Be aware that Inner Active Cards can easily expose Exiles, Parts that can carry intense psychological pain or that pose a behavioral threat to your clients.  They may or may not be aware of these Parts and many therapists are tempted to push the process and get to the root of the problem ASAP.  But doing so may flood their clients’ system with emotions the ego is not strong enough to contain.

Pushing the process before protectors and managers are addressed and brought into Self -leadership within a trusting relationship with you, the therapist, will only lead to defensive reactions and/or therapeutic collapse.  These Parts, when left unconscious, can easily convince themselves and other Parts that therapy is too dangerous.  Many Parts have functions related to vulnerable Parts and exiles and the inner system can be thrown into chaos.  Your clients may cancel the next appointment, or in extreme cases, may engage in harmful behaviors or even suicide to quell the stress.













IDENTIFY THE PART AND ITS ROLE:  Have the client tell you about this card. Then have the client talk to the Part: What does it want to be called? How old is the Part and what age does it believes the client is? What does it believe about the client, the issues and what purpose does it serve? Ask your client where and how the Part feels in the body when it is active?

TAKE MENTAL NOTES about what you hear and see.  What role (Protector, Manager, Child part?) does this Part serve in your client’s inner system? Is it somatic? What is your client’s affect when talking about or with this Part? Did you hear more than one voice when your client was telling his/her/their story?

PERMISSION TO WORK:  Discuss how therapy is for helping the Inner Family, how no Part will ever be destroyed or exiled and that every Part has a valuable role to play.  Let the Part know that you recognize how hard it has been working for your client, but now it needs to work in a different way to help make things better.  Assure the Part that it is safe. Then ask if it will give you and your client permission to work with it and other Parts.

UNBLENDING:  Have your client ask the Part to step back, to separate from them/ her/ him. This opens the opportunity for Self space.

ADDRESS THE FEARS:  Have your client ask the Part what it fears, or what will happen if it steps back

CHECK FOR SELFLEADERSHIP: Have your client look at the card and ask how (they) feel towards this Part.  Listen closely to the client’s response; are (they) speaking from another Part (eg., critical, angry etc..) or if Self is being heard. Is your client showing compassion for this Part?

ADDRESSING  PARTS THAT INTERVENE:   If you hear another Part, have your client identify this Part with another card and ask it to step back for a while, go to the safe place. If it refuses, work with it first before continuing.  Follow the same protocol. In some cases this may have to happen many times before Self can be accessed.

OPEN THE HEART:  Have your client show the pPrt that it is understood, appreciated,  accepted and cared for. What does the Part need ?

TRUST: Have your client ask if the part trusts Self to lead ?  What needs to happen?

SPIRITUAL GUIDES:  Sometimes it is helpful to ask a Spiritual Guide to join the process.  Lead your client through guided imagery to their safe place and ask a Spiritual Guide to come and help.  Have the client choose a card, or make a card to represent the Guide. Then have the Guide help the Part however necessary.

CLOSING:  Have your client place the cards in a circle and check in before closing. Thank the Parts for cooperating and the work they have done.  Assure them that they are appreciated and safe.

HOMEWORK:  It is helpful to have clients keeps a journal of the work done in the therapy session, listing the cards by name.  Some clients record the session and photograph the cards with their smart phones. Some clients purchase a deck of their own and keep the cards they worked with pinned to a bulletin board or carry them in a purse or pocket. Remember, the Inner Family keeps working after session, often unconsciously.  Have your clients keep track of dreams and changes in perspective and behavior, and take note when they observe Parts being activated and how they handled it .

Once you understand why clients are seeking therapy, have them select cards that resonate
with the voices in their heads, or the feelings they are experiencing, or what cards represent
people in the outer world such as a boss or a spouse.  I like to have clients spread the cards
out on a table, or if they are able, to sit on the floor.  I tell my clients that there are no set
meanings to the cards; they give the cards their own personal meaning.  They may select
as many as they want, and they can arrange the cards any way that makes sense to them.  
I tell them to go on their gut feelings and don’t think too hard about it.

