What Is Internal Family Systems & How It Can Help You Heal

What Is Internal Family Systems & How It Can Help You Heal

Do you ever feel like you’re at war with yourself? One part of you wants to be healthy, while another craves junk food. You might have a loud Inner Critic voice that puts you down, or maybe you experience unexplained anxiety. Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy can help!

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?

IFS is a type of therapy that views our minds as containing many “parts,” each with its own role and function. These parts can be helpful protectors (like an inner critic who keeps you safe from harm) or exiles (parts that hold onto painful experiences). When different parts get out of balance, it can lead to emotional distress.

How Does IFS Work?

IFS therapy helps you become aware of your different parts and understand their intentions. Through compassion and curiosity, you can learn to “befriend” these parts, reducing their negative influence and creating inner harmony.

What Can IFS Help With?

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trauma
  • Relationship Issues
  • Addiction
  • Attachment Issues

What Are The Benefits of Internal Family Systems Work?

  • More inner peace/less emotional turbulence
  • Quieter Inner Critic voice
  • Better self-awareness
  • Healthier relationships
  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • More self-compassion & empathy

How To Do Internal Family Systems Work: The IFS Model

The underlying principle of IFS is that all of our behaviors stem from logical and understandable origin. (Yes, even addictive or destructive behaviors!)

Instead of condemning these behaviors, we get to be curious about them and to listen to them. This practice alone helps those needs to feel heard so they can express themselves in healthier ways.

Second, it’s based on the idea that we all have different parts of ourselves, each of which play an important role. Yes, the shadowy part of you is serving an important purpose and needs love, just as much as the rest of you does.

Internal Family Systems work simply creates a system where we can see those different parts and understand their intentions.

So try imagining your mind as a bustling household with different characters, each playing a role. Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy helps us understand these characters, called parts, and how they interact. (The process of communicating with these parts is called parts work.)

Your Authentic Core: The Self

The Self is the essence of who you truly are: inherently good, compassionate, and whole. It can be obscured by parts, but parts work helps you reconnect with it.

Your Shadow Parts: The Exiles

Your exiles are the parts of you that you deny, ignore, or minimize. They carry the burden of past trauma, like shame or fear. Because of their shameful nature, they’re often disconnected from the rest of the system.

Your Protector Parts: Managers and Firefighters

Managers are our proactive protectors, shielding us from emotional pain. They might act like an inner critic, constantly judging to prevent external criticism. Or perhaps they encourage you to people please or engage in perfectionism in order to feel safe.

Your firefighters main job is to react when exiles (parts holding past trauma) are triggered. They try to extinguish the emotional fire with unhealthy behaviors like overeating or substance abuse. They rush in to act fast and “put out” the uncomfortable emotions as fast as possible.

How To Start Internal Family Systems – The 6 F’s

IFS therapists guide you through a six-step process to explore your inner world and understand the different parts that make you who you are. These parts can be like characters, each with their own feelings and reasons for acting the way they do.

However, simply understanding this framework allows you to begin to do parts work on yourself. Here’s the framework to start IFS:


Begin by calming your mind and tuning into your body. Maybe you feel a tightness in your chest when a certain topic comes up. Pay attention to these physical sensations – they might be a clue to which part of you is feeling something.


Spend some time getting to know this part. What is it trying to tell you? Is there a specific image that comes to mind? Does it feel like a younger you? What age is that part?

Flesh Out

Once you notice a bodily sensation, gently turn your attention to the part that might be behind it.

Feel Toward

It’s natural to have mixed feelings about different parts of yourself. Maybe you’re curious about this part, or perhaps even annoyed by it. These feelings can lead you to discover other parts – like a part that feels afraid of getting to know the first part.


Instead of judgment or condemnation, approach all of your parts with kindness and understanding. Remember, they are all there for a reason, even if they don’t feel helpful or logical. Make friends with your inner angry teen, sullen eight-year-old self, or even the part of you that wants to distract you through buffering (ie. over-drinking, shopping, etc.)


Ask the fearful part what it’s afraid of if it lets go of its usual way of acting. For example, a critical part of you might fear that things will fall apart if it stops being so hard on you.

By understanding these fears, you can build self-compassion and reduce self-criticism. Following this simple six-step system will allow you to start to build a healthy relationship with your inner parts. This can lead to greater self-awareness, acceptance, and overall well-being.

The 8 C’s of IFS Work | Signs of a Healthy Self

The different voices of you can be confusing at first! So separating your Self from your other parts is one of the main focuses of IFS work.

To understand if you’re talking with your Self or with another part of you, notice if you’re facing challenges with the 8 C’s:

  • Compassion
  • Curiosity
  • Calm
  • Clarity
  • Courage
  • Connectedness
  • Confidence
  • Creativity

If you’re approaching challenges with these qualities, you’ll know you’re in touch with your Self and will be acting from your most confident and empowered place. (Meaning: you can handle anything!)

Want more?

Ready to start shadow work or parts work with the help of a therapist? But maybe you’re short on time or money. Try this: BetterHelp is convenient, affordable therapy you can start at home.

What IFS Can Do For You

IFS is an evidence-based therapy gaining traction for its ability to improve overall functioning and well-being. Studies have shown positive results for clients struggling with chronic pain.

Beyond pain management, IFS also holds promise for individuals experiencing depression, phobias, generalized anxiety, and physical health issues. It also helps to improve self-concept.

IFS has also gained recognition from prominent figures in the field of trauma. In his book “The Body Keeps the Score,” psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk details his positive experiences using IFS with clients who have endured trauma and relationship conflicts.

So tell me: do you better understand Internal Family Systems therapy? Are you inspired to try parts work on yourself now?

From my perspective, Internal Family Systems provides a powerful framework for us to do shadow work on ourselves. Instead of constantly feeling confused by our actions or in conflict with our various parts, we can create more understanding, harmony, and ultimately, improved behavior choices. This simple practice has the power to truly transform you on your self-healing journey!

Jenn Stevens The Self-Worth Project

PS Looking for more? You might also want to check out this post about the complete guide to reparenting, or what are attachment styles.

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What Is Internal Family Systems & How It Can Help You Heal

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