DID and Internal Family Systems

As many of you are aware, Dissociative Identity Disorder is as the result of systematic and prolonged abuse before approximately the age of eight. It is a survival and coping mechanism. It is well documented that children who learn this level of dissociation are most likely the ones to survive these horrendous situations. Often as the ultimate form of dissociation they are lucky enough to go into complete suppression when they are at last, hopefully if they survive, they go into suppression.

This therefore can allow that person to go onto live a functional life. However, the demons never truly go away and those around them can later identify behaviours that are often seen as “quirks”, and are identifiable as completely related to their trauma. Suppression unfortunately at some point, cruelly lifts, often age related but so often triggered by a News Report, film, conversation etc. This can be catastrophic with the person recalling horrendous events from their childhood. Often they are not believed and False Memory Syndrome is outrageously claimed particularly in Court Cases. Therefore closure, justice among many other aspects is never achieved. DID can often become apparent then even though it has been there all along.

The Psychiatric and Mental Health community have a lot to answer for in their demonisation of this Disorder. Frankly it is outrageous as it has been a Diagnosis in the DSM for decades. This serves to, once again, disempower victims of abuse and make them feel abused all over again. No one can ever give me a truthful explanation for this appalling stigmatismation. People with DID have been through enough already with this treatment.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is very powerful as a tool for not just understanding DID but is above all one of the most effective tools for “organising” alters.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) uses Family Systems theory—the idea that individuals cannot be fully understood in isolation from the family unit—to develop techniques and strategies to effectively address issues within a person’s internal community or family. This evidence-based approach assumes each individual possesses a variety of sub-personalities, or “parts,” and attempts to get to know each of these parts better to achieve healing.

By learning how different parts function as a system and how the overall system reacts to other systems and other people, people in therapy can often, with the help of a trained mental health professional, become better able to identify the roots of conflict, manage any complications arising, and achieve greater well-being. 


This type of therapy was developed in the early 1990s by Richard Schwartz, who developed the approach after listening to people in therapy speak about inner parts within themselves. As a young family therapist, Schwartz had received training in systems thinking and family therapy theory, and he believed he was truly able to listen to the individuals in his care once he set aside his preconceived ideas of therapy and the human mind

While the concept of multiple intrapsychic entities was not new (Sigmund Freud posited the existence of the id, ego, and superego), Schwartz’s training in systems thinking prompted him to seriously consider the interactions and relationships between these internal entities. He found internal parts to play common but dynamic roles: the relationships between parts could be changed if an individual intervened carefully and respectfully. Schwartz began to visualize the human mind as an internal family and began to apply in treatment the techniques he had learned as a family therapist.


IFS is based on an integrative model. The approach combines established elements from different schools of psychology, such as the multiplicity of the mind and systems thinking, and posits that each sub-personality or part possesses its own characteristics and perceptions. IFS also brings together various strategies from the Bowenian therapy base as well as techniques from more traditional narrative and structural modalities. The different elements are united through the goal of understanding and effectively addressing the different parts of the mind.

Though this therapy technique sees each level of consciousness as having different sub-personalities, each sub-personality has its own likes, dislikes, burdens, and history, and each sub-personality is thought to play a distinct role in achieving self-preservation for the person in therapy. Every part within a person is responsible for warding off behaviors, actions, or reactions that could result in dysfunction or disharmony within the individual. Thus, each part is validated and recognized as important due to its primary function. Parts may be identified as having either healthy and productive roles or extreme roles. Those parts with roles considered extreme may benefit from therapeutic work. The IFS model emphasizes the network of relationships between parts as parts may not be able to experience change in isolation.

The IFS model has 5 basic assumptions:

  • The human mind is subdivided into an unknown number of parts.
  • Each person has a Self, and the Self should be the chief agent in coordinating the inner family.
  • Parts engaging in non-extreme behavior are beneficial to the individual. There is no such thing as a “bad part.” Therapy aims to help parts discover their non-extreme roles. 
  • Personal growth and development leads to the development of the internal family. Interactions between parts become more complex, allowing for systems theory to be applied to the internal system. Reorganization of the internal system may lead to rapid changes in the roles of parts. 
  • Adjustments made to the internal system will result in changes to the external system and vice versa. Therefore, both the internal and external systems need to be adequately assessed.

There are three distinct types of parts in the IFS model:

  1. Managers are responsible for maintaining a functioning level of consciousness in daily life by warding off any unwanted or counterproductive interactions, emotions, or experiences resulting from external stimuli.
  2. Exiles are most often in a state of pain or trauma, which may result from childhood experiences. Managers and firefighters exile these parts and prevent them from reaching the conscious level so that proper functioning and preservation are maintained.
  3. Firefighters serve as a distraction to the mind when exiles break free from suppression. In order to protect the consciousness from feeling the pain of the exiles, firefighters prompt a person to act on impulse and engage in behaviors that are indulgent, addictive, and often times abusive. Firefighters may redirect attention to other areas such as sex, work, food, alcohol, or drugs.

Managers and firefighters play the role of Protectors, while exiles are parts that are protected.

I will publish more on IFS in the coming weeks. Please feel free to email me if you would like information immediately.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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