11 Internal Family Systems (IFS) Exercises & Activities to do with your Clients

Internal family system therapy (IFS) has been growing in popularity among various mental health professions. With an increase in its use, IFS has been a focus of research which has led to it becoming an evidence-based approach. Keep reading to learn 11 Internal Family Systems Exercises & Activities to do with your Clients.

Internal family system therapy was developed in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Schwartz. Dr. Schwartz was influenced by a number of approaches including psychodynamic psychotherapy, family therapy, person-centered therapy, and experiential therapy. Dr. Schwartz continued to modify this therapeutic approach as he gained more insight through his clinical practice.

In his clinical work, Dr. Schwartz observed that it is common for clients to come to us with conflicting feelings, thoughts, and emotions. He believes that each of us has different parts within us and that each has its own function and purpose. This concept became known as multiplicity. Multiplicity recognizes that we each have different personalities within ourselves which can have different perspectives and driving emotions.  

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This led to the development of the Internal Family Systems Model.  Key concepts associated with Internal Family Systems Model will be discussed in the next section.

Roles in IFS: Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles

Let’s review the main roles in Internal Family Systems therapy:

Managers

Managers refer to protective roles that try to keep themselves safe. This can include keeping the individual from forming close relationships that could cause distress.

Exiles

Exiles refer to emotions such as feeling hurt, humiliated, frightened, and shamed, that the manager keeps out of consciousness in locked inner closets.

Firefighters

A firefighter’s role is to act when exiles are upset and may bring their extreme emotions out of their locked closet, or put the individual in a vulnerable position.

Self

The Self: The Internal Family Systems Model believes that each of us has a core Self that has qualities such as perspective, confidence, compassion, and acceptance. The challenge that clients may experience is that they may have little access to their Self.

Self-Led Person

The Self-Led Person: When individuals learn to trust and are able to see that they didn’t need to protect themselves as much as they were, the Self is able to lead. When in a crisis, a Self-Led Person is able to remain calm and centered so they can navigate the situation at hand in a calm manner.

Mental Health Concerns That Can Benefit from Internal Family Systems Therapy

As an evidenced-based approach, IFS can be used with clients who are experiencing a range of mental health concerns, and clients from various populations. IFS can be used with clients who are living with trauma-related concerns, anxiety, depression, and substance use concerns. This can include individuals who experienced childhood trauma and neglect.

Additionally, Internal family services can be used with individuals who are living with low self-esteem, low self-worth, and poor emotion regulation skills.

Consistent with other therapeutic approaches, there are some situations where IFS would not be the best fit. This includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and some personality disorders. Additionally, IFS may not be the best approach to use with clients who are currently in a crisis. 

Internal Family Systems Activities

Internal family systems exercises can be used to provide psychoeducation and explore concepts associated with internal family systems therapy. Most of the IFS activities you can use can be tailored to your client and their needs. Examples of internal family systems activities that you could use in a counseling session include:

  1. Begin your session by providing psychoeducation about different parts of our internal systems. After your client has an understanding of the different parts that can be within themselves, ask them to draw circles that overlap into one area. Ask your client to label the different areas of themselves that connect to the center, which represents their core Self. This visualization can help your client visualize the different parts of themselves, and how they are intertwined with each other. Allow for time to process their thoughts and reactions to this exercise, and any changes it has led to within their perception of themselves.
  2. TherapyByPro’s Connecting to Vulnerable Parts and Unburdening Worksheet can be used to help clients release burdens, traumas, and limiting beliefs that their parts may be carrying. The progression of this worksheet can be used to guide your session. There are six components to this worksheet that will encourage your client to connect with their exiled parts so they can work towards releasing the negative aspects of it. Allow for time to process their experience with their exercise.
  3. Once your client has a grasp on healthy and effective coping skills, you can work with them to meet and welcome the different parts of themselves that may be scary or overwhelming. It is important to ensure that you have developed a safe and supportive environment within the context of your therapeutic relationship for this IFS activity. Encourage your client to approach this IFS exercise with compassion and a healthy curiosity about themselves. The goal of this exercise is to further explore the intentions of this part and better understand why it is trying to protect them.
  4. This Parts Mapping Worksheet is another example of a mapping exercise that can promote self-awareness and help in the healing process by deepening their understanding of their different parts.  Encourage your client to take their time as they explore the different parts of themselves and pay attention to the varying qualities, perspectives, and roles that are present. Allow for time to process their experience and explore any changes to their understanding of themselves and their different parts.
  5. Working with the exiles is an IFS exercise where you focus on exploring the exiles in your client’s Self. This can be a delicate process because it often includes trauma and other challenging experiences. Because of this, proceed at a pace that is comfortable for your client, which means that it can’t occur over a number of sessions. Additionally, it is important to ensure that they have the necessary skills to cope with any discomfort that may arise for them. You can begin by identifying their exiles with the use of thoughtful exploration questions, followed by validation and normalizing the existence of these exiles. You can then encourage your client to communicate with their exiled parts. After working with the exiles, spend time exploring their managers and firefighters that work to protect them. While your client is exploring these parts of themselves, the clinician can help the client validate their concerns, and provide support for their intended purpose.
  6. The 8 Cs is a common internal family systems activity. With this activity, you will help your client explore each of the C’s and how they relate to it. The 8 Cs that are explored include:
  • Curiosity
  • Connectedness
  • Calm
  • Courage
  • Confidence
  • Creativity
  • Clarity
  • Compassion

Allow for time to process any takeaways that your client has gained from this IFS exercise.

  1. Another internal family systems activity that can be beneficial is to guide your client through a self-compassion exercise. This should incorporate kindness and understanding that they show themselves and their different parts.
  2. This Driving the Bus Worksheet can be used to explore how the different parts of you responded to an inner conflict. You will then be able to explore which part is “driving the bus” and further explore this experience with your client. Allow the worksheet to guide the progression of your session, and ensure that you have time to process your client’s experience with this IFS exercise.
  3. Exploring your client’s experience with multiplicity can be beneficial to internal family systems activity. As your client explores the different parts of themselves, take time to normalize this experience and that they have different parts of themselves. Bringing awareness to their different parts can help them work towards gaining more access to their core Self.
  4. A common experience that internal family systems therapy works to explore is the conflict within different parts of themselves. This can be a challenging experience for clients to experience and navigate. TherapyByPro offers a Resolving Conflicts Between 2 Parts Worksheet that can be used to make sense of tension and conflict between different parts of themselves. The goal of this worksheet is to find a path forward that both parts are agreeable to. Similarly, TherapyByPro offers a Resolving Conflicts Between 3 Parts Worksheet that can be used to address 3 conflicting parts.  
  5. This Understanding My Exile Part Worksheet can be used to help clients understand the part of themselves that protects them from feelings including pain, fear, and sorrow. Exploring this part of your client should be done in a safe environment, and allow your client to recognize the purpose of these emotions being locked away.   

Final Thoughts On Choosing IFT Exercises & Activities

Thank you for reading this resource on 11 Internal Family Systems Exercises & Activities to do with your Clients. IFS exercises can be a powerful tool for clinicians who are using internal family systems therapy in their clinical work. By introducing IFS concepts in digestible pieces, you can explore them with your clients and try to help them gain more access to their Self.  

If you are interested in learning more about internal family systems therapy, we encourage you to seek out Continuing Education Courses and other training opportunities in your area. Once you develop a thorough understanding of IFS, its concepts, and exercises, you can then work to apply your new knowledge and skills to your clinical practice.  

TherapyByPro is an online mental health directory that connects mental health pros with clients in need. If you’re a mental health professional, you can Join our community and add your practice listing here. We have assessments, practice forms, and worksheet templates mental health professionals can use to streamline their practice. View all of our mental health worksheets here.

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Resources:

https://www.opa.org/assets/docs/Conference/C21/HANDOUTS/Nancy%20Morgan%20-%20Evolution%20of%20the%20Internal%20Family%20Systems%20Model.pdf

Kayla Loibl, MA, LMHC
Author: Kayla Loibl, MA, LMHC

Kayla is a Mental Health Counselor who earned her degree from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. She has provided psychotherapy in a residential treatment program and an outpatient addiction treatment facility in New York as well as an inpatient addiction rehab in Ontario, Canada. She has experience working with individuals living with a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma.

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