Navigating the Inner Landscape: An Introduction to Internal Family Systems Therapy

Original Publishing Date:
February 28, 2024
Last Update:
February 28, 2024

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic approach that delves into the intricate dynamics of the innermost self, offering a systematic and transformative method for understanding and healing internal conflicts. Developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, IFS introduces the concept of "parts" – distinct aspects within an individual's personality that play unique roles in shaping thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This innovative approach provides a structured framework for engaging with these internal parts, categorizing them into systems, and facilitating healing through intentional interactions within this inner system.

What is IFS?

IFS developed through the professional and personal experiences of Richard Schwartz. Starting in the 1980’s Richard Schwartz began to notice clients' descriptions of inner entities which he called “parts.” He then developed a systematic approach to interacting with these parts, organizing them into systems and developing methods to facilitate healing of these parts through interactions within this system (5). Previously, psychologists had a less systemic approach to work with subpersonalities or ego states, so although this approach was not entirely new it offered a systematic way to resolve some of these inner conflicts. It is important to recognize that this is not to be confused with dissociative identity disorders, in which entire personalities will “split” off entirely from consciousness. In these cases each personality does not have knowledge of the other. IFS instead accounts for the varied parts that exist together in one personality(3).

We have IFS specialists accepting new clients now. Get in touch today to start the most important work you'll ever do!

Get Started

When is IFS used and how effective is it?

IFS can be a powerful tool but needs further study. Studies have shown it to be effective to treat major depressive disorder, PTSD stemming from childhood trauma, and PTSD with other mental health diagnoses (1). One journal article looked at the combination of IFS and EMDR in particular, utilizing the strengths of IFS to look at past injuries while employing EMDR’s powerful ability to change negative self-concepts into more adaptive thought patterns. This integration provides guidelines to capitalize on each strength but warrants further study before the efficacy of this combination can be determined (4).

How does IFS work?

Parts work is the process by which you can address each part in your personality’s system to resolve vulnerabilities or needs (3). It allows the entire system to reach equilibrium so that no one part can dominate or take over, or in other words, “transform the internal dialogue between the parts of the self from disjointed chaos to a smooth, harmonic symphony” (3)(4). There are a variety of practices to use to facilitate harmony, but these are typically explored in session with the support of a therapist.

What are parts?

Parts are here to help. They are like sophisticated psychological software, helping to get you into a state of mind that best fits with life’s demands. When different demands present your mind will tap on the various icons to pull up different parts. For example, if you have a financial concern your mind may pull up the Money Manager part to help resolve your concern. It is not always this straightforward though. There are many parts in the personality, but they fit within managers, firefighters, or exiles, and each group may have many parts (3). In order to get a better understanding of how this software works let's look at the various categories of parts that can be present.

The Protector Parts: Managers and Firefighters


Schwartz (5) defines managers as parts that are meant to minimize activation, or upset, of the exiles (more on exiles below). They are proactive in their roles, seeking to prevent any vulnerable feelings from ever happening again (6). Additionally they live in fear of the escape of exiles which will be explored below, they make every effort to avoid any interactions or situations that might activate an exile’s attempt to break out or leak sensations, feelings, or memories into the forefront (5). Titles of manager parts could include the Type-A executive, Caretaker, Harsh Critic, People Pleaser, Perfectionist, Taskmaster, Striver, Dependent One, or Worrier (5),(6).

  • A note on the relationship between trauma and managers: Inner critics are a type of manager that are especially prevalent in individuals with histories of trauma. You can have one critic or several of them. These parts have learned to criticize you on the inside before anyone more powerful can.

    They can come across as harsh adults, but the reality is that they are often no older than the vulnerable child exiles they protect. They serve a multitude of roles. Some critics will have you conform so you don’t risk rejection by standing out. Others undermine your self-worth to prevent risks that keep you safe by keeping you small.

    More may impose relentless standards to prevent shame or criticism from other people. Alternative critics may try to control your thoughts and actions to prevent mediocrity which could lead to failure. A particularly painful critic is one that constantly imposes guilt for past wrongs, preventing you from being let off the hook so that you won’t repeat past mistakes.

    Another disconcerting critic is the one that questions your right to exist, as though being alive is too dangerous, seeking to destroy you. Despite this counterintuitive approach it still thinks that it is protecting you (West & Gong, 20216).


IFS’s creator, Schwartz (5), defines these as parts that are active when the exiles have become activated, typically when the managers have failed in their proactive steps. However because of their nature they can lead to impulsive, destructure, or desperate behaviors that are not always preferred. Firefighters are responsible for addictive behaviors, dissociation, promiscuity, or other self-harming behaviors. Titles for these parts include the Compulsive Drinker, Compulsive Eater, Compulsive Shopper, Compulsive Gambler, Compulsive Exerciser (5),(6). Firefighters are less preferred, they can have messy or unpleasant consequences that do not make you look good to the outside world, but can be extremely effective at preventing experiences of vulnerability. Although they come across as less than ideal, they are an important part of yourself, they may have saved you during a time in your life of abuse, neglect, or trauma (6).


