The Many Within: Understanding IFS and Self Integration

How can we befriend and reintegrate the exiles within us?

How can we learn to be less self-critical — and less prone to self-indulgent distractions — when dealing with the conflicting parts of our own psyche?

How can we create a safe and open space for inner dialogue and collaboration between these different parts of ourselves, leading to greater self-understanding, emotional resilience, and wholeness?

In this episode, Corey deVos and Dr. Keith Witt discuss Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, an approach developed by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s that recognizes the multiplicity of the human psyche. IFS works with the different parts of the personality to promote psychological health, wholeness, and ongoing development.

Dr. Witt provides an overview of IFS, explaining that it sees people as having four types of interior figures: the Wise Self, exiles (parts we want to get rid of), critics (managers that criticize the exiles), and firefighters (managers that distract from the pain of exiles). The goal of IFS is to strengthen the wise self and create an integrating process where the various parts of ourselves can come into alignment.

The discussion delves into the history of IFS, with Dr. Witt sharing the story of Richard Schwartz’s development of the approach amidst the landscape of psychotherapy in the 1960s and 70s. He also shares his own journey of initially dismissing IFS but later coming to appreciate its unique and powerful aspects after seeing Schwartz’s work.

Dr. Witt outlines a typical IFS therapeutic sequence, which involves identifying an issue or distress, connecting with the exile that is not being adequately attended to, and then working with the critic and firefighter to organize these parts in a way that strengthens the wise self. He highlights three key features of IFS: the subtext of identifying and strengthening the wise self, never allowing an adversarial relationship with any part, and engaging in both horizontal and vertical growth.

The conversation touches on how an integral understanding enriches the IFS approach and how IFS can be integrated with other therapeutic approaches and wisdom traditions. Corey and Dr. Witt also share some of their own experiences working with their inner critics, exiles, and wise selves.

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Hi Corey, I greatly appreciate that you and Keith shared IFS with the community. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years now but haven’t had an opportunity to offer. IFS is very Integral in the sense that it is a meta-system we can use to approach the system of our mind, as well as transcend the roadblocks our mind often puts up to growth.

I do have a manager part of me that wants to make some corrections to the way that Keith presents IFS, as he distorts some things about the model. This is coming from the perspective of a trained IFS practitioner (trained by the late Derek Scott, one of the most loving, Integral, and compassionate souls I’ve ever met). I’ve also developed an introductory course on IFS that I’ve offered in my own spiritual community. And I’ve been on the receiving end of around 12 years of IFS therapy.

My biggest problem with how Keith presents parts work is he seems to be pathologizing them in the beginning and making them out to be adversaries to our system (particularly calling all Managers “critics”). That is not the case at all.

He talks about the Wise Self as a part, but it actually is not a part at all. It’s the ground of being in a very spiritual sense (and there are a couple academic papers out there that make a great comparison between the Self in IFS and other religious systems). We can think of parts as waves, and the Self as the ocean that gives them life.

This is critically important as an IFS practitioner, because we are taught that if we are not in Self–if we don’t have a center of gravity that is rooted in authentic curiosity and compassion–our parts will try to manage the session and the client’s parts can detect that, and become more defensive. Typically we can tell we aren’t in Self because we’re trying to fix a problem or have an agenda, rather than simply showing curiosity and compassion for the parts that show up in our client, as well as our own parts that may resonate with the client’s parts.

Some distinctions I want to make about parts and the Self:

Managers are not just critics. Managers are primarily parts that prevent us from encountering and experiencing harm, and thus from the pain of that harm, believing that the perceived harm will trigger an exile. But they care deeply about Exiles and want to keep them safe and secure, even though the ways that protection shows up can often be unhealthy. They exile them because they don’t want them to feel pain, often pain that was encountered when we were young and didn’t have strong adult figures to help us navigate that pain (or, those adult figures were the source of the pain). All critical parts are Managers / Firefighters, but not all Managers / Firefighters are critical.

For example, I can see that Keith has a very strong explainer part–that is a Manager. I have a part that knows the IFS system, which is also a Manager. You and Keith both likely have Integralism parts that know the Integral model and believe in it. These are all Managers, because those Managers use the system to help you to stay safe and make sense of the world. Based on past videos, I know those parts are probably pretty healthy, and are likely Self-led if you both feel compassion and curiosity around this topic of Integralism.

