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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Internal Family Systems: Balancing Your Parts

As complex human beings, we all have "parts" in our mind that make up who we are.

Maybe you've seen the Pixar film "Inside Out"? It's the story of a young girl who, against her wishes, is moving to a new town and a new school. The film follows her through this rocky time of life, focusing on the different "parts" of her--her feelings. The movie is based on an actual theory of therapy, called Internal Family Systems.

The idea is that we are each made up of different parts, that when ideally functioning, our parts are like a well-oiled team, and we almost don't even realize that they are all there. However, when we experience something traumatic or distressful, some of our parts may take over in leadership, throwing your whole system out of balance. Internal Family Systems is about getting to know your parts--the family or tribe in your mind.

The Parts:

The Exiles. Our exiles are those parts of us that carry our heaviest burdens. Maybe they are a child that has experienced a trauma or deeply distressing event. They are likely to exude sadness, fear, shame and/or guilt. We may have exiled them because we are scared that the intensity of their feelings may overwhelm the rest of our selves. So we keep them away in order to keep our whole self safe.

The Manager. Our manager is the one who attempts to prevent access to the exile. Maybe the manager attempts to control the environment, or people around us, so that the exile can't come out. Our manager might keep us distracted from the exile, by keeping us focused on work, staying away from certain people. Maybe our manager is like an inner critic, who tells us that we aren't good enough. As a result, we might overwork, try to be perfect, stay away from intimate relationships. And maybe, the manager tells us those things as a way to protect us from the exile. Maybe if we're over-focused on work, we won't stumble into our exile, or if we avoid intimate relationships, we won't feel abandoned the way that our exile did.

The Firemen. Our firemen are in charge of keeping us safe in the event that the exiles have broken through their walls. The firemen might give us the urge to use drugs or alcohol, to engage in self-injurious behaviors or to act out in anger/aggression. Believe it or not, the firemen push us to these over-the-top actions as a way to protect us from the exile! The alarms are going off, and the firemen will do anything to keep our self safe from the experience of the exile.


From this framework, the path to healing is to recognize each of your parts. To acknowledge the burdens that each one of them has carried. To express gratitude to each of them--even the ones that hurt--because they have only ever acted with the intention of keeping your whole self safe.

Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help you be curious about your own parts. To understand and have genuine compassion for them. To accept them, and ultimately find freedom through strengthening the balance of the family in your mind.

Understanding. Compassion. Acceptance. Freedom.

Call today to schedule an appointment: 856-281-1664

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