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Making Space For Every Part of You

By: Joseph Wessex, LADC, LPC-A,NCC

Stage-Fright

Oftentimes I’ve asked myself why I don’t always have concise feelings about the choices
I make in life. It’s normal to feel multiple ways about different things, but take stage-fright for
example. Some individuals want to get up on stage and address a crowd, they know the words,
they rehearse them, and now they finally get on stage, and despite their aptitude, they find
themselves fumbling their performance, choking on their words, and their heart racing. Finally
their time on stage is over and they feel a sense of shame and confusion as to why this is
happening. They may even criticize themselves – “What’s my problem? I hate that I do this… I
wish I could just get rid of this troublesome part of myself!” Our poor imaginary friend, let’s name
them Richard, really seems to not just be struggling on stage, but struggling with himself as well.
If we were to take a closer look at this scenario, we’d see several distinct “parts” of this Richard,
all playing different roles.

Parts of me?

In all of my research, study, and practice within the field of counseling and psychology,
I’ve never found such an integrative method of psychotherapy as one that views an individual as
composed of distinct parts. To use the prior example, when we take a look at the experience of
Richard, we can see several distinct systems at work. There was a part that motivated him to
practice and perform on his own without trouble, and another, anxious part that appeared to
arise while he was on stage. After he was finished, we saw another part that appeared to be
angry at Richard’s stage-fright. To add to this, these parts likely have their own tone of voice in

mind. Identifying and developing a relationship with these parts is the central focus on a type of
counseling theory named Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS).

What are Internal Family
Systems?

Internal Family Systems Therapy seeks
to help individuals develop self-
compassion through exploring and
developing a relationship with these
individual parts as they arise.
Oftentimes, when individuals hear the
words “Internal Family Systems”, they
are reminded of “family therapy”, where
a group of family members sit down with
a therapist and work through their
differences, beginning a practice of compassionately and empathetically relating to each other.
IFS, however, has little to do with involving family members, and in fact is a type of therapeutic
technique that involves focusing on the individual systems of thought and feeling within the
individual person.
In many ways this system of parts resembles a family of personalities inside the
individual. To summarize, the central goal of IFS therapy is to help individual people identify and
learn about the different parts of themselves, their function, intentions, and then develop a
relationship with those parts grounded in compassion and empathy. Healing very hurt parts of
ourselves (referred to as Exiles), is another major goal of IFS therapy.

More About “Parts”

IFS may sound complicated, but it essentially implies that individuals are composed of
distinct “parts”, and these parts are working together in one way or another to help individuals
make their way through life. The term “part” is not the best word to use, but it’s often the word
that gets used by clients the most. For example, it’s not uncommon for someone to feel torn
about a decision they want to make, and will often cite that: “A part of me wants _____, but
another part of me wants _____.” One of the most common examples of parts-at-work is

demonstrated frequently by individuals that try to break habits. A part of that individual wants to
break the habit, while another very real part continues to engage in said habit. In some ways,
these parts have their own personality, and understanding how these personalities can manifest
at the same time, helps explain complex and conflicting emotional reactions.

Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles

Internal Family Systems theory proposes that there are three different types of parts:
Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles. Each of these has their own general set of functions. All the
parts work together, performing their individual roles in order to address challenges, react to
stress, and heal trauma when possible. Below is a breakdown of these different parts’ general
roles.

Managers

Parts of yourself IFS

Manager parts are the parts of us that help us
manage day-to-day life. You can even think of them
as a collection of suited professionals that attempt to
react to and navigate your life in the best way they
can. Individuals have more managers than any other
type of part due to the many roles they must play on
a daily basis. Managers help us get through
meetings, stay focused on lectures, order coffee,
apologize for misbehavior, think, overthink, and
remember tasks.

Firefighters

 

Firefighters are parts that give relief toparts of the self
managers, when they can no longer do
their job. A good example of a firefighter
at work would be an individual getting
home to their family at the end of a very
stressful work day, ignoring everyone in
the house, and proceeding to drink beer,eat cake, and binge watch the entire Star Wars Trilogy until they pass out. In this case, the
individual manager parts have been working so hard to keep working a stressful job, that they
no longer have the energy to embody empathy and interact with their family in a meaningful
way. At this point, the central goal of the firefighter is helping the individual gain a sense of
relief, at all costs. Think of how an actual firefighter will destroy anything in their path to save the
person who is trapped. That is how firefighters in IFS theory operate. Another all-too-common
example would be alcoholism and drug addiction.

Exiles

IFS parts of the self

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, there are Exiles. Exiles are parts that we often do not want to feel. They are parts that have felt pain, embarrassment, or grief and are usually linked to traumatic events or recurring negative themes in one’s life. An example of this would be a child being
screamed at by their parents on a regular basis, and then repressing those memories and feelings (exiling them). Manager parts will bury
these feelings or distract the individual so that they do not have to actively feel the pain.
Managers and firefighters will do everything they can to repress and ignore these hurt exiled
parts. An example of a manager at work doing exactly this, would be the ability to stop crying, or
prevent crying, despite feeling pain. Working with managers and firefighters in a compassionate
way is the central path to healing old traumas.

The Self

IFS Parts of self

So exactly what part are the exiles
being hidden from? Managers and
firefighters often hold the belief that
the negative energy from the exiled
parts are too great for an
individual’s “Self” to handle.

 

The Self is not considered a part per se, however the Self is a collection of attributes ranging from
compassion to creativity.
“Self-energy” fuels positive growth in parts and is required in order to heal exiles.
Contrary to the beliefs of the managers and firefighters, to say it poetically, exiles are like hurt
children who need their parent’s (the Self’s) loving compassion in order to work through their
pain and heal.

Everyone Benefits!

All that being said, Internal Family Systems theory is for much more than just trauma
resolution and habit-breaking. IFS is a way of developing more self-compassion, awareness,
and a greater feeling of choice in one’s actions. Anyone can learn how to relate to themselves
using an IFS framework, regardless of having any mental health struggles. We all have these
parts, and they look differently between individuals. We all have exiled parts as well, regardless
of trauma history. Regardless of the theoretical lens, developing a well-rounded,
compassionate, and proactive relationship with oneself is a sure-fire way to foster continued
growth throughout one’s life

If you are interested in learning more about Internal Family Systems or would like to schedule an appointment with Joseph, call 860-740-2228 or email at  joseph@nmccct.com.