So, Managers can be both healthy and unhealthy in how they operate, and indeed, part of the IFS protocol is helping Managers find something new to do once an Exile has been unburdened. More on that later in the process explanation.


Firefighters take over after a Manager has failed to keep an Exile in check. They clean up the emotional mess after the fact. Firefighters often use addiction to clean up emotional stress that leaks out from Exiles–anything from substances to television and video games to drama in relationships. They can often be at odds with Managers, because Managers will also seek to manage Firefighters they believe are engaging in unhealthy behavior (thus, we see a clear explanation for cycles of dysfunction in a person’s life, like the binge / purge cycle of a person suffering from bulimia).

Dick Schwartz discovered IFS and the Self when regular Family Systems therapy wasn’t working for one of his bulimic clients. He noticed that she had two parts that were at war within her system, the one that wanted to eat, and the one that wanted to purge. He started to talk to them directly, and this is when he recognized that they were both trying to keep her safe, but in conflicting ways. He also discovered the Self when he was able to help those parts relax, and noticed that there was a clear shift in his client when they were able to experience Self energy for the first time. That led to real healing, because what his client most needed was Self to lovingly disrupt the conflict between the Manager and Firefighter that was creating the binge / purge cycle.


These are the parts of us that encountered trauma–emotional or physical–and didn’t have resources to work through that trauma in compassionate ways. They carry burdens, and Managers and Firefighters work very hard to keep those burdens from being felt by the system.

All parts tend to be stuck at a specific age, often very young. Part of the process is often having the client update their protective parts on their current age, and the adult resources they now have to navigate challenges.

The Self

The Self is not a part. It’s the ground of being upon which parts operate. This isn’t a bad thing, the parts operating, because they are our interface for the world. We don’t want to destroy our ego, and indeed trying to do so isn’t really possible while still being a human being. Problems occur when parts don’t have access to Self energy and try to walk the path on their own, often unaware of other parts, or at odds with other parts. They do the best they can with the information they have. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors.

When we talk about enlightenment, nirvana, the Christ consciousness, self-actualization, etc, we are using different terms to talk about the same thing–the Self. The Self feels directly compassion, curiosity, clarity, courage, creativity, connection, calm, and confidence. It also feels directly its connection to the greater Whole–All That Is. This is the same Self we encounter in the Dzogchen practice of Effortless Mindfulness (made popular in the West by Loch Kelly). Keith touched on this when he asked you about your own experience of the Self, that feeling of being “whole.” It’s an incredible feeling, and is something I am always working to help my congregants find in themselves in our classes and talks at my community.

And because the Self is inherently wise, it is the best resource for bringing healing to parts that need it. And the Self is inherently non-dual. This leads us to the process itself.

The IFS Process

The very first thing a practitioner must do is check for their own Self energy. They must feel authentically compassionate and curious about their client, and have a center of gravity in those feelings. It’s common to open an IFS session with a short meditation, where the practitioner will check in with their own parts just like they are asking their client to do and make sure they are in Self. A practitioner should feel very receptive and curious and allow their client to lead. There is a concept of “direct-access,” where a practitioner will directly address a part, but this is only used with permission and typically isn’t needed.

There isn’t a singular goal in an IFS session beyond helping the client to un-blend from their Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles. The reason for unbending is that the more parts are able to unbend, the more the wise Self is available–and the key is to make it safe for parts to trust that Self is there and that it really does care about the whole system. This is very similar to Emerson’s titular quote in Spiritual Laws, when he says “Let us take our bloated nothingness out of the path of the divine circuits.”

When helping clients un-blend, it is always 100% client led–the reason being that you cannot push a Manager or Firefighter out of the way. They can sense this and they will become more defensive and entrenched. Instead, we meet them with the curiosity and compassion of our own Self, and through that compassion help them to relax so they might consider taking a break. Eventually, over time, they come to trust our Self as well as their own system’s Self enough where they will relax more and allow us to work with the Exile(s) they are guarding.

