Exploring our Inner Landscape through Internal Family Systems (IFS) Modality

Evelyne L. Thomas
March 24, 2024
min read

Exploring our Inner Landscape through Internal Family Systems (IFS) Modality

Who am I? Which parts of me are active? The importance of knowing oneself to live a fulfilled life.

In the journey of self-discovery and personal growth, we often encounter a complex inner landscape filled with various thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Understanding this internal world is crucial for fostering self-awareness, healing past wounds, and cultivating a sense of harmony within oneself. One approach that has gained recognition for its effectiveness in navigating this inner terrain is Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy.

Developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, IFS is a psychotherapeutic approach which offers a unique framework not only for exploring and bringing clarity to our functioning but also to promote self-compassion and healing, necessary to help us regain joy, creativity and self confidence in our life as well as foster inner harmony.

IFS – Two important Concepts

1. First Concept – We all have Parts

At the core of the Internal Family Systems model lies the concept that we have different aspects of our personality, each with its own thoughts, emotions, and motivations. For instance, there may be a part that is critical, another that is nurturing, and yet another that feels fearful or vulnerable. These 'parts' often emerge as a result of past experiences and serve specific roles in our internal system.

In IFS we are interested in 3 different parts: protective parts (Managers and Firefighters) and Exiles. Managers and Firefighters work hard to protect our most vulnerable parts (Exiles). Exiles hold painful emotions from childhood and are exiled by protectors who are worried that they would overtake and overwhelm our system.

Managers & Firefighters - Protectors of the systems

Managers and Firefighters work hard to protect our system. They prevent us from being overwhelmed by difficult emotions. Managers attempt to keep us in control of every situation and relationship to avoid painful feelings such as abandonment or rejection.

Those protectors have been with us for a long time. They have witnessed experiences which have caused us pain, fair, terror, trauma and vulnerability when we were younger and more vulnerable to our environment. Their goal today is for us to 'never again' experience such negative emotions. They are vigilant and active protectors even when there is no obvious threat or signs of danger and often their reactions to present situations are difficult to comprehend (especially by our close loved ones).

Managers are double-edged though. On one hand they help us survive and function in our daily life by preventing unpleasant feelings, however they can also prevent us from living our life fully. Joy, happiness, pride and standing out might not always have been well accepted in our childhood, and managers today prevent many of us from exhibiting these feelings as they might bring shame.

Common types/traits of proactive Managers are:

  • Anxious/Worrier
  • Overworking
  • Busy
  • Over-thinking
  • Analyser/Intellectualiser
  • Blamer
  • Controller
  • Critic
  • Caretaker/people pleaser
  • Depressive/Pessimist
  • Avoider/Isolator/Blocker/Numbing
  • Passive/Aloof


Firefighters are reactive rather than proactive (Managers). They act quickly to stop the emotions Managers have not managed to prevent. Often they have little regard for their environment nor the people around them.

Very much like firefighters coming to your house to extinguish a fire, they would not be concerned with the consequences of their intervention: there is a fire, they need to stop it nor matter what the cost.

Firefighters' behaviours are often seen as extreme and are often criticised by ourselves and by others. When they act, it's difficult to remember that they are protectors.

Common types/traits of Firefighters could be:

  • Substance and alcohol abuse
  • Food addiction & eating disorders
  • Over-exercising
  • Sex or porn addiction
  • Infidelity
  • Extreme anger and rage
  • Self-harm
  • Dissociation
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation

The Wounded Parts – Exiles

Exiles are parts of our psyche that hold the burden or our past wounds and vulnerabilities (painful emotions, memories, and beliefs) that we are not ready or willing to face.

These experiences are often rooted in trauma, especially from childhood.

When exiles are triggered, their pain can overwhelm us, affecting our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, so our protective parts (Managers and Firefighters) take over. #

Common exiled feelings/traits:                                                  

  • Anxious
  • Sensitivity
  • Dependence
  • Innocence
  • Spontaneity
  • Abandonment/Rejection
  • Unfairness
  • Betrayal
  • Unseen/unheard
  • Unimportant
  • Shame
  • Sadness
  • Alone

One of the key principles of IFS is the belief that each part has positive intentions and serves a protective role. Even parts that may initially seem disruptive or problematic are seen as attempting to shield us from pain or harm. By approaching these parts with curiosity and compassion rather than judgment, we can begin to understand the underlying needs and motivations driving our behaviour.

