←Back to the Mental Health Dictionary

Internal Family Systems Therapy

Desiree Woehrle

What is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a therapeutic modality that takes into account the fact that you have likely built and re-built many versions of yourself over the course of your life. More simply put, there is thought to be a core Self and an indeterminate number of “parts” or subpersonalities working to protect the Self. The goal is not to eliminate or invalidate these parts, but to help them become a less-extreme version of itself.

The name of this modality comes from family systems theory that explains the complex norms, power dynamics, and intricacies of a family and what role each individual plays for better and for worse, seeking to correct dysfunction, imbalance or issue. The assessment phase of the work involves assessing for polarization among parts and among the individual’s family members. The way you relate to your own parts parallels the way you relate to those parts of others. Helping our Self understand why and how not to blend with parts can take some time, especially if we have been a part of an enmeshed family or codependent relationships.

Our various parts operate internally with one another and the Self. A healthy state of mind occurs when the Self is running the show and the parts are sending useful information in non-extreme ways. Parts can show up as feelings, thoughts, images, sensations or something else. As parts become burdened and compete for dominance, polarization and extremism develops.

Foundations of IFS Therapy

The main parts that are discussed in IFS are: managers, firefighters and exiles. Exiles tend to be younger, traumatized, extra-sensitive parts that try with all their might to protect us from fear, terror, pain, embarrassment, etc. Manager parts tend to run day-to-day tasks, keeping the Self in control while preventing rejection and hurt via control, evaluating, caretaking, terrorizing and so on. Firefighter parts are similar to Manager parts in that they too strive to maintain balance by showing up when exiles are activated to control and extinguish their feelings. The means is not always helpful as the firefighter is concerned with protecting from exiles by any means necessary, such as numbing with substance abuse, self-harm behaviors, and high-risk sex, spending, overeating, and so on.

If you’ve experienced “big T OR little t” trauma and PTSD or C-PTSD, your exiles and firefight parts have likely come in handy in surviving bewildering circumstances. The problem here being, they’ve gotten too cocky and need to be brought down a peg so that Self can resume its role as our center, our alignment.

Inner Child Work

Inner child work has long been popularized, especially for therapy-goers who have experienced difficulty in childhood. Other “parts” that are called upon are the protector parts whose job it is to save you from further pain, the manager self that reminds you what “should” be happening, and some exiled parts – usually ones that have developed as a survival response. A common exiled part is the part struggling with addiction or substance misuse, though it can also be the part that over-sympathizes with people who routinely jeopardized or disregard your safety. The work involves obtaining data from these parts non-judgmentally, understanding what purpose they’re trying to serve and how this response became conditioned so you can empathize and integrate with your other parts a more effective solution. Doing so improves communication and integration between all of the parts and Gestalt of your gorgeous multi-dimensional self. Doing so will increase your ability to connect with self-compassion, problem solve and cope with the ridiculousness of life.

All people have parts, even therapists, which is why part of the model involves a client’s Self as co-therapist and therapist parts as additional information when relevant to the work (not therapists’ own stuff). Parts work can help you integrate contradictory feelings, experiences and lifestyle choices with stress-management and solution-finding based on your unique mind-body-soul-spirit-brain connection.

Looking to start therapy

Wanting to Start

Looking for a someone that specializes in

Looking for a someone that is located in

Looking for a someone that specializes in

Looking for a someone that accepts

Internal Family Systems Therapy


MyWellbeing matches you to the right provider that specializes in what matters most to you. Our match form takes less than 5 minutes to complete, and you'll immediately receive 3 provider recommendations that fit your needs. All of the providers on MyWellbeing offer a free phone consultation to assess fit and see if you two should work together. Click below to get matched!

Get Matched

Want more mental health content in your inbox?

Get your free wellness tips and perspective with our monthly newsletter!

About the Author

Desiree W. B., LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and holistic health coach born in Brooklyn. She has provided Mental Health support in NYC for over 13 years serving as a community mental health counselor, group facilitator, researcher and program director before opening her private practice in 2017. Specializing in neurodiversity, chronic anxiety, depression and trauma, therapy with Desiree is a weekly commitment you'll be looking forward to. You'll find yourself able to deeply explore, with increasing ease, the feelings, thoughts, fears, blocks and limitations that have been preventing you from growth, authenticity, security and joy. You can contact Desiree on her MyWellbeing profile or directly on her website here.