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Internal Family Systems overview

Internal Family Systems overview published on 1 Comment on Internal Family Systems overview

Internal Family Systems [TM] is a mode of therapy that identifies various subpersonalities inside us and, as part of the therapeutic relationship with our therapists, identifies the roles and functions of the subpersonalities. The description below of Internal Family Systems comes from my interpretation of a summary of the practice here.

IFS believes in three types of subpersonalities — managers, exiles and firefighters — and a Self. A Self is defined as the authentic core of a person, an integrated system of consciousness and traits. Removed somewhat from the turmoil of managers, exiles and firefighters, it is competent and wise, full of compassion for the more fragmented subpersonalities. The Self is not a subpersonality.

As for subpersonalities, one group of them is the managers. As rule makers, managers demarcate the boundaries between the Self and the firefighters and the exiles. Managers are like border guards that want to keep everyone in their own little worlds. Managers are very invested in the smooth function of the whole person, so they may emphasize order, organization, rationality and rule-following. They remind me of the Freudian superego.

Another group of subpersonalities is exiles. Exiles are little, lost, lonely parts of ourselves, often remnants from childhood that we have hidden away. We can think of them as unhappy pieces of ourselves that we have shoved in a closet. Exiles can be strong and insistent in their demands because they want nothing more than to have attention paid to them.

Causing interference between exiles and everything else are the firefighters. When the exiles start to come out of the closet, the firefighters step in. The firefighters may be characterized as panicky, dancing distractions, personalities that we take on when things, such as sensations from our exiles, seem too overwhelming. Maladaptive coping strategies such as emotional eating, watching TV till one is in a stupor or getting smash-assed drunk commonly identify firefighters.

With all the managers, exiles and firefighters running around, it’s a very busy place inside us! According to IFS, we are often confused, our behavior directed by the immediate demands of an exile or by the stringent control of a manager or by the escapist fantasies of a firefighter…instead of by the calm, wise compassion of the Self.

IFS uses the idea of subpersonalities to help us identify our managers, exiles and firefighters, become conscious of how they act and why and talk to them so that we understand them. Once we understand the motivations of our subpersonalities, we can respond compassionately to them from our Selves. We may be able to change our subpersonalities’ behaviors so they aren’t so detrimental; we might even be able to integrate them into our Selves so that we can be more whole.


I have the following questions. 1) How do managers and firefighters differ? Both seem to be ways to manage the appearance of exiles. 2) If one is hung up on identifying with, say, the managers instead of one’s Self, how does one learn to get in touch with one’s Self? 3) In general, I understand the point of identifying and working with subpersonalities, but why is integration always heralded as the ultimate goal? 4) Oh yeah…and what does this mean for the world beyond the individual?

1 Comment

Reading this and making analogies to my own life, managers seem different from firefighters in this way….

The manager in me embarked on the effort to lose some weight.

The firefighter in me was the one that used to encourage me to starve myself when I got upset, so I could get the endorphins but also feel sorry for myself.

Make any sense?

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