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Inner Family Systems Therapy

Managing Emotional Pain

I have found that working with personality parts in therapy is a creative way to understand emotional pain. Popular psychology is starting to acknowledge that we all have a host of different characters inside of our psyche. And yet some of us still fear the stigma of "Multiple Personality Disorder," or as it is now called, "Dissociative Identity Disorder."

The good news is each of us has a rich multiplicity of characters inside, and we do not have to dissociate away from our human nature to try to appear "sane." Understanding and integrating all the different parts of ourselves can be creative, enlightening and even fun!

And, the best news is that we all have access to the healing resource of our Authentic Self. Our Authentic Self can witness the emotionality of our personality parts, and also lead, re-parent, and love our hurting aspects of being into wholeness.

No Part of You is Bad

“A part is not just a temporary emotional state or habitual thought pattern. Instead, it is a discrete and autonomous mental system that has an idiosyncratic range of emotion, style of expression, set of abilities, desires, and view of the world."

~ Richard C. Schwartz, Internal Family Systems Therapy

Understanding that you have many different selves inside can free you to accept yourself completely. All of your personality parts are a valuable part of your inner ecosystem, and they all want to play constructive roles. Your different selves, once harmonized, become cooperatively integrated into one highly functioning Whole Self.

Problems arise when your inner aspects are forced into extreme roles, influenced by trauma/abuse, shaming, repression, rejection, disapproval, neglect or challenges in your outer family system. Rejected parts of your personality can distort themselves into what you might call your "inner demons."

Many of us live highly-controlled lives with only occasional lapses into emotionality. We develop managerial (protective) parts of self that keep us highly functioning, working, paying the bills and navigating family dynamics.

For this reason, we can fear we are crazy when repressed parts of ourselves become activated. When our forbidden needs, pain, and desires leak out, we can be shocked by our bad behaviour. It is common to hear people say after they do something extreme, "I just wasn't myself."

It is important to know that what is forcibly exiled still exists. Exiled parts of self threaten to erupt in disruptive ways. When you accumulate emotional pain that you are afraid to feel, exiled aspects of your personality will feel compelled to take actions that are "not like yourself" to try to be seen, heard, loved and known.

"Inner Family Systems" originator Richard Schwartz developed his model to explain how our psychology is designed to keep unbearable emotions hidden, and how we can become whole through self-acceptance. I explain his modality below.


"We have many personalities that grew out of pain and broken bonding, but there is a difference between these and clinically diagnosed multiple personalities.

All of our personalities compete, have different goals, are conflicted, and subtly stop us from receiving. The bigger the trauma, the larger the fractures we have inside, and the more independently these selves will operate."

~ Chuck Spezzano

The human mind knows how to protect itself in creative ways. And, how interesting that we all have an indeterminate number of sub-personalities, each having their own age, desires, temperaments, desires, goals, and talents!

When you learn how to be inclusive of all of your personality parts, you will discover the strengths inherent in the currently extreme parts of self that are presently unbalancing your life.

The True Self Is Larger Than Its Parts

In addition to the collection of personality parts that make up your human psyche, you have a compassionate and accepting Authentic Self. The Authentic Self has the potential to be a good leader/parent to your internal family system of psychological parts.

The inner parts of your personality are not inherently bad or dangerous. They hold difficult emotions for you so that you can function in daily life. The tricky thing is your sub-personalities often blend their extreme feelings and thoughts with your everyday mind. So, when you are tired or stressed, hurting parts can "take over" your psychology.

Your job is to differentiate your authentic Self from your protective parts as well as from your "younger" exiled parts. Once the Authentic Self has separated out from the extreme emotions of your personality parts, the parts regain the trust of the leadership of the Authentic Self and inner harmony is then restored.


You can think of your Authentic Self as a mediator that seeks to depolarize the conflicts of your inner parts and helps to sort out all of the varying emotional needs that you have inside. Your parts of self do not disappear when your Authentic Self takes up leadership. They become less extreme. They reveal their unique gifts.

Sometimes particular parts of yourself can develop their gifts so profoundly, they can even step into the leadership at times when given permission from your Authentic Self. They will also withdraw from leadership when the Authentic Self requests it.


