According to this theory, we have 3 categories of inner “parts”
Do you ever have moments where you feel completely disconnected from yourself? As if there are parts of you that emerge that feel strange and unfamiliar—not quite in line with who you are at the core.
These parts might come out in the throws of a fight with a partner, or when you come face-to-face with your “last straw” after an especially challenging day. These parts say the things that you later regret, or stay silent when you have something important to say. They might be the parts that hold you back from the person you know, deep down, you are meant to be.
I recently went back to therapy after a fight with my partner escalated and I said things that I knew I wouldn’t be able to take back. I’ve been known to threaten the relationship when things get hard, but this particular night I said the one thing that I knew would hurt more than my empty threats. I knew the softest and most vulnerable place in his heart and I went for the jab.
I scared myself. I didn’t want to say those things to him—things that took him weeks to recover from—but I didn’t trust myself not to say them again. It is as if there are parts of me that lie dormant, ready to pounce when life becomes too much to bear. I didn’t want this part of me to blow up the beautiful life I have worked so hard to build with another human. A human who, when I am in my right mind, I have deep respect and adoration for.
A Theory to Help Us Understand
Internal Family Systems
Lucky for me I unknowingly stepped into the office of a therapist who practices Internal Family Systems. This “part” of me was not hard for her to understand. The fact that I feel as though I lose myself in times of stress and am left dumbstruck make perfect sense to her. The model she uses explains that all of us have internal entities or sub-personalities, each with their own beliefs, feelings, and thoughts.
No, we are not talking about having multiple personalities in the same way someone with a diagnosis of a personality disorder might have. According to the IFS Institute, the idea of Internal Family Systems is this:
Internal Family Systems is a powerfully transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy. We believe the mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing. Our inner parts contain valuable qualities and our core Self knows how to heal, allowing us to become integrated and whole. In IFS all parts are welcome.
The Self is the part that does feel like us. The Self is the core of who we are and is likely to be calm, creative, wise, compassionate, and connected. We are likely to feel most like ourselves when we are doing what we love or with people that we love, with nothing tugging us away from the present moment.
If you have meditated before you probably know that there is the you who witnesses your thoughts and sensations. “Oh, there I go thinking again,” is a voice that is able to cut through the noise of our minds and pull us back to the present. That sweet little voice is who we are and in IFS it is referred to as the Self.
IFS also says that we have parts that are not the Self and that these parts play a huge role in making up our inner world. The reason it is called Internal Family Systems is because the goal is to establish harmony in our internal system and have the Self become a counsellor to one’s internal family. I find it a bit complicated, but I also found the concepts presented to be both fascinating and reassuring. So, here it is—the 3 parts within all of us:
These are the softest and most vulnerable parts of us. In the Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual, exiles are explained to be:
“Revealed in feelings, beliefs, sensations and actions, these parts have been shamed, dismissed, abused or neglected in childhood and are subsequently banished by protectors for their own safety and to keep them from overwhelming the internal system with emotional pain. A great deal of internal energy is expended to keep exiles out of awareness.”
These are the parts of us that hold absolute beliefs such as “I am unlovable” or “I am worthless.” The pain that these parts hold can be too heavy for us to carry throughout childhood and into adulthood, so we shut them out.
I feel this part as a lump in my throat or a deep and sinking feeling in my stomach. When I feel like someone sees a part of me that I don’t want anyone to know exists. It is probably the part of me that doesn’t believe I am worthy of love, thus why it emerges mostly in conflict with my partner (lucky him, I know). When this part of me is touched, the other parts of me—the protectors (who we will get to in the next category)—come out in a big way.
Our protectors step in to shield our exiles from pain but as a result, exiles end up alone and forgotten, trapped in the past. They long to be understood and seen by us, but when they emerge in our consciousness—bringing with them heaps of emotional pain—our protectors step in to keep them at bay.
These parts of us are not something that IFS therapists believe should be done away with. They are believed to have the capacity to revert to their natural state of curiosity, creativity, and playfulness. They just need an opportunity to find freedom from the beliefs and thoughts that that emerged out of pain or trauma early in our lives.
