Embracing the Family Within: What is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?

Understanding the Core Self and Healing the Protective and Wounded Inner Parts

From your RAFT Counseling Team

In all families, some things are just predictable. Dad drives the car, Mom schedules the appointments, Grandpa yells at dinner, big brother tells the jokes. Every family is different, but every family member has a role within their system.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy basically says that we—as individuals—function in much of the same way, just internally as a collection of personality bits.

What Is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy?

Under IFS theory, we all have distinct inner “parts” of ourselves. The first is our “core” self, or who we are on the inside—at our core—on a soul level. The others are all protective or wounded inner parts that IFS therapists can help you locate, understand, and heal. 

These parts may embody themselves as outward emotions, reflexive habits, role behaviors, coping responses, etc. Spending years watching yourself behave in ways that feel inauthentic can be frustrating. A partner shows up late for an event and you react explosively like your mother did when you were late as a child. When your partner starts talking to you less, you feel frustrated like you acted unlike yourself. 

Guilt is good. Well, sometimes, we explore that here but generally it’s a sign you want to do better. Shame, however, sticks around and holds you back from growth and forward momentum. Instead of being stuck in shame over the way you acted, IFS extends self-compassion. It asks, “What part of yourself reacted from a wounded place in that moment? How can we heal that part?” 

The next time your trigger—lateness—is tested, your inner part may react differently. The therapeutic aim isn’t to remove the part of yourself that reacted harmfully, but rather befriend, empathize, and connect with it.

Inner Parts vs. Multiple Personalities

People often mention Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) when talking about IFS because IFS assumes, like MPD, that we contain multiple distinct parts of ourself. However, IFS recognizes that all normal, healthy people have inner parts. MPD, on the other hand, is a dissociative disorder that incorporates memory loss, distinct personality shifts, and often intense trauma roots.

The inner parts of IFS often take the shape of one of these three forms:

  • Managers: The inner parts that protect our emotions and assess our surroundings to carefully get through daily life.
  • Exiles: Oftentimes rooted in distressing memories (and consequently, sometimes kept hidden from conscious awareness,) exiles represent the shameful, fear-based parts of ourselves that don’t want to get hurt again.
  • Firefighters: When exile parts do show up, firefighters respond to reduce the harsh feelings associated with them. (Knee-jerk responses to stress like binge eating, substance use, extreme exercise, etc.) 

The “Core” Self

Your “core” self is who you are at your center—the soul part of your personality that makes you… you. It is naturally confident, non-judgmental, loving, and curious. IFS therapists help you make contact with your core self by digging into your values and guiding you toward self-compassion.

From the perspective of the core self, your managers, exiles, and firefighters can all be met with an open-minded curiosity instead of shame and frustration. You’ll know you’re operating from your core self because it’s marked by feeling the eight C’s

  1. Confident
  2. Calm
  3. Creative
  4. Clarity
  5. Curious
  6. Courageous
  7. Compassionate
  8. Connected

And the five P’s:

  1. Present
  2. Patient
  3. Perspective
  4. Persistent
  5. Playful

How Therapists Use IFS 

IFS Therapy has been shown to be effective in treating depression, anxieties and phobias, PTSD, addiction, chronic pain, and boost general well-being. Those with severe mental illnesses (involving psychosis or paranoia), however, are not recommended for this therapy.

Life feels different when you lead from your core self. Ready to hear what yours has to say? Our compassionate and kind therapists at RAFT Counseling would love to connect with you. Please note that at this time, our therapists are not certified in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. That requires very specific training and is regulated by the IFS Institute. However, many of our therapists have completed other trainings in IFS and use it as a modality to support you in reaching your goals when it aligns. Online and in office sessions available in our Parker, Colorado office. Reach out today to get started!

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