When trauma occurs - when you are abandoned, rejected, shocked, scared, or abused physically, sexually or emotionally - your inner family system polarizes into extremes.

As one part takes on an extremely protective role, it unbalances the entire inner system, taking over the leadership responsibilities from the Authentic Self. When the parts of self become polarized, inner conflict ensues within the psyche.

The Three Group Ecology

Highly polarized inner family systems are rigid and defended. You will activate intense resistance and emotional pain whenever you try to change any part of yourself without considering the inner family system that operates within you.

It is helpful to be respectful towards the parts of yourself that feel scared and defensive; they are just trying to do their job to keep you safe.

Most of us are polarized within our internal family system. Here is how Schwartz describes the three groups:


Any part that was hurt, neglected, rejected, scared or shamed as a child, teen or younger adult goes into hiding and becomes unknown to your conscious awareness. These emotionally-charged sub-personalities become the exiles of your inner family system. These exiles are overwhelmed with feelings of rejection, shame, and unlovability.

Like any exiles, these repressed parts become desperate to express themselves. They long for opportunities to break free, to share their stories, and to release their pain. Inner exiles desperately want to be loved, listened to, accepted and cared for.

These hurting, rejected inner parts are vulnerable. They will flood you with overwhelming emotions. They also look for love in unhealthy ways. They try to resolve their pain in unhealthy situations similar to what hurt them in the first place. If unaccepted within, exiled parts of self will seek love, acceptance, and protection from the same types of people who hurt them in the first place.

Managers (Protectors)

Many people mistakenly think that their manager-sub-personalities are their Authentic Selves. Inner Managers are highly functioning, and even inspiring at times. Managers, however, live in constant dread of the escape of the exiles.

Manager parts of self do not accept all parts of the self as the Authentic self does. Managers control life so as to avoid triggering unhealed emotional pain. This control can sometimes look noble, creative, spiritual, successful and high achieving.

Managers can be highly efficient in the world. They accomplish great things in an unbalanced way that is out of touch with the inner ecology. Highly functioning manager selves can fill your life with noble activities that are done as compensation to avoid emotional pain, for example.

Managers expend enormous amounts of energy keeping painful sensations buried. From our manager part of self, we control; we try to be a perfectionist; we try to gain approval, and we live in rigid denial of what is emotionally arising within.

Managers sacrifice themselves for the internal system. They rarely relax. The more competent these protective parts become, the more the internal system relies on them, and the more the Authentic Self is denied.

A managerial part often feels lonely, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Your inner managers need love, balance, nurture, care, and rest. Your inner managers - only being a part of self - come to believe that everything depends on them. And, the more they accomplish the less they are willing to listen to the wisdom of your Authentic Self.

Note: There are other kinds of protectors besides manager, most notably inner critics that try to keep you safe from social embarrassment. Read: The Purpose of Your Inner Critic.

Firefighters (Extreme Protectors)

When your managers become exhausted with all of their responsibilities, the exiles become activated. When the exiles take over, you will become uncontrollably flooded with difficult feelings. The emergency firefighters (your addictions) then swoop in to help you douse the dreaded emotions with little regard for consequences.

The techniques that the firefighters use include extreme activities such as binge eating, drug or alcohol abuse, self-mutilation, inappropriate or abusive sexual activity, physical illness, or other extreme forms of dissociation. A firefighter engages in any self-serving activity that will numb or distract from intensely arising emotional pain.

This extreme mode of coping is the place from which all of our unbalanced, addictive, self-abusive and obsessive behaviours arise. While managers are controlled and organized and highly rational, firefighters will use any means necessary to numb emotional pain. These self-focused, emergency behaviours leave a wake of destruction.

Restoring Balance, Harmony, and Leadership

It can be such a relief to creatively sort out the map of your psyche to understand how you operate. Through self-acceptance, the gifts and strengths that you buried along with your emotional pain will finally able to come to the forefront for expression in your daily life.

Every personality part has a valuable role to play, and each part will eagerly leave their extreme roles given the love, self-acceptance and inner nurturing that you provide through the loving witnessing presence of your Authentic Self.

Creative multiplicity can be a profoundly moving and fun process. You can grow to respect and appreciate all of the parts of yourself. Your personality parts have kept you safe, helped you to function, and brought you intact to this present moment.

With love



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