy with children, and can be used with teens. It can be incorporated and used with art therapy and creative interventions. IFS can be used to help with medical conditions and chronic pain, in addition to getting treated by your doctor.

The Belief in Good Reason

Internal Family Systems is a non-pathologizing approach that views parts of self, their actions and emotional states as existing for good and valid reasons. An example of this would be “the inner critic.” At first we might see this part of ourselves as if it exists only to make our life harder, but upon careful exploration, we find that it exists because at one point in our lives we needed it to “keep us in line.” Therefore, the existence of the inner critic may be to help protect us from “messing up.” However, it still hurts that we have the internal experience of negative self-talk, and we may no longer need the inner-criticism in order to succeed. The belief in good reason can apply to all parts of self, and can often apply to behaviors that we act out. This is not to make an excuse for harmful behavior, but just to explain that we usually do what we do for a reason. Internal Family Systems is a compassionate, humanitarian approach to understanding the person as a whole while lessening shame and suffering.

The Different Parts in Internal Family Systems

Internal Family Systems understands parts through the use of two distinct categories. Because the parts are complex, they often have their own opinions and motives, which can give rise to inner conflict. We can even refer to parts as sub-personalities. This language may be off-putting if you’re not familiar with the theory, but once you start exploring parts of self, it’s amazing how much complex information they end up revealing. In the therapeutic process, the therapist always starts by helping you get acquainted with your protectors.

  1. Protectors

Protectors in Internal Family Systems are the parts of ourselves that develop to protect us from danger and discomfort. Protectors can develop when we are very young, and can often have problem-solving skills that are akin to the developmental age of which they came to be. Protectors come in two forms: managers and firefighters. Protectors often exist to protect the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, which are referred to as “Exiles” in Internal Family Systems. Protectors exist to try and help keep you safe, but they can also unknowingly, and unintentionally cause problems.

Managers are protective parts that tend to be proactive. They often plan in advance and strategize to ensure we are safe. An example of a manager would be a part that shuts you down when you’re around new people. This might be due to the fact that when you were young, opening up to people caused you pain and suffering, or you were rejected as a child. The manager is trying to keep you safe by staying to yourself, shutting down and going inward. However, then you might have a harder time making friends or feelings at ease in public settings.

Firefighters are protectors that tend to act quickly and be more reactive. They come in once danger has already been perceived. An example of a firefighter is the part of someone that drinks alcohol in times of extreme stress. By drinking alcohol, the part is attempting to protect you from becoming overwhelmed, or perhaps it’s trying to help you to calm down. However, when that becomes the go to coping mechanism, other problems can ensue. The firefighter means well, but it can still cause problems in someone’s life. By interacting directly with this part of self, we can begin to understand it and work with it, and find other jobs that it can do.

  1. Exiles are parts of self that are extremely vulnerable. We can view exiles as vulnerable children, or parts of us that feel fragile, and unable to cope well with life. Exiles may be parts of ourselves that were directly affected by trauma. We often try to lock up our most vulnerable parts, and protectors come in to keep them from being untouched and unbothered. The issue is that when we leave the vulnerable parts of ourselves locked up, we don’t get to nurture them back to health, and release any trauma they are holding. We may also get lost in compulsive behaviors, like drinking alcohol excessively to keep them at bay.

When working with an Internal Family Systems therapist, you will become well acquainted with the parts of yourself that are in protection mode, and you will come to understand what it is they are protecting. Ultimately, through that acknowledgement, you will be able to safely get closer to the exiled parts of self, and be able to release them. You will also be able to release your protective parts from their extreme duties, and re-enlist them as helpers. It’s not uncommon in IFS treatment for the inner-critic to turn into the inner-cheerleader.

The Concept of “Self” in Internal Family Systems

Because Internal Family Systems is a unique approach, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of its concepts. When we speak of “Self” in Internal Family Systems, we are talking about an aspect of ourselves that is unscathed. The concept of Self is not far off from how eastern spirituality views the core self as an essence, or a witness. IFS views the Self as the most qualified leader of our minds and hearts and a goal of Internal Family Systems therapy is to help the Self lead. The Self is not something that a scientist can find under a microscope and measure, but it’s something that’s observed by therapists and researchers. And for many people, it changes the way we think about who we really are.

The Qualities of The Self

“The 8 C’s”

In addition to increasing self-knowledge and self-compassion, a goal of Internal Family Systems therapy is to help The Self move to the driver’s seat. When getting to know the different parts of self, an Internal Family Systems therapist will aim to help the parts unburden themselves, or work less hard to keep you safe. The therapist might also help you build trust with parts of yourself, so that there can be more harmony within your internal system. In Internal Family Systems therapy you will have a direct experience with the parts of yourself, almost like a gentle interview with the deeper aspects of yourself. When you make contact with parts of self, they learn to trust you. When you build trust with parts, they have the opportunity to let go of their old ways of protecting you and allow you to experience life with more harmony and grace. Ultimately through IFS treatment, your therapist will help you to live more in Self, and be led by your truth, or your core. Below are the qualities of Self. When being in Selfhood, we can experience more of the following states.


We experience life with more curiosity and wonder and less fear. We experience a reduction in anxiety and increase in excitement. We embrace the unknown.


We have more compassion for ourselves and others. We see the world through the eyes of compassion, openness and a willingness to understand.


We see reality as it is, not as we want it to be. We face obstacles head on, we are honest with ourselves about our lives, our relationships and we have a clear direction in how we want them to be.


We feel a willingness and bravery to connect with ourselves and others. We let others see us authentically, and we acknowledge the common ground of humanity.


We express ourselves creatively. Perhaps we embrace art, music or dancing. Or we get creative in our problem-solving skills. We allow ourselves to move freely without judgment.


We feel brave enough to try something new. We tell the truth, we trust ourselves and our ability to thrive in new situations. We change our lives as needed.


We gain the ability to assert ourselves and take up space in the world. We go for our goals.


We feel a sense of calm, self-assuredness, mindfulness and relief in being who we are. We rest in who we are.

Internal Family Systems Treatment at The Center for Growth

Internal Family Systems is on the rise as a popular form of therapy because it works. It is strongly backed by research, and has been shown to help a wide variety of conditions. It goes beyond talk therapy and allows you to have an experience. The very act of turning inward to get to know yourself better is a brave effort. Having the right therapist to help guide you through the process and create safety throughout is something that our therapists can provide. The Center for Growth offers Internal Family Systems Treatment. Call 215- 922 - 5683 x 100 to speak to one of our Internal Family Systems therapists today.