IFS Series Prelude: A Summary of the Model

An introduction to the Internal Family Systems model for those who wish to use it as a complement to meditation practice.

Introduction

This is the noughth (0th) of a series of blogs about why Internal Family Systems is such a helpful complement to meditation and spiritual practice in general. 

This blog is specifically to give a basic introduction to the model for those who haven’t heard about it, or have, but want to understand it more in-depth. If you already know all about IFS, feel free to skip this one entirely!

I’ve written a short(ish) summary, and a long summary, for those with differing levels of time and/or interest.

However, please read the longer summary! I debated about whether to include the short one at all, because I think it will seem very abstract and very possibly just weird and nonsensical unless you have some familiarity with the actual methods of IFS and what they look and feel like in practice.

Working with an IFS therapist is definitely best. I’ve included links to where you can find an IFS therapist, along with some other suggested resources as well.

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Resource Recommendations


Short Summary [7 minute reading time]


Full Summary [25 minute reading time]

Resource Recommendations 

  1. Working with an IFS therapist (I can personally recommend Abhiyana)

  2. Guided practices on Insight Timer

  3. Book: Self-Therapy, by Jay Earley (which contains very helpful example scripts of IFS sessions)

  4. Video: Dr. Richard Schwartz explains Internal Family Systems (8 mins)

  5. Video: What is Internal Family Systems? (17 Mins)

  6. Book: Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts, Richard Schwartz

Short Summary

We all have parts. When we say “part of me thinks/feels x, but another part of me thinks/feels y”, these are what we are talking about. Parts have beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and desires which can conflict to greater and lesser degrees.

Almost all of the time, we are ‘blended’ with our parts. This means that we see things from their perspective, feel their feelings as ‘our’ feelings, believe their beliefs, and feel their drives as our own. If we swing from loving somebody to hating them and back again, for example, or get suddenly very passionate about something and then stop caring about it entirely, it’s because different parts with very different views are blending with us at different times.

However, there is another aspect to us different from all these parts, which is the ‘Self’ (with a capital ‘S’). Self is not a part. Everybody has a ‘Self’. (I won’t get into it, but this is totally compatible with the Buddhist concept of non-self/anatta, for anybody wondering).

Self is calm, compassionate, wise, kind, capable, and courageous. Self is what we experience when we have ‘unblended’ from any part.

Some of our parts take on painful ‘burdens’ as we grow up. For example, if your parents make their love conditional on you getting good grades, and shout at you or withdraw their affection if you don’t, perhaps a part of you grows to believe that you are unloveable, and it’s only the grades that your parents love, not you. There may be a great deal of sadness, pain, loneliness, an unmet need for love, safety, and care associated with that. The parts that carry burdens like this contain so much pain that we don’t know what to do with it, and other parts in the system become ‘protectors’. They take on protector roles to prevent the pain carried by those parts from being triggered. For example, an obvious thing that a protector could do would be to work so hard that you never get bad grades. This is a difficult job to perform consistently, so this part might need to employ pretty extreme measures – like extreme shaming and self-critical talk – to manage it. Another protector part, when you did get bad grades, might have found other – potentially harmful – ways of keeping the pain from coming to the surface.

Protectors work so hard to keep the pain away that the parts carrying that pain become ‘exiled’ – they are not allowed to show up in the system at all. Thus, you have protector parts, and exiled parts (as well as healthy, normally functioning parts with no burdens). 

However, if you are able – with their permission – to unblend from the protector parts and come into contact with the exiled parts, you (that is, your Self) is able to unburden the exiled parts. 

The loving, calm energy of Self is very healing. When an exiled part gets to know Self, it can come to trust in Self, and trust that the love, care, and safety that it needed is actually there. Its burden – the difficult memories, feelings, and beliefs from childhood – can be seen and understood by that Self-energy, and when this happens, parts are able to let go of their burdens.

Being unburdened, the exiled parts are free to exhibit their natural qualities – whatever they may be – for example, playfulness, curiosity, lovingness, trustfulness, etc.

