The Internal Family System (IFS) Model & How to Forward With It

“Hey Honey, I need a new lightbulb because this one just blew out. Can you get me one?”

She said, “Sure, no problem,” took the box with the lightbulb out of the closet, and carried it into the living room.

With a mixture of distrust and fatigue, he peered at the package she was holding and exclaimed, “What, pray tell, is that?”

“Avoid beginning with me,” she cautioned. “You are aware of how much money my brother spent on this.”

With the same annoyed expression he used for most of his tech-savvy brother-in-law’s gifts, he gazed at the peculiar-looking lightbulb before snatching it out of her hands and beginning to unwrap it. The stupid object was wrapped in more layers of protection than the Mars Rover. Perfect. He realized then that it had happened once more—her brother had always given them things in an attempt to make him appear foolish and worthless. Sighing, he closed his eyes.

It was a familiar look to her. Silently, her brother was being assaulted because he made the effort to buy them things that would keep them modern in terms of technology. Once more. It was obvious from the start that this was a fight for her brother’s honor because she had been the big sister since he was born. She then put on her most derisive scowl and admonished, “Oh, I’m sorry, is changing a lightbulb too difficult for you? Shall I give my brother a call to see if he can come assist you?

She didn’t just go there, though. She was intentionally re-traumatizing him since she knew how terribly he had been ridiculed in school as a child. She was pure evil, as he now recognized, something he was certain he had known all along. He turned and began fumbling through the wardrobe for his jacket, barely able to hear anything more she was saying above the ringing in his ears. He had to get out.

Her heart stopped in her chest as soon as she saw the closet door open. He was going to leave her, oh my god. And the kids. and the canine. All of them were going to be turned down. and left behind. And the neighbors silently passed judgment. She was unable to handle it. She cried, tears gathering in her eyes, “Don’t go!”

Observing the fear on her countenance, he relived analogous moments from his early years, envisioning his mother breaking down in tears due to his father’s fury. How am I acting? He understood, fearfully, that he would never be able to become his father. He embraced her and said, “I’m so sorry!”

Still trembling from the encounter, she sighed in relief, “Me too. I’ve never really liked my brother’s taste in gifts anyway.”

Thus, how many individuals did you tally?

The majority of respondents would claim that they counted two, or possibly three if the brother was included, in the vignette. And in a way, they would be right. But did you note how each person’s distinct “parts” came to light? There were pieces of kindness, parts of anger, parts of paranoia, parts of insecurity, parts of defensiveness, parts of trauma, parts avoidance, parts fear, and parts shame. And it was evident that every component was activated at various periods and by various childhood roles or experiences.

And the truth is that after they both settle down—perhaps even you and I have in the past—they’ll say something like, “Who was that that acted that way? It’s not how I say things! I’m just not like that! They would be correct, based on Internal Family Systems Theory.

The model of internal family systems

According to Internal Family Systems (IFS), every one of our brains is a “family system” unto itself. Everybody has components similar to those seen in the vignette. Indeed, the majority of us speak in IFS. We could say something like, “I’m excited about the new role at work, but there’s a part of me that feels scared.” We can begin to see that we are made up of various parts, each of which may feel and even aim very differently from our “true self” and from each other.

Because these duties were assumed by them at some point in our lives in order to safeguard us, IFS refers to these components as “protectors.” For instance, when he was being taunted at school, one of the male characters in the vignette might have become irate or hostile. His portion felt at the moment that it had to react angrily in order to shield him from bullies. Even though he is an adult now and presumably doesn’t need this level of protection anymore (especially during less dangerous lightbulb changes), part of him still needs to be protected because he was traumatized as a young child in elementary school.

Moving forward with IFS

The man in the story would use IFS to heal the traumatized child (or “exile,” as it is known in IFS), by first getting to know the angry/reactive part of himself. And we can all immediately begin taking this initial step on our own. We can begin to distinguish between our “protectors” and our “true self” only by getting to know our components. When we become aware of the people who are speaking to us internally, we can decide what it is that we truly want to say and do in relationships rather of just letting our selfish interests get in the way.

I’ll go into more detail about how to recognize and use parts in the upcoming posts.

This is crucial, in my opinion, because I want to make a quite audacious suggestion: the first step toward developing healthy relationships with other people is not to work actively in those interactions. Instead, we must grow and mend our connections with our own parts if we are to have the kinds of interactions we desire in our lives. Knowing our pieces will ultimately lead us to realize our “true self,” which will make interpersonal communication almost instinctive. And as strong as technology can be, it shouldn’t be able to destroy a connection; instead, if we desire good interactions, discovering our genuine selves must come first.