Have you ever felt at war with yourself?… as if different pieces of you disagreed and were stirring up trouble. Or maybe you’ve noticed you act or feel differently depending on the people or environment you encounter. According to the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS), those inner battles and differences are influenced by “parts.” We all have smaller parts of us that interact with the world and each other every day. These parts often influence our decision-making, attitude, and how we act in countless situations throughout our days, years, and lives. In IFS Therapy, we get to know the different parts within that may be contributing to difficulties in our lives.
What are Parts?
Parts exist to protect our well-being. These are the good intention pieces within us that have the same goal: protecting us. While every part has our best interests at heart; sometimes they get in the way and do more harm than good. Each type of part has a different role and, while everyone has these parts, not all parts are created equal. We have 3 kinds of parts: Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles.
Our manager parts operate our day to day living by keeping us functional and safe. Think of how a bank manager oversees operations of a local branch. The bank manager checks in with the employees, implements policies, and makes sure customers are happy. Managers take precautions and preemptive measures to prevent disaster.
Managers take different forms. One example of a common manager part is the Planner. This part worries about how prepared we are for a given situation. It maps out our weeks to come, runs through possible scenarios, and comes up with a game plan. As helpful as Planner can be, sometimes it prevents us from living in the present because it’s so focused on next steps.
Firefighter parts are also protectors; but they have a not-so-subtle approach to protection. Essentially, firefighter parts don’t trust our manager parts to do their jobs and when firefighters feel like managers are failing, they leap into action to extinguish the perceived danger. When a firefighter comes to “put out a fire”, it doesn’t care to knock on the door and wait for us to answer; it kicks in the door with hoses and extinguishers at the ready to stop us from being burnt. As long as the fire is out, the firefighter doesn’t mind what state the home is left in.
What does a firefighter look like in the real world? Typically, a firefighter presents itself when emotional pain is difficult to manage and we need an escape. These escapes can come in many forms such as: binges, panic attacks, relapses, spending sprees, etc. What do these all have in common? They offer a distraction and an escape but they leave us with setbacks in the form of a mess to clean up.
The final type of part is the Exile. An exile is a part that our managers and firefighters are trying to protect from exposure. Exiles are innocent parts of us that may have experienced emotional pain or trauma. The last thing our protectors want is for us to relive what the exiles represent, so the protectors work to play defense against possible threats. Protectors are on high alert and may be skeptical or misjudge situations.
So, what kinds of situations might create an exile part? One possibility is an embarrassing experience. Let’s take public speaking, for example. Imagine you had to give a presentation a work. As you present, you stutter over your words, drop your index cards, your voice cracks, and the entire group laughs at you. It’s possible that horrible experience may form an exile and your protector part will take responsibility for you never going through that again. Based on what happened, an Anxious manager part may form that tries to warn you about another potentially embarrassing situation and prevent you from putting yourself in front of an audience. The anxious part is well intentioned to protect your exile from future embarrassment, but that might get in the way of performance in important areas such as school or work.
So, what are we supposed to do with all these parts? Well, parts are just a part of the equation! The IFS Model points to another element of ourselves; a core Self. The Self is described as holding many qualities we would want in a good leader: curious, calm, accepting, confident. We all have a Self and some have more access to it than others; but the goal is to help everyone gain access to and lead with The Self. In order to do that we need to ease the burdens of our protectors through a process called “Unburdening.” Our protectors main problem is trusting our Selves to lead safely. When a therapist engages with parts directly, we build trust with the parts and take off some of that weight of protecting us. We convince our parts that they can trust the Self to lead and our protectors will subsequently loosen their grip on the wheel. The ultimate goal is to help clients to become familiar with parts that are getting in the way, ease the burden of protection felt by those parts, and let the Self shine through.
If you are interested in learning more about IFS and getting to know your Self, I’d love to meet with you to discuss how the model can work for you. This model was created by Richard Schwartz, Ph. D. and you can find more information about Dr. Schwartz’s work and the IFS Model at selfleadership.org