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  • Natalie Dressler

Understanding the Parts Inside

Certified IFS therapist maple ridge

Have you ever heard of the concept that we have parts inside? Most of us have felt conflicted inside at some point in our life. We may have even told someone something like "one part of me feels like I have to get this done, but another part of me just wants to relax".

Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, says that we all have many parts inside that help us function and survive. He also says that we all have an inherent "Self" that tends to feel the qualities of compassion, clarity, curiosity, calm, courage, creativity, connectedness and confidence. This Self is what can lead the whole system and is inside of all of us.

He says that we have three main types of parts: Managers, Firefighters and Exiles:

Exiles are the parts of us that hold onto painful life experiences, unmet needs and hopes. They often feel things like fear, shame, terror and aloneness. Many of these exiled parts are young, but can also be from older times of pain in our life. Our brain cleverly organizes into managing and firefighting parts so that we can function and don't have to feel this pain all of the time.

Managers are those that help us to manage our life and are preventative in nature. They are the parts of us that worry, criticize, work hard, caretake, or control. They will do whatever they can to prevent us from feeling the exiled parts inside that hold our pain.

Firefighters are reactive in nature. They jump in after our exiled parts are exposed. For example, we may feel an exiled part that holds onto experiences of rejection when a friend forgets to include us. The firefighting parts will come in to try to numb out the pain of this. For some this looks like addiction, for others this looks like binging on food, pornography use, cutting, or numbing out on the phone.

It can be helpful to start "mapping" out your own parts. A simple way to try this is to tune into your feelings, body sensations, and thoughts and notice what is present. Often parts show up through the sensations in your body, but other times they are felt in your thoughts or share things through images or memories.

Once you tune in you can start to write down what you notice.

A parts map might look like this:

-Tension in shoulders

-Thoughts about needing to get my work project done

-Judgmental thoughts about not working hard enough

-Foggy feeling in my head

-Jaw tension

-A heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach

-An image of me sleeping

You can try to interview the parts and see what information comes up. The best way to do this is by not thinking about the answer, but just listening to the response you get. For example, you could try asking the tension in your shoulders, what it wants you to know.

Other questions might be, "How are you trying to help me?" "What are you worried will happen if you don't help me in this way?" "How long have you been doing this role for?" "Do you like what you do?"

Listening is one way that you can start to access the Self that Richard Schwartz talks about. When we get curious about parts and hear more of their story and why they do what they do, often there is more room for compassion and clarity around our system.

As we start to get to know the parts inside, we can "unblend" more from these parts. Rather than just being in a part that gets angry and yells, we can notice that there is a part inside that feels angry, and speak for this part that wants to yell. Daniel Siegel calls this "mindsight", which is the ability to notice your own feelings, thoughts and perceptions inside yourself, as well as in others. When we realize that we have our own system of parts, we can start to understand others and their system of parts too.

If you want to learn more about this approach you can visit


Image by Greg Rakozy


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