When a Part Is Vague

Vague PartWhen you are accessing a part to work with it, it may not be clear at first. It may start out as a vague image or felt sense—for example, “folded over on itself.”

You get to know a part like this by staying with your experience in a patient and curious way. Don’t push for clarity prematurely. If you are open and interested, the part will know that it is welcome, and the nature of it will become clearer in the course of a few minutes. For example, “folded over on itself” might gradually reveal itself as a part that is curled up to protect itself from attack.

You might feel a vague emotion, such as a sense of poignancy, or you might sense a narrowing in your chest or an empty place in your body. When the sensation or image isn’t entirely clear at first, it simply means that your access to the part is still in the process of forming. Some of the most interesting parts start out this way. The practice of Focusing is an excellent method for allowing parts to gradually come into view.

This process of clarification can happen slowly in stages. Take your time and the part will gradually emerge, like the development of a photographic image in a darkroom. For example, what started out as an empty place might begin to include an experience of feeling unsatisfied. Then you might sense that it is in your belly. Over time it might show itself as an empty sack needing to be filled. Finally, it might reveal itself as a child who needs nurturing because she feels empty inside.

Detecting When You Are Talking to an Exile

Do you know when you are talking to an Exile?

A frequent occurrence that can sidetrack your IFS work is when the part you are talking to changes without your realizing it. You are asking a part questions and receiving its answers, but at some point the answers start to come from a different part. It is important to detect this when it happens.

The usual way this happens is that you are working with a protector and you start hearing from the exile that is being protected. However, you don’t realize that this has happened; you think you are still talking to the protector. Since the protector and exile are closely linked, this is not surprising. However, you must learn to recognize when this occurs because we work with protectors in a different way than with exiles in IFS. You will recognize an exile because it has a painful emotion such as shame, fear, sadness, or hurt. It is important to have the protector’s permission before exploring the exile, so if an exile pops up, ask it to wait until you have finished with the protector.

Here is an example from a session. This demonstrates a protector switching to an exile without the person realizing it. Christine has identified a protector that doesn’t want to see or know certain things. She is getting to know it. Let’s take up the session at that point.

Jay: Invite that part to tell you or show you more about what it feels.

Christine: It says that it feels sleepy and dull. I can sense that it goes blank. It says, “I want to go to sleep. I don’t want to be awake or conscious.” Sometimes it can’t answer people’s questions.

J: Mm hmm. Ask the part what its name is or what it would like to be called.

C: I get the word Confuser.

J: Okay. Ask it what it is trying to accomplish by being sleepy and confused.

C: It says, “I don’t want to see something. I don’t want to know something.” This part has to just make unclarity and confusion, blandness. It wants to make sure that I don’t know what is going on.

J: It creates confusion to protect you from whatever is going on . . . What else does this part want you to know about itself?

C: (pause) Well, it’s showing me a demonstration of its panic state, which has something to do with being alone.

Here is where the switch happens. Christine is now hearing from the exile. The Confuser produces confusion and not-knowing, while the exile is terrified. So I ask about this in order to clarify what has happened.

J: I’m a little confused. I thought this was the part that didn’t want to see anything.

C: It’s two sides of the same coin. The one that doesn’t want to see, doesn’t want to see because it’s terrified.

This is true, but the part that actually feels the terror is the exile, so I focus her back on the protector, whose job is to avoid the terror.

J: I suspect that the one who is terrified is actually a different part. Ask the terrified part if it would be willing to wait a bit, and let’s focus on the Confuser, if that’s Okay. 

This switch from protector to exile often happens because the exile desperately wants to be heard. It senses that you are approaching and wants out of exile, so it rushes the gate.

When you detect that this has happened, ask the exile to wait until you have gotten to know the protector and received its permission to proceed. So the exile doesn’t feel ignored, let it know that you want to get to know it, but ask it to wait while you continue with the protector.

IFS Exiles Course – Starts February 6

The IFS Exiles Course is the second of my IFS Courses.IFS Exiles Course

You learn how to:

  • safely access young wounded parts (exiles),
  • how to stay in Self,
  • how to develop a healing relationship with your exiles, and
  • how to unburden the pain and negative beliefs of exiles so they are transformed.

This enables you to do a complete IFS session with yourself or a partner. You learn how to facilitate a partner who is working on themselves.

Prerequisite: IFS Basic Course or equivalent. Contact me if you aren’t sure whether you qualify.

Mondays 4:30-6:30 pacific time (7:30-9:30 eastern)
Feb. 6 – March 13 (6 weeks)
$280 ($250 if paid by Jan. 30)
Click here to enroll

Class Enrollment

Free Drop-In Interactive/IFS Group – February 1

Drop-in Interactive IFS GroupThis Drop-in Interactive IFS group will be a chance to experience what it is like to be in an Interactive Group, so you can decide if you would like to join one. 

In a Drop-In Interactive Group, you can be totally honest about your feelings. Everyone is encouraged to share their moment-to-moment experience with the group. It’s a big risk but very exciting!

A small group of people meets to practice awareness, honesty, and connection. Using IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy), we practice speaking for our parts rather than as our parts. This means being in Self (a calm, caring place) and talking about how a part of you is reacting in the moment, as opposed to dumping your feelings on other people. This helps you to communicate in a more effective manner, and it also makes the group safe for everyone.

I facilitate the group, helping you to tune into what you are experiencing and speak your truth. You may tell others honestly and directly how you are feeling toward them. We create an atmosphere of caring and trust so that this can be done in a safe, connected way. You also have a chance to get honest feedback from people on how they are responding to you.

The group meets by videoconference, so we can all see each other. 

Wednesday, Feb. 1
10am-12 noon pacific time (1-3 pm eastern, 6-8 pm UK)
Click here to register for free

Reasons to Stay with your Original Target Part in IFS

Let’s suppose that, in your IFS work, you have chosen a protector to work on, called your target part.

As you are getting to know it, another part may emerge. You want to make a choice about whether to ask it to step aside so you can continue with your original target part or whether to switch and make the new part your target part.

You Want to Finish with the Target Part

Sometimes, at the beginning of your therapy, it can be useful to get to know many different parts and understand their positive intent for you. However, once you start working with a part, it is usually best to finish the IFS procedure for healing and transforming it. For example, Dillon started working with a certain target part, a Depressed Part, and it is important for him to overcome his depression. So when another part arose, he asked it to step aside so he could keep working with his Depressed Part. He wanted to continue the IFS process with his Depressed Part by accessing the exile it was protecting so he could transform the Depressed Part and his depression would lift. This was especially important to him because he had worked with his Depressed Part before and not completed the work. Now he wanted to get results.

You Haven’t Finished with Any Parts

If you are still in the early stages of your IFS work and you haven’t yet completed work with any of your parts, your inner system won’t realize what is possible. Your parts won’t realize that exiles can be unburdened and that protectors can let go of their roles. Your protectors may be skeptical about your ability to heal your parts until they see it happen. Your parts may feel hopeless about change and, because of this, may try to keep you from engaging in IFS work or keep you away from your exiles. Therefore, it is important to complete at least one unburdening without waiting too long. The more your parts realize that profound change is really possible, the more they will cooperate with you.

The Target Part Feels Ignored by You

Some parts don’t trust you at first. They don’t expect you to really pay attention to them—perhaps because you haven’t paid attention to them your whole life. Now that you are learning IFS, you can give them the attention they want. If your target part is upset with you for not paying attention to it, it wouldn’t be wise to switch to a different target part. This would only increase the mistrust of the original target part. Stay with it so it can experience your interest in it. This will help the part trust you.

This article is an excerpt from my book Self-Therapy, Vol. 2.


New IFS Group – Starts January 26

IFS GroupA new IFS Group starts January 26.

  • Are you looking for an affordable way to get IFS therapy?
  • Would you like to learn to use IFS to work on yourself?
  • Would you like to connect with others who are learning IFS and working on themselves?

In the IFS group, you will be able to…

  • Work with me individually in front of the group
  • Learn from other people’s IFS work
  •  Get your parts stimulated by other people’s work so you can dive right in
  • Pair up with other group members for IFS homework when you are ready
  • Engage in group IFS exercises
  • Learn the basics of IFS
  • Share your struggles and learnings with the group and feel supported
  • Participate in a warm feeling of community in the group.


The group is limited to 8 people.
This is an ongoing group, so once you join, you are expected to attend all sessions (if possible) until you choose to leave.
The group meets by videoconference, so we can all see each other.


4:30-6:30 pm pacific time (7:30-9:30 pm eastern)
Every other Thursday
Starts January 26

Getting Started

  • You meet with me for a free pre-group interview to see if the group is a good fit for you.
  • Then you can try out the group for a month and then decide whether to continue.
  • For more information or a free pre-group interview, email me at earley.jay@gmail.com.

New Advanced IFS Class for Therapists & Coaches – Starts Jan 24

Advanced IFS ClassesIn my ongoing Advanced IFS Classes, you learn intermediate and advanced techniques and understandings that go beyond what I teach in the Basic and Exiles Courses.

I lead demonstration IFS sessions with volunteers from the class, and you practice with ea Advanced Ongoing IFS Classes, you learn intermediate and advanced techniques and understandings that go beyond what I teach in the Basic and Exiles Courses.ch other in pairs for homework. In addition, the whole group works together on important psychological issues such as procrastination, the inner critic, depression, eating issues, and more.

There are separate classes for therapists and coaches, which include advanced training and consultation on IFS.

Typical Topics Covered

  • Resolving polarization—conflicts between parts
  • Managers and firefighters
  • What to do if a part won’t talk with you
  • Updating protectors about your capacities
  • Negotiating for Self-leadership with protectors
  • Legacy burdens
  • Self-like parts
  • Disowned parts (exiles without burdens)
  • Protector subparts of exiles
  • Somatic awareness in IFS
  • Unattached burdens (malevolent entities)
  • Spiritual guides
  • Types of parts that block the therapy process
  • Embodying and integrating transformed exiles
  • Advanced reparenting techniques
  • Working with Inner Critics
  • Resolving Eating Issues
  • Working with Anger in IFS
  • Working with pain or medical conditions using IFS

 Topics Mainly of Interest to Professionals

  • The therapist-client relationship in IFS therapy
  • Recognizing and dealing with transference patterns in clients
  • Recognizing your countertransference patterns
  • Recognizing when you’re not in Self with a client; staying in Self with difficult parts
  • Working with trauma
  • Direct access
  • Introducing IFS to new clients
  • Working with clients who resist IFS
  • Working with Dissociative Identity Disorder
  • What to do when therapeutic change doesn’t happen

There are 3 classes, including a new one for therapists and coaches.

New Advanced IFS Class For Therapists and Coaches

Second and fourth Tuesdays of each month
For therapists and coaches
9:30-11:30 am pacific time (12:30-2:30 eastern, 5:30-7:30 UK)
Starts Jan. 24, 2017

Click here for detailed information, topics covered, schedule of all classes, and how to join.


Reasons to Switch Target Parts in IFS

Let’s suppose you have chosen a protector to work on, called your target part. As you are getting to know it, another part may emerge. It is best to take a moment to feel the new part’s emotions or body sensations and perhaps ask it a question or two. Then make a conscious choice about whether to ask it to step aside so you can continue with your original target part or whether to switch and make the new part your target part. Let’s look at a variety of reasons you might choose to switch target parts.