When exiles are unburdened, their protector parts are also free to play another role – a less extreme and harmful one. For instance, the part that adopted a self-critical strategy to motivate study, when it sees that the exile it was protecting no longer needs that protection, might enjoy simply engaging with the learning process, or become a supportive and self-compassionate voice (or something else entirely, it’s hard to predict what new roles parts will adopt). 

In Practice

So, those are the bare bones of the model – what does this look like in practice?

You often start with a ‘trailhead’ – some evidence of a part with an extreme role. This trailhead could be a feeling, a behaviour, thought, desire, etc. 

Usually (but not always) the trailhead points to a protector part, since these are the parts that manage our lives in ways to prevent exiles from being triggered. 

You begin working to unblend from the protector part. Unblending is not a matter of pushing away the feelings, thoughts, or beliefs, of this part, or to stop doing anything that it’s doing. Rather, it’s about getting to a place where you can be aware of those thoughts and feelings without being totally identified with them. This often feels like there’s a bit of space between you and this part – as though the part and its feelings can be observed within a larger space of awareness, but you are that space of awareness, not the feelings and thoughts that are arising within it. You are like space – you’re not actually changed by the content that passes through.

Usually when you try to do this, however, you unblend from the original protector part but blend immediately with another, opposing part. For instance, if you’re working with a self-critical part, you might successfully unblend from that part, only to blend with a part which says “why do I have to beat myself up so much all the time? It’s so painful and I wish I could stop doing that – it’s so frustrating that I can’t make that part shut the hell up.” If that’s the case, you need to unblend with whatever part that perspective is coming from too.

You keep going through this unblending process until you aren’t blended with any part – i.e. until you are “in Self”. Things feel calm, you are curious and compassionate, and you’re able to hold anything that parts throw up. You then get to know the protector part that you were inquiring into, and build a trusting relationship with it. Until now, you’ve either been fully blended with it, or blended with opposing or uninterested parts. Now, you are curious, present, and compassionate. You can listen to the experience of this part, and begin to understand its concerns, all the trouble and hard work that it’s been doing for you (however misguidedly) and its positive intent for you. Usually, as you learn more about the concerns of a protector part, they will point to the exile they are protecting – that is their main concern, after all.


At this point, you get the protector’s permission to go and get to know the exiled part. This often takes time and reassurance, since the protector parts don’t believe the exiled parts can be helped, and so the best thing to do is to stay away from them. Once protectors see how powerful that compassionate Self-energy is, though, eventually they’re persuaded. 

You go to the exiled part, and get to know it (again, from Self, rather than being blended with the exile part). The exile shares the pain it’s been stuck with – often for many years or decades – and the memories that were formative in its taking on the burden it carries.

Contact with Self is profoundly healing. Parts which believed you were fundamentally bad, or unloveable, or inadequate, or that some event damaged you irreparably, for example,  when they are in touch with Self, see for themselves that, in the words of Walt Whitman: “I am larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness.” 

Once they feel their pain has been seen and understood, any beliefs (explicit or implicit) they were holding were misperceptions, and they trust in Self as a source of safety, wisdom, and fundamental goodness, exiled parts are free to release their burdens. There is often a short ritual element to this that can help facilitate the process, but it is not always necessary. 

After the exiled part has been unburdened, it is free to express its natural positive qualities – qualities that might feel familiar from childhood, before they were burdened. Perhaps a childlike curiosity, or sense of play, or ability to love and be open and vulnerable, or any number of different qualities.


Once the former exile has been unburdened, you go back to the protector part. Sometimes protector parts are not fully cognizant of the change that an exile has undergone, and so they don’t know that they no longer need to perform their role. You can show them the transformation, and help the protector to take on a new role – something that it actually wants to do! This is sometimes a healthy, less extreme version of the role they were already doing, or sometimes it’s something opposite or unrelated entirely. 

You usually need to revisit this process, to make sure that the protector is trusting of the changes that have taken place, and isn’t habitually falling back into its old role, and that the exile is fully unburdened and can trust that relationship that was established with Self, so it doesn’t feel abandoned. 

Full Summary

  • Internal Family Systems was originally created as a type of therapy. An excellent way to get a sense of the model is the story of how it was created.

