This is the last post in my IFS Practice 101 series. I spent five posts explaining how to get to know protective parts of you and get their permission to work with the hurt, exiled parts of you that they protect. But I’m going to cover working with these vulnerable exiles in just one post, and I’m doing that to make a couple of points.
First, because this isn’t a manual for working with exiles. You can start listening to the protectors that are chatting away in your head anytime. But working with exiles is delicate, and it’s really helpful to have a feel for your Self-energy before you attempt it. We don’t always get that luxury, of course—our exiles come out when they come out! But it wouldn’t be responsible of me to suggest you try following my directions based only on a blog post. Get some live experience with parts work first! What I hope this post will be useful for is understanding what the heck IFS is, and helping people who are learning IFS to understand this part of the process from a new angle.
Second, because I hold the IFS process for unburdening loosely (and so does official IFS, in fact). I think it’s helpful to think of it less as a series of steps and more as a menu of options you can offer your exiled part, who can take any of those options in any order they please, or come up with something new. That’s why I’ve boiled a classically 6-step process down to just two steps: witness and offer options.
So let’s see them:
When you feel compassion—not the searing pain of empathy, not the anxious desire to make parts feel better, not a zealous interest in healing, not the iciness of neutrality, but open-hearted compassion—for this hurting part of you, then you may begin witnessing it.
Witnessing, like this whole process, is led by the exiled part. The part, often a child version of you stuck in a painful moment in the past, can share anything they want, in any way they want. They may lend you a bit of their emotion so you can feel what it felt like for them in that moment. They may show you the memory like a movie. They may give you a physical sensation somewhere in your body, with no memory or words attached. They may share what they learned, what they internalized, from this painful moment—something like “I’m not good enough,” or “the world is unsafe.” In the example of Alma’s system, Belle would share how ashamed and afraid she felt when her teacher criticized her, and how it taught her “I’m not smart enough.”
Your job is not to take away the pain, to teach them coping skills, to correct their worldview or self image, or to cheer them up. Your job is to do for a part of you what all of us really, deep down, wish somebody would do for us: see them as they actually are, and love them just like that.
That’s why you need to be centered in your Self. You need the courage to see pain without flinching. You need the compassion to love someone in a moment of weakness. You need the curiosity to want to really know the depths of who someone is—in this case, yourself. If this doesn’t come naturally, don’t try to produce it. Just go back a step. It’ll come when your parts are ready to let it.
Parts of you with searing empathy, anxious caretaking, zealous agendas, and icy neutrality will likely interrupt the process, maybe many times. That’s okay. This is where we continue addressing concerns. If these parts are doing their jobs because they have concerns, we stop and address their concerns. They’re doing us a favor, keeping the work safe, giving you breaks. If, on the other hand, they’re doing their jobs because they didn’t realize that you’re here now, and they don’t need to protect you because your compassion is an ocean that can absorb this matchstick of pain, then just let them know they can go off-duty for now.
For example, Alma’s protector David may jump in wanting to do what he always does: procrastinate. So while Alma is witnessing Belle’s fear and shame, Alma may suddenly get the idea to stop and do something completely different. Then Alma can just notice that, realize that it must be a part, and ask the part (who turns out to be David) if he has a concern. If he says “I’m afraid you can’t handle Belle’s pain,” then Alma goes back to addressing concerns. But if he doesn’t have a concern to raise, Alma just reminds him that she can handle this and he’s free to relax.
Let the exile share until it feels understood exactly how and as much as it needs to be understood.
Imagine if we did that for each other more often!
People often say that they unburden an exile, but in truth, exiles unburden themselves. Your presence enables them, empowers them, but the choices and the actions are all theirs. One of the ways you empower them is by letting them know what’s possible. An incomplete list of what’s possible is:
The part can instruct you to intervene in that past moment however it would like. This won’t change the past, of course, and it also won’t change your memory of how past events happened. But it might change what your part internalized from that moment, and that’s what we’re really after in this whole process (besides lifelong inner relationships!). IFS practitioners find that it’s okay to do whatever the part wants, even behavior that would not be ethical in the real world.
In Alma’s system, Belle might ask Alma to tell stand up to the teacher that criticized her. Even though things didn’t really happen that way, imagining it allows Belle to understand that she didn’t deserve to be ridiculed for innocent mistakes.
The part can come out of that moment in the past. Again, you can give a menu of options for where to go to (live in your body, live in a fun place in your imagination, stay with another part), or just let the part come up with an idea.
The part can release whatever burden they’re holding, whatever feelings and beliefs they picked up from that painful moment. They may release the burden temporarily to see if that feels okay. They can also release it permanently. They often create a ritual through which to release it. It’s common to give parts a menu of ideas (“you can blow it away with wind, or burn it with fire,” etc), but I like to just leave it up to the part. I’ve seen exiles release their burdens by letting go of balloons, or by dissolving them in the goo of a chrysalis.
The part can invite in or pull out of hiding any qualities it had to suppress in order to stay safe. Parts often come back into qualities like playfulness and joy. In Alma’s system, Belle welcomes back her childlike wonder. This wonder had led her to ask “stupid” questions in class and get criticized by her teacher, but now that she knows the criticism said more about the teacher than it did about her or her questions, she’s free to return to wondering at the beauty and mystery of everyday things.
And the last offering is not to The Part Formerly Known As An Exile (which is now free to integrate into your network of parts because it doesn’t hold a scary burden anymore!) but to the parts who used to protect it. You can offer these parts the opportunity to check out the newly unburdened part and see for themselves that your inner world is a safer, happier place now. And then you can offer them the chance to release any burdens they hold, and change their jobs in any way they might want to:
- keep doing their job, but now without the compulsion that they used to feel
- switch to a new job, perhaps inviting in new (or suppressed old) qualities
- embody an interest without having a protective role, like the Actualizer parts proposed by Rennie Grayson
In Alma’s system, Clara changes her job from offering self-doubt and criticism to offering clear-headed and insightful suggestions. She still ultimately serves to help Alma make good decisions, but she does so with less compulsiveness and fear, more flexibility and love. David makes an even bigger change. As a burdened protector with the job of procrastination, he pulled Alma’s attention away from something threatening to something—anything—else. After releasing the burden of that job, he dedicates his energy to pulling Alma towards things she’s truly passionate about. He’s transformed from a procrastinator to a focuser, a highlighter of what really matters.
The standard protocol is to then check in on your newly un-exiled part every day, just for a few minutes, for 3-4 weeks. They say this solidifies the new state. I find this to conflict with the neuroscience on memory reconsolidation. Teachers of IFS typically hold that the unburdening process causes memory reconsolidation, which is a sudden and lasting transformation, but memory reconsolidation shouldn’t require practice or reinforcement to stay in place. I suspect there is more to discover about where unburdening does and does not overlap with memory reinforcement, and I’ll write more about memory reconsolidation in the future. But for now, we can content ourselves with the fact that a precious part with wonderful qualities to bring to the table has been welcomed back into the system, and saying hi sounds like a caring and fun thing to do!