Basic Concepts of IFS Introduction

Adapted from Chapter 1

Self Therapy Workbook by Bonnie Weiss


Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a compassionate, inclusive, spiritual, powerfully healing, and deeply respectful form of psychotherapy. IFS recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called subpersonalities. You can think of them as little people inside us. Each part has its own beliefs, perspective, feelings, memories, goals, intentions, and motivations. For example, one part of you might be trying to exercise and lose weight, and another part might want to watch television and eat whatever it wants to. We can all recognize parts like the Inner Critic, the Abandoned Child, the Pleaser, the Angry Part, and the Loving Caretaker.

Parts have motivations for everything they do. Nothing is done just out of habit. Nothing is just a pattern of thinking or behavior that you learned. Everything (except for purely physiological reactions) is done by a part for a reason, even though that reason may be unconscious. Understanding parts in this way gives you a great deal of power to change your inner system. It means that there is an understandable rationale for your behavior, feelings, and attitudes. It is possible to get to know these parts, develop relationships with them, and help them heal. Once healed, they no longer need to behave in ways that seem at odds with your intentions, values, and goals. The possibility for harmonious integration is real. Richard Schwartz, PhD, in developing the IFS method, discovered that every part has a positive intent for you, no matter how problematic its behavior.

For example, what if you had a part that was judgmental and competitive with other people in a way that was not consistent with your true values. When you really get to know that part, you discover that it’s just trying to help you feel OK about yourself in the only way it knows how, by making you feel superior to others. Understanding that a part has positive intent doesn’t mean that you give the part power. You probably don’t want this part to act out being judgmental and competitive. Using the IFS approach, You can learn to relate to this part with curiosity, understanding, and appreciation, while also taking the steps to unburden and heal it. This approach is fundamentally different from the way we ordinarily relate to our parts. Usually when we become aware of a part, the first thing we do is evaluate it. Is it good or bad for us? If we decide it is good, we embrace it and give it power. If we decide it is bad, we try to suppress it or get rid of it. The truth is, you can’t get rid of a part. You can only push it into the deeper layers of your psyche, where it will continue to affect you without your awareness.

In IFS, we do something altogether different and radical. We welcome all our parts with curiosity and compassion. We seek to understand them and appreciate their efforts to help us. We develop a relationship of caring and trust with each part and then take the steps to release it from its burdens so it can function in a healthy way. In the IFS system, Protectors are the parts you usually encounter first in exploring yourself. Their job is to handle the world, protect you, and keep you functioning. They interact in a reasonable, strategic way with the people, responsibilities, and situations in your environment. The other main function of these parts is to protect you from the pain of the Exiles. These are young child parts that hold the pain from the past. They are generally exiled, or kept out of consciousness, by the Protectors.

In the above example, you had a Protector that was competitive and judgmental toward others. It was trying to help you feel superior in order to protect against an Exile Part that felt inadequate. The Exile Part had probably suffered some kind of shame, humiliation, abandonment, or rejection in the past that left it feeling unworthy. Parts take on these dysfunctional roles because of what has happened to them in the past. Exiles take on pain and burdens from what they experienced as children. Protectors take on their roles in order to protect Exiles or to protect you from the pain of Exiles.