    The History
    • IFS was created by Richard Schwartz, a family systems therapist. Family systems therapy (of the usual, non-internal variety) was based on the theory that an individuals’ mental health issues stemmed from maladaptive dynamics within their family. Schwartz noticed that his patients would talk a lot about conflicting ‘parts’ of themselves, and that the dynamics between a patient’s parts would often have similarities to common dynamics between family members.

    • Noticing this, Schwartz started working more explicitly with patients’ internal parts the way he would with individual members of a family. The system of IFS arose from this exploration.

      The Model
    • So, everybody’s mind is made up of parts. In the IFS model, parts are innate – everybody has different parts, which perform different roles.

    •  Different parts become active, that is, occupy the ‘driver’s seat’ of our minds, at different times, thereby affecting our emotions or our behaviour.

    • A common question is “how many parts do we have?” and I think it’s not really a very important question, or even one that’s answerable. It’s like learning about emotions and asking “but how many different emotions are there?”, “is this one emotion or three different emotions mixed together?” These questions aren’t pragmatically very important for therapeutic purposes; increasing your emotional vocabulary and learning to identify how you’re feeling is. Similarly, getting better at being in touch with your parts and dialoguing with them is the important part.

    • Chuang Tzu wrote that a good belt is one that you don’t even know is there; it’s only when it’s too tight or too loose that we start to notice it. Something similar is true of parts. When they’re just living their best life and doing what they want to do, we’re interested in our work project, enjoy our date, look both ways before we cross the street, and generally do the sorts of things that a healthy human should. Parts work together like the crew of a well-run ship; working together, doing very different but necessary jobs – as well as resting and playing.

    • However, it’s when parts develop extreme roles that we begin to run into trouble. A part with an extreme role is one which is leading to dysfunctional thoughts, feelings, or behaviours.

    • The two types of parts that you typically work with in IFS are:
  1. Exiled parts: these parts carry ‘burdens’ that might be extreme emotions like grief, rage, despair, etc., traumatic memories, fears, beliefs, or implicit belief-like feelings like “I am fundamentally unlovable”. Usually (but not always) these burdens were picked up during childhood. However, though exiled parts may have burdens, they are not defined by those burdens. We can unburden parts, but we can’t and certainly don’t want to get rid of any parts. Every part has gifts and great value to provide to the system (though it may not seem this way at first).
  2. Protector parts: these parts work to protect the rest of you from exiled parts OR protect exiled parts from being triggered. For instance, if an exile holds a traumatic memory, a protector part may make it inaccessible because it thinks that the memory might be too much to handle for the rest of the system. Or, if an exiled part holds a burden of extreme pain from being rejected, protector parts may try to prevent that same pain being triggered again – and there may be several tactics they come up with to do this.
  • Protectors themselves come in two common forms:

Managers: managers are proactive. They manage your life in such a way to prevent you from having to deal with an exile. If there is an exile which suffers from a feeling of worthlessness, it may go to great lengths to make sure that you don’t have to confront it, by chasing symbols of success.

Firefighters: firefighters are reactive. They jump into action when an exile is bubbling up or at risk, in a last-ditch effort to keep it from being triggered. For instance, if you don’t get asked to interview for a job you applied for, that resonates with the exile which suffers from a feeling of worthlessness. As a result, that long-repressed feeling is in danger of flooding the rest of the system, so a firefighter quenches the flames by doing something like flying into a rage – this gives you a nice distraction and perhaps a feeling of control for a while – or perhaps by going on a bender and getting blind drunk.

(However, protector parts can often act in both proactive and reactive ways, so this distinction isn’t hard and fast).

It is often the case that protectors develop in childhood, and never get a chance to update – to realise that their role is no longer required, and in fact may be doing harm.

Protectors virtually never enjoy doing the job they do, and usually have burdens of their own, but they feel that they have to keep doing the job because there is no alternative.

Example

  • Here’s a fictional example of how this might look in practice.

