What is a Part?

Working from an Internal Family Systems Model of Therapy

Developed in the 1980s by American therapist Richard Schwartz, Internal Family Systems (IFS) has become an increasingly common therapeutic modality used by mental health clinicians world-wide. A dominant reason for its ever-growing therapeutic application is based in the uncomplicated client-empowering dynamic of exploring parts. But at first engagement, patients often find some confusion in what the terms “parts” mean.

As explained in his book, Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model (2001), Schwartz defines parts as a person’s subpersonalities – internal people, or “insiders” – that are behaviourally or emotionally-based. These insiders are usually best identified through their dominant behaviours (i.e., managers and firefighters) or beliefs (i.e., exiles) and can often be a different age than the body with specific temperaments.

Typically, when working with an IFS-informed clinician, the initial clinical focus seeks to identify the behaviourally-based parts, which are divided into two categories: Those who keep the “system” (client) safe from harm (i.e., managers) and those who distract and soothe the system (i.e., firefighters) once an underlying emotionally-based part (known as an exile – more on the that shortly) has been activated.

The aim of managers (e.g., caretaker, control, judge, passivity, pessimism, planner, self-criticism, striver, etc.) is to operate the system in ways that minimize the activation of underlying emotionally-based parts / exiles. On the other hand, firefighters (e.g., addiction, compulsion, disordered eating, dissociation, distraction, fantasy, obsession, rage, self-harm / self-injury, suicidality, rage, violence, etc.) go into action after the underlying exile has been activated in hopes of re-containing the activated exile.

Subsequent to the identification of a patient’s dominant managers and / or firefighters, the next step is to identify and explore the underlying emotionally-based parts (i.e., exiles).

Consisting of conscious / unconscious flashbulb memories (emotional, vivid, long-lasting memory about a surprising or shocking event) that occurred during the formative (birth to age 8) and relational periods of ones’ life, exiles are often required to be sequestered within the system (body) for their own protection – or for the protection of the system from them. Examples include dependency, fear, grief, loneliness, loss, pain, shame, terror, and worthlessness.

Once the client has established awareness of their dominant parts, clinical work then seeks to identify and explore the underlying burdens (i.e., extreme beliefs, feelings, and / or ideas that governs parts actions). Example: In working with an exile of shame, the goal is to identify when / how / where the shame part first learned the belief that they were undeserving of love and affection then reparent (change and / or heal) the original memory.

This is where the real magic happens: Reparenting is when the client, through their imagination, returns to the memory of their primary emotional injury to establish an empathetic, nurturing, and validating relationship with their younger part, based in principles of genuine acceptance and safety (or good-enough parenting from Attachment Theory models of treatment), in pursuit of liberating and freeing their younger part from outdated memories that have kept the client emotionally arrested in some capacity.

Ultimately, the goal of IFS seeks to enhance the patient’s Self-leadership (i.e., the degree to which the patient can engage with their own system from principles of calmness, clarity, compassion, confidence, connectedness, courage, creativity, and curiosity) and decrease the degree by which the client is parts-led (i.e., behaving / thinking from a part who is constrained by unhealed burdens) so as to establish balance and harmony.

Thinking about integrating IFS into your therapeutic journey? A helpful starting point is to read Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model – details found at the end of this blog.

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Schwartz, R. (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Trailheads Publications.

Want to know more about a specific topic related to psychotherapy? Send me an email (adam@cwcp.ca) and let me know so I can write a blog post about it. And if you would like an honorable mention for your recommendation, let me know that too and I will include your name!

Born and raised in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Adam gained his designations as an Ontario Registered Psychotherapist and Ontario Registered Social Worker following the completion of his master’s in counselling and psychotherapy at the University of Toronto, OISE Campus, in 2016.

Living and working in downtown Toronto, Adam spends any available time in Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon, while offering in-person / online video / telephone sessions from his Toronto office (Church Wellesley Counselling and Psychotherapy) and online video / telephone sessions when he is away in the Yukon.

Want to learn more? Visit https://cwcp.ca/clinician/adam-terpstra