If you’ve been around our clinic or our social media pages, there’s a good chance you’ve heard us talk about IFS, which stands for Internal Family Systems and can also be called “parts work.” Despite the name, IFS has nothing to do with family dynamics; it has to do with the various parts that make up who you are.
What are the Parts of IFS?
If you Google IFS and read descriptions, it can seem very…weird. That’s why I’d like to explain IFS in more practical terms and discuss how our therapists use it with our clients to identify past hurts and eliminate the shame around those hurts to bring about peace.
In IFS work, there are several metaphorical parts. The first part is the Self. This part is who we were designed to be; it’s pure, it’s joyful, and it’s peaceful. It is not burdened by circumstances. A well-regulated Self is the end result of IFS therapy.
The second part in IFS is the Exile. This part is located deep inside our brain and is typically a very young version of ourselves who experienced abuse, neglect, or hurt. Exiles are often “encapsulated and entangled,” meaning they’re a template we have formed through our experiences. If you did not feel heard when you were a small child or felt like your opinions didn’t matter, each time you feel that way throughout the rest of your life, it reinforces that template. We innately try to hide our Exile in an effort to protect them from further pain.
Which brings us to the third part: the Manager. This part is a protector and wants to be in control so the Exile doesn’t ever have to feel additional shame, pain, or fear. For our small child, the Manager may express itself in becoming an overachiever in life. If no one truly listened to your thoughts or feelings as a small child, you may feel inherently unworthy, and therefore, you will try your hardest to prove yourself worthy of being heard as an adult.
And lastly, we have the Firefighters who take action when the world breaks through our defenses and puts the Exile at risk. Their job is also to protect the Exile by stopping the proverbial fire at any cost. Taking the same analogy of the little child who didn’t feel heard and became an overachiever later in life, the Firefighter will show up when there is failure or pain and no one seems to care. A Firefighter may express itself in destructive yet self-soothing behaviors like binge eating because the behavior numbs the pain for the Exile.
What about IFS for those with sexual addiction?
Because we work with a lot of people with problematic sexual behaviors, let’s look at another example of IFS in that context. A boy who was sexually abused as a child will feel a lot of shame and neglect from not getting his basic attachment needs met–he was not provided with consistent felt safety and love during his developmental years. Because of this, he may choose to occasionally escape to the fantasy world of porn to keep the Exile at bay or reduce the shame of his abuse. But when the world breaks through those defenses and there is trouble in a trusted, romantic relationship, he will likely binge porn with erratic and desperate energy in an attempt to dull the extreme pain.
IFS is a helpful way to conceptualize our human experience. And IFS therapy is extremely gentle even though we’re dealing with heavy topics, and we often feel the strong emotions in our body.
When thinking of your Exile, you may feel like you’ve been punched in the gut or a weight is sitting on your shoulders, but you can tell the Exile that you are aware of them, they’re not in trouble, and you’re not mad. By acknowledging the Exile, they will feel seen and can tell you what they want you to know. And when the Exile is taken care of, the Managers and Firefighters will de-escalate, and the Self can gain control.
What Happens when the Self is in Control?
When the Self is in control, we experience the 8 Cs and 5 Ps of IFS:
When the parts are identified, named, and unmeshed with the help of your therapist, you will feel systemic and lasting relief; you will begin to feel Calmer (a sense of physiological and mental calm). You may feel like you have room to breathe for the first time.
Problematic parts can be addressed with Patience and Confidence (trusting that you are safe, no matter what transpires). You will have the ability to Connect (a growing sense of connectedness to those around us) and feel Curiosity (innocent interest in people, their reactions, and the world around us) towards your parts, rather than judgment, fear, or disdain. The Self will make its Presence known.
Once the parts are able to share their reasoning for their behaviors, you will have Clarity (the ability to perceive situations without distortion from extreme beliefs and emotions) and a newfound sense of Compassion (the ability to see behind others’ anger or distancing and learn about the hurt they are protecting). And rooted in that Compassion, your Self will be able to show incredible Courage (honestly acknowledging the damage we do to others and making amends) to help the other parts heal thanks to its Creativity (wisely coming up with solutions to long-standing problems), Persistence, and Perspective, which leads to a Playfulness within the parts.
I could go on to talk about how IFS and Brainspotting are especially effective when employed together, but I’ll save that for next time. If you’d like to identify and heal your inner parts so that your true, joyful, and peaceful Self can be in control, please contact us. We’d love to be a part of your story.
The Finding Place Counseling and Recovery is located in Little Rock, Arkansas. Our therapists offer both secular and Christian counseling for children, teens, and their families. Contact us to schedule a session or book an intensive.