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What is Internal Family Systems?

Internal Family Systems, better known as IFS, is a gentle, compassionate approach that supports deeper, long term healing. It’s based on the idea that we all have Parts and that by getting to know and being alongside our Internal Family of Parts we can bring balance and harmony inside.

Our Internal Family of Parts is unique to each of us, however there are key elements common to us all:

  • We all have Parts.

  • There are no bad parts, all Parts are viewed as valuable.

  • Parts have their own unique perspective, thoughts and feelings.

  • They display our individuality including our gifts, quirks and genetic traits.

  • Many of our Parts have good intentions although it may not always appear so.

  • Our Parts form relationships with each other just like people in a family do. Some Parts are more supportive, others can be in conflict with each other and hold opposing views and some Parts might work together as a group.

  • As we work with our own systems they re-organise. Change can be obvious or change may happen behind the scenes that we only begin to recognise later.

  • Parts can get stuck in more extreme roles like our Anxious or Depressed Parts or the Parts of us who use food, alcohol or drugs to manage our experience. These Parts often carry extreme beliefs and feelings and if we create enough safety for these Parts, they can often transform and take on more supportive roles within our system.

Types of Parts

We have two main types of Parts in our Internal Family. Protector Parts and younger more vulnerable Parts that carry some kind of shame based wounding, often referred to as Exiles. There are significant differences and we’ll start with the Protectors.

Our Protector Parts tend to have an agenda of some kind and many have developed strategies to help us to manage our day to day lives, our commitments and our relationships. These are what I would call proactive Protector Parts, often referred to as Managers. They work hard to either prepare for a percieved problem or to avoid a percieved problem. They are active when ‘perceived’ danger is not yet present.

Some common strategies driven by proactive Managers might include: following rules, time keeping, being organised, people pleasing, perfectionism, making sense of things, avoiding conflict, planning ahead, prioritising others needs and following societal expectations. It can also include Parts who might engage in self-criticism or who attempt to control other people's behaviour.

There are other protectors who can be much more reactive and drive compulsive, impulsive or distractive behaviour, often referred to as Firefighters. These Parts are commonly in conflict with our more proactive protectors. Their intention is to offer some kind of relief, however they often have little awareness of consequences and can cause harm both in the short and longer term.

Some common strategies of these reactive Firefighters might include:

  • Self-harming

  • Substance misuse

  • Binge eating

  • Gambling

  • Promiscuity

  • Aggressive/ violent behaviour.

Whether proactive or reactive, our Protector Parts are often attempting to protect us from what is held by one or more of our younger more vulnerable Exiles. These Exiled Parts often carry the emotions, embodied sensation or beliefs from early shame based wounding that commonly originates in the relational experiences of:

  • Rejection

  • Humiliation

  • Fear

  • Abandonment

  • Disconnection

  • Worthlessness

  • Powerlessness

Our Protectors are often fearful of the intensity of the shame based wounding held by our Exiles and will work hard to ensure this does not re-emerge. The intensity to which our Protector Parts dominate is directly linked to the intensity of the shame-based wounding held by our Exiles.

Meeting Self

Not only do we have Parts we also have something much more significant inside. It’s the idea of Self; an undamaged, internal, wise, loving presence that exists at the core of each of us. It can be referred to as simply Self, True Self, Higher Self or the Wise Adult Self. Others interpret this in a more spiritual way and use terms such as Source Energy, Inner Light, Consciousness, Prana or Life Force. I often refer to this as Self or Self Energy and invite you to find a term that works for you.

Many of us are unaware of Self and Self Energy unless we’ve done some kind of deeper work before, but the great thing about accessing Self is that we don’t need to go looking for it. We can learn how to access it simply by practicing noticing and connecting to the body. It is in the noticing and connecting we learn to attune to Self and Self Energy that exists within and around us.

As we attune to Self and Self Energy, we can learn to be alongside our Parts, both Protectors and Exiles, in a way that supports integration, healing and growth. With a little guidance we can learn to access this natural capacity for healing that is inherent with us to resolve many aspects of our lives.

So how do we know when we are in self?

Self can be described as the presence of awareness. A grounded, centred, non-reactive awareness that is simply noticing and being in the present moment. It is the ‘I’ that is not a Part. It is the ‘I’ who is noticing a particular sensation, image or thought, and who has capacity to extend acknowledgment and appreciation to it. It is the ‘I’ who has the intention and ability to bring healing, balance and harmony.

When our Parts are able to soften back, Self is there. It’s always there, it’s just that our Parts can become so intense they obscure it, like clouds covering the Sun. On a cloudy day the sun is still there above us, the clouds just temporarily block access. Once the clouds begin to clear we access the healing and life giving warmth and light of the sun. The same can be said for Self and Self Energy.

So how do we know the difference between Self and Parts?

Self has a different energy from our Parts and can bring a range of healing qualities to our Internal Family. Let’s now look at these in more detail:


  • Curiosity

  • Compassion

  • Courage

  • Confidence

  • Clarity

  • Creativity

  • Calmness

  • Connectedness


  • Presence

  • Patience

  • Playfulness

  • Persistence

  • Perspective

The 8 C’s and 5 P’s are core qualities of Self and Self Energy and as we practice learning about and attuning to Self, we can create our own unique list of Self qualities. If the list here feels overwhelming, I suggest noticing any sense of curiosity or compassion towards your Parts as a great place to begin.


Ready for more...

If you’d like to learn more about a Parts Work approach and get started on healing your relationship with food and your body for good you can access my FREE 20 page guide on Working with Hunger and Fullness through a Parts Lens here.

If you are a professional interested in my 6 week training course you can find out more here.

Celia Clark is a Food and Body Image Specialist, Therapist and Course Creator who uses a Parts Work approach to help smart, sensitive women find true nourishment from within. She loves to share what she knows, so that women around the world no longer have to battle with food, their bodies and themselves.

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