Skip to the main content.

3 min read

Managers, Exiles, and Firefighters: How Internal Family Systems Therapy Works

In the therapy world, there are hundreds of modalities, or methods of therapy, that each differ in their execution, effectiveness, and the theory behind them.

One such modality is internal family systems therapy. Inspired in part by family systems therapy, a form of family therapy, internal family systems therapy is an individual therapy - that is, one-on-one with the patient and the therapist.

Internal family systems therapy has many applications. Let's explore this form of therapy and discover how it may be able to help with mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and trauma.

Internal Family Systems Therapy Resources on This Page:

What is the internal family system?

What is internal family systems therapy used for?

What is internal family systems therapy NOT used for?

Is internal family systems therapy effective?

IFS Therapy in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

What is the internal family system?

The internal family system refers to the way an individual's brain thinks about itself. If you have ever said something like, "Well, one part of me wants to tell the truth, but another part of me is afraid they will get upset," then you were referring to your internal family system.

There are three main categories that the "members" of your internal family system can be filed into: managers, exiles, and firefighters.

Definition Template (3)

What are managers in IFS therapy?

In the context of internal family systems therapy, managers are the dominant active portion of your internal family. They are responsible for daily function and for keeping the other, nastier parts of your mind at bay.

What are exiles in IFS therapy?

Exiles, in IFS, are the “bad” stuff. Past trauma, shameful memories, and bad thoughts are all exiles. Managers work to keep these exiles in the background so that they don't cause distress. Sometimes, however, they break through and begin to surface. That's where the next category comes in.

What are firefighters in IFS therapy?

Firefighters are the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that exist as a last line of defense (and often an unhealthy coping mechanism) when exiles rear their heads.

Some firefighters can be good, and others can be bad. Binge-drinking, for example, may exist as a firefighter so that the patient doesn't have to relive the traumatic memory of their abusive father (which would be, in this example, an exile.)

All of these parts make up your mind as it is now. But there is another concept in IFS that represents who you really are: the Self.

What is the Self in IFS?

The Self refers to your core self, or who you would be without all of the extra stuff. The Self may be found during therapy and can be optimized so that all parts of you exist together in harmony.

During IFS therapy, your therapist will observe and analyze the way your internal family system interacts with itself. By defining and expanding on "parts" of your psyche, IFS therapy can be a productive treatment for things like depression and anxiety.

The Self consists of many positive traits:

  • Confidence
  • Calmness
  • Creativity
  • Courage
  • Compassion
  • Connectedness
  • Clarity
  • Curiosity
  • Presence
  • Perspective
  • Persistence
  • Playfulness
  • Patience

Each of these can be fostered to work with the patient's exiles, managers, and firefighters.

What is internal family systems therapy used for?

Internal family systems therapy is used for many different mental health concerns. Here's a quick rundown of the problems that may be treated with internal family systems therapy.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trauma
  • Phobias
  • Substance Abuse

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

How is IFS therapy used for mental health concerns?

When addressing these issues in IFS therapy, the therapist will first detach the exiles, firefighters, and managers from their most extreme, unhealthiest forms.

For example, if a manager part of your mind is responsible for preventing the exiled memory of childhood bullying from surfacing, its extreme role may be over-defensiveness in everyday situations.

Your therapist will work with you to devise a method for reducing the role of that particular manager.

Next, your therapist will work to rebuild your ability to trust in your Self - that is, to not use managers and firefighters to cover up problems, and to trust the positive traits mentioned above to come through.

Finally, your therapist will instruct and guide you on how to integrate your Self and your managers. firefighters, and exiles so that they coexist as the "real you."

Of course, this is a very simplified description - expect variations depending on your specific case.

What is internal family systems therapy NOT used for?

IFS therapy is not used in cases of psychosis or schizophrenia.

Mental health professionals have observed that using the idea of multiple selves can be very harmful for those with delusions or distortions of reality.

Is internal family systems therapy effective?

In short, yes. There are many studies that indicate a high success rate for IFS therapy - some as high as 90% efficacy.

Other studies show IFS therapy to be roughly as effective as antidepressant medications.

While there is always room for more research, these studies show that IFS has a high probability of success under certain conditions.

Note that there is no guarantee that IFS therapy is right for you. Speak with your therapist to discover your treatment options.

IFS Therapy in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

If you feel that you would benefit from internal family systems therapy, your first step is to reach out to a licensed mental health professional.

Once you book an appointment, you will be able to discuss your presenting symptoms with them and provide the context and history they need to assess your treatment options.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, every member of our staff is a doctoral-level psychologist. That means unparalleled experience and, by extension, unparalleled quality of care.

Your mind is a precious and highly valuable thing. Our team is ready to help you protect, maintain, and improve it.

Book an appointment online or give us a call to let our patient coordinator match you with the right therapist. Feeling better may be closer than you think.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

 a gay man

Exposing Mental Health Disparities for LGBTQ: Understanding the Gaps and Seeking Solutions

Understanding LGBTQ Mental Health Challenges When it comes to mental health challenges, individuals that are a part of the LGBTQ+ community...

Read More
A man dealing with some emotions

What Is Emotional Rational Therapy: Understanding the Science Behind Emotional Balance

An Introduction to Emotive Rational Therapy Developed by psychologist Albert Ellis in the 1950s as an alternative to psychotherapy, rational emotive...

Read More

How to Tell If Therapy Is Working: The Ultimate Guide

When it comes to therapy, it can be difficult to know if you're making progress...especially if you're new to the process. Changes happen gradually,...

Read More