What If You’re Not Broken? Understanding The Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model

The Internal Family Systems Model

If you’re not familiar with IFS, let me try to explain it. This trauma healing, inner and outer peacemaker spiritual path called “Internal Family Systems (IFS)” is simple conceptually but very counter-culture and quite hard to actually put into practice. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, let me lay out the basics for any of you who are not familiar with how life changing this model can be. Like any spiritual path or ongoing healing practice, implementing it is a lifetime practice, but it helps to first grok it conceptually.

Managers

You’re probably very familiar with the first kind of protector part, the “managers,” who are proactive protectors busily trying to ward off danger. These are the voices in your head that start chattering away if you sit down to meditate. Think planner parts, inner critic parts, outer critic parts, perfectionist parts, worry wart parts, time keeper parts, financial manager parts, rigidly rule-following parts, catastrophizing “worst case scenario” parts, busyaholic parts, people pleasing parts, caretaker parts, control freak parts, etc. Managers are always trying to distract you from looking deeper inside yourself by chattering away 24/7 about all the ways they think you might be unsafe.

Firefighters

In this way, manager parts try to control the “firefighters,” the more extreme kind of protectors, who are the second layer of defense and who often act out with behaviors you may feel ashamed to look at in yourself, those behaviors you try to hide from new friends and lovers during the honeymoon periods. Since managers tend to judge, criticize, humiliate, and try to put a lid on firefighters, managers work really hard covering up your true authenticity, forcing you to wear masks, conform to the expectations of others, and causing you to pretend to be perfect, stronger, smarter, healthier, more “spiritual,” and more put together than you really are. The biggest fear of most protectors is that these exiled parts will flood you with painful emotions and you’ll get overwhelmed and fail to function the way you need to, so they work really hard trying to protect you from getting taken out by these traumatized parts that hurt inside.

Exiles

So who are all of these protectors trying to guard from your own awareness? The protectors are the jail-keepers for the imprisoned exiles, the inner children that have been locked away, the tender, young, helpless, hopeless, enraged, despairing, vulnerable parts that didn’t get their needs met at critical times in your development. As described in the Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual, “When children feel shamed (often but not exclusively interpersonally), vulnerable young parts are particularly liable to develop overwhelmingly threatening beliefs like ‘I’m unlovable” and ‘I’m worthless’. Equally, when experience is terrifying and beyond our capacity to tolerate, our most vulnerable parts feel stripped of significance. Protectors step in to keep their toxic beliefs out of consciousness, and as a result, vulnerable parts end up permanently alone, forgotten, and often, trapped in the past. They long for help but when they push into consciousness with negative feelings, beliefs, sensations, and memories, protectors again experience them as a hazard.”

The “Self”

Who is this part that can heal your parts? It’s the part that’s not a part, or what Carl Jung called the “Self” with a capital S. As I describe at length in my book The Daily Flame, I call it your Inner Pilot Light. Every spiritual tradition has a different name for it, but it is the Divine inside- and this is the one you’ve been waiting for, the love that will never let you down once you attune to it.

Join The IFS Inner Circle

If this model resonates with you and you’d like to learn more, the IFS Inner Circle only enrols new learners and practitioners twice a year, and they are now accepting new members. You don’t have to have a degree in therapy or any other credential. You can participate only for personal reasons if you choose to. But if you’re a helping professional and would like to become IFS informed as a way to help your career, this is a great way to get started. Check in with your parts and see what they have to say about this new way of perceiving, working with, becoming intimate with, healing, and treating mental and physical symptoms!

Join Lissa’s IFS-Informed “Healing With The Muse” Community

If you wish to work with the IFS model in a less rigorous and less expensive way, I’ve started a community, Healing With The Muse, that mixes us doing our IFS inner work with creating with our muses, marrying the deep dive of trauma healing with writing, art, singing, dancing, music, and other ways to enliven you with life force while we heal from the root. We’d love to have you in our loving, non-polarizing IFS-informed community.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.