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

Art Credit: Sierra Boggess

Almost nobody made it through the last year without some mental or physical health impact. Even if you didn’t get Covid, it’s likely that you found yourself gaining some weight, feeling some anxiety or depression, getting caught up in delusional, paranoid, or conspiratorial thinking, indulging an old addiction or starting a new one, experiencing some physical pain, or winding up with new or worsening physical symptoms, among other potential outcomes. While these kinds of symptoms can be scary or activate parts that try to shame you or change your behavior, understanding trauma and how it impacts our mental, physical, and spiritual health can help us realize that there’s nothing wrong with you if you’ve reacted to a year of intersecting crises in this way- and you’re not alone. What if you’re not in some way damaged, broken, or acting out? What if this is a natural and understandable reaction to a year full of hurt?

We live in a society (and within a medical system) that tends to pathologize, label, demonize, medicate, imprison, or send to rehab every single symptom that’s deemed “abnormal.” But in the wake of back to back traumas, this pathologizing model clearly isn’t working. This doesn’t mean these symptoms don’t need treatment; they do. It also doesn’t mean there aren’t real illnesses (like Covid or cancer or schizophrenia) or that we don’t need conventional medicine approaches like vaccination to treat Covid and like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to treat cancer; we do. What I mean is that there’s more than one way to treat these physical or mental health symptoms that may have worsened in the past year. Our strategy for managing symptoms needs an overhaul, and it starts by examining all these symptoms through a trauma-informed lens- and learning to see how these symptoms may be paradoxically both harming us- but also helping us.

Wouldn’t it be a relief if you could simply let go of the idea that you’re broken in some way? Imagine if you found a way to love, accept, and understand all aspects of your being, not just the parts you like, but even the parts that annoy you, the parts you struggle to get a handle on, the parts that hurt you or other people, and the parts that might be very fragile, vulnerable, and pushed aside. Now imagine if you could apply that same kind of compassion (with good boundaries) to other people, especially the ones you find hard to love. Just imagine how much better life could be! Such is the promise of a healing system I spent many years studying in order to write about it in my book Sacred Medicine, which I finally just finished editing and sent to Sounds True, my publisher.

For those of you who are already familiar with IFS, I wanted to be sure to let you know that the IFS Inner Circle is enrolling for the next 6 month cycle. If you’re a helping professional- therapist, coach, doctor, nurse, alternative medicine provider, and you’d like to learn how to add a trauma-informed IFS approach to your practice, this 6 month program offers a quicker and more affordable alternative to the overbooked, wait-listed Level 1 IFS training- and it starts soon.

Learn more and join here

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.

According to IFS, you are not a unified self; you are a multiplicity of parts. Or as Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Can you relate with what Whitman is saying? Have you ever realized that you have parts that tend to polarize with each other? Do you have a part that makes a New Years Resolution, then a part that breaks it, then a part that shames the part that did the bad thing? Then you already know- you are made up of a multiplicity of parts, and that is entirely normal. We all are. We do not all have Multiple Personality Disorder, or what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), but we do all have multiple sub-personalities duking it out inside of us, and even those with DID can be treated using IFS, because we all also have a Self, a Divine spark inside, a reflection of God/Goddess that can also be the leader, parent, therapist, doctor, lover, and spiritual teacher of our multitude of parts.

Our parts tend to fall into two main categories- protector parts and vulnerable “exiles.” Protectors are further subdivided into two categories. “Managers” are preemptive. They trying to fend off danger and are the first line of defense to keep you from feeling the intense, painful feelings of your vulnerable exiles. “Firefighters” are the second line of protection and blast in when there’s an emergency, meaning that someone is getting too close to an exile or you’re starting to feel the pain those exiles carry. In other words, if managers do their job well, the exiles are hidden far in the basement of our psyche. Usually, you don’t even know they’re there, but you may wonder why your life isn’t working out so well. But then some triggering event will happen in real time, or some triggering person can swoop in and accidentally get too close to an exile, and then a firefighter part could show up to make sure you don’t feel whatever the exile is feeling and have a meltdown in public. That firefighter might rage, dissociate, put you to sleep, make you run away from a relationship, cause you to engage in some sort of self-destructive or other-destructive behavior, or indulge an addiction in order to make sure you don’t feel what hurts.

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.

