Internal Family Systems: Accepting Your Wild Parts

Three zebras nuzzle one another.New York Times columnist, David Brooks, was recently inspired by the movie, Where the Wild Things Are. He wonders if we are one person, with an ingrained, stable character—or are we different people in different situations? It sees as if we are tripping around the truth with one person and going whole-hog honest with another?

His thoughts, and the movie, offer us a great forum to explain Internal Family Systems (IFS).

In Where the Wild Things Are, the child, Max, is torn between loving and needing his mother and raging at her. He falls into another world, populated by strange, wild creatures that he tries to control. They want him to build a world free of burdens and pain, but sadly, he can neither build the world nor control the creatures.

Internal Family Systems tells us we all have multiplicity. We have different parts with different needs, feelings, experiences, and agendas. Sometimes we are unaware of them, and other times we are batted about by different feelings and behaviors.

We may not know we have parts— we just know we feel depressed one moment, angry the next, full of energy in an hour, and totally listless by nightfall. Or we melt into the eyes of our loved ones, explode a moment later into rage, collapse into guilt, and then sink into loneliness.

As Brooks says, we may think of ourselves as having immutable character, hopefully the good, stable, productive, fun-loving kind. But in order to keep thinking of ourselves that way, we have to ignore, hide, or demean aspects of ourselves that yank us out of these experiences.

Personally, I think of myself as creative and focused. But what about when I get carried away by one distraction after another in the course of trying to write or create something? (Excuse me while I check my email.) As Brooks says, do I use direct assault to fight these distractions and return to my rightful character? Like Max, do I try to control the Wild Things?

Thankfully, IFS shows us another way. We neither own our ingrained monolithic character, nor are we buffeted and tossed on the waves of situation-specific behavior.

We all have parts, and they are all good. If they get extreme or bossy, it’s because they have been forced, through some difficult experience, into extreme roles. Each, in their own way, tries to help and guide us. It’s not their fault if one extreme part causes problems which another one has to mop up!

We don’t have to use reason or force with these parts. I don’t need to criticize my distracting parts for checking that email. Instead I can take a moment to ask for a bit of space between me and my distractor, and say “Hello, who are you?” When my distractor feels my friendship and presence, it relaxes, and says, “Oh, I was just trying to get you to have everything all at once. I’m worried about only doing one thing at a time. It was not very safe in childhood to stay in one place for more than a moment.” It relaxes, and I can focus again.

We don’t have to control, analyze, fear, judge, or push away our community of selves. As IFS tells us, we can ask them if they would take turns letting us understand the worlds they live in. If they live in tight little boxes, reliving unhappy events, they can feel another heart beating there with them, offering them understanding, contact, and relief.

© Copyright 2009 by Mona R. Barbera, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • gates

    October 26th, 2009 at 10:30 AM

    As human beings, we evolve everyday, every second… everything that we go through in life has an effect on what we evolve into.. We may behave in a particular way when faced with a situation once, but may react in a completely different manner after a period of time. This is because we have evolved in that duration… This evolution should be used in a positive manner to become better than yesterday, everyday.

  • Greg B

    October 26th, 2009 at 3:29 PM

    There is no fixed point for any person as far as I believe… All of us have both good and bad in us, positivity and negativity and two ends of everything we can possibly think of. There are so many ‘voices’ inside us…!

  • Kim

    October 26th, 2009 at 3:45 PM

    Funny how such seemingly “childrens” books can really have such deep and complicated undertones.

  • Cassie V.

    October 27th, 2009 at 9:28 PM

    Thank you for sharing that interesting perspective, Mona. I can so relate to doing the email checking in the middle of another task! It’s like if we stand still, we need to think and reflect on the different aspects of ourselves. It’s easier to keep running. Until now I have never questioned why I do that.

  • Dr. Notary

    October 27th, 2009 at 9:45 PM

    Human beings have many faces. Some are on public view and some not. The person your boss sees is not who your wife, mother, best friend or child does. Is that about our concealment or denial of facets of our true selves, or our ability to adapt to almost any given set of circumstances? After all, flexibility is required for survival, is it not? I’m thinking aloud here.

    I enjoyed your article Mona. Keep them coming please.

  • Jason

    October 28th, 2009 at 5:48 AM

    Max is like so many of us- we love our moms but sometimes we just want to rage at them and blame them for everything that ever has and ever will go wrong with us. Good thing that the saying about nothing being stronger than a mother’s love really is very true.

  • amelia

    October 30th, 2009 at 6:43 AM

    A part of me just cant accept this analogy as it seems bereft of reality and the ability to control our feelings.

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