  • Charlotte’s father was extremely sensitive to criticism and complaints when she was a child. Often, when Charlotte expressed certain of her needs and wants, he would interpret this as criticism, get angry, and turn cold towards Charlotte. One of Charlotte’s parts becomes burdened with the shame, fear, and guilt that result from a belief that she is too needy, and this neediness is something very wrong with her, that will get her rejected by her loved ones when it is seen.

  • To protect Charlotte from the pain of this burden, one of her parts takes on the role of a protector. It learns to avoid pain by repressing any feeling of dissatisfaction, anger, or anything else that may have been interpreted by her father as a criticism – or, as Charlotte perceives it, anything that evidences her shameful neediness. These kinds of feelings are evidence that she is indeed needy – and therefore unlovable. So, any parts which hold these feelings get repressed by this well-meaning protector part.

  • Charlotte grows up and moves away from her father. However, the protector part is still stuck in this extreme role, not realising that it no longer needs to do this job, and so Charlotte still finds herself unable to openly express dissatisfaction in her relationships, feeling somehow that her needs are something shameful. Parts are very good at finding evidence that confirms their expectations. This leads to all sorts of problems for Charlotte and for those close to her.
  • IFS is partially based on systems theory, and there is no end to the interesting dynamics that can arise between parts. Multiple protectors can protect a single exile, one protector can protect multiple exiles, there can be protector parts which are themselves exiled by other protectors!

  • It is a tenet of the model that all parts are trying to do their best to keep you safe, happy, or protected from harm. Even parts full of self-hatred or those which seem to engage in plainly self-destructive, or unilaterally detrimental behaviours are just doing the only thing they know how to do in order to protect you; often this involves engaging in what, from their perspective, is the lesser of two evils.

Self

  • The final piece to the basic IFS model to understand first is Self (with a capital ‘S’). When Schwartz was working with clients, he would ask them to describe which part was active, and then ask whether that part would be willing to take a step back, to get out of the driver’s seat of the mind temporarily, in order to give room for other parts to be heard (more on this technique later). Usually when a part agreed to this, another part would immediately jump into the driver’s seat with another perspective. Schwartz would also ask this part to temporarily vacate the driver’s seat.

    Eventually, after all the active parts had agreed to take a back seat, clients always reported feeling very calm, steady, and able to hold the emotional pain of the other parts with compassion, curiosity, courage, and kindness. Schwartz asked them which part it was that had these extraordinary qualities, and the most common response was “this isn’t a part – this just feels like who I am at the deepest level“. So, Schwartz termed it Self.

    The experience was remarkably consistent between people, and was characterised by the “8 C’s”:
    • Calm
    • Confidence
    • Courage
    • Curiosity
    • Clarity
    • Compassion
    • Creativity
    • Connectedness
  • When parts are unburdened, these qualities of Self orchestrate the mind system, drawing on different parts and their strengths as is optimal. So, one of the goals of IFS is to become more and more “Self-led”. That is, the parts in the mind system trust Self to be in charge.

  • So, that’s the basic model. How do you work with it in practice?

The Practice

  • Typically the IFS process starts with a ‘trailhead’, which is anything that indicates the (usually dysfunctional) workings of a part. It could be an emotion, thought, behaviour, reaction, desire, or even a physical sensation like tension, etc.

    Let’s use the example of Jim, who has a strong desire for academic success. He has noticed that this strong desire to achieve academically has gotten in the way of his social life, hobbies, and enjoyment of life; if he is any less than top of his class, it affects him greatly. He decides to do some IFS work with this.

  • Step 1: Accessing a part
    • To access the part, it helps to bring the trailhead to mind as clearly as you can, and to flesh out the part:

      • Search into how it feels in the body, or where it seems to be in the body, and try to find the right words for those feelings
      • If there’s an image that arises of the part, note what that image is and hold it in mind.
      • What the part is saying; if there are any thoughts associated with it.
      • How the part makes you behave (or want to behave)
      • What the part wants – if there are any desires that arise with it.
      • Noting any memories that arise in connection with the activity of this part

    • Jim recalls seeing another student staying in the library for longer than him, and gets a very unpleasant feeling. This is a good trailhead to work with, so he investigates this feeling more. The feeling is a burning, urgent shame, mixed with fear, and a desire to continue studying. It feels like a painful, energetic pressure, felt in his chest, and a tension in his shoulders and jaw.