Explain that the blank cards are for Parts they cannot find in the deck.  Or, they might
choose a blank card to express feelings they can’t articulate.  You may offer the art supplies
to create a special Part on a blank as part of therapy, or simply have them write the name of
their Part on the blank and have them create an image of their part as homework.

Now have your clients tell you their story using the cards.  It’s best to listen to the whole
story first so that you get a full picture of how their Parts function as a family.  If clients
go off on a tangent, gently bring their attention back to the cards, but take note why and
where this happened.  Watch body language and facial expressions carefully and listen for
voice changes and comments, especially critical ones.  Ask clients what Part they would
like to work with first.  Once this is card is selected, the nature of this Part will determine
how you proceed.  Each client will present with unique inner dynamics and challenges.  This is where your skills as therapist, and Self-leadership are applied.  Although it is impossible to give specific procedures - every therapy session will be different - I can give you these 12 basic guidelines:

There is no set way to use the cards, but this is how I use them and often with amazing results.  I have worked with established clients who are familiar with their inner world, and I’ve worked with first time clients.  I usually have new clients read Parts Work or I use the book and highlight the concepts.  I also like to warm up with a guided imagery exercise in which they experience a “safe place.” This exercise helps in a number of ways: to relax them, to get them comfortable with the world behind their eyelids, and to give them a safe place if the therapy process needs to take a break or where problem Parts can go to chill while other parts are speaking.  I always let clients know they are in control and can stop the therapy session at any time.

The role of an IFS therapist is to guide clients through their Internal Family System of Parts to Self leadership.  This is not done by the therapist telling clients how to do it, explaining what Parts they have and which Parts are troublemakers and how to fix them, but rather through experiential processes in which clients select their own cards, feel them, hear them, understand and appreciate them, and come to trust Self to lead.  The therapists needs to listen closely, watch body language and facial expressions, and ask the appropriate questions as they gently guide their clients to Self discovery

Inner Active Cards in Therapy

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5.    This technique was sent to me by addiction therapist, Raj Mehta, MSW.  He writes:

I ask my (clients) to pick out three or more cards that express what the worst Parts of their addiction (or abuse) is like.  Then I have them explain and provide insight.  Next I have my clients pick three or more cards that express what they want their future to look and feel like. Again, I have them explain and provide insight.  I have them photograph those cards (with their phones) and ask them to look at the images of their recovery and future everyday.  Raj claims it works fantastic. Visit his website:  

1.  THE DAILY CARD:  Every morning ask what Part of you needs attention for the day.  Pick a card at random from the deck and spend a few moments reflecting.  What does this card mean to you?  What can it offer you for the day?  Strength, discernment or discipline?  What does it need from you?  Attention, care, boundaries?  All Parts are within us, some active, some on hold and undeveloped.  How does the card you drew fit into your Internal Family System and how does it contribute to you as a whole?

Other Ways to Use the Cards

How to Use the Cards

When dealing with exiles, proceed cautiously, helping your client build ego strength through Self-leadership.  Guides can be of great service when its time to bring an exile into your client’s conscious awareness, assuring the exile that it is loved and safe, and finding its place in his/her Internal Family System.  It is helpful to place the guide card next to the exile or child card when you are working with them.  I have had clients who have purchased the cards and keep their guide card with them in a shirt pocket or near their bed at night. This brings an added sense of security into the outer world.

4.    USE A TAROT SPREAD:  The Work Cycle fromSeventyeight Degrees of Wisdom by RachelPollack.  This spread gives a framework to Parts Work that I have found effective.  I have customized the spread to focus primarily on the inner realm, and instead of drawing cards at random, I have clients choose their cards.  It provides a streamlined approach of exploration that gives the client conscious choices, yet offers a path to the subconscious for insight into presenting problems and also Self guided solutions. Try it yourself!

