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IFS Therapy and Why You Should Listen to the Voices in Your Head

If you’re like a lot of the clients I help every day, chances are good you’ve been to therapy before but haven’t found the answers, results, or relief you’ve been looking for.

Sure, talking about your problems has helped relieve some of the tension they cause …

Yes, some of the coping mechanisms you’ve learned to better handle anxiety, depression, and relationship issues may have proven helpful from time to time …

But you still don’t feel much closer to living the meaningful, joyous life you know deep down inside is possible.

If this sounds at all familiar, then Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy may be worth a try!

What Is IFS Therapy?

In the 1980s, Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy, was an Adjunct Faculty member of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who had been trained in Family Systems theory.

Family Systems theory is based on the idea that our behaviors are closely related to the various roles we play in our families. Accordingly, if a person can change their family system and the roles they play, then they can change themselves.

Unfortunately, Dr. Schwartz found the Family Systems approach wasn’t working with some of his clients.

However, he noticed a pattern. Many of his clients talked about different parts of themselves.

This, in and of itself, isn’t really remarkable. We all do this …

How many times have you thought to yourself or said out loud to someone else something like, “Part of me wants to look for a new job, but another part thinks it’s the worst possible time to do so” or “Part of me thinks this relationship just won’t work, but part of me knows we still have a chance to make it better?”

But Dr. Schwartz noticed an interesting pattern …

Typically, clients would discuss an “inner critic” who would belittle the client’s efforts, call them names, and generally mock and denigrate whatever the client did, valued, or attempted. This internal critic would often be followed by another “part” that would feel empty, alone, and hurt by this criticism. And then would frequently follow some sort of impulsive action (usually acting out in some way or some sort of addictive or compulsive behavior). But this impulsive acting out would then bring back the critic and the cycle would repeat, over and over again.

To Dr. Schwartz, this sounded just like the escalating sequences of circular interactions he saw in so many family systems. But, this isn’t a “family system” … it’s an “internal family system!”

Accordingly, Dr. Schwartz began using some of the same techniques he’d used to help family members communicate with one another to help his clients communicate more effectively with the different parts of themselves.

The Roles Our Parts Play

While all of us have a multitude of parts or aspects to our personalities – none of which are identical to anyone else’s – Internal Family Systems views each of our parts as falling into one of three main categories:

  1. Managers
  2. Exiles
  3. Firefighters

Most of us spend the majority of our lives living as one of our “manager” parts, often believing this manager to be who we really are. But our managers are not our true Self. The managers are the aspects of our personalities that help us function responsibly and interact with people and the world in ways that protect us from pain and keep our “exile” parts from flooding us with emotions.

Our “exile” parts often originate in childhood and are the parts or aspects of our personalities that take on and hold our trauma, shame, and pain in order to protect our true Self. Unfortunately, in doing so, they often become stuck in this pain, and the rest of the internal family system revolves around keeping them quiet so we don’t experience this pain in our day-to-day lives.

The “firefighter” parts typically only come to the fore when the managers are unable to keep the exile quiet. Firefighter parts use more extreme behaviors (acting out in some way or some sort of addictive or compulsive behavior), to distract us from our exile’s pain.

It’s important to note that there are no “bad” parts.

All of these parts of ourselves are operating with the best of intentions. Even when the firefighters engage in seemingly harmful or self-destructive behaviors, they’re doing so in an attempt to protect us from the exile’s pain. It’s the relationship each of our parts has with the others that can either be healthy and in alignment or dysfunctional.

Connecting with Your True Self

At the center of the IFS model, and each and every one of us, is the true “Self” … The “real you” and the “real me.”

Our true Self is essentially the “ideal being” that lies inside all of us, and it has a profound capacity for healing.

Unfortunately, while we all have a true Self at our core that is the natural leader of our internal family system, many of us are unaware of its existence. This is because the vast majority of us experienced some form of painful or traumatic experiences in childhood that led to the creation of our exile and protector parts, which assumed control of the system in order to protect the Self.

The goal of Internal Family Systems therapy is to help you get in touch with your various parts, to help free your exiled parts from the pain they’ve been carrying, so that all of your parts feel safe enough to let you connect with your true Self and let it harmoniously lead the family system.

Does IFS Therapy Work?

Unlike many other therapeutic systems, IFS works from the idea that your true Self knows what you need and already has the capacity to heal, grow, and create the change you seek.

Accordingly, an IFS therapist isn’t going to necessarily treat your symptoms or “heal” you … an IFS therapist will help you get in touch with your parts and restore their trust in your Self, so that you can heal your parts and become truly “Self-directed.”

As to its effectiveness, IFS therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, relieve chronic pain, as well as help people overcome grief and loss, trauma, addictive and compulsive behaviors, and relationship issues.

But most important of all, by helping you integrate all of the parts of your personality, get in touch with the strength and resilience your true Self possesses, and deepen your Self-awareness, IFS therapy can help you create your own healing and growth, live more freely from your authentic Self, create the relationships and life you truly desire, and have fun doing it!

So, if you’ve been to therapy before and haven’t gotten all you’ve wanted out of it, then Internal Family Systems therapy may be just what you need to listen to the voices in your head and discover the answers that have been inside you all along.

If you have any questions regarding this article, or if I may be of any other assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me at 510-735-8868 or email me at I look forward to speaking with you and helping you create a life you truly love living!

Beyond Words Psychotherapy – IFS Therapy and Why You Should Listen to the Voices in Your Head

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