Internal Family Systems and Anxiety

Internal Family Systems and Anxiety

hands crossed

As a trained couple and family therapist, I have always advocated for getting as much of the family in the room as possible. I do this because, at the core of the couple and family therapy discipline is the belief that individuals do not experience life alone in a vacuum. They have partners, family, friends, and environments that influence their lives in a multitude of ways. Whether addressing challenges related to mental illness, relationships, identity, family, academics, work, or any other struggles, all are best treated within the context of a client’s “relational system”. So, what does this look like with individual clients? About eighty percent of my clients are seeing me for individual therapy. Historically, my individual therapy work was grounded in understanding “multiple selves” and individual may bring into the therapy room. The idea that we wear many “hats”; we can be very different people depending on the environment and the social interaction occurring. Treatment goals were often focused on grounding and individuals’ identities in authenticity and letting that authenticity drive decision making. This style of therapy in my early work developed into using the Internal Family Systems Model as my core model.

The Internal Family Systems Model

Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) is an integrative mode regularly used in individual therapy. It combines systems thinking with the view that one’s mind is made up of relatively distinct sub-personalities each with its own perspective and qualities. IFS therapists use family systems theory to understand how these collections of sub-personalities or “parts” are organized. These parts are forced out of their valuable roles by life experiences that can re-organize or “wound” the system in unhealthy ways. These sub-personalities contain wounded parts and painful emotions like anger and shame, and parts that attempt to control and protect the person from the pain of the wounded parts. The sub-personalities are often in conflict with one another and with one’s core Self, an idea that describes the confident, compassionate, whole individual that is at the core of every person.

Developed in the 1990s by family therapist Richard Schwartz, a family therapist in the 1990’s, developed the concept of core self or the “undamaged essence of who you are”. He further identified three different types of sub-personalities or families that reside within each person, in addition to the Self.

  • Exiles – our wounded parts that carry the emotions, memories and sensations from traumatic events (such as hurt, grief, humiliation, fear, shame). In the IFS model, exiles are like our inner children that need attention. When we ignore or repress them, they find new ways to create pain until we finally acknowledge them and their needs.
  • Managers – whose job is to keep us functional and safe from circumstances that could trigger or re-open the wounds that the exiles carry. Managers keep the exiles locked in their inner closets as repressed feelings that we are often unconscious we are repressing. Managers are like parents trying to keep your exiles under control.
  • Firefighters – jump into action whenever one of the managers fails to do its job. This is your “fight or flight” response. Firefighters do damage control by shoving the exiles back into the closet to prevent more pain. The irony is that by not addressing the source of the original feelings that created the exile, firefighters create even deeper pain that further alienates the exiles.

The great news is that these parts can be healed and better managed by the Self in achieving the three goals of IFS:

  • Free the parts from their extreme roles
  • Restore trust in the Self
  • Coordinate and harmonize the Self and the parts, so they can work together as a team with the Self in charge.

Anxiety and IFS

I have found “parts work” in IFS to be very effective in treating anxiety with my individual clients. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (AADA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. However, only about one-third of those who struggle with anxiety receive treatment.

In parts work, an anxiety is triggered in the system when an exiled part (carrying extreme feelings and/or beliefs) gets triggered.

For example, if you are feeling anxious about presenting at your business meeting there may be a younger exiled part holding a memory of being shamed while giving a speech standing in front of the class in school. This part may flood you with its anxiety to get your attention, often resulting in your firefighter protector stepping in.

Firefighters are aware of the anxiety belonging to the exiled part and do what they can do distract the system from allowing the exiled part into awareness. Firefighters may attempt to resolve the anxiety of the exile by frantic activity, using drugs or alcohol, overwork; or any thought, activity or substance that enables distraction. They may bring tension, migraines or body pain into the system in order to shift the focus to what they are creating. Firefighters experience a real sense of urgency which makes them unconcerned with the consequences of their actions.

Managers of the system are critical of the firefighters and their methods for managing anxiety. When we are working with firefighting parts it is important to bring our compassion to them and recognize what a tough time they are having. The methods firefighters use that result in them often being rejected by our managers and society at large, nonetheless, doing their best to protect the system.

When a firefighter is valued for the work they do they may allow access to the exiled part with whom they are protecting. When the goals of the fire fighter and the manager align in helping the system no be overwhelmed by the exiled part, the firefighter often steps back sufficiently to allow you to work with the exile.

Chronic anxiety occurs when an exile is constantly trying to come into consciousness – to be witnessed, understood and unburdened – and activating firefighter activity all the time. Assuring these parts that they can relax enough to unblend from you, that they will get the attention they require, can provide enormous relief to the system.

The overarching goal of IFS is to work towards a place where your “parts” trust your core-Self to attend to the needs of the exiles. In this was your managers and firefighters can step aside. Being “Self-led”, meaning, when you can speak intentionally for your parts rather than from them. It is in these moments that we truly become our authentic selves.


Anderson, F. G., Sweezy, M., & Schwartz, R. C. (2017). Internal family systems skills training manual: Trauma-informed treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD & substance abuse. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media

D. (2016). Loving All Your Parts: An Introduction to IFS. Retrieved April 2, 2019, from

Scott, D., Dr. (n.d.). Exploring Your Own System [The Internal Family Systems Model]. Retrieved April 2, 2019, from

John Devine, AMFT

Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

Matthew Bruhin & Associates

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