Internal Family Systems Therapy: 8 Worksheets and Exercises

Internal Family SystemsWhat if the idea that we each have a single personality is entirely wrong?

Instead of the one-mind view, maybe you, I, and everyone else have multiple personalities.

Richard Schwartz (2021), the creator of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy model, suggests we have all been born with many sub-minds interacting with one another.

Haven’t we all heard conflicting inner voices saying “Go for it” and “Don’t you dare” (Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013)?

This article explores how the IFS model helps treat individuals and couples by directing these inner players, while introducing several tools and techniques to help the process.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself and give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.

What Is Internal Family Systems Therapy?

The idea that “the mind is not a singular entity or self, but is multiple, composed of parts” is at the core of Richard Schwartz’s internal family systems (IFS) model (Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013, p. xviii).

According to Schwartz (2021, p. 6), thinking involves parts “talking to each other and to you constantly about things you have to do or debating the best course of action, and so on.”

Each part has its own beliefs, feelings, and characteristics and a distinct role in the overall system. They are clustered into the following three groups (Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013; IFS Institute, n.d.):

  • Managers
    Managers are a protective group of parts that attempt to keep us organized and safe, running our day-to-day lives. Over time, they may push for perfectionism and even inflict harm in their pursuit of safety.
  • Exiles
    Exiles are the injured parts of us and have typically experienced trauma. Exiled by the managers, they can become increasingly extreme, ultimately overriding the managers to become who we are.
  • Firefighters
    Firefighters are another form of protection that “put out the emotional fire at any cost,” often starting backfires. They do so in several ways, including unhealthy or unhelpful behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse and eating disorders (Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013, p. xviii).

Other theories relying on the single or mono-mind model may lead us to fear or dislike ourselves, believing “we only have one mind (full of primitive or sinful aspects) that we can’t control” (Schwartz, 2021, p. 12). Therapies based on this model often require clients to “correct irrational beliefs or meditate them away” (Schwartz, 2021, p. 12).

On the other hand, Schwartz’s IFS model argues that the ego comprises multiple parts trying to keep us safe. IFS Therapy finds ways to help our ego relax, allowing those parts of our personality we have buried (exiles) to ascend, freeing memories, emotions, and beliefs associated with them (burdens) that were previously locked away (Schwartz, 2021).

With this in mind, Schwartz’s (2021, p. 32) IFS Therapy has four goals:

  1. To liberate parts from the roles they have been forced into, freeing them to be who they were designed to be.
  2. To restore faith in the self and in self-leadership.
  3. To re-harmonize the inner system.
  4. To encourage the client to become increasingly self led in their interactions with the world.

While IFS Therapy is a powerful approach for helping individuals, it can be equally successful with couples. According to Herbine-Blank (n.d.), “once the individuals in a couple have more access to Self, transformation is natural,” and they can find the space and capacity to choose a response rather than simply react to it, even if the other cannot at the time.

Each partner is encouraged to bring compassion to their wounded inner parts and heal their past, gaining control over their present (Herbine-Blank, n.d.).

6 Internal Family Systems Therapy Worksheets

IFS TherapyIFS Therapy helps clients form a deeply satisfying relationship with themselves and others, unburdening their trauma and accessing their self-energy (Herbine-Blank, n.d.).

While there are many aspects to IFS as a theory and treatment model, the primary healing relationship “is between the client’s Self and her young, injured parts” (Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013, p. 1).

The notion of parts is crucial to the IFS model. Therapy using the IFS model addresses and communicates with these parts, attempting to help the client find balance and harmony within their mind and elevate their self to the system’s leadership. To those unfamiliar with IFS Therapy, the language and conversation style may seem unusual, involving talking directly to the different parts of the self (IFS Institute, n.d.).

The following worksheets offer a range of tools for facilitating various aspects of this powerful and complex treatment to engage with and better understand the many parts of the self (modified from Anderson, Sweezy, & Schwartz, 2017; Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013; Schwartz, 2021):

All Parts Are Welcome

The All Parts Are Welcome exercise was created by Schwartz and his team to help the client welcome all parts of their self, using their attention and a few simple questions (Anderson et al., 2017).

The Six Fs

A key aspect of IFS Therapy is to “find, focus on and flesh out” the client’s protective parts and help them “unblend and notice the client’s Self” (Anderson et al., 2017, p. 93). Next, the client can recognize their feelings toward and befriend the target part, explore its fears, and invite it to do something new.

Experienced practitioners can use the Six Fs Internal Family Systems worksheet to successfully differentiate the protective parts from the self and form vital alliances.

Understanding Our Relationship With a Part

After identifying a part of the self, clients can explore it in greater detail to better understand whether it is doing its job.

