Two emotional intelligence coaches help us “Understand IFS: The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy”

An interview with Emotional Intelligence Coaches Amy Steindler and Rena Rachar

In early 2020, as the country began to shut down, emotional intelligence coaches Amy Steindler and Rena Rachar spent several hours a week on Zoom riffing on their fears, anxieties, and uncertainty and on the internal conflicts that arose. From “How much time should I spend disinfecting the groceries with alcohol wipes while wearing surgical gloves and holding my breath,” to the origins of their own shame storms, to the application of attachment theory to relationships, they explored everything that came to mind, no matter how serious or ridiculous.

They began taking turns coaching each other through some of the darkest days in recent memory.

“Between the pandemic fear and isolation and the challenges we were facing with relationships and parenting and keeping our coaching businesses alive, we both needed a lot of compassionate witnessing,” Amy said.

“We realized that the internal conflicts we were experiencing then, and actually throughout our lives, were coming from thoughts that were out of alignment with our ‘True Selves,’” Rena added. “We needed a way to return home to ourselves, no matter what was happening around us.”

What the women thought of as their “True Selves” was originally based on the concept of the “essential self” they had learned from author and celebrity life coach Martha Beck, who trained them as life coaches.

“We were thinking of our True Selves as this unshakeable core of our best and highest selves,” Amy said. “It was a helpful foundation, and we built a more robust and interesting construct from there. Eventually, we realized that beyond being a touchstone, our True Selves had an active role in our healing and resolving our inner conflicts.”

Long before the pandemic, Rena had found a way to connect with her True Self—as a visualization of a Woman on the Beach, relaxing beside a bonfire, confident, calm, wise, and untroubled.  Inspired by how comforting that connection was, Rena went on to personify other parts of her that showed up ashamed or afraid, visualizing how they looked and giving them names. She introduced these parts to her Woman on the Beach (affectionately called WotBe), and noticed that WotBe could embrace these fearful, young parts of her, giving them the attention and emotional attunement they needed. She instantly felt more aligned with herself, giving her a sense of clarity and relief.

In March of 2021, Amy discovered the work of Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy. IFS had a vocabulary and framework similar to what Rena had discovered on her own, and the women began to integrate it into the “parts work” that was already familiar to them.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Rena said. “Here was a model that made sense of what I had been intuitively doing in my own life. I had been practicing connecting with my True Self for several years after she showed up in my mind’s eye. She became my trustworthy guide during some very turbulent times and remained a source of unshakable strength. Introducing the more vulnerable characters to my WotBe was game-changing, and I struggled to make this process accessible to my clients. Then along came Amy with IFS.”

“Dick Schwartz’s creation of the IFS model came from observations of what his patients were telling him about themselves,” Amy noted. “The language of ‘parts’ is a natural way to describe the internal conflicts we experience. Everyone’s said some version of, “part of me is saying, ‘Go for it!’ and another part says, ‘Absolutely NOT, sister, have you lost your mind?!’”

The IFS model describes three types of parts, all of which are facets of our personality: Protectors, Exiles, and capital-S “Self.”

“The exiles are the parts of us we don’t want anyone to see—they’re the parts carrying burdens of shame or isolation because, at some point in our early lives, we got the message that these parts were unacceptable,” Amy noted. “They’re the truly sensitive and creative parts that got shamed into exile—the ones who dared to cry when they were sad or exuberant when they were happy.  Many of us learned to extinguish our emotions to prioritize our caregivers’ comfort over our authentic selves.”

Managers are a type of protector that keeps the exiles from being exposed, and they take the form of inner critics, judges, know-it-alls—the list is endless—who drive us to be perfect so we can be loved. Firefighters appear once the exiled parts are exposed and burn with shame to douse the flame of those strong, unwanted emotions. Managers and firefighters fear the intensity of feelings unleashed if the exile is seen.

In earlier models they had worked with, “the protective parts were often characterized as ‘Saboteurs,’ because they stand in the way of living an authentic and courageous life, keeping us from thriving,” Amy noted.

“In the IFS model,” Rena added, “we see the dysfunctional aspects of our personalities not as saboteurs but as loyal protectors. Take the Inner Critic, a voice we’ve all heard. The critic comes on board after we’ve experienced some shame or rejection. With a “never again” mantra, the critic uses internal shaming techniques to keep us from making the same mistake and feeling that shame again. The critic isn’t an enemy but a fierce ally to the most vulnerable parts of us. Instead of resisting and reviling them, we befriend these very young, very tired parts of ourselves working so hard to keep us from being emotionally overwhelmed.”

“Seeing them as protectors makes it easier to have compassion for them and ourselves, and that felt much better to us,” Amy added. “I was tired of hating and trying to get rid of those parts of myself. Now that I know they’re not something I need to get rid of—they’re just parts of me that need attention and a bit of parenting or love or witnessing so they can let go of their crippling fears—I can invite them to sit on my lap, wrap my arms around them, and reassure them that all is well.”

As they began using the IFS inquiry techniques while coaching each other, they immediately saw the practical results. As they honed their skills, working together and taking a course that would certify them as “IFS-Informed” coaches, they noticed that clients responded well to focus on what their parts were saying and how they felt about those parts.

One of the goals of IFS is to create healthy relationships between the parts and the Self. It’s a trust-building process that results in the protectors stepping down from their current roles and shifting into the roles they were originally meant to have, such as cheerleader, organizer of play dates, or healthy boundary-setter.

“We noticed that some women had a hard time connecting to their True Selves, and we knew we needed a better way to help them identify the qualities and wisdom that would enable the protectors to step back and allow True Self to lead,” Amy said. “Rena suggested that we re-purpose a “future self” meditation we had both seen in Tara Mohr’s book, “Playing Big.””

“We recognized that True Self exists only in the present, so by imagining who we might be, and where we might be, 20 years from now, we could uncover the qualities and the wisdom we thought we were working towards and bring them into the present moment,” said Rena. “We had to give our clients a way to envision what being “home” meant to them, and this meditation worked beautifully.”

When Dr. Schwartz’s book, “No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model” came out this year, the two women were excited to include it in a book club they offered to members of their group coaching community, “The RiffSpace™.” The book was written with a lay audience in mind, but RiffSpace™ participants who read it found it dense and hard to follow. Amy and Rena decided to make it their mission to make IFS more accessible, finding language and stories that made the concepts more relatable.

“We’re both enthusiastic students of emotional intelligence. We’ve been able to gather best-in-class tools and resources from thought leaders in coaching and neuroscience that fit seamlessly with IFS work, and that gives us several ways to access and enhance the parts work,” Amy said. “Having that flexibility allows us to match our language to each client’s natural preferences.”

Rena added, “We love curating the personal development tools.  It’s a source of joy for us to fit various models together—one piece from this model, another from that one—into our unique approaches. We know they work because we use them on ourselves. And we get to witness our clients using them to resolve their inner conflicts, come home to the truest expression of themselves, transform their relationships, and start having a lot more fun.”

For more information: