Internal Family Systems: When You Can’t Agree with Yourself

Sometimes the hardest battle we face can be the battle within. In this post, Mary Kate Sowell, MS, LMFT and trained Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapist provides an overview of IFS in easy to understand language and describes how "Self leadership" can lead to inner balance and thoughtful direction. Read on to learn more about how IFS can facilitate clarity and calm in your inner world that leads to better choices in your outer world.
Person A: Girl, break up with him! He is such a mess.
Person B: No, don’t leave him! Your expectations are just too high.
Person A: I disagree, you could easily find better.
Person B: With that kind of thinking, you’ll never settle down! Your mom is right, you are too picky.
What if I told you this dialogue was not between two friends, but rather an internal dialogue? In fact, the script above is meant to be an example of the internal battles parts of us can get caught in. When we can’t agree with ourselves, the distress we face gets real: decision fatigue, shame, anxiety, guilt, uncertainty, burn out… these are common symptoms of a person lacking Self Leadership. In this blog, I’ll give you an overview of how Internal Family Systems or IFS (an evidence-based, trauma-informed treatment approach) helps folks access more internal harmony through access to their core “Self.”
We can use the Pixar film, Inside Out (Docter, 2015) to help lay the framework for this approach. If you haven’t seen the film, it centers around an internal world inside a young girl’s brain, filled with 5 personified emotions: anger, fear, joy, sadness, and disgust. IFS coins the term ‘part’ to give a name for these characters within us. Like parts in IFS, the emotions in Inside Out are dynamic characters, richer in depth than a singular emotion. Joy, for example, showed a wide display of emotions throughout the film. She had specific values and a distaste for Sadness. Similarly, in our own internal work, parts are more than the emotions/thoughts that they bring us. They have core drives and fears. They are dynamic characters with specific values and desires for us.
Beyond parts, IFS presses the importance of access to the Self. Inside Out depicts self as the actual people in the story. Riley, for example, is the school-aged protagonist that is entirely unaware of these parts inside her mind that are controlling her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. She is made up of them, but is also separate from them. Although it’s not depicted in the film, IFS would say Riley has the ability to reclaim power over her internal world. She does not have to be subject to the negative consequences of conflict between her emotions. In fact, if she could have reclaimed power over her internal world in the film, she may not have escalated to running away in the middle of the night or lashing out at her parents inappropriately. She would have had the “self leadership” to take control of her own system.
So how can we do this? The first step is knowledge; getting to know these characters within us. From there, we may be able to reclaim the driver’s seat and use these parts as childlike consultants. To offer some guidance to understanding the parts within our unique system, IFS divides these parts into three categories, based on the roles they play that keep us safe and functioning. These types of roles are: Managers, Exiles, and Firefighters.
Generally speaking, most people trust their managers above their other parts. This is because managers are primarily focused on control. Managers want you to feel empowered and ‘put together’ so that unwanted feelings are less likely to be triggered. Examples of managers would include those parts of us that are caregivers, inner critics, driven employees, obedient Christians, etc. Managers wake us up with coffee in the morning, ready to start the day with fervor!
Inevitably, our managers can’t keep us in control of everything at all times. When they become weary, or something beyond our control triggers internal wounds, exiles flood our systems with full force. Exiles are the parts of ourselves that carry the burdens of old wounds/traumas. Exiles hold unwanted emotions, false beliefs about ourselves, and painful memories. This weighs on them deeply. Our managers work to keep exiles away, but once exiles have a chance to speak, they often overwhelm us with their emotions. This ensures that we have no choice but to hear them and care for them.
Once our system gets a whiff of an exile’s arrival, our firefighters quickly enter the scene to soothe and distract from the pain. While managers are concerned about control and maintenance of health and relationships, firefighters are unconcerned. They are willing to go to any length to reduce pain. They are willing, even, to harm our body or relationships if it will do the job. Because of this, firefighters often engage in risky behaviors, including self-harm, aggression, substance use, over-eating, and more. Firefighters are not always so extreme, however. They may look like that special frozen treat and dose of nighttime ‘scrolling’ after a difficult day. They may lead us to exercise or prayer. Regardless, their focus is on distraction and soothing. Once the emotional temperature has reduced in the system, firefighters hand the power back to our managers, leaving us feeling back in control of our lives.
As we can see, this is a careful balance. If any one of our parts lost their role, the whole system would have to adjust. This is where self-leadership becomes crucial. So what is “self”? Self is a spiritual essence in each of us. Many world religions have words to explain the phenomenon of self. As Christians, we would likely describe this as our soul, or the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. Self has no agenda, self does not grow weary, self is described in IFS as containing the following attributes: creativity, calm, connectedness, confidence, clarity, courage, compassion, curiosity, and playfulness. When self is able to function as the leader of our system, parts do not have to operate as if their jobs are so high-stakes. They are able to relax, offering greater inner balance and direction. They trust you to take care of them.
Already, as you have read this blog post, you may have grown in awareness of certain parts of your own internal system that are battling against one another. In gaining this insight, you have already accessed more “self.” This is a powerful first step! If you are struggling with symptoms fed by inner conflict and would like to turn insight into action, consider reaching out to a trained IFS therapist like myself. In therapy, we will use the insight that there are ‘No Bad Parts’ to reduce your manager’s need for control, adjust the bad habits of your firefighters, and heal your hurting exiles. The possibilities are endless. IFS is an evidence-based treatment approach that has shown to be effective in the treatment of PTSD (Hodgdon et al., 2021), depression (Haddock et al., 2016), rheumatoid arthritis pain (Shadick & Sowell, 2013), and internet addiction (Mehrad Sadr et al., 2023) to name a few. If you are interested in learning more about how IFS can help with difficulties you may be experiencing, I’d love to meet with you! If you are interested in connecting with me or another ALCS counselor, please contact our office.

Mary Kate counsels clients from our North Austin location. Mary Kate helps individuals, couples and families as she addresses trauma, anxiety, depression,  attachment wounds, problematic behaviors in children, parenting, divorce, blended family issues, sexuality, infidelity, and chronic conflict. For more information about Mary Kate's practice click here, or feel free to email Mary Kate at
Docter, P. (Director). (2015). Inside Out [Film]. Pixar animation studios.

Haddock, S. A., Weiler, L. M., Trump, L. J., & Henry, K. L. (2016). The efficacy of Internal Family Systems therapy in the treatment of depression among female college students: A pilot study. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43(1), 131-144.

Hodgdon, H. B., Anderson, F. G., Southwell, E., Hrubec, W., & Schwartz, R. (2021). Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among survivors of multiple childhood trauma: A pilot effectiveness study. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 31(1), 22-43.

Mehrad Sadr, M., Borjali, A., Eskandary, & H., Delavar, A. (2023). Design and validation of a therapy program based on the internal family systems model and its efficacy on internet addiction.  Journal of Psychological Science, 22(121), 19-36. doi:10.52547/JPS.22.121.19

Shadick, N. A., Sowell, N. F., Frits, M. L., Hoffman, S. M., Hartz, S. A., Booth, F.
D., . . . Schwartz, R. C. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of an Internal Family Systems-based psychotherapeutic intervention on outcomes in rheumatoid arthritis: A proof-of-concept study. Journal of Rheumatology, 40(11), 1831-1841.