Use the Understanding Our Relationship With a Part worksheet to identify the role and intent of the part under scrutiny by asking a series of questions:

  1. What is its role, and how does it help you manage your life?
  2. What is its relationship with other people?
  3. What positive intent does it have for you?
  4. How does it try to protect you?
  5. What is it trying to protect you from?
  6. Is it happy with its job? Or would it prefer something else?

As clients focus and make notes during the exercise, they may find that their relationship toward the part changes.

Identifying Parts of Yourself Through Drawing

It is not easy to recognize all the parts of the self. Drawing or doodling can provide a more intuitive, less concrete way to capture, describe, and show the connections between each part.

In the Identifying Parts of Yourself Through Drawing worksheet, clients can create a picture to capture the various parts of the self and how they combine.

Drawing the picture and working through this exercise can help them form a clearer understanding of the parts and their relationship to the self.

Identifying Managers and Firefighters

While managers help us plan and shape our lives and avoid discomfort and pain, firefighters rush in and try to fix the problem. We may recognize both in how we cope. For example, when life is calm, we may plan; when we’re hectic or stressed, we may eat or drink too much.

The Identifying Managers and Firefighters Using IFS Therapy worksheet helps identify manager and firefighter parts using the senses and asking a series of questions, including:

  • What bodily sensations accompany the part?
  • How do you feel regarding each part?
  • How does each part feel about you?

It should be clear from the answers whether the part is a manager or a firefighter.

What the Self Is and Isn’t in IFS Therapy

Having used IFS Therapy with many clients to explore their self, Schwartz (2021) identified eight Cs engaged in self-energy and self-leadership shared by almost everyone.

The What the Self Is and Isn’t in IFS Therapy worksheet explores the eight Cs, encourages the client to notice the quality in themselves, and asks what each means to them:

  • Curiosity
  • Calm
  • Confidence
  • Compassion
  • Creativity
  • Clarity
  • Courage
  • Connectedness

Considering each one will make you feel more connected to humanity. And “when people sense how connected they are to humanity, they feel more curious about others and have more courage to help them” (Schwartz, 2021, p. 93).

Top 2 IFS Exercises for Your Sessions

Richard Schwartz’s (2021) latest book, No Bad Parts, is an accessible read for those interested in his IFS approach to therapy, clarifying the nature of parts and the techniques to uncover them. According to Schwartz (2021. p. 17), “each part is like a person with a true purpose” that can be uncovered.

The following exercises are two of the most powerful techniques in this fascinating and powerful model (simplified from Schwartz, 2021):

The path of self

This exercise uses visualization to explore self and self-energy, using the metaphor of a journey.

Ask the client to perform the following steps:

  • Find a comfortable position and begin by taking slow, deep breaths.
  • Imagine yourself meeting your parts at the beginning of a path.
  • Ask the parts to wait there as you head off on a journey.
  • Notice how they react. Are they afraid? Some days, they may not want you to go. And that’s okay. You can wait for another day to continue.
  • If it’s okay to proceed, head out on your imagined journey.
  • As you progress, if you find you are still thinking or watching yourself, then some parts are likely to have remained with you. See if they are willing to stay behind. Repeat as many times as required.
  • As you remove parts, feel yourself becoming lighter, moving toward pure awareness without thought.
  • You should begin to experience, among other things, clarity, a sense of wellbeing, and confidence.
  • Invite the energy you are feeling into your body.
  • Pause and experience what it is like to have so much self in your body.
  • When you’re ready, take some deep breaths and return your focus to the room.

Repeat this exercise regularly, trying to remember how it feels throughout your day.

Fire drill

The following reflective exercise is a valuable way to revisit parts in life and learn self-leadership through practice and experience.

Ask the client to perform the following steps:

  • Picture someone in your life (past or present) who triggers anger or sadness in you.
  • Imagine them in a room from which they cannot leave.
  • Watch the person from outside the room through a one-way mirror. You can see them, but they cannot see you.
  • Now have them do or say the things that upset you.
  • Notice what happens to your body and mind as your protector part kicks in (your muscles, heart rate, breathing, thoughts, and emotions).
  • Now look at the person through the eyes of your protector. Reassure your protector that you will not be entering that room.
  • Encourage the protector to recognize that you are not at risk, so it can stand down.
  • See if your protector is prepared to separate its energy from you. Encourage it to take the energy away.
  • Now recheck yourself. What changes do you notice in your muscles, heart rate, breathing, thoughts, and emotions?
  • How does the person in the room look now?
  • How would it feel if you were to go into the room and be with that person, self led rather than accompanied by the protector?
  • Ask the protector if it can begin to trust you. If not, why not?
  • When you’re ready, thank the protector for the support it has given you and the new trust it has in you.
  • Take some deep breaths and return your focus to the room.