What are they distracting you from? The main job of the managers is to distract you from feeling the emotional pain caused by the intense, hard-to-bear feelings of the “exiles,” the ones who carry painful burdens, like feelings of hopeless, powerless, worthlessness, unlovability, or feeling damaged, as well as beliefs like “I’m not enough” or “Nobody will ever love me.” If you’re busy rehashing the past or planning the future, worrying about your finances, fantasizing about an ambitious goal, or trying to solve your relationship dramas, you’re not feeling the intense emotions from childhood wounds that never got healed and can arise anytime you’re silent.

If your managers are very busy thinking, planning, controlling, micromanaging, and complying, you’ll be so distracted that you might not feel all the pain those exiles carry. But the pain is still there. Managers often serve as shaming voices that attack and judge you for what your sometimes reckless or bad habit carrying firefighters might do. (Think “inner critic” parts.)

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.

If managers are the proactive parts, firefighters are the reactive ones. These firefighters come online as emergency back up if the managers fail to keep you safe from the painful feelings that might take you out. They grab their firefighting tools if anyone (including you) gets too close to the pain the exiles are feeling when they’re locked away. Firefighters are often saddled with intense roles, which often don’t look like protection and are more likely to be pathologized.

In mainstream culture, firefighters tend to get demonized, medicated, imprisoned, hospitalized, sent to rehab, or otherwise shamed as “bad behavior.” Think addict parts, rage parts, criminal parts, rebel parts, eating disorder parts, abuser parts, binge parts, dissociative parts, psychopath parts, suicide parts, narcissist parts, narcoleptic parts, psychotic, and sex offender parts. In other words . . . pretty much everything in the psychiatric DSM-5, the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, created by the American Psychiatric Association as a way to label, diagnose, and standardize treatment for psychiatric disorders.

But firefighters do not only show up as psychiatric illnesses. They can also show up as physical illnesses—or other parts can use some physical vulnerability in your system to take you out. Think migraine part, back pain part, chronic fatigue part, asthma part, accident-prone parts, or even part that might need you to get cancer in order to slow down and stop caregiving other, for example. I’m not suggesting that these kinds of illnesses are purely the result of psycho-spiritual trauma. Some illnesses are caused because you live next to a toxic waste dump and your body’s self-healing mechanisms simply can’t keep up fighting toxic burdens, for example. But according to the IFS model, your protector parts may pull out all the stops and use your physical body to try to protect you from getting too close to your traumatized exiles if they think they need to. So . . . as a physician interested in interdisciplinary cross-pollinations of healing, this is where IFS really made me take notice, especially after I saw IFS founder Dick Schwartz using IFS with a woman who had a migraine- and she had instantaneous relief from her migraine after healing the exile it was protecting.

Why would parts that think they’re protecting you pull such potentially harmful stunts? Why would they use anorexia or an addiction or cutting behavior or dissociation or psychosis or even cancer? Because they know not what they do. These inner parts can act autonomously until you really get to know them and get a handle on them, and they honestly think they’re helping you, even when, by all obvious accounts, they appear to be harming you. The IFS point of view is consistent with that of Gabor Mate, MD, who spent much of his career working with people with addict parts. In his book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he makes the case that most people with any kind of addict part develop these addictions for a very good reason. Demonizing the addiction only strengthens it, while befriending it and becoming intimate with why it arose- and getting treatment for the traumas that cause addiction- can help loosen its grip.

Getting to know your firefighters (and the firefighters of loved ones) requires an open heart. If you take the time to get to know them and become intimate with them, even the most extreme firefighters will tell you why they think they’re helping and which exiles they’re protecting. Firefighters tend to use extreme behaviors because at one point in your life, this behavior was needed to help you survive. Although the usefulness of the coping mechanism may have past its expiration date, it showed up in your internal family system for a good reason, and the only way to get firefighters to calm their extreme behaviors is to love and understand them first. Bullying, shaming, and trying to control your firefighters with manager parts doesn’t help them. If anything, it only makes them act out more.

What does help is getting curious about these parts, spending time with them in your “inner world” and becoming intimate with them. Once they start to trust you, they might allow the exile they’re protecting to be seen and known, so the hurting part can receive help and healing. Then, and only then, will the firefighters back down and stop acting out their extreme behaviors. As Dick says, IFS therapists are “hope merchants for hopeless parts” who are exhausted from trying to avoid unbearable feelings. Once the exiles that are protected by the firefighters get healing, firefighter parts can get reassigned to new jobs within the system. When this happens, the gifts they also carry come through and liberate beautiful qualities that can lead to a happier, lighter, more functional life. And as a side effect, sometimes diseases go away.

