How Many Personalities Do You Have?


The Usefulness Of Understanding Your Different ‘Parts’


I recently did some training in a new type of therapy – well new to me, but it’s been around for about 20 years – called ‘Internal Family Systems’ (IFS) therapy, developed by Richard Schwartz from the US. I wanted to share some of the central ideas of IFS that I’ve found particularly powerful in my work with my clients, and in my own life.

What Is IFS?

IFS proposes that the human mind is made up of different parts – almost like ‘personalities’ – that interact, and can be in conflict with one another. Sometimes, as a result of difficult early (or later) life experiences, these parts can take on extreme and self-defeating roles.

IFS characterises our parts into two main types: the ‘exiles’ that carry negative beliefs and emotions learnt from early childhood experiences (e.g. “I’m bad”, “I’m unloveable” – which someone may feel, for example, as a hard rock in their stomach or a pressure in their chest), and ‘protectors’ that manage our interactions with the world to avoid further emotional pain. In the IFS model protectors can be further characterised as ‘firefighters’ (parts that reactively manage emotional pain (e.g. bingeing on food when feeling sad) or ‘managers’ (parts that proactively manage emotional pain (e.g. perfectionism, trying to stay in control).

Importantly, the IFS model also specifies an additional part of the human psyche – referred to as the ‘Self’. IFS posits that ‘Self’ is who we are when we are not taken over by a part. The ‘Self’ has the capacity to lead our other parts so that we can make healthy life choices and live a valued life.

Why Is IFS Helpful?

I felt drawn to IFS for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reminded me that human beings, even when faced with the most adverse circumstances, are wired for psychological survival. IFS encourages us to treat all our protector parts with the utmost respect – their origin and function always makes sense. Secondly, the idea of the ‘Self’ as being present no matter the extent of the person’s difficulties/trauma history really speaks to the inherent resilience of human beings, which I observe daily in my practice.

Overall, IFS provides a powerful, user-friendly model of understanding the complexities of the human mind and may be useful for treating difficulties such as low self-esteem, procrastination, low mood, and anxiety. There is also emerging evidence for IFS in the treatment of complex trauma.

Brittany McGill is a clinical psychologist who completed her postgraduate clinical training at the University of New South Wales. She is interested in anxiety and mood disorders across the lifespan and uses cognitive-behavioural and other evidence-based strategies to help people achieve positive change in their lives.


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