Understanding Internal Family Systems – Part 1

My granddaughter looked thoughtful. She took more time than I thought a 5-year-old would take to answer the question “What’s your favorite movie?” I shouldn’t have been surprised. This girl thinks things through.

“I’m ready Papa. I know my favorite.”

I waited. “So, which one is it?”

“I just love “Inside Out”. Don’t you? It is so beautiful and I like that the girl has all the same parts inside her that I do. Can we watch it now?”

And so we watched it. “Inside Out” tells the story of a young teen girl. It charts her progress since the moment she was born. The movie shows her brain and how various parts of her psyche (Anger, Fear, Disgust, Joy, and Sadness etc.) develop and create relationships even with each other.

One reason I love the movie is that it serves as a great starting place for discussions on a therapy method I love called Internal Family Systems.

Internal Family Systems is part of a larger branch of psychology called Complex Systems Psychology. The basic idea is that our inner psyche is a complex amalgam of Parts, Structures, and Systems all designed to move us toward our full identity.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) focuses on how the Parts of a person’s psyche work together, much like the various characters in “Inside Out” relate to each other. In this article, I want to introduce you to those Parts and explain how each of them works. In subsequent articles we will address more of the problems which IFS seeks to help with.

The very basic idea of IFS is the concept that most people initially struggle with: That our sense of personal identity is not just one part, but is a multiplicity of various sub-personalities or Parts. When I tell people that, they assume I am saying that these Parts are all fully formed personalities with Ego Power equal to all the other Parts. But this is not true. Let me illustrate.

Have you ever been thinking of doing something and then another part of your thinking totally disagrees with that? And then, in the midst of those competing thoughts, a third thought–more an emotion–reacts to the ideas of the second thought. If we were just one Part, we would always think in a straight line. But our sub-conscious contains many opinions and reactions to the events and ideas of our lives. These opinions and reactions are some of what we in IFS call Parts.

To make it simple as possible, let me outline the four basic Parts that make up our psyche:

The Core Self: This is the decision-making part of our mind. It is the part of us that makes the final designation on what our true identity is. This is the only Part of us that really knows the entire breadth of our life to that point. This is where all the wisdom, knowledge, and experience is centered.

Many sacred writings, including the Bible, Koran, and Baghavad Gita call this Part our Heart. It truly is the heart of who we are and will be. But it is not the only Part.

Exiles: IFS is one of the therapies which believes in Ego States. An Ego State is a snapshot of who we are at any given age. We have a 6-year-old Ego State, another one at 7 and maybe another one a few months later. We are constantly evaluating who we are as we grow up. At significant moments of existential examination, we conclude “This is who I am”.

If those moments coincide with pain, loss, abuse, or injustice–as they often do–we develop a very reactive Ego State that IFS calls an Exile. These Parts are called Exiles because they represent events and emotions we never want to relive in any way. In fact, the entire Internal Family System from those moments forward exists to keep the Exiles quiet.

Let me give an example. A five year old boy witnesses his parents fighting more and more. Each day, he comes home from school wondering what horrible emotions he will feel because of their fights. Already, he is feeling chaotic emotions. He fears the disintegration of his home. He is angry at both of them for not loving each other. One day, he returns home from school and he witnesses the biggest fight of all.

At one point, Mom demands that Dad leaves the home. Dad screams at her and hits her. Then, he grabs his coat and runs out the door. The boy is left with an explosive mixture of emotions and ideas that are overwhelming. He will spend the next two years pondering what all of this means.

But at that moment, he decides one thing. It must be his fault! His 5-year-old brain takes all the evidence and reactions and this is what he comes up with. It is not accurate at all, but this is what he concludes. He doesn’t tell anyone of course. He is too ashamed to do so. But he still believes it. And that’s when this little boy develops a Part which represents the third group of Parts: The Managers.

The Managers: Managers are Parts whose job it is to keep the Exiles from reacting to any current events. To see how this works, let’s return to the little boy again.