  • Step 2 : Unblending from the target part
    • ‘Unblending’ is IFS talk for getting a part to step out of the driver’s seat of the mind.

    • You’re blended with a part when its perspective feels like your perspective;  the emotions of the part feel like your emotions, and you identify with its point of view. When you are unblended, you are just aware of those emotions arising; you might find yourself saying “anxiety is arising” rather than “I am anxious”, for instance.

    • It’s sort of like what I imagine the experience of Counsellor Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation to be like (yeah, that’s right, I’m mixing things up and making a Star Trek reference instead of a Star Wars reference). Troi is an empath, and can psychically feel the emotions of others.


      When you’re dealing with a big steaming pile of your own anxiety, whatever you’re anxious about seems big and objectively terrible, and all your thoughts revolve around how to escape the anxiety. But I imagine if you had empath abilities and could feel the anxiety of somebody else; even though the raw sensations might be identical, the experience would be much less gripping with that degree of separation, without the identification. You’d probably be much more able to say “wow, that’s a big steaming pile of anxiety you’ve got going on over there”, without accepting it as the correct and only possible perspective. You’d be able to be more able to sit with it, equanimously, curiously, with kindness and spaciousness. That’s what being unblended might feel like.

    • How to unblend:
      • It’s important to note that we always work with parts in IFS work, never try to force parts to do anything they don’t want to do. This just leads to resistance and internal conflict, and slows the process down.

      • First, try just asking the part to separate so that you can understand it better and get to know it.

      • Similar requests are to ask the part not to flood you with emotion, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or absorbed in the emotion, or to move out of your body a little.

      • Keep in mind that you’re not asking the part to stop feeling what it’s feeling, or to go away – this is to help yourself and to help the part. This should be done with kindness and gentleness.

      • This is not a demand – the part can say no. If it does, you could ask what it’s afraid would happen if it did unblend. Often parts are reluctant to unblend because the only way they have been able to get us to listen is by blending, so it may take some time for them to trust that this isn’t you pushing them away again.
      • Other ways to unblend:
      • Moving into Self – rather than asking the part to step back, you can step back into a more grounded place, shifting into the stance of a witness. An example of how to do this might be to do some metta meditation for the part you’re working with, or any kind of meditation that works for you.

      • Visualising the part as separate – allow a visual image of the part to arise and allow it to take a clear sense of being its own thing, separate from and not identical to you. You could even draw or paint the part.

      • If you’re really struggling to unblend from a target part, you might try to find an opposing part, to help realise that you’re more than just this one part.

    • When you’ve unblended, it may feel like there’s more spaciousness around the emotion, or that you are just aware that the part’s feelings are present, without them feeling so much like they are ‘your’ feelings.

  • Step 3: Unblending from a concerned part
    • However, very often, as soon as you’ve unblended with a protector part, another, often opposing part immediately steps in. With the example of Jim, he unblended with his academically driven part, and immediately threw up feelings of loneliness and anger, and he became upset with himself for neglecting his friends, romantic interests, and social life. This is a ‘concerned part’, which, rather than feeling the compassionate curiosity of Self, feels angry towards this academically driven part for ruining Jim’s work-life balance. Of course, because Jim is now blended with this part, he just experiences this reactive part’s anger as though it were his own.

    • So the next step is to unblend with this concerned part, just as in the steps in Part 2.

    • This may need to be done multiple times with other concerned parts. If there is a particularly intransigent concerned part, it may need to become the new ‘target part’.

  • Step 4: Discovering a protector’s role
    • Once you have unblended with a part and any concerned parts that may have arisen, you will find yourself in Self (at least to some degree), characterised by at least one or two of the 8 C’s above. You don’t have to be 100% in Self or 100% unblended to start doing this work – you just need some critical mass of Self present.

    • From Self, you can begin to find out more about the role this protector part plays in your life; its emotions, concerns, beliefs, and what it does in its attempts to keep you safe, well, and protected.