First choose a card that most represents your

inner state of being at the present.  We will

call this the Being card.  Then choose another

card that represents you functioning in the

outer world.  This is the Doing card.  Now

make a cross with the Being card in the

vertical position and the Doing card in the

horizontal.  This symbolizes the development

of Being (inner) into action or Doing (outer)

as a whole. 

Now select two cards that represent two

aspects of your past that precipitated your

current problems. The first of the two cards

can been seen as the root of the continuing

conflict or problems and the second card

represents what meaning you have given to it.  

Place these cards below and to the left of the

crossed cards.

The next three cards are the Work cards; the parts holding beliefs, attitudes or negative behaviors that keep you stuck and prevent healing your past.  These three cards can be your inner managers, protectors, rebels, any Part that may be extreme or rigid.  Or maybe a child or vulnerable Part is stuck in your past.  Discuss each card, how it serves you, what it needs from you and what it fears would happen if it stepped back and allowed Self to lead.  What new roles can these Parts hold in your inner family to help you heal your past?  And how can each Part help you lead a healthy, authentic life?  Sometimes a guide may be needed to assist in this process.  If so, choose a card that holds Self qualities and place it near the card(s) that require(s) help.  Ask for guidance and love.  Sometimes just the presence of a guide can calm an anxious or stubborn part.  You can also use a blank card or create a card to represent Self or other helpful entity.

The last two cards are the Outcome and Result.  The Outcome card represents how you envision your sense of Being (inner) will improve once your parts are functioning in harmony under Self-Leadership.  The Result card represents how you envision yourself in the outer world, doing what you love, employing your talents and gifts with Self-confidence.  Then cross the cards, indicating wholeness, with the result of living an authentic life and fulfilling your Self inspired dreams.

I have tried this spread both ways; consciously selecting the cards and drawing cards from the top of a shuffled deck and relying on synchronicity as in the Tarot method.  I found both ways illuminating, but the Tarot Method was by far more mystical and ambiguous.  I’m still mulling over the interpretation of that spread.  See the case example of another client’s experience in using this spread. 

3.  CREATIVE INSPIRATION:  Pick a card or two at random and write a poem or short story about them, eg., Title: How Porky Taught Lisa to Enjoy her Lunch.  Reflect on what you have written.  How does it give insight to your own inner dynamics or offer guidance in some way? If you are into acting, have two actors pick a card and adlib a dialogue between those two Parts.  Wouldn’t it be fun to play the Happy Pig? This technique can also be used in family and marriage counseling.

7.  Patricia Hinckley, LPC, uses Inner Active Cards combined with art therapy techniques that she calls “The Healthy Momentum Action Plan.”  Visit her website at: to learn more.

2.  AFFIRMATIONS:  Select a card you like and write down the qualities of that Part you want for yourself.  Now write a statement on a post-it note as having these qualities, eg., I am confident in my ability to achieve my goals.  Stick the note on a mirror and repeat the statement to yourself every time you look at yourself.




6.  Chris Gough, LCPC has developed a similar approach, only she has her clients also pick a card which is definitely NOT them; a bit of Jungian shadow work that she says offers light into dark corners.

In all of these different applications of Inner Active Cards in therapy, the immediacy of pictorial clarity is obvious.  Clients are telling their own stories, and often to their surprise, are able to see where their problems and strengths lie.  They experience the transformative power of Self-leadership  and come to trust Self to direct their lives.  

All artwork ©/™ Sharon Sargent Eckstein & Backwoods Press, 2012. Graphics and Web Site by Jane Eckstein.

8.  Kate Cohen-Posey, LMHC, LMFT, uses some of the Inner Active Cards along with Tarot and other  images together copied on a sheet of paper and has her clients select images that personify negative thoughts and also identity with and name resources for change. She uses CBT Mindfulness, and Neurologically Enhanced Therapy. Check Kate Posey out on Linked-In.

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