2. Second Concept – We all have a Self

Central to the IFS model is the concept of the "Self," which is considered the core, undamaged, and compassionate aspect of an individual's personality.

Unlike the parts, which may carry emotional baggage and adopt protective roles, the Self remains inherently calm, compassionate, and curious. Through the process of self-discovery and inner exploration, individuals can learn to connect more deeply with their authentic Self and cultivate a sense of inner balance and harmony.

The process of engaging with one's internal family of parts typically involves a series of therapeutic steps guided by a trained IFS therapist/practitioner. These steps often include identifying and externalising different parts, establishing a dialogue between parts, and facilitating communication between parts and the Self. Through this process, individuals can gain insight into the underlying dynamics of their internal system and work towards resolving conflicts and achieving integration.

Curiosity & Compassion

One of the most powerful aspects of IFS is its emphasis on curiosity and compassion. Rather than viewing certain parts as undesirable or problematic, individuals are encouraged to approach them with a sense of openness and understanding. By acknowledging the positive intentions behind each part's behaviour, individuals can begin to foster a sense of inner harmony and acceptance. This compassionate approach can be transformative, helping individuals to heal past wounds and develop a more compassionate relationship with themselves.

Healing and Integration

In IFS therapy, the goal is not to eliminate any part but to help them find a non-extreme role. By accessing and understanding our Exiles, we can work toward healing, self-compassion, and integration.

Remember, acknowledging and working with our exiled parts is essential for our overall well-being and growth.

IFS & Relationships

When I work with couples or family members, I use IFS as a golden thread which can be woven into the other modalities which I work with (Emotionally Focused Therapy, Imago, Gottman) and it helps partners understand their negative cycle of conflicts between Managers/Managers or Managers/Firefighters.

Through the process of IFS Therapy, partners can work towards healing and integrating their exiled parts, thereby reducing the need for Managers and Firefighter defences. By fostering a compassionate and nurturing relationship with these wounded aspects of the self, individuals can begin to heal past trauma and reclaim lost parts of themselves. This process of inner healing is essential for achieving a sense of wholeness and integration within the Self.

In his book 'You are the One You have been waiting for' Richard Schwartz writes 'The most effective measure, is to help each partner become their own Exiles' primary caretaker. When Exiles in each partner are unburdened and are trusting their Self, those young parts become less hurt by what the other does and is more responsive to repair attempts.'

The journey of self-discovery and inner exploration is not always easy, and it may require courage and vulnerability to confront the various parts of ourselves. However, the rewards of this journey are profound. By embracing the principles of Internal Fam ily Systems Therapy, individuals can learn to navigate their internal landscape with greater clarity, compassion, and resilience. Through self-awareness, healing, and integration, individuals can cultivate a deeper sense of inner peace and authenticity, enabling them to live more fulfilling and meaningful lives and harmonious relationships.

I see Internal Family Systems therapy as a powerful framework for understanding the complexity of the mind and fostering inner harmony. By recognizing the various parts of ourselves with compassion and curiosity,  we can begin to heal past wounds, integrate fragmented aspects of the self, and cultivate a deeper connection with our authentic essence. Through the journey of self-discovery and inner exploration, we can reclaim our power, embrace our wholeness, and live more authentic and fulfilling lives. IFS is empowering people.

Reference & Further Information on IFS

  • Internal Family Systems Institute - Training Manual: Mariel Paster, LMFT & Jennifer Gauvain, LCSW
  • You Are the One You've been Waiting For - A New Approach to Intimate Relationships - Richard C. Schwartz
  • My IFS Therapy Companion - Rebecca Paul (IFS Therapist ) - Copyright & Registered Trademark 2023 All Parts Collective
  • IFS Institute: https://ifs-institute.com/
  • IFS explained - Finding Your Parts: foundationifs

Never Miss a New Journal Entry

Join the newsletter to stay up to date on the latest from the blog and get answers on mental health and relationships.

By clicking Sign Up you're confirming that you agree with our Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.