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Understanding Personality with Internal Family Systems

It is estimated that humans have, on average, 6,000 thoughts per day. That's over 2 million thoughts per year. Crazy, right? We spend much of our waking life inside our heads, hearing (or listening to) thoughts. Some thoughts we believe, and others we don't; some make us feel happy, others make us feel sad; some are in agreement, and others contradict or conflict. Simply put, thoughts are like inner voices dialoguing with each other.

The Pixar film Inside Out portrays this idea brilliantly. It shows us the inside of a young girl's mind that contains several tiny beings working with (or against) each other to help the child make sense of her experience and navigate the world. Although this view of the human mind might sound bizarre, it has established a foothold in Western medicine, psychology, and psychiatry.

Let's consider the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, developed by Richard C. Schwartz. It views the psyche as a system of interactive and interdependent components or parts. In his lyrics, Bob Dylan said it best: "I contain multitudes." Our world is organized into a complex web or ecosystem (family, school, politics, and culture), and in the same way, so is the human mind. As above, so below.

According to IFS, each individual's personality has various parts. Importantly, every part has positive intentions, no matter how destructive its impulses and beliefs may seem. Further, all parts possess unique fears and needs, such that when the needs of one part conflicts with another, they can become polarized. Moreover, any part can develop a burden due to an adverse experience that consequently alters that part's natural tendencies, instilling it with extreme beliefs, emotions, and fantasies. Keep in mind: You are not your parts; your parts are aspects of you. This point is critical. It allows one to view their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours more objectively, as these all belong to parts and therefore cannot encompass any person's entire identity. I describe the different kinds of parts in greater detail below.

Among these parts, though distinct from them, is the Self (not considered a part!). Everyone has Self Energy—a "state of being" that is naturally competent, compassionate, calm, curious and confident. Unfortunately, it is too familiar for burdened parts to hijack or blend with the Self. As a result, the system loses trust in the Self, whose helpful qualities become more challenging to recognize and access.

Every part has a particular role or function within the system to protect or hold wounds. All parts interact with each other and the world, and fall into one of three main categories.

(i) Exiles carry wounds;

(ii) Managers prevent wounds from getting triggered; and,

(iii) Firefighters stop the pain after wounds become activated.

Here is some more information about such parts:


  • Typically, the youngest parts of the system

  • Hold trauma or wounds from childhood (frozen in time) and carry burdens of pain, terror, and fear into adulthood.

  • Rejected by the entire system for the burdens they carry.

    • May thus employ divisive strategies to feel heard and seen within the system


  • Preventative parts that take charge of daily functioning.

  • Intend to provide the individual with some sense of control over relationships and situations by protecting their system (particularly exiles) from (re)experiencing rejection or pain.

    • Fulfill this purpose through striving, controlling, evaluating, caretaking, terrorizing, etc.


  • Reactive parts that aim to neutralize challenging emotions triggered in exiles.

    • May thus resort to drug or alcohol use, self-mutilation (cutting), binge-eating, sex binges, etc.

  • Have the same purpose as managers (i.e., protect the system from exiles), but undertake different methods.

Does the IFS model resonate with you? If so, you may be wondering where to go from here. I believe the first and most crucial step is to turn your focus and attention inwards. Look inside yourself for sources of dissatisfaction, not outside. Listen deeply and intently to the voices or chatter occupying your mind and the continuous dialogue between various parts of your internal system. Become aware of, identify, and befriend your parts.

Begin by finding and focusing on one part (a manager or firefighter). Be curious about where it is located in or around the body and how it looks (shape, colour), sounds, and feels. Reflect on how you feel toward the part. Feeling extreme emotions toward a part (anger, hopelessness) usually indicates that you are not embodying Self Energy, and therefore less capable to heal extreme parts. Explore what the part's positive intentions might be (being in Self Energy is crucial for this step). Ask it about its role in the system and fear (i.e., what wound it is protecting). Journal or meditate upon your findings.

For now, I would suggest refraining from attempts to change the more extreme parts immediately. Patience is key. First and foremost, work towards strengthening your capacity to differentiate Self Energy from your parts. The ultimate goal of IFS is to unburden the wounded parts so that protectors will have fewer reasons to maintain their extreme roles. (Again, this process typically requires significant time, patience, and care and should not be rushed.) Importantly, the Self must seek permission from each protector part before it can successfully access and unburden exiles of the wounds they carry.

You may feel called to read more on this subject: Richard Schwartz's book, No Bad Parts, may be a good place to start. Also, the official IFS website has a bunch of free resources. Consider speaking to your therapist about the IFS model and whether they feel comfortable incorporating it into therapy with you.

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