A Concerned Part or Protector Won’t Step Aside

Suppose you are working with a target part and you check to see how you are feeling toward it. If you are feeling judgmental or angry toward it or you want to get rid of it, you aren’t in Self. You are blended with a concerned part that feels judgmental, angry, and so on. You acknowledge the concerned part and then ask it to step aside. If it won’t step aside, you ask what it is afraid of and try to reassure it about its fears. If it still won’t step aside, you have no choice—you must switch and make the concerned part your target part.

The same thing can happen if you are trying to work with an exile, and a protector jumps in and blocks the way. You ask what the protector is afraid would happen if it allowed you to work with the exile, and then you attempt to reassure the protector that what it fears won’t happen. If the protector isn’t reassured and refuses to give you permission to work with the exile, you must switch and make that protector your target part, at least for a while.

When you switch, keep track of the original target part. When you have worked with the concerned part (or other protector) and it is willing to step aside, or when you have finished with it completely, come back to the original target part and continue with it.

An Important New Part Arises

Suppose you are working with a target part when a different part arises. For example, you suddenly feel sad or ashamed, and you realize that this isn’t coming from the part you were focused on. You spend a moment feeling this new part and hearing its concerns. You realize that this part is very important in your life right now. It is behind feelings and behaviors that you really want to change. So you decide that it is more relevant to work with the new part than the original one. Tell the original target part that you will get back to it in the future (and make sure you do).

A Part Arises That Is Usually Not Accessible

As you are working on a target part, suppose a new part arises whose feelings or beliefs are very vivid and alive to you in that moment, or an exile arises that is full of pain. You realize that this new part is usually not very easy to access, so this is a golden opportunity to work with it. The new part might be an exile whose pain is usually inaccessible, or it might be a protector that is usually vague. Now that this part and its emotions are clear, you may decide that you want to take this opportunity to work with it.

A Part Insists on Being Heard

A new part arises that is different from your target part, and it insists on being heard right now. It doesn’t want to step aside for the original target part. It demands that you pay attention to it. Perhaps this part feels that you have been ignoring it, or maybe it is really triggered and needs to some attention. You don’t want to go against a part with such an urgent need because it will lead to bad blood. Let the original target part know that you will come back to it in the future, maybe even in the same session. Then turn your attention to the part that is demanding attention. Spend as much time with that part as it needs. Then you can choose to go even further and transform the new part or go back to the original target part.

The Target Part Is Afraid of Another Part

You are working with a protector—let’s call it Part A—and you ask it what it is afraid would happen if it didn’t perform its protective role. It says it is afraid that you will do something destructive or dysfunctional. For example, it says it is afraid that you will get really angry or you will procrastinate about an important task. First, ask yourself whether Part A’s fear is realistic. If Part A didn’t perform its role, would you be likely to act in the dysfunctional way that it fears? You need to be in Self to answer this question accurately.

If you aren’t likely to do what Part A is afraid of, its fear is unrealistic. This means that it is a good idea to work with Part A to help transform it. However, if you would do what Part A is afraid of, it wouldn’t make sense to continue to work with it since it is giving you sound advice. It is warning you about something problematic that you might actually do.

In this case, switch your attention to the part of you that might actually get angry or procrastinate (or whatever the protector is concerned about). Let’s call it Part B. Not only is it important to transform Part B, but you can’t realistically ask Part A to let go of its role if you haven’t addressed its realistic concern.

Once you have worked with and transformed Part B, go back to Part A and see if it still needs to perform its protective job. If it can now let go, your work with it is complete. If Part A can’t let go, proceed to do the IFS process with it. Since you have addressed Part A’s realistic concern, see what else it is afraid of and work with it to transform that fear.

