Understanding The Internal Family Systems Model & Our Inner Parts

Understanding The Internal Family Systems Model & Our Inner Parts

The Case of the Less Than Illuminated Lovers

“Hey, Honey, the lightbulb in here just blew out, can you grab me a new one?”

“Sure, no problem,” she replied, grabbed the box with the bulb out of the closet, and brought it into the living room.

He looked at the box in her hands with a mix of suspicion and exhaustion, “what, pray tell, is that?”

“Don’t start with me,” she warned. “You know my brother spent a lot of money on this.”

He stared at the strange looking lightbulb with the exasperated look he gave most of the gifts from his techie brother-in-law, grabbed it out of her hands with a little extra gusto, and started unwrapping it. The darn thing was in more protective packaging layers than the Mars Rover. Perfect. It was then he knew it had happened again; her brother always got them gifts just to make him look useless and stupid. He closed his eyes and sighed.

She’d seen that look before. Her brother, who went out of his way to buy them things to keep them technologically up to date, was being silently attacked. Again. She had been the big sister since her brother was born, and it instantaneously became clear that this was a battle for his honor. So she pasted on her most mocking glare and chided, “oh, I’m sorry, is it too hard for you to change a lightbulb? Should I call my brother and see if he can come over to help you?”

No, she didn’t just go there. She’d known how badly he’d been teased in school growing up, and she was now purposely re-traumatizing him. He suddenly realized what he was sure he’d known all along: she was pure evil. He could hardly hear anything else she was saying above the ringing in his ears as he turned and started rummaging through the closet for his jacket. He needed to leave.

At the sight of the closet door opening, her heart dropped in her chest. Oh my god, he was going to leave her. And the children. And the dog. They were all going to be rejected. And abandoned. And silently judged by the neighbors. It was more than she could bear. “Don’t go!” she wailed, tears welling up in her eyes.

Woman crying fearing her husband will leave her

Seeing the panic across her face, he flashed back to similar scenes from his childhood, picturing his mother moved to tears from his father’s anger. What am I doing? He realized with a sense of dread, I can’t become my father! He pulled her into his arms, “I’m SO sorry!”

“Me too,” she exhaled in relief, still physically shaking from the encounter, “I’ve never really liked my brother’s taste in gifts anyway.”

So how many people did you count?

Most people would say that in the vignette they counted two, or maybe three people if they included the brother. And they would be correct…in a way. But did you notice all of the different “parts” of each person that emerged? There were kind parts, angry parts, paranoid parts, insecure parts, defensive parts, traumatized parts, avoidant parts, terrified parts, ashamed parts. And we could see that each part was triggered at different times, and by different memories or roles from childhood.

And the reality is, once the both of them calm down, as perhaps you and I have done in the past, they’ll think something along the lines of, “Who was that that acted that way? I don’t say things like that! That’s just not me!” And according to Internal Family Systems Theory, they’d be right.

The internal family systems model

Internal Family Systems (IFS) looks at each of our minds as a “family system” of its own. All of us have parts like the ones we saw demonstrated in the vignette. In fact, most of us even use IFS language. We might say something like, “part of me feels scared to take on the new role at work, but part of me feels really excited about it.” We can start to notice that we have different parts who can have completely different feelings and even goals from each other and from our “true self.”

IFS calls these parts “protectors” because they took on these roles us at some time in our lives in order to protect us. For example, one of the male’s parts in the vignette may have taken on an angry/reactive role when he was being teased in school. At that time, his part felt that it had to get angry and reactive to protect him from bullies. Now that he is an adult, he probably no longer needs this kind of protection (especially during not-so-dangerous lightbulb changes), but that part is still protecting the small child in him that was traumatized in grade school.

Moving forward with IFS

The work for the man in the vignette using IFS would be to get to know the angry/reactive part, and then to help heal the traumatized child (or “exile” as it is called in IFS) that it is protecting. And it is this first step that we can all start doing on our own right away. Just by getting to know our parts, we can start separating our “true self” from our “protectors.” We can then know who it is that is talking inside of our heads, and therefore determine what we actually want to say and do in relationships instead of just letting our parts have their say.

In the coming posts, I’ll go into more detail about how to identify and work with parts.

I believe this is very important, as I’d like to propose something fairly bold: the way to have healthy relationships with others is not to start by working directly within those relationships. Rather the only way to have the kind of relationships in our life that we want is to develop and heal our relationships with our own parts. As we get to know our parts, we will finally get to know our “true self,” through which communication with others will become practically intuitive.  And if we want healthy interactions, finding our true self needs to be our priority, because as powerful as technology can be, no light bulb should have enough wattage to burn out a relationship.

2.9k Reads

Holly Grimm
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, MSW, LCSW
Holly is an experienced psychotherapist, her areas of specialization includes individual, couples and family psychotherapy. She helps people overcome trauma, grief, abuse, anxiety disorders etc. She also works with the LGBT community and helps people with life transitioning experiences. She is a trained EMDR clinician and uses mindfulness techniques for pain management. She is a member of National Association of social workers, Association of Applied Psychology and Biofeedback.