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.”

No matter how idyllic you think your childhood was, we all have exiles who may come to conclusions like “I’m not good enough.” Then managers come in to develop strategies like “I’ll throw myself under the bus to prioritize everyone else’s needs so I don’t get abandoned.” Even if by some miracle you escaped all situational and developmental childhood trauma, most of us exile parts of us even in adulthood. For example, when you get married and settle down to have children, you may develop “neo-exiles,” locking away parts of you that you might think don’t belong with a parent and spouse, like your sexy slut part or your potty mouth part or your daredevil adventure part.

No one is exempt from the “burdens” these exiles carry. Our exiles might have different stories and different wounding, but they tend to have the same painful feelings—worthlessness, unlovability, “not enough-ness,” shame, feeling damaged or broken or disposable or fundamentally flawed. Because your protector parts don’t like the feelings these exiled parts evoke, they unwittingly exacerbate the problems, locking these exiles in a kind of inner prison, so they’re crying and screaming and begging for your attention all the time. The more traumatic the wounding, the more the exiles will pull out all the stops to get your attention, so the more powerful the protectors must become, ramping up their extreme behaviors over time.

The managers might be able to keep things under control for a while, but over time, as the exiles get more unruly and the managers fail to keep the exiles under wraps, the firefighters might need to work harder to protect you from feeling where these exiles leak through. Often, you’ll feel these exiles most painfully in your most intimate relationships, where the exiles will tend to attach to a spouse or best friend as a way to try to get their needs met the way they didn’t at some point, usually early in childhood. You might seek to find that perfect partner or perfect spiritual teacher or perfect whoever so that person can function as your “redeemer,” the one who will tend to all of your vulnerabilities and take away your pain forever. If this happens, these exiles may choose your partners and close friends, then burden them with the pressure to make those parts feel better.

If exiles choose your partner, they can become needy and graspy, which may cause your partner’s protectors to run screaming in the other direction because they feel the desperation of these wounded parts and feel overwhelmed, causing those parts to cry even harder in their inner prisons. Or you may activate a caretaker part (a protector) in your partner, who will soothe those exiled parts until your partner ultimately gets depleted and resentful from too much caregiving, and then another protector may cause your partner to pull away or abandon you, causing hurt for your exiles. Since you are the only one who can heal your own exiles, this desperate search for a redeemer can lead to one agonizing disappointment or betrayal or abandonment after another, further burdening the exiles and ramping up the behavior of the protectors. As you can imagine, all this vigilance, this complicated system that works so hard to keep your feelings in lock down, drains you energetically, activates chronic repetitive stress responses in your body, and interferes with your body’s capacity to heal itself, impeding the healthy, natural flow of life force through your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies, putting you at risk of disease.

So what’s the solution? What heals the exiles so the protectors can quit working so hard and the exiles can get their needs met in a healthy way, rather than burdening other people with excessive neediness? There are two bits of very good news. The first is that you are the one you’ve been waiting for! You already have all that you need to be the most powerful healer, caregiver, parent, therapist, teacher, and redeemer for your own exiles, which can free up your protectors from all their excessive vigilance. Mostly what the exiles want is your love, attentiveness, care, nurturing, understanding, and compassionate witnessing. They want you to listen to how much pain they experience. They want you to remember what happened to them and acknowledge it, rather than pushing their memories, feelings, and negative core beliefs away. They want an ally, not a jail-keeper. But they may have trouble getting through to you, because the two lines of protection (managers and firefighters) do their best to keep you from even remembering, feeling, or being present with these sweet, tender, hurting exiles. Fortunately, the solution is far simpler than anyone might ever imagine.

The second piece of good news is that when exiles are healed and liberated from their prisons inside, they bring out in you valuable qualities that may have gotten exiled along with the part, such as the magical child, with all its playful, curious, wonder-filled vitality, or the muse, with all her imagination and creativity. Unburdening the exiles not only liberates a lot of stuck energy; it also frees up sweet, exuberant qualities that make you attractive, magnetic, energized and optimally healthy.

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!

Learn more and join here

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.

Learn more and join us here

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