Unburdening Exiles is also Self-led–we share our compassion and curiosity with the Exile, and often will offer reparenting and support to help them to let go of the emotional burden they are carrying. We never push past a Manager or Firefighter to get to an Exile, though, because they will just become more entrenched, and we can cause more harm in a system when we do this.

When working with a client to choose which part to work with first, typically the client will have an idea of the part that is most asking for attention. But it’s not always the “biggest, baddest” part. We find this out by asking–always asking and not making an assumption, and inviting the client to ask as well (because the more they can create dialogue with parts, the more they are able to unbend, since the Gestalt “other chair” sort of practice naturally creates space in their system. There becomes a recognition that something is aware that isn’t the part we are talking with–what is that?).

We are also always checking for Self energy in the client, because if they don’t have enough Self energy, then their Managers and Firefighters will be what is interacting with other parts, and that doesn’t really lead to healing–often because the Managers and Firefighters want to get rid of the other parts, rather than love them and accept them. We work with whatever part is most blended at the moment to help it relax and create more space for Self.

The truth is that even though Managers and Firefighters can create problems in our lives if they don’t have healthy ways of being, they nevertheless are doing the best they can–and, indeed, their strategies worked for us as children or they wouldn’t have stuck around into adulthood.

So, after the unburdening has occurred (which can take multiple sessions) with an Exile, the Managers / Firefighters guarding that Exile now have an opportunity to do something different. These are parts of us that were with us since we were very young and likely had a healthy way of being in our lives until they encountered the trauma, so they may go back to doing the healthy thing they love doing. For example, I had a Manager I worked with last year that I called “The Weak-Maker” that believed it had to keep myself physically weak in order to stay safe from negative attention. It believed that I was physically weak due to some painful childhood experiences. I worked with it compassionately from Self on a nice hike, as well as the Exile it was guarding that felt helpless, and afterwords that part of me become my “Strength-Maker,” and it presents like a compassionate and affirming coach anything I do something physically challenging. It’s the part of me that helped me to hike 36 miles and 9,000 feet of incline at Yosemite a couple weeks ago. In a sense, this is very much “transcend and include.”

Finally, as a practitioner, we help our clients to follow their parts. It’s almost never the case that only one part is presenting; often other parts will chime in, and I can recall some sessions where I had a whole page full of parts I was tracking in my notes. One of the best things we do as a practitioner is to be, and help our clients be, a “parts detective,” since even recognizing that a part is there can lead to healing.

At the end of a session, we encourage our client to thank their parts for all the hard work they are doing for them, and this helps the parts to reintegrate. We may also work with them to set up an action plan to stay connected outside of the session to the parts that were asking for attention.

An Easy Practice to Experience IFS

If you are good at visualizing, close your eyes and imagine that you–your Self–are sitting in an auditorium, and each seat in the auditorium is filled with one of your parts. Take note of all the parts you see, and if you like, ask them what they do for you. You may notice you have a part of you that is trying to get your attention the most, and if you like (and your other parts are okay with it), you can ask that part to share with you what it wants to share. While this is happening, check in with yourself–are you feeling any judgment toward the sharing part? Or do you feel compassion?

If you feel judgment, odds are that’s another part that is blended with you, and you can ask that part if it is willing to relax so that you can talk more with the original part. If it relaxes, great, if not, then that part just became your target part, and you can do the same thing–just ask it what it wants to tell you, and how you might help it so it doesn’t have to work so hard.

IFS and Integral

For me, what IFS shows me is that I may have many different parts of my mind that are at different stages of development. I may have parts that are Red and Amber and Green and Tier 2 (in fact, healed parts tend to be Tier 2 in my experience, and the Self itself transcends Tier 2). The more I am able to work with them to help them to relax and find more constructive ways to live, the more Self energy is available, and the more I find myself in Tier 2 thinking where it’s easy to see possibilities rather than threats. In fact, I find it one of the most effective ways to make this shift–I wouldn’t have been open to Integral when I was younger had I not been actively seeing an IFS therapist.

Anyway, I recognize this was probably a VERY long post. I’m excited that IFS showed up on Integral Life, and hopefully I’ve added some clarity to the model.