51 Internal Family Systems Questions to Ask Clients in Therapy

Internal Family Systems (IFS) represents a contemporary therapeutic approach suitable for clients grappling with a range of mental health issues. Developed in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Schwartz, IFS draws inspiration from psychodynamic psychotherapy, family therapy, person-centered therapy, and experiential therapy, making it adaptable for individuals dealing with trauma, anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders, childhood trauma, low self-esteem, diminished self-worth, and challenges in regulating their emotions. Keep reading to learn 51 Internal Family Systems Questions to Ask Clients in Therapy.

The lens we use when working with IFS views clients as having different parts within themselves that each has their own purpose. Our different parts can have different perspectives and emotions that influence our behaviors. 

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There are three general groups that our different parts fall within. Our core self is an additional part of us that is separate from the following three groupings.  

The Exiles typically represent the younger aspects of an individual that have become isolated. Often, these parts have endured trauma while attempting to shield the person from pain, terror, fear, and other distressing experiences. This can leave individuals feeling vulnerable and on the verge of breaking.

The Managers are the facet of an individual responsible for orchestrating their day-to-day life and handling responsibilities. They strive to maintain control to shield the person from rejection and emotional hurt. While this approach may seem effective, an excess of any of these three parts can be detrimental. A goal in Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is to have the core self as the dominant part.

The Fire Fighters are the components that emerge when individuals need to either control or numb their feelings. Suppressing or concealing negative emotions can provide temporary relief from emotional distress, but it does not address the root of the issue. Common behaviors include excessive drinking, drug use, self-harm, binge eating, and sexual binges. When these behaviors become excessive, they can evolve into substance use disorders and other forms of addiction.

In the realm of Internal Family Systems (IFS), the objective is to assist clients in achieving balance and internal harmony, ultimately guiding them towards becoming self-directed individuals. This journey involves helping clients access and address their protective and wounded inner aspects. As clients gain a deeper comprehension of these inner parts, they can foster connections between them, enabling a composed response in stressful situations, often unattainable in the past. Furthermore, the approach facilitates the coexistence of all internal facets, allowing the core-self to assume a controlling role. It’s based on the belief that an individual’s core-self is inherently perfect and capable.

A notable advantage of Internal Family Systems is its applicability in non-clinical settings, including legal mediation, school administration, life coaching, and guidance from religious leaders, provided that individuals possess the requisite training and experience.

Why Use Internal Family Systems Therapy?

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy offers several benefits:

  1. Holistic Approach: IFS recognizes the complexity of the human psyche and provides a holistic approach to understanding and healing the various parts of an individual’s internal system.
  2. Empowerment: Clients learn to take on the role of self-leadership, leading to increased empowerment and self-efficacy in managing their emotional well-being.
  3. Emotion Regulation: IFS equips individuals with effective tools to regulate and manage their emotions, reducing the impact of emotional distress and reactivity.
  4. Trauma Resolution: IFS is effective in processing and healing trauma, as it helps individuals address and integrate the protective and wounded parts of themselves.
  5. Improved Relationships: Clients often report improved relationships with others as they gain a deeper understanding of their internal dynamics, leading to increased empathy and healthier interpersonal connections.
  6. Enhanced Self-Awareness: IFS encourages self-reflection and self-awareness, helping individuals gain insights into their inner world and motivations.
  7. Reduction of Symptoms: Many individuals experience a reduction in symptoms related to anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health concerns through IFS therapy.
  8. Conflict Resolution: IFS can be used to resolve inner conflicts and promote inner harmony, leading to improved decision-making and problem-solving.
  9. Increased Resilience: Clients often develop increased resilience and coping skills, enabling them to navigate life’s challenges more effectively.
  10. Applicability in Various Settings: IFS can be used in clinical and non-clinical settings, making it a versatile therapeutic approach suitable for diverse populations and situations.
  11. Spiritual Growth: For some individuals, IFS can facilitate spiritual growth and a deeper connection with their core self or sense of spirituality.
  12. Customized Treatment: IFS can be tailored to the unique needs and goals of each individual, ensuring that therapy is personalized and relevant.
  13. Non-Stigmatizing: IFS provides a non-stigmatizing and compassionate way to address mental health concerns and emotional difficulties, reducing shame and self-criticism.

These benefits make Internal Family Systems therapy a valuable approach for individuals seeking to understand and heal their inner world, improve emotional well-being, and build stronger, more fulfilling relationships with themselves and others.

Preparing for Your First Internal Family Systems Session with a New Client

Internal Family Systems is not a structured therapy approach which means that there is no deadline or time frame that you would expect from other forms of therapy. This allows you to spend time exploring your clients’ different parts, and moving at a pace that is comfortable for them. With IFS, your initial sessions will primarily focus on learning about your client’s experiences and the different parts of themselves.

Before you meet with your client for the first time, it may be beneficial for you to review any paperwork you have received beforehand, such as self-assessments, screeners, and referral information. From here, you can gather the needed tools and resources that can help facilitate your therapy session.

The language used in IFS may be confusing to your client when it is first introduced so it can be helpful to ask your client if they have any questions or if you can return to any previously discussed topics. The therapeutic relationship is a vital component of this therapeutic approach, so developing a healthy rapport will be a focus during your first few sessions. You want your clients to feel as though you are non-judgmental, compassionate, and accepting of them as they are. 

This is a good time to talk about the importance of checking in with yourself. As mental health practitioners, we focus our attention and energy on supporting our clients. Being mindful of our own mental health needs allows us to give our full attention to our clients and provide them with the care and support they need. Regular self-care practices can help us cope with and manage the stressors we experience in our own lives. 

Internal Family Systems Questions to Ask Your Clients In Therapy

Internal family systems questions can be used to guide the exploration of your client’s different parts and to clarify the meaning of different terms and principles associated with IFS. For experienced clinicians, IFS questions can feel conversational and natural in the progression of their sessions.

Examples of Internal Family Systems questions that you can use in your sessions include:

  1. What questions do you have for me?
  2. Is there anything we talked about today that you would like to circle back to?
  3. Do you have any lingering questions from our previous session?
  4. What can you tell me about your exiled parts?
  5. What do you feel the function of this part is?
  6. Can you think of anything that your exiled part would like you to know?
  7. Can you tell me about what you feel in your body with that part?
  8. How do you feel about each part of yourself?
  9. Are there any parts that you struggle with?
  10. Which parts do you feel help you?
  11. Can you explain how that part helps you?
  12. How do you think your parts feel about you as a whole?
  13. What comes to mind when I ask you about self-compassion?
  14. What are your thoughts on what self-compassion should look like?
  15. How do you think self-compassion would make you feel?
  16. Do you feel as though you deserve self-compassion?
  17. How can we shift our perspective to look at the specific behavior rather than it as a personal flaw or problem?
  18. How did this part fall into this role?
  19. Where is this part located? As an example, is it within your body or around it?
  20. Is it good in this role?
  21. If it didn’t have this role, what might it be doing instead?
  22. Can you think back to when this part started in this role?
  23. Is this part happy with its role?
  24. Is this part happy with its role?
  25. What age does this part believe you are?
  26. What would you like this part to know?
  27. Is there anything you would like to say to this part?
  28. How does this role interact with the people in your life?
  29. What do you believe this part is trying to do for you?
  30. How does this part influence your actions and behaviors?
  31. If you take a moment to sit and observe yourself, are there any physical sensations, thoughts, or emotions that you notice that you didn’t recognize before?
  32. If I asked you to visualize this part, how would you describe it?
  33. Does this part have any sounds?
  34. Can you think of any examples of perfectionism, people pleasing, overachieving, or care-taking in your behaviors?
  35. Do you find yourself worrying about abandonment because you feel as though you’re too much or not good enough?
  36. Can you tell me about any experience with binge eating, misuse of substances, and anger difficulties in your life?
  37. Can you tell me about any shame, fear, or loneliness that you are experiencing?
  38. Has there been a time in your life when you felt as though you were capable of taking care of yourself?
  39. You may use this last group of questions with the  Exploring Self Using 8 C’s Worksheet available at TherapyByPro.
  40. Can you tell me what curiosity means to you?
  41. How do you practice curiosity in your life?
  42. What does connectedness mean to you?
  43. Can you share an example of connectedness in your life?
  44. How would you describe confidence?
  45. Do you feel as though you are a confident person? If not, can you think of a time when you were?
  46. What do you feel compassion is?
  47. Can you tell me how you show compassion to yourself and others in your life?
  48. Are there any areas in your life where you can be creative?
  49. What would having clarity in your life look like?
  50. Can you tell me about a time when you were courageous?
  51. What would calmness in your life look like?

Final Thoughts on Asking the Right Questions in Internal Family Systems

We appreciate your time in reviewing our list of Internal Family Systems questions, and we trust you found it enlightening. Just as with any therapeutic approach, it’s vital to exercise mindfulness in the questions we pose and how we present them. As previously emphasized, the therapeutic relationship holds significant importance in this approach. Skillfully employing the appropriate IFS questions at the opportune moments can strengthen your connection with your client.

If your interest in learning more about IFS has been piqued, you’re not alone! The demand for IFS training programs is on the rise, so you might encounter waitlists for certain training opportunities. To learn more about training and certification for internal family systems, we encourage you to visit the IFS Institute website.  

TherapyPatron.com helps mental health professionals better serve their clients. Our (editable, fillable, printable PDF) therapy worksheets can help you streamline your practice, effectively deliver different types of therapy, and support your clients be the best version of themselves.

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Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC
Author: Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC

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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