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Transcript of Episode 20: Internal Family Systems with Sally Bubbers

Sally Bubbers is a level 3 trained, certified IFS therapist 

Further information about Internal Family Systems and Dr. Richard C Schwartz PhD can be found at 


Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast.  This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.

I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.



So for this episode I’m delighted to be joined by Sally Bubbers, who is counsellor and a pastoral supervisor.

S: Yes

C: And what else would you like to tell us about yourself before we start, Sally?

S: So, I suppose relevant to what we’re going to talk about now, with parts language, I’ve got 2 main trainings as a counsellor; the first one is Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, which acknowledges that the body has its own memory of trauma that it holds without words attached to it, quite often. And Internal Family Systems, which acknowledges that we all have parts, we all have multiple parts, but they aren’t pathologised. People talk sometimes about parts as though it’s a mental illness, but we all have parts.

C: That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

S: That’s right

C: There’s something called Internal Family Systems which helps us to view ourselves as being made up of different, well, as you put it, Parts.

S: That’s right

C: So would you like to tell us about internal family systems, what they are, where they came from?

S: Yes. It actually gets bigger as you go into it further, in a way, but the very basics of it are that everybody has Self Energy within them. Self Energy is good. I think people who come at things from a spiritual understanding might see it as a God-essence. The part that’s made in the image of God. Others might see it as good energy. That is core to all of us; I have an absolute belief that everybody has that within them. And every part of us has self energy. But we’ve all got parts that then take on Jobs to help us survive in the human world, where we’re living now, on Earth. So what happens is we have our self energy, but qualities of self energy tend to be defined with a load of C-words, and a load of P-words. Actually it’s any good quality. But the ones that are assigned in the model to Self Energy are Curiosity, Caring, Creativity, Courage, so it’s strong. To be courageous is strong. Calmness, Connectivity, which is about being relational, Clarity, we can have clear thinking, Compassion, and Confidence. We can also be Present, to ourselves and others, we can have Patience, Persistence, which again is quite a strong thing, Perspective, we can pull out and look at things with perspective, and Playfulness.

C: Those all sound like things we operate in when you’re having a good day. When you’re really feeling at your best. And you’ve got the mental energy to do all those things, be curious, and playful, to be persistent, to relate to people. So that’s the Self Energy, when you’re really feeling like yourself and at your best.

S: That’s right, but I don’t think that anyone is ever completely in Self Energy, and often it’s slightly blended with our Parts. Now what happens with our parts is they tend to take on jobs to help us survive. So we have parts that we Exile within our system. Those parts often hold memories of pain, or things that we’re ashamed about ourselves. So we sort of hide them away within us. We don’t like them to be seen by the world. We also don’t like to put ourselves in situations where the Exiles are going to get hurt, or we’re going to feel their distress. So we develop Managers. The Manager’s job is to make sure they run our lives, and the Exiles don’t get seen, or upset. So they proactively run our lives and control what we’re doing, a lot of the time. So for example, if you’re afraid of the dark, then one of your Managers will think about, when you’re out there, can you get somebody to be with you or can you have a night light on at night, or have a torch handy that you can put on. So the managers are always thinking about things ahead of time. Then the next layer of protection are the Firefighters. The Firefighters are Parts which are really the ultimate backup in the system. So if the Exiles get hurt, the Managers can’t control the situation, these firefighters will come out. The roles of the Firefighters are, like if you have a fire in your house, and the fire brigade came in, they wouldn’t actually care you’d just got a new settee, or a brand new telly, they just come in and blast the foam around. And Firefighters are a bit like that. Their job is to distract from whatever is upsetting you, or, to get some distance, somehow. And they don’t really care what relational damage they cause. Or what harm they cause, physical harm they cause to you, to your body, because their main aim is to stop the pain. So they can be seen as quite destructive. But actually they can be really helpful sometimes. Taking us out of situations that are difficult. Or helping us to relax if we’re completely exhausted. They might just shut us down for a bit. Say for example somebody’s struggling for a bit, maybe they’re really stressed at work, and they come home and they find that having a drink in the evening makes them feel better. That could be a firefighter that’s doing that in the evening, they come home, stressed from work, and the firefighter gets a drink out to help. But then the Managers will notice that and think “hmm, that seems to be working, having a drink every night”, so then the managers will make sure you stop off and buy a bottle of wine every night on your way home from work, so you’ve got it ready to drink. 

C: So the Firefighter is more impulsive –

S: It’s very impulsive, yeah

C: – whereas the Manager, it’s almost like running a programme in the background, but in a much more kind of controlled way.