“If your protector did step to the side, you probably noticed a big shift” (Schwartz, 2021, p. 130). Repeating the exercise can help clients learn about the parts that protect and how vulnerable they have previously been.

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Self-compassion is a vital aspect of IFS Therapy. We have various resources that can help clients look at themselves with more kindness.

Why not download our free self-compassion tool pack and try out the powerful tools contained within? Here are some examples:

  • Self-Care Vision Board
    Use this exercise to help clients create a visual representation to increase self-care and self-compassion.
  • Learning to Rate Behavior Rather Than the Self
    This exercise separates the evaluation of behavior from that of the self to accept that we do not have to define ourselves by our weaknesses.

Other free resources include:

  • I Will Survive
    Reflect on a past event and identify the strengths that helped you cope.
  • Easing Empathy Distress
    Feeling another’s pain or sadness can lead to empathy distress. This tool helps turn empathy into compassion.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • From Inner Critic to Inner Coach Meditation

This tool aims to help clients differentiate between their threat defense system (i.e., their inner critic) and their caregiving system (i.e., their inner coach), learning to let go of the former.

Ask the client to:

    • Practice mindful meditation, bringing to mind a recent time when they were critical or judgmental of themselves.
    • Notice their inner critic and how it makes them feel.
    • Now imagine replacing the inner critic with an inner coach.
    • What would it say to them, and how would they feel?
  • Embracing Your Humanness

We use this tool to help people cultivate self-compassion by developing an appreciation for common humanity in a group setting.

Guide the members of the group through the following steps:

    • Step one – Write down one self-criticism on a piece of paper.
    • Step two – Collect all the folded notes.
    • Step three – Choose and share a note at random.
    • Step four – Discuss self-criticism within the group and share common experiences.

The aim is to recognize that each person in the group is not alone in having self-critical thoughts.

  • 17 Self-Compassion Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop self-compassion, check out this collection of 17 validated self-compassion tools for practitioners. Use them to help others create a kinder and more nurturing relationship with the self.

A Take-Home Message

The internal family systems model proposes that the mind is not a singular entity or self but is composed of multiple parts that try to keep us safe (Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013).

IFS Therapy uses self-compassion to encourage buried parts of our personality to ascend, freeing memories, emotions, and previously locked-away beliefs.

Not only that, it enables clients to unburden trauma, access self-energy, and form deeply satisfying relationships with themselves and others.

While IFS is a complex, sometimes unlikely, theory, it does provide a valuable model for therapy, healing the relationship between the client’s self and their “young, injured parts” (Sweezy & Ziskind, 2013, p. 1).

The treatment offers hope to clients wishing to find balance and harmony within their mind and facilitate the self to regain control.

Why not try out some of the worksheets and exercises with your clients to help the self, rather than the therapist, become the primary, caring attachment figure necessary to heal the client’s injured parts?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free.

References

  • Anderson, F., Sweezy, M., & Schwartz, R. (2017). Internal family systems skills training manual: Trauma-informed treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD & substance abuse. PESI.
  • Herbine-Blank, T. (n.d.). Couples & marriage counseling with internal family systems therapy. IFS Institute. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/couples-marriage-counseling-internal-family-systems-therapy
  • IFS Institute. (n.d.). The internal family systems model outline. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/internal-family-systems-model-outline
  • Schwartz, R. C. (2021). No bad parts: Healing trauma and restoring wholeness with the internal family systems model. Sounds True.
  • Sweezy, M., & Ziskind, E. L. (2013). Internal family systems therapy: New dimensions. Routledge.

Comments

What our readers think

  1. Dart Cree

    I read your column here, and “The Path to Self” frightens me.

    I *like* my parts, the ones I know. I don’t want to leave them behind. They are part of me. Most of the time I like them better than I like Me. Often the easiest way out of a situation is to blend with the right part. I’ve been helped by Ghost and Rebel several times that way.

    Several of my parts over the years, have become Facets of Me. I can become Teacher or Explorer, or Wordsmith or Shutterbug at the drop of a hat.

    Reply
    • Karen

      Yes, I’ve had that reaction to the path exercise also, not wanting to leave the parts behind. The first time I heard it (in a level 1 training) my eyes shot open and I didn’t go any farther. When Dick leads this exercise he’s very careful to say “If it feels right to your system” several times, and he gives the option to just stay with the parts if that feels better. My system likes this better.

      Reply
      • Tammi

        Thank you for this comment!

        Reply

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