He doesn’t like feeling that this is all his fault. So he develops a Part of his psyche–a Manager–who will remind him when he is about to make a huge mistake that will cause other people to get angry and leave. We might call this Manager a “Perfectionist” or maybe even “Shame” or “Obsessive-Compulsive”. Any of these Managers might accomplish the task of keeping that Exile from getting emotionally reactive.

Here is how this works out in adult life. This 5-year-old has grown up and is now married with kids. One of his sons is doing poorly at school. His wife simply suggests the two of them spend more time helping their son with his homework each night, perhaps taking turns.

At that moment, the 5-year-old Exile inside of him starts to react. She is saying that this is his fault, and he is not doing his job as a dad and the boy will be a failure in life because of it. He feels all of this in just a fraction of a second.

Immediately, a “Perfectionist” Manager jumps in to save the day. This Manager takes over and causes him to become obsessive about planning out the homework program. He buys a new desk for his son. He creates a very elaborate chart for homework which includes rewards and punishments. He buys four books for his Kindle on how to manage homework with elementary students.

And now, the Exile quiets down. The Manager has done his job. Unfortunately, the Core Self was not really involved in any part of this process.

Some IFS therapists call the Managers by a different name. They call them Protectors. This is mostly an accurate term. Most of our internal Managers are trying to help protect us from the real and perceived threats in our world. I prefer Managers because Protectors is only one role of these Parts. There are many others.

There are indeed Protector Parts

There are also Shame and Guilt Parts

There are Anxiety Parts. (Some people have lots of them).

Most people have Anger Parts

These are the more negative Managers. But we also have more positive Managers. We have parts that deal with our relationship needs (Sex, romance, communication skills). We have Parts that deal with other needs (achievements, freedom, fun).

There can be Healing Parts, Numbing Parts, Hero Parts, and Spiritual Parts

But for all their well-designed characteristics, the Managers are sometimes not enough. Let me give an example.

Let’s stay with the man whose parents split up when he was five. Let’s talk about another time in his marriage. Let’s say that his wife, when she gets angry, calls him a name that his mother used to call his father. The Exile of that age is apoplectic and out of control. The Managers that normally can keep this Exile out of sight can’t do the job any longer. This Exile is setting fire to the emotional center of the man’s mind. He can’t sleep at night. He can’t concentrate at work. He doesn’t know what he will do.

After work one day, his supervisor asks what is happening with him. His work performance is suffering. The two of them decide to go to the bar after work. After three beers, for the first time in weeks, he no longer hears the crying of the Exile inside. He is no longer in a constant turmoil. He likes the difference.

From that point on, every time this Exile gets out of hand, he drinks enough so he won’t have to hear that Exile any longer. Alcohol then becomes the next type of Part in the psyche.

The Firefighters: Firefighters are Parts we develop whose job is to calm down the entire Internal Family System when the Managers can’t do the job. Firefighters have one job: Distract the entire system so thoroughly that the Core Self cannot hear the Exile.

It is amazing how ingenious the brain is at creating these Firefighters. The distraction can be as simple as video games, eating more carbs, watching television or working out hard at the gym. It can be more advanced with actions like drinking too much, smoking too much weed, working too hard into the night, watching porn constantly, or bingeing on carbs.

Firefighters can be deadly. They may resort to harmful behaviors like self-harm, eating disorders, heavy drug use, unsafe and adrenaline-producing behaviors, complete dissociative shutdowns, and extreme violence toward others. Remember, the job of the Firefighter Part is to distract the Core Self when the pain of the Exile cannot be ignored any other way.

I think you can see if a person has Exiles who were abused sexually, physically, or emotionally that Firefighters can be quite common. And they are. Often, people come to the IFS therapist because they have a Firefighter problem. All that tells us is there are Exiles that need some loving.

In summary, here are the four main groups of Parts with each person:

Core Self

Exiles

Managers

Firefighters.

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