S: Yes. And all of these parts have Self Energy within them. But the Self Energy kind of gets squashed by the burden, or the role.

C: Right.

S: So, because it gets squashed, by noticing the Burden, or the Role, and parts – we actually can talk to the parts about what their job is, and how they’re helping you, and often parts have taken jobs on a long time ago in our lives. They get stuck in time. They don’t know that time’s moved on. So an adult might find that maybe somebody ends up going into a Freeze state every time that they think their boss is going to be cross with them. That can track back to a little part, that was really scared of their parents or their teacher being cross with them. That part is an exile. That part doesn’t know that time has moved on. Maybe 20, 30 years has gone by. Now there’s an adult, inside there, with Self Energy, who can navigate the adult world, from a different place.

C: But the Manager came into being when that person was a little child. Because the safest thing to do was to freeze. Because if they froze they were less likely to be harmed by the –

S: That’s right

C: But because that part is exiled, the adult may not really be cognitively aware at all, that it exists.

S: It’s completely below the level of awareness.

C: And it sounds as if the Manager – I’m just thinking this through – the Manager also is at a fairly low level of awareness.

S: Absolutely. So often what happens is that there are other parts in the system which are furious that they keep freezing, and are critical of them, going “why can’t you just stand up for yourself? Why can’t you just speak back to that manager? Be a Man, be a Woman, inhabit your role as your job.”

C: But there are newer parts, and this small person needed a lot of protection, so they needed a really good manager.

S: Yes, that’s right. So often for example in counselling, often counsellors will go for the pain or the distress. And it’s the same if you tell somebody off or you try to change something which is vulnerable in them, often you’ll hit the protectors. If you catch a child eating a sweet, they’ll go “no, I wasn’t!” *both laugh* And they’ll lock themselves into a defence mode. And they’re protectors coming up. So what we do in internal family systems is we actually work from the protectors, in. So we talk to the protectors, find out why they took the job on, and then we work our way in, we get permission to talk to the exile. To see how we can help them.

C: So, do you get permission from the protector?

S: Yes. To talk to the exile. And then we build Internal Attachment Repair with the adult and the Self Energy.

C: Right, that sounds quite technical. So how would that work out? If we go back to our example of the person who needed to protect themselves from the adults in their life, when they were very small and very vulnerable, so they’ve got this manager, this protector, who will cause their freezing to happen, and presumably a firefighter who might throw a hissy fit and get really cross if that doesn’t work –

S: Or completely shut them down

C: Or completely shut them down, yes, they might go off sick for a while.

S: Yes, absolutely

C: So if as a counsellor you were saying “I need to talk to the protector”, how would that actually work in the context of a session?

S: So in the context of a session, what you’d do is invite the client to think about the episode that is upsetting, see what comes up in or around their body, so it might be a body sensation, emotion, or thought.

C: So this would be the current episode?

S: The current episode, yes. So we start there, and once you’ve got the body sensation, or a thought, it’s often a body sensation, I always ask “how do you feel towards that?” And generally then, the critics will pop up, and they will say “we don’t like it, we want it to go away”. So then I talk to them about why they don’t like it, and then invite them to step back and get their permission to allow us to talk to the next part. So then I ask the same question again, “how do you feel towards this part?” And when we’ve got a critical mass of Self Energy there, so the client is able to say “I’m curious to get to know this part, and see if we can help it”, then you take the next step of working with the vulnerable part.

C: So are you asking the client to kind of speak for that part of themselves, at each of the steps?

S: No, parts speak for themselves. They actually speak for themselves. It’s quite amazing. They just come up and talk to you. And sometimes they’ll talk directly to me, and sometimes they’ll talk through the client, or the client – it’s almost like telepathy, the client just suddenly knows something, which they didn’t know they knew. Sometimes an image will come up. Or a memory. So then we’ll go to that memory, then we invite the adult to step in to that scene, with their Self Energy, coz the connection is with their Self Energy. And it’s like a redo. So we sort of, if there was a child there that felt vulnerable, there was nobody to protect them, they then get the sense that there is somebody there to protect them. So it’s just like if you’ve got a 2 or 3yo who was really scared, you might go over to them and say “look, I’m here, and I’ll look after you”. And that’s exactly what we do with the internal parts of the person. And then we can invite, once we’ve witnessed that in the parts, what it means to be understood by the adult, then we bring them into the present moment, where they don’t have to go through that experience any more. And it is just unbelievable how the shifts that can take place with the internal attachment repair.

C: Helping the client to show compassion to those parts that have been hidden.

