Internal Family Systems (IFS)

People often make reference to “a part of me.” We say things like, “One part of me wants to go on vacation and another part of me wants to work hard, get recognition, and make a lot of money.” Richard Schwartz and others combined family therapy concepts with this concept of parts and created a new approach to therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS categorizes the parts into the Self, managers, exiles, and firefighters.


The Self is a centered, compassionate, curious, confident, and respectful part of us. Ideally, the Self is the leader. It helps the parts come into balance with compassion and kindness.


Managers direct day-to-day activities and long range planning. They get us to work. They perform at work and in life.


Exiles experience emotional pain. They get triggered. They react and flood us with unmanageable emotions. They are kept in exile (metaphorically, in the basement), to prevent them from taking over and doing harm.


Firefighters prevent the exiles from breaking out of exile from that metaphorical basement. Sometimes firefighters take over and engage in negative behaviors to prevent exiles from overwhelming us. Negative behaviors can include bingeing and suicidal ideation.


Managers, exiles, and firefighters can have dysfunctional patterns. For example, we might have a hypercritical manager whose purpose is to motivate us to work harder but who makes us feel badly. When it is triggered, an exile might have a pattern of taking over and exploding with anger. A firefighter might fear an exile’s explosion and pre-emptively take over to prevent the exile from scaring everybody. Consequently, the firefighter might take over and binge eat a quart of Ben & Jerry’s in order to feel some sweetness in life and stuff the emotions.


In IFS, we identify parts and explore their needs, motivations, and patterns. We discover how the parts interact with each other. We help the Self become a compassionate, strong leader. If a part is stuck in the past, we bring that part up to date. When parts have a better understanding of themselves and each other, when they are up to date about our present lives then they can develop better relationships with each other. The end result is a harmonious relationship between the parts and a Self that leads.


Schwartz, Richard 1995. Internal Family Systems Therapy,page 85. New York: Guilford Press.
Internal family systems is an area of interest for me.