The Target Part Takes Orders from Another Part

Suppose you are working with a protector, and you ask what it is trying to accomplish by doing its job. It says it doesn’t know. When you inquire further, it says that it was assigned this job by another part, and it just follows orders. It can sometimes happen that one part is receiving orders from another part. In this case, to find out the positive intent behind the protective behavior, you have to go to the source—the part that is giving the orders. That part knows what the behavior is intended to accomplish and protect against, so it makes sense to switch target parts and focus on the part that is in charge. That part needs to be transformed for your behavior to change.

Overcoming Depression with IFS

In studying how to work with depression using IFS, I have seen that a depressed part can be either a protector or an exile. In this article, I’ll just look at protectors.Overcoming Depression

Protectors That Block Hope 

One common cause of depression is having a protector that doesn’t want you to feel hopeful. Such a protector doesn’t actually feel hopeless. It makes you feel hopeless in order to keep you from feeling hopeful and then suffering the disappointment of not getting what you were hoping for. Therefore, it is more accurate to call it a Depressing Protector rather than a Depressed Protector. It is afraid of your feeling devastated if you are disappointed. It believes that if you are hopeful and your hopes don’t work out, or if you fail at what you are trying to accomplish, you will be devastated. It isn’t just worried about your being disappointed; it is afraid you will be devastated in such a severe way that you couldn’t handle it. Its fear probably goes back to times in childhood when you were hopeful and then your hopes were dashed and you were devastated.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your hopelessness is realistic or that your Depressing Protector feels hopeless. It is purposely trying to make you feel hopeless to protect you from devastation. However, even though it is causing your depression, its heart is in the right place; your Depressing Protector is trying to protect you from pain. So you can get to know it and connect with it.

Of course, the pain this Depressing Protector causes you is far greater that the actual disappointment you might feel if your hopes failed to materialize. But your protector doesn’t realize that.

Protectors That Depress Your Energy

A Depressing Protector may squash your energy so that you can’t feel the underlying pain or trauma of your exiles. This protector believes that you can’t tolerate this pain. It is stuck at a point in your childhood when you didn’t have the internal or external support to handle such pain. So it keeps your energy low to prevent this pain from coming to the surface.

A Depressing Protector might also suppress your energy so you won’t assert yourself or take risks, which the protector believes will lead to failure or trouble. It thinks that if you took a risk and failed, you couldn’t handle the disappointment. Or it may believe that if you asserted yourself, you might be attacked or abandoned.

In most cases, the depression that such a protector causes is much more painful than what would happen if it allowed you to feel an exile’s pain or if it allowed you to assert yourself in the world, but the Depressing Protector doesn’t know this. It believes that it must make you depressed to protect you from overwhelming pain or from the negative consequences of being powerful and visible in the world.

Inner Critic Parts

Inner Critic Parts, which are protectors, can also create or add to your depression by attacking you so harshly and mercilessly that you feel bad about yourself. These Inner Critic attacks trigger exiles who already feel inadequate or worthless, and the attacks make the exiles feel even worse, which contributes to depression.

Self-Therapy, Vol. 3This article is an excerpt from Self-Therapy, Vol. 3.

Webinar: Transforming Your Inner Critic Using IFS 9-19-2016

Inner Critic Learn how to transform your Inner Critic and develop self-esteem using Internal Family Systems Therapy.

Monday, Sept. 19
4:30-6:30 pm pacific time (7:30-9:30 pm eastern)
Click here to register for free


In this webinar you will learn

  • That your bad feelings about yourself aren’t true
  • That your feelings of shame and worthlessness come from your Inner Critic
  • How to get to know your Inner Critic using IFS
  • That your Inner Critic is actually trying to protect you
  • How to work with your Inner Critic using IFS
  • How to transform your Inner Critic
  • How to develop your Inner Champion

Feel free to register even if you can make that time. You will receive a recording of the webinar afterwards.

This will be followed by a six-week Inner Critic Course by videoconference.

4:30-6:30 pm pacific time (7:30-9:30 pm eastern)
Sept. 26, Oct. 10, 17, 24, Nov. 7, 14
Cost: $250
Click here to register