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Understanding Internal Family Systems: A Beginner’s Guide

Haley Stromberg

If you’ve ever experienced inner conflict or felt like there were different parts of yourself competing for control, you’re not alone. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic approach that offers a unique and powerful way to understand and work with these internal dynamics. In this article, we’ll explore what IFS is, how it works, and how it can benefit you.

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?

IFS is a therapeutic model developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the 1980s. It is based on the idea that each person’s psyche is made up of different “parts” that are organized in a complex and dynamic system. These parts can be thought of as different aspects of our personality, each with their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

The goal of IFS is to help individuals better understand and work with their internal parts to reduce inner conflict and achieve greater harmony and balance in their lives. IFS is often used to treat a range of mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues.

The Three Types of Parts in IFS

According to IFS, there are three types of parts that make up our internal system: Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters.

  1. Exiles

    Exiles are parts of ourselves that have experienced trauma or pain in the past. These parts are often vulnerable, scared, and hold painful emotions and memories. Exiles can be seen as “banished” from the rest of the system, and are often kept hidden or suppressed.

  2. Managers

    Managers are parts of ourselves that try to control and protect us from pain and discomfort. They are often very organized, proactive, and goal-oriented. Managers are responsible for keeping us safe and making sure we stay on track.

  3. Firefighters

    Firefighters are parts of ourselves that activate in response to overwhelming emotions or traumatic memories. They are often impulsive, reactive, and focused on immediate relief from distress. Firefighters can manifest as addictive behaviors, self-harm, or other self-destructive patterns.

How IFS Works

The core of IFS therapy is developing a relationship with each of our internal parts. This involves learning to listen to each part, understanding their motivations and needs, and working to heal any wounds or conflicts that may exist within the system.

In IFS, the therapist acts as a guide or facilitator, helping the client to connect with their internal parts and navigate any conflicts or challenges that arise. The therapist also helps the client to develop a sense of self-leadership, where they are able to access their own inner wisdom and make choices that are in alignment with their values and goals.

IFS therapy involves a three-step process that helps individuals connect with their internal parts and work towards integration:

  1. Self-Compassion

    The first step of IFS therapy is to cultivate self-compassion and curiosity. By approaching the various parts of yourself with kindness and curiosity, you can create a safe space for exploration and healing.

  2. Part Identification

    The next step is to identify the different parts of yourself. This can involve exploring how each part feels, what its motivations are, and how it impacts your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

  3. Part integration

    Finally, IFS therapy works towards integrating these different parts. This involves developing a deeper understanding of how these parts interact and learning to work with them in a more harmonious way. Your IFS therapist will help you navigate this, but some parts may need to be unburdened; others may need a change in roles; and still others will need special care and attention from the self.

Benefits of IFS

There are many potential benefits to working with the IFS model, including:

  1. Greater Self-Awareness

    IFS helps individuals to develop a deeper understanding of their own internal dynamics, which can lead to greater self-awareness and insight.

  2. Improved Relationships

    By learning to work with their own internal parts, individuals can develop greater empathy and compassion for others, leading to improved relationships and communication.

  3. Reduced Anxiety and Depression

    IFS can be effective in treating anxiety and depression, as it helps individuals to identify and work with the underlying emotional and psychological causes of these conditions.

  4. Increased Self-Confidence

    Through developing a sense of self-leadership and self-awareness, individuals can become more confident in their ability to navigate challenging situations and make positive changes in their lives.

The Compatibility of IFS with EMDR Treatment

IFS therapy can be a great addition to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment. While EMDR is a powerful therapy for processing traumatic memories, IFS can help clients understand and work with the internal system that has been impacted by trauma. In this section, we'll explore how IFS can be a great addition to EMDR treatment.

How IFS Can Enhance EMDR Treatment

  • Establish safety and trust: IFS can be used at the beginning of treatment to establish safety and trust with the therapist. By helping clients understand their internal system and the parts of themselves that may be impacted by trauma, clients can develop a greater sense of self-awareness and trust in the therapeutic process.
  • Address emotional dysregulation: While EMDR is effective at processing traumatic memories, it may not always address the emotional dysregulation that can come with trauma. IFS can help clients identify and work with parts of themselves that may be contributing to emotional dysregulation, such as anxiety or depression.
  • Address complex trauma: IFS is particularly effective at addressing complex trauma, which involves multiple traumatic experiences over a period of time. By working with the internal system and the various parts of the self that may have been impacted by trauma, clients can experience deeper healing and a greater sense of self-awareness.
  • Help clients access and regulate emotions: IFS can help clients access and regulate emotions, which can be particularly helpful during EMDR treatment. By working with the parts of the self that are associated with emotions, clients can learn to regulate their emotions and feel more in control during the processing of traumatic memories.
  • Address negative self-beliefs: IFS can help clients address negative self-beliefs that may have developed as a result of trauma. By working with the parts of the self that are associated with negative self-talk or self-criticism, clients can develop a greater sense of self-compassion and self-acceptance.

To summarize, IFS therapy can be a great addition to EMDR treatment. By establishing safety and trust, addressing emotional dysregulation, and helping clients access and regulate emotions, IFS can enhance the effectiveness of EMDR treatment. Additionally, IFS can be particularly effective at addressing complex trauma and negative self-beliefs. By using these two therapies together, clients can experience deeper healing and a greater sense of self-awareness. If you are already receiving either IFS or EMDR and would like to incorporate the other modality into your treatment, speak with your therapist about if this is a good approach for you.


IFS is a powerful therapeutic approach that can help individuals better understand and work with their internal parts. By developing a deeper sense of self-awareness and self-compassion, individuals can achieve greater harmony and balance in their lives.

If you’re interested in exploring IFS further, be sure to work with a qualified therapist who is trained in this approach. Greater House Counseling has therapists who would love to help you embark on this journey.


Q: What issues does IFS treat?
A: IFS therapy treats a range of mental health issues and is beneficial for anyone who struggles with internal conflict or emotional regulation. It's particularly effective for individuals who have experienced trauma or have a history of emotional dysregulation and can be a great supplement for EMDR treatment and marital or family therapy.

This article is for educational purposes only. Greater House Counseling does not warrant or assume any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any of the information contained herein.