    • Good questions to ask of a protector part:
      • What do you feel?
      • What do you want?
      • What are you concerned about?
      • What is your role? What do you do to perform this role?
      • How do you want me to behave/feel?
      • What do you hope to accomplish by playing this role?
      • Do you like performing this role, or do you just feel that you must?
      • And perhaps most usefully: What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t do this?

    • When you are in Self and in touch with a part, you can just drop these questions and wait for a reply from the part – this may come in the form of a bodily felt sense, thoughts, or you may just find that the answer ‘come to you’ in some other way. It may take a while before you find an answer that feels right, and it may require a few attempts at articulating an answer before you hit upon an answer that feels right. If you are familiar with the technique of ‘Focusing‘, this part of the process is essentially identical.

    • Typically, protectors are concerned with one or both of these two types of protection:
      • External Protection: keeps an exile from being triggered and harmed by external circumstances.

      • Internal Protection: Prevent you from feeling an emotion. Typically these protectors think the exile is dangerous and want to keep it at bay.

    • For Jim, the answer he hit on by following this process was that the protector felt that it was “safe at the top”, and excelling academically was a way to avoid the emotional pain and vulnerability which felt like the alternative. This indicates the presence of an exile with a painful burden.

  • Step 5: Developing a trusting relationship with a protector
    • When you are relating to protector parts from Self, you will be patient and compassionate with them. There can be a desire to push past the protector parts to get to the exiles, as though that is where the ‘real work’ is done. This desire doesn’t come from Self, but from a part that wants to solve whatever problems are being caused in your life by these parts. Protector parts need loving attention themselves; they are after all the parts that expend a lot of effort and energy into running our lives, and they very often carry their own burdens – in Jim’s case, this part had spent years doing the exhausting job of providing the motivating force to get him through thousands of gruelling hours of studying. Furthermore, it wasn’t getting any appreciation for the job it had been doing; whenever this part wasn’t in the driving seat, as we saw earlier, another part judged it harshly for having ruined Jim’s work-life balance. When Jim related to this part from Self, he spontaneously felt very appreciative towards it; even though it was in a rather extreme role, it had a positive intention to keep Jim safe from pain, and had been working exceptionally hard for a very long time to make that happen. When Jim had this experience, there was a very touching sense of appreciation and gratitude.

    • One of the main goals of IFS is to become ‘Self-led’; for Self to sit in the driver’s seat and orchestrate parts optimally. For this to happen, these protector parts must learn to trust Self, and this means developing a relationship with them over time.

    • Once the protector part trusts Self enough; either that you are sufficiently Self-led and won’t hurt the exiled part, or that you will be able to hold the exiled part and not be overwhelmed by it when you are in Self, it may grant you access to the exiled part.

  • Intermediate step: getting permission to work with an exile.
    • When you’ve established a trusting relationship with a protector part, the next step is to find out which exile/s it’s protecting. It’s important to get a protector’s permission to do this, rather than just pushing past it to get to the exile, because otherwise the protector will push back – and it’s usually very good at doing this! This may be experienced as blankness or numbness, intellectualising your way out of contact with direct experience, distractions, sudden emotional disengagement, or many other ways.

    • You may hear the ‘voice’ of the exile as a thought, or get an image of it. Often, when you ask a protector what they are afraid would happen if they stopped performing their role, the answer points to an exile – e.g. if a protector is afraid that you will feel afraid or overwhelmed by some emotion, that emotion is likely to be from the exile. If there is enough trust between you and the protector, it may just show you the exile if you ask it to.

    • One protector may have multiple exiles – this may take some untangling. 

    • Once you have a sense (even a very murky sense) of what exile is being protected, ask permission from the protector to start working with this part. If the protector is ok with this, you may just feel the way is clear, rather than blocked, or the exile may suddenly spring into consciousness. The barrier being put up by the protector – whatever form that takes – softens. Once you have permission, check to see whether there are any other protectors which may object to this. There are many objections that protectors may have to this step:
      • You will be overwhelmed by the pain of the exile
      • The exile will be harmed in the attempt to heal it
      • It’s pointless to try because the exile cannot be healed
      • Doubts about your competence to help the exile
      • The protector feels that its role (and therefore its existence) is threatened
      • A secret that the exile knows will be revealed
      • The protector is worried that another dangerous protector will be triggered if the exile is triggered 

    • There are specific reassurances that can help with each of these examples, however the main point is that, when you are in Self, you are able to handle any difficulty that may arise, with benevolence and competence. Exiles can be healed, even when it seems certain that they cannot be. This step may need time, more relationship-building between Self and the protector, and/or the help of a therapist. Don’t proceed without the permission of the protector part.

