Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) is a highly effective, relatively new form of therapy. IFS has been proven by research to be effective in treating anxiety, depression, disordered eating, PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, and a number of other psychological and even physical issues.
The main idea of IFS is that the psyche is made up of three different categories of parts: exiles, managers, and firefighters. Psychological parts in each of these categories are essentially subpersonalities with their own distinct—and extreme—ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. In addition to these parts, however, there is also the Self, which is the unconditioned essence within everyone. Unlike the extreme parts, the Self is characterized by clarity, compassion, courage, confidence, and curiosity.
Exiles are the aspects of the psyche that have been frozen in the past through trauma or oppressive family or cultural constraints. They contain overwhelming terror, loneliness, sadness, emptiness, and feelings of worthlessness. When exiles are triggered, people tend to completely lose control and become plunged into overwhelming emotion.
Managers are the aspects of the psyche that prevent the exiles from being triggered by attempting to control our inner and outer worlds. They tend to be harsh taskmasters, and, despite their protective function, often cause serious problems. Self-criticism, anxiety, overachievement, body image issues, and even depression all serve the managerial function of keeping exiles locked away.
When the managers fail in their duty to prevent the activation of the exiles, firefighters rush in to do anything they can to put out the flames of overwhelming emotion. Firefighter activity can take the form of binge eating, excessive drug or alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, self-harming, and even suicide. Needless to say, firefighter activity is often quite destructive, and it tends to lead to profound feelings of shame.
Last but not least, there is the Self. The Self is not so much a part as it is a person’s inmost essence. Where the parts are identifiable by their extreme character, the Self is identifiable by its curiosity, compassion, confidence, clarity, and connectedness. All people, no matter how battered or lost they may seem, have a Self; just as the sun doesn’t disappear on a cloudy day, so the Self can only be obscured, never eliminated, by the extreme activity of its parts.
The goal in IFS is to release exiles, managers, and firefighters from their extreme roles and increase inner harmony by helping people learn to live from the Self rather than being taken over by their different parts.