Understanding Internal Family Systems (IFS)


            There are many different types of treatment modalities in the mental health realm which aim to understand individuals, the origins of their symptoms, and to increase self-awareness while breaking maladaptive behaviors.


            One of those modalities is Internal Family Systems (IFS) which was developed by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., LMFT. The premise of the approach is that the human psyche is not monolithic but instead composed of various parts and a Self. The theory operations under the notion that all parts have a designated function to protect and they are all good. The Self is the essential core which is a compassionate presence and carries the ability to be an active leader if it is in control.


            Internal Family Systems therapy focuses on two primary parts of a person, their vulnerable parts (aka their Exiles) and their protective parts.


           Vulnerable parts are frozen in times of painful emotional states which develop negative beliefs about themselves. Exiles are younger and of varying ages.


Protective parts have a primary job to protect the vulnerable parts from being activated in the present day and to protect us from being flood by the pain and negative emotions that the vulnerable parts carry. Protective parts are often the age we were when they first had to take on their roles.


The origins of an Exile is traced back to a wounding experience which causes them to be stuck in the past. When a wounding experience happened in the past the psyche “exiled” or locked away the painful part in order to reestablish homeostasis. This keeps the individual from feeling too overwhelmed or paralyzed by pain in order to keep functioning day to day. The painful emotional state and the negative beliefs internalized by the Exile is called a burden. They are often desperate in their attempts to be acknowledged and cared for. IFS aims to bring Exiles out of the past and into the present where their burdens can be properly released and their essential qualities can be reinstated.


If an Exile is activated in the present day, the Protective parts assume roles which are more extreme than their true nature in order regain balance. Even though some of the methods that the Protective parts take on can have harmful impacts, their intentions are always good. There are two types of Protective parts, Managers and Firefighters.


Managers work proactively by doing whatever they can in order to keep the exiled parts under control. Managers are future orientated. They are focused on planning, controlling, and achieving in order to keep things in check. They can be people pleasers, critical, and rigid. People who have more extreme Manager tactics often are more immersed in the intense effects of the Exiles.


Firefighters work reactively by jumping in to lock away exiled parts that appear in the present day. Firefighters are present orientated and are not focused on consequences of their actions. They are more impulsive, compulsive, and have addictive behaviors. They utilize dissociation in order to distract, comfort or numb out until the Exile part is locked back up. Once that is accomplished the balance is restored.


There is often conflict between Managers and Firefighters because the two protective parts have conflicting points of view. For example: a person struggling with disordered eating may have a Manager who tells the person that they are worthless and disgusting in order to stop overeating so the person is more accepted in society. Managers will make efforts to “eat clean”, restrict, and over exercise. With time they become tired of their rigid behaviors and slip up which triggers the Firefighter to step in. The Firefighter will engage in a binge episode to “put out the fire” which initially feels good and relieving. But as soon as the binge eating episode is over, the Exile resurfaces with feelings of shame and guilt from the past.  


            Everyone possesses a Self who is the optimal leader because it possesses the 8 C’s (calmness, curiosity, compassion, confidence, courage, clarity, connectedness and creativity). The Self becomes covered up by the various parts, the Managers, and Firefighters. IFS works towards healing the relationship between the parts and the Self and unburdening the Exiles. Therefore, the goal of IFS therapy is to bring the internal system into balance, with parts that are consistent with their true nature, and the Self as the leader.


In treatment, this looks like the therapist guiding the individual to understand each part. This is achieved by the 6 F’s:

Finding a particular part and identifying the physical sensation that it stirs up in the body.

Focusing on the part.

Fleshing it out by noticing it’s age, emotions, appearance, etc.

Feelings that come up by the individual towards the part.

beFriending the part by utilizing self-compassion.

Fears that the part has if they don’t do their job.


           It takes time and effort for trust to build with each part. After working with the Protective parts, an individual is granted access to the Exile. Approaching the Exile with curiosity, listening to their story, and witnessing their pain in a way that was not acknowledged when they originally experienced the painful wounding experience is key. After each part is seen, heard, acknowledged, and valued by the Self it is able to become unburdened and properly connected.


           Internal Family Systems is different from other modalities of treatment because it focuses on the experiences individuals go through instead of pathologizing them. IFS acknowledges self-harm, substance use, and promiscuous behaviors as parts trying to protect the individual. Therefore, the goal isn’t to just manage symptoms with medications and interventions but to focus on the “root” of the individuals experience to heal them. IFS incorporates components spirituality and belief that individuals have the capacity to heal.



Citation and Resources:


Schwartz, R. C. (2021). No bad parts: healing trauma & restoring wholeness with the internal family systems model . Sounds True.


Impacts of Plants on Mental Wellness

by Anna Melkumyan


If you’ve visited Blooming Minds Therapy, you’ve probably noticed several hundred plants scattered around our practice. We house a variety of foliage plants in each space not only for aesthetic value but to promote the positive impacts of plants (and plant care) on mental wellness. I often utilize plant metaphors when treating my clients because there is a high correlation between the needs of plants and those of humans.