S: Yes

C: So are they then no longer exiles?

S: Well they’re sort of, once they’re unburdened exiles, doesn’t mean to say that they’re never going to get triggered again, but they’re not carrying a legacy of pain. So they might still be scared of something, but they haven’t got the legacy of that, but also if they do get scared, then the adult, hopefully, is aware of them, and can help support them in that moment. Just as you would, if you know that a child is scared of fireworks, and it’s bonfire night, you’ll be looking out and listening out and you’ll be supporting that child. And we can do the same with our parts.

C: And I’m imagining that if you can take the heat out of the critics, actually that takes a lot of the angst out of the system, because quite often that pain comes from that feeling of “oh, I’m scared of this”, followed by a barrage of “but I’m grown up and I shouldn’t be, I should be able to stand up for myself, I can’t believe that I can’t!” So if you can take all of the heat out of that, then actually all of that energy that you’re not using any more, you can have compassion on that part of yourself, then you’re much, you’re just in a much better place, aren’t you? So even if the fear is sometimes triggered, hopefully the other stuff doesn’t get triggered as well.

S: That’s right. And the critics are actually other parts that are trying to help. They’re trying to chivvy you along. It’s like a parent saying “don’t be so silly, just go and do it”.

C: Oh, we all have friends like that

S: *laughs* And that’s what the critics are trying to do.

C: They’re trying to give you good advice that you’re not in a position to take.

S: That’s right. And so most parts, they have good intentions. They’re really trying to help you in some way. It’s just that they don’t see the consequences of their help. It isn’t always very helpful, and it’s actually crushing somebody and they’re feeling bad.

C: That’s when you quite often get that really negative self-talk, don’t you?

S: Yes

C: Which is really interesting, it takes a different spin on that, because I think what I’m hearing from what you’re saying is that the negative self talk itself is coming from a part of you that has got an agenda that may actually be quite helpful.

S: It’s trying to help

C: It’s trying to help. But it doesn’t understand the needs of the exile, and the tenderness of the exile, it’s not being as helpful as you’d hope it would.

S: So we often have a polarity where there’s 2 protectors, both trying to help the exile, in different ways. One may be to give it a boot up the backside, and the other one trying to wrap it up in cotton wool to stop it getting hurt.

C: Right. So there’s a part of you that’s kind of urging you on to go on and get out there, and there’s other parts wanting to offer you a glass of wine and a sit down and a hide under the duvet.

S: That’s right. And so what’s wonderful is once you start noticing that there are 2, and it’s the same as when people go “should I take this job or not?” and there’s all the pros and cons, it’s like people blend with one part and they can only see the pros, and then they blend with the other part and they can only see the cons. But if you can gain perspective with your Self Energy, and step back and you can see the pros and the cons together, then it’s a much better way to make a decision about things.

C: Right

S: But parts can come up and blend with us, and when they blend with us, it’s like it pushes the adult and Self Energy out of the way. So you might say to yourself sometimes “you really didn’t behave as you expect yourself to as an adult”, y’know, “I didn’t do that very well”. Well maybe you were just blended with a part that was trying to help.

C: So is that what sometimes happens, you know when you have a response to something, which you know is out of proportion to things going on now?

S: Yes

C: So somebody does something that reminds you of something else, but at that point you haven’t twigged it.

S: Yes

C: So I remember, a slightly odd example, but I remember, years ago, I was part of a church that quite hurt, but one of the things that happened was that people’s contributions were not appreciated. And in the mix of that, that became really quite difficult. A number of things happened. But I then joined another church, and the vicar invited a visiting speaker. And I was incensed. I was absolutely furious! Absolutely… I mean I didn’t go and… thankfully, I didn’t go and talk about that, but I was chuntering, because “have we not got people here who we could appreciate…?” And I knew that this vicar was not like this other person –

S: The other one

C: – but that had triggered something. So it sounds like I had ‘blended’ with something?

S: Yes, yes, and there was a part triggered. Yes. So what’s so fascinating is when you go back to talk to the parts, and sometimes people can end up with the most obscure memories of something that happened to them, but it created that cascade of parts being created, to protect that… it’s like these parts go “never again am I going to be hurt like that, or is this going to happen”. It’s really amazing. And once you start assuming that communication in your body is from a part, it changes the whole way you see things and you can talk to yourself.

C: So suddenly you can begin to see what’s going on. So in that instance I twigged that there was a link between the two. So I knew that my response was irrational, and I knew that the person I was dealing with, the vicar on this occasion, was not the kind of person who was going to do that stuff. And I wonder… I didn’t go back and consciously talk to a part, because I’d not heard of this.

