What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

IFS is a cool therapeutic modality that theorizes that the “mind is multiple”. Through understanding your inner “parts” and how they interact with each other you are able to heal many different psychological stressors/disorders through a type of “strengths-based” internal collaboration.

The whole idea is that you can control your internal system by understanding what different parts of you may want and using a collaborative approach to their synergizing with each other. Still interested? Let’s dive deeper!

Personality Parts Overview

In order to best understand your parts and how they interact with each other, it is important to learn their roles. IFS has termed 4 distinct part roles in every person as follows.


Your fearless leader of your internal system in IFS is your Self. The capital ‘S’ is to denote that the Self is the overseer of the system and has all of the tools for it to run perfectly and smooth.

Your access to your Self is usually determined by your therapist and you based on your ability to feel or connect to the 8 ‘Cs’:


The more of these ‘Cs’ you can access the better access to your Self you have. The more access to your Self you have, the more control over your internal system you have. This in turn means that you are a more psychologically healthy person!


To put it simply, exiles are “big feelings” that our bodies hold that are often times highly distressing to feel. They can come in forms of deep-seated anger, sadness, or fear usually relating to an experience or burden of our past of some sort. Exiles are usually parts of you that want to be heard and fulfilled in some way. As a result of this, they tend to speak up–which can come in the form of many of those “big feelings”.

Have you ever heard of the term “child-self”? Not in every case, but often times child-selves show up as exiles in IFS therapy. The idea of an exile is that there is a part of you that is trying to be heard and acts in a way so that it will be heard or felt by your internal system in response to a burden they are carrying that is being set off by something outside or inside of the system. Exiles really are the drivers of big emotions with their interactions with other parts.


While you have exiles hanging around your system with big feelings, you also may have managers who are trying to block those feelings because they are “too big”. In this way, managers do exactly what they sound like–they manage exiles. Often times they do not manage exiles in healthy ways, but at any cost to keep your system in balance.

Managers can come in the form of self-deprecating thoughts or any negative belief about yourself or your ability to handle certain situations effectively. What we use to figure out what a manager is for you is why are you having this thought or feeling? In many cases you have negative thoughts about yourself to keep you from going into another thought deeper, exposing the exile and potentially putting the system out of balance with their big feelings.

Complicated, right? Not as much as you would think. After sitting with this, you will find that many experiences you have had in your life can follow a manager trying to keep your system in balance by blocking out an exile. But it doesn’t end there.


Like the others, firefighters attempt to keep the system in balance. However, firefighters like to use the “avoidance” strategy. Substance use, avoidant behaviors, or avoidant beliefs usually show up as firefighters.

The idea is that they are trying to “put out the fire” using a coping skill of some sort, negative or not, to keep the system in balance. Is it easier to think about and truly process a trauma that happened to you and come to terms with it or to use alcohol every night to cope and avoid thinking about it? In the here and now, firefighters would tend to go for the alcohol.

You can see the problem with relying too much on these types of skills for balance. The important thing to remember is that every part’s intentions for your system are positive in nature and they are using the tools they have to keep you in balance. It is your Self’s responsibility to regain control through acknowledging the others and using their strengths to keep the system in balance long-term as opposed to using negative coping skills for the “here and now”.

How IFS can Work for You

Of all the great aspects of IFS therapy, my belief is that its greatest aspect is its ability to promote insight. Your ability to connect with your ‘Self’ is directly related to your level of insight into your emotions. The more you learn about your exiles, managers, and firefighters the better you can know yourself and your tendencies, which is a core competency of psychotherapy.

So what are you waiting for? Even without a therapist you can begin the journey of Self-discovery simply by labeling these parts as they show up in your life. Of course, everything is always better with a therapist. Just a little biased opinion there for ya.

If you are wanting a hand in exploring your internal system via online mental health counseling, feel free to reach out using my contact form!



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