IFS has a theory of how bad experiences give people burdens and turn their parts into exiles and protectors. To get a sense for this theory, imagine a girl named Alma. She gets good grades, and has fun with her friends—her life is pretty good. But one year in school, she has a teacher who takes to embarrassing her in front of the class when she doesn’t know the answer to a question. Alma’s too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it, and so she doesn’t manage to process and release the shame.
That feeling has to go somewhere, so a part of Alma—let’s call her Belle—takes on the shame along with the belief “I’m not smart enough.” You can imagine Belle carrying a backpack weighed down with that emotion and belief. The painful things a part carries make up its burden.
Other parts notice that Belle is holding all that pain, and they know that Alma has too many friends to play with and too much homework to do to be overwhelmed by shame all the time. So two parts, Clara and David, decide that they must keep Belle hidden away. They push Belle into a subconscious part of Alma’s mind and lock the door. In IFS we say that Belle is now an exile: a vulnerable part that takes on a burden directly from the unprocessed event and is locked away.
Clara realizes, though, that whenever Alma makes a particularly big mistake, Belle’s feelings become so intense that she manages to break free. So Clara adopts a strategy to protect Alma: “I will second guess Alma to make her figure out the right answer before anyone can criticize her.” When Alma wants to offer an answer to a question, she gets thoughts like “I’m probably wrong,” and “I should look it up to be sure.” Sometimes Clara comes right out and calls Alma stupid to keep her from taking a chance. You can imagine Clara with her own backpack, heavy with the responsibility to constantly monitor Alma and send her doubts when she’s in danger of embarrassing herself. That job is Clara’s burden and makes her a protector: a part whose burden is a job intended to keep the exile locked away.
David sees it differently. He thinks Clara is too idealistic, thinking she can avoid all triggers. He believes what’s needed is a strategy to get Belle back in her subconscious room after an inevitable breakout. So he adopts the strategy: “I will distract Alma with something non-threatening when Belle comes out.” When Alma works on something where the answers aren’t clear-cut, starts to realize that she’s stumped, and gets the first hints of shame about it, she suddenly gets the idea to clean her room, or watch TV, or take a nap. You can imagine David carrying his own backpack, laden with his responsibility to save Alma from Belle’s overwhelming feelings. David has also become a protector.
David’s approach enrages Clara! When Alma procrastinates, her projects come out sloppy because she wastes the time she could have spent making sure she got everything right. Clara’s approach enrages David right back; when Clara calls Alma stupid in an attempt to motivate her to get things right, Belle’s shame gets activated. Clara and David may have worked together when Alma was a little girl, but now they only interact to fight.
Alma doesn’t notice any of this, though. In high school, she procrastinates a lot and thinks that’s just what teenagers do. In college, she starts choosing classes where there’s “one right answer” and studying very hard to find it. After that, she gets a job where her responsibilities are clear-cut, and she excels.
She does so well at her job, in fact, that she gets a promotion! But the new role deals with more open-ended questions. And suddenly, this hard-working, high-performing person finds herself spending her workday rearranging her desk, checking social media—anything but getting her work done.
Alma has no idea why she can’t just finish her tasks. But inside her psyche, Clara is telling her that none of her ideas are good enough, Belle is feeling ashamed whenever Alma doesn’t immediately know what to do, and David is reacting to Belle with sudden ideas like “How is your old friend from college doing? Look them up!” Clara berates her for slacking off, but feeling bad about it isn’t enough to solve the problem.
And so another door is locked—the door to Alma’s willingness to take chances in her career. Alma figures that this is just one of her limitations, that she’s “the kind of person” who can’t do creative work.
An event that Alma couldn’t process burdened some of her parts, turning them from healthy parts into exiles and protectors. I notice that those burdens closed doors for Alma, in the sense of limiting passage in her psyche:
- Belle can’t move freely
- we’ll see later that Self energy is partially blocked as well
and in the sense of limiting opportunities for her:
- she can’t take intellectual risks
- she can’t control her focus
- she has to avoid certain kinds of jobs
- she lost whatever Belle used to contribute to her inner world
- she lost whatever good used to come from Clara and David’s cooperation
But not to worry, this isn’t where Alma’s story ends! Stay tuned for the rest of the IFS Theory 101 series, and subscribe for blog updates.