S: No, no. But you did effectively notice the part, and bring in your adult logic and perspective. So you had enough Self Energy there to bring perspective, and some caution.

C: Yes, and I’m wondering now if might not have been helpful to have talked to the part, and worked out what it was about what was going on, that had been so hurtful. I suspect that it would have said something about the fact that I had felt rejected in that context. And had seen other people rejected, but I had felt quite rejected. And I wonder whether, had I done that, if that would have helped to lessen some of the impact of that on other occasions.

S: In theory, yes, yes, absolutely. I think parts can unburden sort of organically as well. Just by noticing them, that part might have let go of some of the burden. Just by you noticing it.

C: Yes. 

S: So that can happen, as well, over time. It’s a beautiful model. Particularly when you’re talking with children, or other adults that you find difficult, to be able to say, “it’s a part of them. That’s taken that job on for a reason.” You don’t know what’s happened to them to cause that part. And the bigger the protector, the bigger the wound that they’re busy protecting.

C: Yes. That’s a good key into having a bit of compassion for people who are being awkward.

S: Yes, it is, it is. But the other interesting thing about it is also the difference between empathy and compassion. A lot of people talk about having empathy for others. So IFS would see empathy as, when one of your parts is connected to something in the other. So you get an empathic charge, that comes from your part connecting with someone else’s pain. But actually you can’t really be truly present to that person from that place, because you’ve got an activated part in you. So that could drive you to want to take that person’s pain away, or whatever Manager you’ve got that looks after your exile, that manager can come up to either tell the other person what to do, or to try and make it all ok for them because you don’t want them to be in that pain you’ve been in. There’s all sorts of things that our managers will do, and we’ll just tell them to pull themselves together. Because maybe that’s what you do with your part. So what you have to do, then, is notice that you’ve got an empathic charge. Let the parts know you’ll come back to them later, then endeavour to shift into your Self Energy, where you can be present to that person with compassion, and curiosity, to find out what’s going on for them.

C: So the empathic charge, ideally, then, sounds like the empathic charge gives you the information that there is something going on –

S: To connect with somebody

C: – but then you want to invite them to sit down with a nice cup of tea for a minute, whilst you sit in your present state, and then you can give them compassion, without doing the over-identify thing where you’re guessing what somebody else might be feeling from what you’re feeling.

S: That’s right.

C: And what might help them from what helps you, and they might not match.

S: It’s quite nuanced, but it’s actually quite profound when you start thinking about it.

C: When you were talking about that kind of advice-giving, that happens quite a lot, doesn’t it? That somebody will suddenly give you a whole pile of “what you need to do is this, this and this”, and the thought that that’s actually their manager, managing their part at you, are you just supposed to nod and smile and let them get over it?

S: Yes, but it’s interesting when you think about it like that. We can collude with other people’s managers as well sometimes. It is quite fascinating when you start thinking about it, we’ve got our internal relational system, and we’re offering internal repair, then we’ve got our relationships around us, in our community, and if you think about it, it extrapolates out to the country, to how countries communicate with other countries and the whole world, really.

C: And we see quite a lot of situations where groups of people, almost communally, their parts have come out to protect them.

S: Yeah, absolutely. And firefighters can take control of situations. And they don’t care what damage they cause.

C: No, no.

S: So I find it a really helpful model, often people just take to it, because they resonate with it. It works with everything and anything, really. But I use a lot of my Sensory-Motor understanding, that I learned through that around things like the Window of Tolerance and stuff like that, but what’s amazing is that if a part is really triggered, you can actually ask that part to dial back a bit so you can be present to it. Which is amazing.

C: It is, it is. It is incredible.

S: It really is. When you see it in action, or feel it in action, it’s extraordinary. It’s very helpful.

C: So in terms of practically making this useful for somebody, it sounds as if part of it is just about being aware, that there are these different parts, there are the exiles, who we need to protect, the managers who kind of run this program of organising our lives around protecting the exiles, and then when something really triggers us then the firefighters come out.

S: That’s right

C: But we have a Self Energy that can take some perspective and observe what’s going on. Then have some conversation with those parts, but to just be aware can help you to know what’s happening, can’t it?

S: Yes, it can. And Self Energy is healing itself as well. Just having this fundamental belief that everybody has got this God-essence, this Good Energy, Self Energy, within them as well, and every part has as well. I love that.

C: Sally, that’s been really, really interesting.

S: I hope it’s not too much information, it might have fried your brains! But you’re welcome, that’s great.

C: Thank you very much.



Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.

Thank you for listening.


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