Exiles were former managers, they had been injured or outraged to such a point that these parts then become imprisoned by managers for their own protection or the protection of the system from them (5). These are the vulnerable parts of your personality, they have been sequestered away either for their own protection or for the protection of the system from them to allow day to day functioning (5),(6). These parts may be named the Terrified Toddler, Hungry Baby, Hostile/Lonely Teen, Confused and Angry Kindergartener, Ashamed Preteen, or Neglected Infant (6). These parts of your personality are often young and scared, they carry a range of vulnerable feelings including shame, terror, rage, loneliness, grief, and dependency. Those may hold toxic beliefs  such as “I don’t matter,” or “I’m worthless.” They may also contain memories of childhood abuse and neglect (6).

  • Collectively these extreme behaviors, ideas, or feelings held by exiles are known as “burdens” (Schwartz, 19955). To heal these parts you can take part in an unburdening process. This is done by making contact with these exiles, allowing them to tell their stories and then over time allow for the release of their beliefs, feelings, and body sensations.

    This process of unburdening can be overwhelming, it typically comes with a lot of anger, tears, and intense bodily sensations which is why it is typically done with a therapist who can support you. Once this is accomplished it provides an awareness that the suffering is over, allowing these exiles to achieve a sense of freedom, healthy entitlement, and ability to connect with others (West & Gong, 20216).

Typically these parts are suppressed with great energy, but the more they are pushed away the more extreme exiles become so that managers and firefighters may come to fear their release. Unfortunately this creates a snowball effect, the more the exiles are suppressed the more they try to break out which creates more attempts at suppression from firefighters and managers. Despite being hidden away, they still may influence your behaviors. Schwartz (6) speculates that exiles may inadvertently lead you to danger. He states, exiles “seek a redeemer who resembles the person who rejected them initially (or even the actual abuser), in order to find the love and protection they believe will heal the pain of rejection and finally make them feel safe” (5).


The final aspect of importance is self. Self is not a part but your core being, something that has always been there since birth. This cannot be destroyed and is not affected by the hurt or wounds of your past (6). The Self is the most equipped to lead the internal family which can facilitate healing through interaction of the parts of your system (5).  In Self we are unshaken by life’s hardships. Being in Self allows us to witness or observe these parts and all their patterns of thinking and feelings experienced without judgment. When we are fully in Self we also can let go of uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, anger, or dissatisfaction. There are 8 C’s that exemplify Self, they include: confidence, calmness, creativity, clarity, curiosity, courage, compassion, and connectedness (3).

What does it feel like when parts are activated?

Have you ever been left wondering how you behaved so out of character, surprised at your reaction?

When presented with different triggers a myriad of parts could present. At times one part will be present, but at other times multiple parts can present. When they are not center stage they are in the “store consciousness” which holds space for these parts whenever they are not needed. When they become present they are in what is called the “living room” of your consciousness. When these parts are in the foreground, controlling thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it is in the living room. Parts will stay in the living room for different periods of time, some will be short while others stay when it is past their time to go (3).


This is meant to give you an overview of the IFS concepts and how they can account for our sometimes bizarre behaviors, thoughts, or feelings. In another article you will be able to explore how to cope when various unpleasant parts present, what IFS looks like in treatment, and other resources to investigate to learn more. In conclusion, IFS represents an advance in therapeutic interventions, introducing a profound understanding of the complexity within an individual's innermost mind. Through the exploration of managers, firefighters, exiles, and the essential concept of Self, IFS offers a roadmap for achieving internal harmony and healing. While studies indicate its efficacy in treating conditions like major depressive disorder and PTSD, the power of IFS lies in its potential for personal exploration and transformation. As we navigate the living room of our consciousness, where various parts take center stage, IFS provides a valuable lens through which we can comprehend, engage with, and ultimately integrate the diverse parts of our inner system.

Feeling overwhelmed by inner conflicts or struggling to navigate your inner world? Explore the transformative potential of Internal Family Systems Therapy with us at VTC. Our skilled therapists specialize in IFS, offering personalized support to help you find harmony within your internal system. Take the first step towards understanding and healing by reaching out to us today.

More articles in this series

No items found.


  1. Haddock, S. A., Weiler, L. M., Trump, L. J., & Henry, K. L. (2017). The Efficacy of Internal Family Systems Therapy in the Treatment of Depression Among Female College Students: A Pilot Study. Journal of marital and family therapy, 43(1), 131–144.
  2. Hodgdon, H. B., Anderson, F. G., Southwell, E., Hrubec, W., & Schwartz, R. (2021). Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among survivors of multiple childhood trauma: A pilot effectiveness study. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 31(1), 22–43.
  3. Holmes, T., Holmes, L., & Eckstein, S. (2007). Parts work: An illustrated guide to your inner life (4th ed.). Winged Heart Press.
  4. O’Shea Brown, G. (2020). Internal family systems informed eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: an integrative technique for treatment of complex posttraumatic stress disorder. International Body Psychotherapy Journal, 19(2), 112–212.
  5. Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. The Guilford Press.
  6. West, C., & Gong, S. (2021). We all have parts: An illustrated guide to healing trauma with Internal Family Systems. PESI Publishing, Inc.
Rachel Cooper, MSW, LSW, EMDR

Meet Rachel Cooper, a compassionate mental health therapist specializing in anxiety, phobias, panic disorders, and trauma. Rachel uses evidence-based techniques and EMDR to empower you on your journey to lasting change and well-being. Schedule a free consultation to rewrite your narrative and unlock resilience with Rachel today.

See Full Profile

More articles by


No items found.
Chat with us
No matter where you are at in life, our therapists are here to help you. Get started with Virtual Therapy Clinic.
Get Started