  • Working with an exile
    • In general, these next steps are very similar to those we have already covered: accessing and fleshing out a part, unblending from concerned parts, and then learning more about the exile. The main difference is that at the end of this process, the exile is ‘unburdened’. Whatever burdens it has been holding are released – this can be a profoundly healing and beautiful experience. The steps leading up to it can also be very painful and difficult!

  • Step One: Accessing an exile
    • As mentioned, an exile often emerges naturally as you work with a protector.

       
    • You can get to know an exile through its emotions, their position in the body, or in other ways somatically (e.g. feelings of pain, constriction, tension, etc.), there may be an image of the part that naturally arises, you may hear the ‘voice’ of the exile as thoughts, or in other ways. 

  • Step Two: Unblending from an exile
    • Often an exile will try to blend with you – this is because in the past, the only way they have been able to be heard is through blending. It may take some reassurances for them to realise that they can be heard and understood without blending.

    • You can ask the exile to stay separate, not to flood you with emotions. This isn’t asking it to not feel those feelings – just to retain some degree of separateness so that you can fully witness them and be grounded enough to help.

    • Sometimes this won’t work – if you ask why an exile isn’t willing to stop flooding, it’s usually because the exile is afraid that it will be shut out or not allowed to feel; it needs reassuring that this isn’t the case.

    • Other ways to unblend inlcude: internally feeling yourself stepping back from the exile, visualising placing some wall or a window or room between you and the exile so that it’s more contained, then looking through a window, visualising the exile at a distance, and doing a short grounding meditation.

    • Feeling very close to the exile without blending is a lot like embracing – close and compassionate but separate.

  • Step Three: Unblending from a concerned part
    • Often it will be enough to ask the concerned part to stand back so that you can be in a position to help transform the exile.

    • If not, it will usually be due to one of the main 7 concerns covered in the last section, in which case you can work through those concerns in the same way.

    • Often a protector isn’t afraid, but rather has negative feelings towards the exile, e.g because it has caused a lot of problems in your life, and there’s a desire to eliminate it. Reassure the protector that you won’t let the exile take over, and in fact you’re working to unburden it so that it won’t disrupt your life in this way anymore. A protector may also feel judgemental because the exiled part is insecure, scared, or weak in some way. Often these are internalised attitudes from parents. Reassure the protector that this is not the part’s default state, just a result of circumstances, and you can heal it. You are not the part, and you don’t have to take on any of its qualities – you’re staying in Self.

  • Step Four: Learning about an exile
    • Stay curious and connected, perhaps enquire about what emotions it’s feeling, and what situations trigger those emotions.

    • You may not need to ask many questions – just staying receptive. You can also learn a lot about a part just somatically – where it is in the body, which emotions are associated with that part.

  • Step Five: Developing a trusting relationship with an exile
    • Make sure to communicate the compassion you’re feeling directly to the exile – somatically and with words if you need to.

    • You may need to check that the exile is aware of you – you may need to ask it to notice you, and make sure it knows of that connection to Self. You may want to check in and ask whether it trusts you.

    • Accessing and witnessing emotions & childhood memories
      • It’s usually very helpful to learn about an exile in the form of the formative memories that burdened the protector. Often – but not always – these will be from childhood. 

      • These memories may not be explicit narrative memories – you may get a generic image or feeling of an event that happened many times in different forms (e.g. feeling unsafe, feeling humiliated or shamed, etc.). 

      • Sometimes no explicit memories arise at all – just strong emotions or feelings. Often there isn’t even any conceptual overlay or story at all; just strong emotion. However the exile makes its experience known to you, just continue witnessing that, and enquiring, until the exile feels that you fully understand what it was like and how bad it felt/is feeling.