Proactive protectors or Managers
Our proactive protectors or managers are the parts of us that help us stay safe and fit in. They don’t want to feel emotional pain—it’s a bit of a drag, after all—so they do everything they need to do to keep it at bay. As defined in the Internal Family Systems Training Manual:
“Proactive helpers who focus on learning, functioning, being prepared and stable. Managers are vigilant in trying to prevent exiles from being triggered and flooding the internal system with emotion. As a consequence, they are hard working and use a variety of tactics—not least, determined, relentless, criticizing and at times shaming—to keep us task-oriented and impervious to feelings.”
They tell us to work hard and be productive. For many of us, they may be the parts of us that go for a run when we don’t want to go for a run, or that beat us up when we we binge a trashy reality TV show for hours instead of getting stuff done. They tell us we can be worthy if we just strive a little bit more and achieve what society tells us we should want to achieve.
Heck, we need these parts. Imagine living life in a constant state of emotional pain? Life is hard and suffering is inevitable but if we didn’t have our managers, we might have a hard time getting out of bed each day.
At the extreme, managers can look like perfectionism, intellectualizing, one-sided care-taking, vanity, and the avoidance of conflict. Like anything, at the extreme, the managers may be detrimental to our well-being and get in the way of our connection to Self.
Reactive protectors or Firefighters
Remember the part of me that said really cruel things to my partner? The part that led me therapy in the first place? That was a reactive protector or a Firefighter and these are the parts that can play fast and reckless in our lives. Internal Family Systems Training Manual provides us with an overview:
“ Reactive protectors share the same goal as managers; they want to exile vulnerable parts and extinguish emotional pain. However, reactive protectors are emergency response workers. They get activated after the fact, when the memories and emotions of exiles break through despite the repressive efforts of managers. Reactive protectors tend to be fierce and use extreme measures that managers abhor, like alcohol and drug abuse, binge eating, excessive shopping, promiscuity, cutting, suicide and even homicide.”
This part is pretty intense. It will stop at nothing to stop emotional pain and it doesn’t stop to think about the consequences. If you can remember the last time you lost your cool—like, really lost your cool or did something you regretted—you might remember feeling a bit dazed once you calmed down and returned to Self. Who was that? Well, according to IFS that was your reactive protector.
For me, my reactive protectors like to swoop in when I am feeling like I might be abandoned. The part of me (an exile) that believes I am unlovable and unworthy of love holds a lot of the pain from my childhood. When this part is threatened in an overwhelming way, my reactive protector comes to the rescue—kicking, screaming, and threatening to leave the relationship if my partner doesn’t stay. Is it a great method? Heck, no!
Once I calm down I am often embarrassed and deeply regretful of my actions. The thing is that it is not as easy as simply willing this part of me away. It has been doing a job for decades and the idea of IFS that it is possible for me to see and acknowledge this part, and to find a more peaceful balance in my system so that it doesn’t not have to come out and blow up my life.
The goal in Internal Family Systems therapy is for the parts to enter into a relationship with the Self. For the parts to feel loved and understood.
Did you ever have an adult tell you as a child that “you aren’t a bad kid, you just did a bad thing.” If you are anything like me, that may have left you a bit perplexed. How do you separate the action from the person?
This theory helps me make sense of that idea. The Self is inherently good—loving, compassionate, and beautiful—but it doesn’t mean we don’t have parts of us that have adapted in order to protect our most vulnerable parts. In their extreme forms, these parts can certainly do some damage in our lives if left unacknowledged.
In an ideal world, all of our parts can find balance and peace within our system. If the Self is able to lead the show we are much more likely to avoid having one of our parts come in and derail our lives and wreak havoc on our relationships.
I have found some solace in just reading about and understanding the IFS Model. It can be helpful to have language and ideas to make sense of life’s most challenging moments. It’s a bit of a complicated explanation to what might be going on, but I’ve never been one to think that we humans are simple creatures. At least, I’ve yet to meet a simple human.