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Understanding Internal Family Systems (IFS) - The Roles of Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles

Understanding the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model can help us understand our inner world. It introduces us to the concept of parts – the distinct aspects of ourselves that have their own personalities, feelings, thoughts and responses, and that make up who we are. There are three main categories of parts in IFS: Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles, as well as the concept of our core Self. In this blog post, I will explore and explain what these different types of parts and Self are.


To begin, let’s imagine a woman, we’ll call her Willow.


Willow, like all of us, was born with many different ‘parts’ or aspects to her personality, some that may have been obvious from the very beginning, and some that emerged, or developed over time.


Let’s say that Willow had a part of herself that was naturally sensitive, but she grew up in a home with parents who didn’t know how to cope with, or express, emotions. Over time, Willow learnt that whenever she cried, her parents got frustrated or pushed her away. They said things like: “Big girls don’t cry!” or “Crying is for babies!”

A girl crying as her mum shouts at her, teaching her to exile her emotional part.

Like all children, Willow had an innate need to please her parents, and to gain their love, closeness and attention, and so she learnt (and this could be consciously or subconsciously!) to hide away the part of herself that was sensitive and emotional. This part became exiled.


When a part is exiled, another part will then take on a protective role, trying to make sure that exile doesn’t come out again. So, a part of Willow became an inner critic, taking on the job of reminding her that crying is weak, and criticising her any time that the vulnerable, sensitive part threatened to come out. It might seem cruel, but this critical part is just doing its best to make sure she doesn’t feel rejected and alone in her emotions, like she was before.


A crying girl behind bars, representing an exiled, vulnerable part.

Sometimes, even now, the sensitive part of her that is locked away gets triggered and comes rushing to the surface. She will feel overwhelmed with sadness in these moments, and despite its best attempts, the manager is unable to stop her from crying.


When this happens, another part will jump into action, doing whatever it can to make the pain go away. This part of Willow becomes very angry instead, pushing the part of her that is feeling sad back into exile, and covering it up with aggression. This is a firefighter part. It will only retreat once the vulnerable part has been safely exiled, and then manager part takes over again, and the cycle continues.

An angry girl in front of a crying girl behind bars. This represents a firefighter part protecting a vulnerable exile.

One day, Willow begins to see an IFS therapist, and learns how to connect to her ‘Self’. She finds that when she is ‘in Self’ she feels curious, calm and compassionate towards every part of herself. From this space she is able to start getting to know these parts of herself and begin healing.


So, let’s explain this in more general terms.


Managers

Managers are protective parts that strive to maintain control and prevent emotional pain from surfacing. The manager’s motto is: “Never again.” They are desperate to make sure that painful thoughts, memories and feelings never come out. They are proactive in nature, and often "controllers," trying to keep us safe by setting rules, standards, and boundaries. Managers can be parts like the inner critic, perfectionist, the funny one, the caretaker, or the people pleaser.


Working with Managers

To work with Managers, we have to firstly acknowledge and genuinely appreciate everything they’ve done for us, and their positive, protective intentions. Often managers are completely exhausted, and acknowledging this can be a helpful way to begin building bridges. They are doing their best with what they know, and genuinely believe that their way is the only way to avoid impossibly painful feelings. When you begin getting to know and building trust with a manager part, it can learn to trust you, and allow you to help it, so it doesn’t have to work quite so hard. Eventually, it may let you know about the vulnerable part it is protecting, and allow you to get to know and help this part too. When healing happens, managers can give up their extreme jobs, and take on more balanced roles in the system.


Firefighters

Firefighters are the reactive parts that spring into action when Managers are unable to protect us from emotional pain. Their goal is to numb, distract, or soothe painful feelings or memories at any, and all, costs. Firefighters are impulsive, using alcohol or drugs, gambling, food, sex, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or behaviours, and other extreme emotional reactions and behaviours. They won’t stop until they are sure the pain has been pushed down again.


Working with Firefighters

Compassion and understanding are essential when working with all parts, including Firefighters. It’s normal to want to judge and suppress these parts; they can feel scary when they’re not understood. Getting to know firefighters and how they work to protect us from pain can help us to find compassion, and make space to explore healthier ways to cope with emotions and triggers.


Exiles

Exiles are often very young, vulnerable and wounded parts of ourselves that carry the pain of past experiences. They hold our unmet needs, fears, and suppressed emotions. They might hold negative beliefs about themselves or the world. These parts are stuck in time, back in the original memories.


Working with Exiles

It is crucial to approach Exiles gently and with utmost care. We also need to work with protectors (both Managers and Firefighters) to make sure we have their permission to work with exiles first. We can then create a safe space for the Exile to begin to express itself, offering it kindness, compassion and validation and support it to heal.


Self

In IFS we believe that, as well as all the different parts we have inside, we also have within us a powerful source of natural wisdom and healing: the Self.


For those who have experienced a lot of pain throughout their lives, it can be hard to find and trust this Self energy. We may have entirely disconnected from it. But no matter what has happened, Self is always there waiting, an undamaged inner source of healing.

A coloured wheel showing the 8 C qualities of Self, courage, compassion, clarity, calm, curiosity, connectedness, confidence, creativity.

A key part of IFS is to help you be able to reconnect to this state of Self which is calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, creative, courageous, and connected (the 8 C’s of Self).


As you begin learning more about IFS and Parts work, try not to get too tangled up in whether a part you’ve identified is a manager, firefighter, or exile. Ultimately, all parts simply need to be witnessed, understood, and supported; it doesn’t matter too much how they’re labelled. By building relationships with our parts from Self, and providing them the space to express themselves, we pave the way for personal growth, emotional healing, and self-acceptance.

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