Internal Family Systems (IFS)


Last month, I took a day off from seeing clients to attend an Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) seminar. The seminar was led by Frank G. Anderson, M.D. Dr. Anderson completed his residency in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and was a clinical instructor at Harvard. He is currently the chairman of the Foundation for Self Leadership, which is the organization for Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS). Dr. Anderson maintains a private practice in Concord, Massachusetts, and has maintained a long affiliation with Bessel van der Kolk’s Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Center in Boston. The seminar was well worth the time and money spent.

I have been aware of IFS therapy for several years, as my March 4, 2012 blog post will attest. That post, more than five years old now, reads as follows:


It is not uncommon to describe ourselves in “parts.” For example, “A part of me loves him, and a part of me doesn’t even like him.” Or, “A part of me is mad, and a part of me is sad.” Such is the language of ambivalence that often characterizes human awareness. There is even a biblical reference to such ambivalent “parts”: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15; NRSV), and vice versa. So “parts” is often how we describe our internal conflicts. Just as families consist of individuals (Mom, Dad, child[ren]), each person contains an internal family of personalities (or, subpersonalities).

In his book, Internal Family Systems Therapy (1995), Richard C. Schwartz, PhD (Northwestern University) organizes these internal “parts” into three groups: Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters. Basically, “exiles”–the most sensitive members of the group–represent internal conflicts (for example, painful memories, feelings, behaviors). “Managers” represent the internal control of exiles, mostly through preventative measures. And, “firefighters” represent our remedial actions when the exiles seriously threaten escape.

Here’s how Schwartz describes each group:

“Commonly, children are taught to fear and hide their pain or terror….They become the exiles, closeted away and enshrouded with burdens of unlovability, shame, or guilt. Like any oppressed group, these exiles become increasingly extreme and desperate, looking for opportunities to break out of their prison and tell their stories….Like abandoned children, many of the exiles desperately want to be cared for and loved. They constantly look for someone who might rescue and redeem them….(Managers) live in fear of the escape of exiles. They try to avoid any interactions or situations that might activate an exile’s attempts to break out or leak feelings, sensations, or memories into consciousness. Different managers adopt different strategies (for example, Controller, Perfectionist, Dependent One, Caretaker, Etc.)….The point (and) primary purpose of all mangers is to keep the exiles exiled….That is, the goal is to keep the feared feelings and thoughts from spilling over the inner walls, so that the system remains safe and the person is able to function in life….(Common managerial manifestations) include: obsessions, compulsions…passivity, emotional detachment…panic attacks, somatic complaints, depressive episodes, hyperalertness, and nightmares….(Sometimes) despite the best efforts of the managers, the exiles are activated and threaten to break out and take over. When this happens, another group of parts leaps into action to try to contain or extinguish the feelings, sensations, or images. I call this group the ‘firefighters’ because they react automatically whenever an exiled part is activated. It is as if an alarm goes off and they frantically mobilize to put out the fire of feelings. They do whatever they believe necessary to help the person (separate from) or douse dreaded exiled feelings, with little regard for the consequences of their methods. The techniques of firefighters often include numbing activities such as self-mutilation, binge eating, drug or alcohol abuse…or promiscuity. When activated, a firefighter will try to take control of the person so thoroughly that he or she feels nothing but an urgent compulsion to engage in (an avoidance behavior) or self-soothing activity….Although firefighters have the same basic goal as managers – to keep the exiles exiled – their roles and strategies are quite different….Managers strive to prevent the activation of exiles by keeping the person in control at all times….Firefighters …usually react after the activation of exiles has occurred.” 


One additional observation not included in the original blog post. These “parts,” sometimes called “ego states,” are most often formed when we do something over and over again. This repetitive learning, this over and over again learning, creates a literal, physical neural pathway (circuitry) in the brain. In other words, a “part” or “ego state,” is a physical part of the brain – with its own experiences, emotions, and behaviors. It is to say, in the oft quoted words of Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb: “Neurons (nerve cells) that fire together, wire together.”  And the more they fire, the more they wire. And the more they fire, the more they wire. And the more they . . . .

By the way . . . . The brain can make changes.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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