The Internal Family Systems model has grown in popularity over the past few decades due to the transformative approach this model uses when treating those who suffer from many disorders, including eating disorders. The purpose of this blog is to expand on the IFS model’s concept of “parts” within the internal system and how eating disorders can be conceptualized through the use of this model. The “parts” perspective not only allows clients and practitioners to take a unique approach toward healing, but also aids in destigmatizing the nature of what it means to struggle with mental illness.
What is a “Part”
The Internal Family Systems model focuses on the dynamics of the internal systems of humans. This model considers the nature of the human mind is to be divided into subpersonalities known as “parts”. “Parts” may be described/experienced as thoughts, ideas, internal dialogue, feelings, sensations, etc.. “Parts” may be known in other psychotherapy models as symptoms, behaviors, defense mechanisms, or maladaptive coping strategies. IFS identifies clients’ symptoms and behaviors as coming from various “parts” within the internal system.
Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of the IFS model, categorized these “parts” based on the nature and function of their roles and/or behaviors. Dr. Schwartz identified the internal system to consist of “protector parts” and “exiled parts”. The IFS model believes the burdened pain our internal systems experience shape the roles other “parts” take on. “Parts” develop their roles to assist us in adapting to our external environments early on in life. In their natural, innate state all “parts” are good and have the ability to return to this state, even after being in extreme roles for a long time, such as an eating disorder. [1-3]
From the IFS perspective, each person’s internal system may have numerous protector parts. These “parts” serve in the role of protecting the internal system from becoming overwhelmed with pain, shame, rejection, etc.. Protector “parts” exist in two different categories known as “managers” and “firefighters”. Manager “parts” serve as proactive members of the internal system, functioning to prevent the person from being triggered into their pain. These “parts” typically show up as people-pleasing, self-critic, planner, striver, caretaker, or multitasker, to name a few. Manager “parts” tend to present in our day to day life assisting with daily functioning and the various roles most humans shift in and out of. One way to identify your manager “parts” is to explore the roles you are in, the emotions present in those roles, and how those roles play out in your life. Manager “parts” develop the roles they have because at some point it was necessary for wellbeing and survival. These “parts” are not bad, but when their roles become extreme or excessive, they can be problematic for the system. For example, we likely need planning, problem-solving, and multitasking “parts”, but if those parts never take a breather we may struggle with excessive thinking about all that must be done or have difficulty settling down to rest each day. [1-4]
The other category of protector “parts”, the firefighters, serve to protect through a reactive approach. These “parts” tend to show up once an exile “part” is triggered or hurt in some way. They serve to shut down emotional pain or numb out what they deem is intolerable for the internal system. These “parts” typically show up as impulsive spending or sexual activity, substance abuse, dissociation, self-harm, suicidality, violence, binge-eating, or purging, to name a few. One way to identify your firefighters is to notice how you react to situations or ask yourself what are my go-to numbing strategies. Firefighter “parts” are not in their innate role, they have taken on extreme behaviors to aid in emotional pain. For example, a “part” may have witnessed you be shamed for gaining weight while growing up, this “part” decided it is not safe to gain weight and therefore took on the role of obsessive calorie counting and encourages you to restrict nutrition intake to keep you safe from feeling shame. [1-4]
Manager and Firefighter “parts” often are at odds with one another, although their underlying intentions may be similar or the same, their methods are not. With those who suffer with eating disorders, polarizations in their systems between their eating disorder “parts” and other “parts” is common. For example, a client may say “Part of me wants recovery but another part of me doesn’t think it’s worth it” or “I hate my eating disorder” while heavy in eating disorder behaviors. 
The IFS model views the internal system to have “exile parts” which are “parts” that have taken on extreme beliefs or negative emotions referred to as “burdens”. When these “parts”, that are often young, witness or experience trauma, they take on burdened pain or beliefs and are exiled by the rest of the system in order to protect the individual from being overwhelmed. Burdens carried by exile “parts” are described in other psychotherapy models as negative core beliefs, stuck points, extreme emotions, irrational thoughts, etc.. IFS differs from other approaches in that it believes that exile “parts” carry burdens which opens space for our “parts” to heal and release their pain. The goal is to not to get rid of the “part” only to unburden it. Exiles are often desperate to be seen, heard, and rescued from their stuck place. When an individual is dysregulated by intense emotions or experiencing a flashback, IFS would consider this as being overwhelmed by an exile. [2,3]
Eating Disorder “Parts”
The IFS model sheds a unique perspective on the treatment of eating disorders. IFS approaches eating disorder symptoms as “parts”. Eating disorder “parts” are protectors in the internal system. These “parts” may shift from managers to firefighters based on the nature of responsiveness to internal and external triggers, but they are protectors nonetheless. When considering the maladaptive coping strategies that are eating disorder behaviors, attempt to imagine they are “parts” with intentions to help and protect the individual. This approach allows space for individuals to reflect and get to know these “parts” of themselves in an intimate way rather than attempting to develop other strategies, which are other “parts”, to override them. The goal of coming to see eating disorders as a “part” similar to the rest of individual’s various “parts” gives a chance for them to be seen, heard, understood, and transformed. Exploring the exiled pain and burdens from those who suffer from eating disorders and how the whole system works together to navigate avoiding overwhelming the individual helps one heal from an eating disorder. [1-3]
Brittney Williams, LPC/MHSP
Brittney earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Mississippi State University and a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (with a specialization in Marriage/Couples and Family Counseling) at the University of Alabama. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Mental Health Service Provider in the state of Tennessee. In addition to her state license, Brittney is a Nationally Certified Counselor, EMDR trained, and working on her CEDS and Internal Family Systems certifications.
While completing her Bachelor’s degree, Brittney trained in multiple Social Psychology research labs where she began studying the dynamics of trauma, social relating, and human behavior. While earning her Master’s degree, Brittney continued her education and trained experience further exploring the dynamics of trauma as a clinical intern. During this training, Brittney became increasingly aware of, and interested, in the connection between attachment trauma and eating disorders. Brittney has worked with the eating disorder population in various levels of care for the past 5+ years along with those suffering from trauma and other accompanying mental health related issues. Brittney’s passion is to continue this complex work by offering evidenced based, compassionate clinical care to the eating disorder population.
Holmes, T., Holmes, L., & Eckstein, S. (2007). Parts work: an illustrated guide to your inner life. Kalamazoo, MI: Winged Heart Press.
Lester, R. J. (2017). Self-governance, psychotherapy, and the subject of managed care: Internal Family Systems therapy and the multiple self in a US eating-disorders treatment center. American Ethnologist, 44(1) 23-35.
Schwartz, R.C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park IL: Trailheads Publications, The Center for Self-Leadership.
The Internal Family Systems Model Outline. Retrieved from https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/internal-family-systems-model-outline