• Internal Family Systems therapy helps you understand why certain behaviours and thoughts are triggered defensively against painful emotions

  • IFS therapist Javaneh Pirzadamoli explores this effective form of therapy

  • We have IFS therapists available to support you here

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a form of psychotherapy developed by Dr Richard Schwartz in the1980s. It focuses on the idea that the human psyche is composed of different sub-personalities, or parts, that interact with one another to create a person's emotional and behavioural experiences.  

Dr Schwartz first came across this phenomenon when working with his clients with eating disorders. He heard them talking about confusing voices or parts arguing in their head. 

One voice could be critical about their appearance and another one defending them and blaming their parents. A third part felt hopeless and depressed, and a fourth one took over to tell them they should restrict their food to become more attractive.  

Dr Schwartz noticed that identifying these parts helped his clients feel less overwhelmed and intimidated by them. He also noticed that each of these parts had its own temperament, desires, intentions and specific ways of communicating, which reminded him of members of one family! 

These parts seemed also to have good reasons for being extreme; this realisation was a huge relief for struggling clients who had tried hard to push these parts away, wanting to get rid of them. 

And so Internal Family Systems therapy was born and today is an effective and popular model. The popularity of the model comes from the fact that most individuals can relate to it. Even if we have not clearly witnessed the conflicts between our parts, most of us are aware of them to a certain degree. When parts are externalised and explored, there is more clarity in the internal system and clients feel the difference immediately. 

What is the purpose of the different parts?

IFS is a non-pathologising model of therapy. Parts are not specific to individuals who suffer from mental disorders. They might take more extreme and exaggerated roles in this group but all of us have our own specific parts. They come to existence based on our experiences from birth. 

IFS  believes that each of these parts have the best intention for us in mind in their own way and want to protect us from overwhelming feelings such as rejection, shame, loneliness and so on. 

It's worth mentioning that IFS is not the only therapeutic model that speaks about the multiplicity of the mind. Many other models before it have recognised this fact about human psyche. However, the uniqueness of IFS is in presenting the idea of a “Self” which exists in all of us. 

Self is not a part. It's an innate presence in each of us that brings harmony and balance into our internal family. It has all the qualities of a great leader: it's open, compassionate, curious, calm, connected, clear, patient, playful and has perspective. 

The genius of IFS is based on the idea that despite all the trauma and emotional pain one might have experienced, Self remains intact and is accessible as soon as parts separate (unblend). Accessing Self and making a connection between it and the parts is what helps these parts let go of their extreme roles. 

In IFS there are three categories of parts:


These are the parts that have been shamed, abused, rejected, neglected in childhood and are banished or exiled by other protective parts to keep them from overwhelming the internal system. A great deal of our energy is expended in order to keep the exiles out of awareness.

Managers (Proactive Protectors)

These protectors function to prevent exiles from being triggered and flooding the internal systems with painful emotions. 

They are hard-working and use many different tactics to keep us task-oriented and away from feelings. 

Proactive managers can be 'people pleasing parts', 'inner critic parts', 'perfectionist parts', 'angry parts', 'distracting parts' etc. 


Firefighters (Reactive Protectors) 

Reactive protectors share the same mission as Managers. They want to get rid of vulnerable parts and avoid emotional pain. However, they are more like emergency response workers. 

They come into action when emotional wounds get triggered and memories and feelings break through, despite the efforts of managers. 

They use extreme measures like alcohol, drug, binge eating, cutting, excessive shopping, suicide, in order to relieve the emotional pain. 

Why do these parts form?

Painful experiences in life such as trauma, abuse, neglect, violence and so on, make us believe 'I am worthless', 'I am not loveable' or 'I am lonely'. When the experience becomes beyond our capacity to tolerate, Protectors step in to keep these toxic beliefs out of our consciousness. 

They command us to look a certain way or to act in certain ways for the purpose of not triggering our Exiled parts. As a result, these vulnerable parts end up forgotten and often trapped in the past. Every time they try to push into consciousness, Protectors feel them as a hazard and act against them.  

The same process happens with Self. It has been shoved into the background because protective measures were needed to ensure psychological survival. When we are wounded at a young age, our Self is not developed enough to handle what life throws at us. Parts had to protect us at all costs. 

What's the goal of Internal Family Systems therapy?

The goal of IFS is access to the Self. Our self-energy helps us take a calm, open and curious stance toward our inner experience. 

With permission from Protectors, Self gets connected with the Exiled parts and can heal them. With IFS, we can heal our parts so their extreme roles are converted into capacities. We also want to help these parts cooperate with each other under the leadership of the Self. 

The aim is never to get rid of a part but to hear what role it has taken on in order to protect us from painful emotions. Our purpose is to ultimately unburden the part from an exaggerated version of that role and bring back harmony to the system.

Javaneh Pirzadamoli is a verified Welldoing online therapist based in London

Further reading

Numbness: what it means to feel numb and how counselling can help

Trauma responses: understanding your window of tolerance

Why do we get triggered and what can be done about it?

What is the lasting impact of complex trauma?

Healing from dissociation and integrating the self