    • Step Six: Reparenting and retrieving an exile
      • What does the exile need at this point in the process?

      • Often the exile feels that it is still inhabiting the formative memories from childhood, and needs to be retrieved from them. 

      • You can imagine yourself, in Self, being in those memories with the part, and giving the exile what it needs – protection, reassurance, compassion, understanding, interest, love, etc., and/or just removing the exile from that situation entirely – showing it that it is now safe and loved and protected.

      • The exile guides this process and tells you what it wants – what feels good.

      • Self is so large, loving and resourceful, that it can handle anything thrown at it – parts may need reassurance of this.

      • Sometimes you may need to make external changes in your life before you’re really safe to do this kind of work with an exile – for instance if you are still living with an abuser. 

  • Step Seven: The Unburdening Ritual
    • Sometimes this step won’t be necessary; the previous steps of witnessing, reparenting and/or retrieval may have done the trick – this is spontaneous unburdening. However, the unburdening ritual is a good way to cap off – and facilitate – the process.

    • You’ll know if the exile is ready to unburden because you’ll check in with it, and it will feel/say that it’s ready, and there are no other parts that object.

    • First, get clear on how the burden is carried – this may be a physical/somatic sensation, a posture, or an image in the mind, like a big sack, etc.

    • Ask the exile what it would like to release the burden to – the standard IFS technique is to give it to an element – air, earth, water, or fire – to signify something powerful and elemental. Something like light, God, or a place of significance would also work.

    • Sense what the change feels like as it is happening to make it more palpable.

    • At some point, this may stop working, indicating that the exile is simply not ready, or was only ready to release a part of the burden – no trouble – it could rest and continue on another occasion, or it may be due to an arising concern mentioned already.

    • The exile may also have more burdens associated with it, which require unburdening themselves. Furthermore, one memory can presumably have caused burdens for multiple exiles.

    • Check in with the exile every day or so afterwards for a while to reaffirm the connection and ensure that the burden doesn’t return.

    • Accessing the qualities of the part
      • Finally, now the part has been unburdened, check in with it to see what qualities are emerging from the part. You might, for example, feel a spontaneous sense of child-like joy and playfulness emerge, or curiosity, or any number of other qualities that this part is now free to embody.

  • Step Eight: Transforming a protector
    • There is usually a movement between protector and exile and back again – getting the protector’s permission to access the exile, healing the exile, and then working with the protector to make sure that it realises that it no longer needs to protect the part (or at least quite so much) because it’s healed.

    • Sometimes protectors are unaware of the work you’ve just done with an exile, so they may need to be shown the transformation!

    • Usually, protectors don’t like their roles, and are happy to be able to let go of them when they are convinced that they don’t need to protect the exile anymore – now that it is healed. However they can also be uncertain that the exile really is healed, or feel a sense of uncertainty about what their role should be now.

    • Now is the time to ask the protector what role it would like to do now that the exile is healed. Often it is a healthy version of their old role! For instance, if you had a protector who was self-critical as a way of pushing you to achieve, it may now be free to cheer you on and engage passionately with your projects.

    • However, sometimes a protector will want to do the opposite of its old role, or something unrelated entirely. Also, it may not want to choose a ‘role’ – at least not just yet – the role may emerge over time, or it may be something hard to define like ‘strength’, or ‘clarity’, or ‘love’. Don’t push, and let the protector decide what it wants to do.

  • Integrating with the rest of the system
    • It’s useful to check to see whether there are any other parts that have objections or concerns about the work you’ve just done. 

    • You may need to periodically revisit and reinforce this work with parts over time to ensure that they don’t slip back into old habits.

I hope this was a useful introduction to the IFS model and system of practice. I don’t think it will be much use by itself but hopefully it is enough to get you interested in trying the practice. I want to again point you to my follow-up recommendations.

The series of blogs which follow will expand on why I believe that IFS is such a radically helpful complement to meditation practice.

Author: RationalShinkai

Ollie lives in England. He likes meditation, peanut butter, and Oxford commas.

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