In 2020, Blooming Minds Therapy underwent a major expansion of its practice and the construction of its space, during the height of pandemic. During this time, I was also navigating a lot of changes in my personal life which contributed to an increase of my own depression and anxiety symptoms. With so much uncertainty in the world and the pressure to keep moving forward I quickly realized that my previous coping skills needed some upgrading.

Plants became my outlet because they allowed me to slow down, held me accountable to care for them while I struggled caring for myself, and provided me with stimulation to keep learning and growing my collection. I share my experience in hopes of helping others find an outlet to improve their mental wellness. Here are some lessons I’ve learned through the care of plants:


Caring for plants often times means slowing down and being present during the process of assessing their needs. If the soil is bone dry, it may take a few extra minutes to properly water and aerate the soil. During this period, you can utilize coping skills learned in therapy such as grounding yourself in the experience. If you allow yourself to focus on how the soil transforms, what it feels like to touch the soil with your fingers and acknowledge the smell you notice, you are probably less focused on your anxious thoughts. You could also focus on your own breath work as you prune away the dead foliage. Taking a deep breath in as you count to 3
and exhaling as you count to 5 can sooth the physical sensations of anxiety in the body.


Like humans, plants are very resilient and can be forgiving if proper adjustments to their environment are made. I never give up on dying plants because I’ve learned the art of propagation. This means that you can create a new plant by cutting a node off the mother plant and placing it in water to root over time. Similarly, we can make changes to improve the quality of our lives. This could mean improving our sleep hygiene, spending more time with our supports, and adding more movement to our day. Sometimes plants cannot simply be propagated because all the foliage is damaged or dead. But odds are the root system beneath the surface is still viable and can produce new growth. I’ve learned that a clear plastic cup placed over the soil can create a greenhouse effect to help the plant grow back. Similarly, we sometimes have to make more drastic decisions to ensure survival and growth. This could mean ending an unhealthy relationship, changing jobs, or starting a new medication to manage mental health symptoms.


When we plant seeds or start a new habit, we don’t see results right away. Which means that we have to have faith in the importance of routine and consistency to see results. Educating yourself on how to care for each plant, when to water it, recognizing the type of light it needs, how often to fertilize it and how much humidity to add, increases the chances of new growth. The satisfaction of seeing a plant sprouting new foliage often increases serotonin levels and creates a positive reinforcement cycle. But being consistent with a new routine can be challenging especially if you are struggling with a mental health illness. It helps to monitor progress by journaling, attending weekly therapy, and reflecting on how the changes you’ve been making are impacting your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Holding yourself accountable with a tracking system, the support of trusted friends or family, and adding one new habit at a time can be beneficial.


Being compassionate is key when caring for plants and yourself. I’ve killed many plants over the years and learned a lot of lessons along the way. I’ve accepted that each plant goes through its own lifespan. No matter what I do to encourage it to thrive year round, it will eventually hibernate for a season or possibly die completely. Sometimes plants become sick with mites or fungal infections and require treatment I wasn’t anticipating. I’ve had to course correct by isolating, researching, and treating before returning to the original routine.

Similarly, a lot of unexpected things occur each day which can create a sense of helpless. Our society is consistently going through a new crisis, we are all bombarded with a lot of information and no time to process the things happening outside of our control. Being self-compassionate and recognizing that we all have limitation can be a helpful mindset to adopt. Being patient with yourself and recognizing that you are doing the best you can with the resources you have available can help quiet the negative cognition that is associated with depression. We all require time to rest and recharge before we are able to thrive again.

Lastly, let’s look into the research of points I have shared. Lee MS, Lee J, Park BJ, Miyazaki Y (2015) confirm through their research that “active interaction with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress compared with mental work. This is accomplished through suppression of sympathetic nervous system activity and diastolic blood pressure and promotion of comfortable, soothed, and natural feelings.” Additionally, there is a lot of research confirming positive impacts of mindfulness on mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain. Goldin et al. (2016) research shows that use of mindfulness interventions is better for reducing and managing anxiety symptoms compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Overall, plant care can be a powerful experience allowing space to implement mindfulness techniques and creating a calming oasis which can promote mental wellness. It can be incorporated into a weekly routine, increase serotonin levels and help engage in a community with other plant enthusiasts.


Goldin PR, Morrison A, Jazaieri H, Brozovich F, Heimberg R, Gross JJ. 2016. Group CBT versus MBSR for social anxiety disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 84(5):427–37 Lee MS, Lee J, Park BJ, Miyazaki Y. Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. J Physiol Anthropol. 2015 Apr 28;34(1):21. doi: 10.1186/s40101-015-0060-8. PMID: 25928639; PMCID: PMC4419447.