The “Internal Family Systems” of the Mind

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Conor McMillen

Right at this moment a part of you wants to read this and another part of you wants to do something else. Notice that? You may even notice several parts of you that have already come up with ideas of what else they would like to be doing. Maybe one wants to check your email account, another wants to eat, while another wants to shut off the computer, run outside and dance in the streets. What if we view these parts for what they are: distinct and very real members of your system, each with their own needs, wants, desires, memories and narratives?

The brain functions as a multiple system, using parallel processing. This same mode of processing is used by computer engineers solving complex problems. They have discovered that using multiple computers to run the same problem is much more effective than having one single computer running that problem. These different computers, or parts, of our brain are constantly running, side by side, the same “problem” that is life. They often have different ideas about how to proceed, but the intention is always based in keeping the system surviving and in an ideal state, thriving.

If these parts of our brain are functioning beside one another, simultaneously running the same problem, why are there different solutions? Why do we act one way while desiring to act another? Why do we feel paralyzed by polarized parts pulling us in two opposite directions? Should I quit work and find a new job or should I stay and try to work it out? Should I leave my relationship because it is doomed or get counseling and try to improve it? Should I eat this unhealthy food to calm my cravings or should I tough it out with a salad?

In these situations, parts of us offer varying solutions dependent upon their individual experiences. Part of you may hold onto a set of memories that relate to the comfort and excitement food has brought to your life. They remember your mother serving you dinner with a warm, loving smile, stroking your hair as you ate. They remember coming together with a group of friends to eat and watch the game. They remember cooking or going out to meals with your partner in an expression of your love. While these parts are existing, there may be other parts that hold onto a very different set of memories relating to the discomfort of overeating and feeling shameful about your body. Knowing that these two parts have different understandings of how food plays a role in your life helps make sense of the various components that come up for you when you think about food.

In Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy we strive to connect with and understand our parts in order to bring clarity to our overall system. Indeed we seek to answer the troublesome question of “why we do what we do.” Just like working with an external family, in IFS we use love and compassion to bring our internal family members closer together in order to function as a whole from a place of health. We are not interested in shaming, banishing, or altering our parts, but rather, we aim to accept, listen to, and love them. This process brings a natural healing and growth-promoting environment for the system to function as whole.

It is my passion to connect with others and offer them support and guidance in learning about their parts. I have found this work to be transformative in my own life and in the life of my clients and would like to extend an offer to you to try out a session with me at my “first session reduced” – quote code “The Eternities”.

Learn more at

See also Conor’s interview with The Eternities here, where he talks more about IFS and his own personal journey of self development.

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