Working Through Conflicts in an Interactive/IFS Group

Sharon tended to avoid bringing up difficulties with her friends, but then she would withdraw from them because her negative feelings festered. This was directly tied to her fear of vulnerability. As long as she was holding back negative feelings toward someone, she didn’t have to reach out or get in touch with her vulnerable exile. She felt justified in keeping the person at a distance or even writing them off. She was also afraid of the person’s reactions if she confronted them.

When Sharon brought up this issue in a group consult with me, I suggested that she work on confronting people in group directly, and this terrified her. She was afraid that the other person would get hurt, and then they would abandon her or get angry at her. I encouraged Sharon to get feedback from the group members about this, and when she did, only one person expressed fear of Sharon’s confrontations. The rest of the group welcomed them.

After this, she began to bring out her negative feelings toward people in group, and in the process she learned more about how her judgments were a protection against wanting contact. This also got her judgments out in the open so they didn’t fester inside and get in the way of her connecting with people. Sharon found that when she did challenge someone in a soft way about something they were doing that she didn’t like, the person would often reveal the reason behind their behavior and be willing to try to change. This encouraged Sharon’s own openness. Conflict became a way of becoming closer to people.

For example, Patti joined the group about 9 months after it started and Sharon didn’t feel very receptive to her. Sharon describes it as follows:

“I had a part with the attitude of ‘I’m in the in-crowd and I’ve got something that you don’t. You can’t come in.’ This protector felt this way toward some people. They had to prove that they were willing to be open and loving, that they were scared and vulnerable, and they had to appreciate me and let me know that. Once they did that, then I could trust them. I was very scared to confront Patti, especially because it was something that was part of her character and couldn’t be changed.

When I mentioned that in a consultation, Jay encouraged me to work on it with her because both of us could benefit from it. That gave me the idea that my response to someone could be appropriate and helpful to them. So he gave me the courage to do it.”

Even though at first Sharon didn’t say anything about her judgmental response, Patti sensed it, and, after a couple of months, she questioned Sharon about it. This gave Sharon an opening to do the work. She acknowledged that she had a tendency to make people prove themselves before she would accept them, and that she was feeling that way toward Patti. Patti asked her why, and Sharon said it was because she didn’t sense warmth from Patti toward herself or toward other people in the group.

“This was very scary. If I would ever talk back or challenge my mother in any way she would be so wounded. She could dish it out but she couldn’t take it! I felt tremendous guilt at hurting her. In my family, I had all this training that you can’t disagree, or argue, or confront in any way. I had already worked on that in individual therapy, so in the group I was ready to try it out and break old habits.”

Patti felt hurt by Sharon’s statement, but she also acknowledged that she did have a part that was guarded at first with people for fear of not being accepted. Patti was feeling shaky about not being accepted in the group, and I encouraged her to explore this rather than defending herself. It was difficult for Patti to make herself this vulnerable, but with encouragement and reassurance from me and from the group, she was able to do some very courageous work. As she explored this issue, it led back to an exile with deep pain about not being accepted in her family of origin, and Patti opened herself and expressed the pain in a vulnerable, appealing way.

Sharon’s attitude toward Patti changed right in the moment. She melted and felt genuine caring and respect for her. She realized that Patti had warmth, but that she expressed it in a different way than Sharon. They continued to work on this issue and other differences between them as the group progressed, and they grew closer over time. In addition, because of this work, Sharon saw the possibility of being more receptive to other new people whose style of relating might be different from hers.

I lead four Interactive/IFS Groups, some of which have openings now. Click here for more information about them.


Desire and Vulnerability in an Interactive/IFS Group

In an Interactive Group we encourage people to be honest with each other about their responses, so if one group member reaches out to another, they could get hurt. However, if they can handle this, it is an opportunity for growth. They can learn how to deal with the hurt and to realize that it doesn’t mean that they are unlovable.

What is more important, as people learn to reach out in a vulnerable way for contact, they are likely to be received positively. Vulnerability is very appealing, and the more people learn to be vulnerable, the more they are appreciated by the other group members.

In an early meeting, as part of some work Harry was doing, I encouraged him to pick someone he wanted to connect with. He chose one person and indicated a couple of others as alternate choices. Sharon was later able to say to Harry, “I felt hurt that I wasn’t even on your list of second choices.” Harry replied, “I didn’t choose you because I feel intimidated by you. You are so sharp and perceptive that I was afraid you would see right through me.” I encouraged Sharon to stay with her feeling of hurt. This allowed her to soften, and her previous front of appearing nonchalant disappeared. In an open and appealing way, she let Harry know that she liked him and wanted him to like her, too, and that she felt hurt.

This had three effects. (1) She discovered that nothing terrible happened when she showed her vulnerability. She didn’t get rejected or ridiculed. (2) She discovered that she was strong enough to tolerate the hurt feeling, and that she didn’t feel bad about herself because of it. As she did this kind of work in group over time, she developed eve more inner support so that she could be open and vulnerable without fear. (3) Harry began to appreciate Sharon’s openness and softness (along with the earthiness and spontaneity that he had always liked in her). He was increasingly drawn to her. She was nicely rewarded for her vulnerability, and as time went on, it became more and more her natural response.

This interaction was a key, a turning point for me. I used to think that I was warm, but other people experienced me as hard. It was with Harry that I began to recognize that I present an imposing or intimidating presence. I remembered people being afraid of me in my life, but I was surprised about that because I felt warm and open inside. It was a real surprise that someone like Harry was intimidated by me.

In one group, Sharon had made a comment about how “the universe moved” when Harry said something to another member. Later she confessed that she had really meant that the universe had moved when he’d said something special to her. At another point she told him that she had a crush on him (but she wasn’t coming on to him). She expressed these vulnerable feelings in an open and contactful way, and Harry responded in kind. He was very moved by her vulnerability in reaching out and grew fond of her.

As the group continued, Harry and Sharon developed a deep connection. This enhanced her ability to be open with people. There was no longer any chance of Harry ignoring Sharon. “I liked Harry very much and once he began to appreciate me more, it had a strong impact. His recognition liberated me.”


Metabolizing Childhood Experiences

Whenever you endure a painful or difficult experience, it must be fully processed and metabolized for your psyche to stay healthy. You must fully feel the experience, make sense of it, and integrate it into your notion of who you are in a way that doesn’t leave you with a negative, inaccurate view of yourself. Even experiences in adult life must be metabolized in this way. For example, suppose you lose your spouse to cancer. You need to feel the grief and other emotions that it brings up, think it through, discuss it with friends, and work through any guilt or self-blame that you feel. This will occur repeatedly over many months until you have come to terms with it.


Threatening or Traumatic Experience

A threatening or traumatic experience puts your body into a fight-or-flight stress reaction. For example, suppose you are threatened with a gun by a robber. Your body goes into hyper-alertness and fear. Later, when you talk through what happened and feel the fear, this will help your body to complete its physiological response and return to a normal relaxed state.

Difficult Experience

A difficult experience can also make you feel bad about yourself or mistrust people. For example, suppose you are fired from your job for poor work performance. This makes you feel incompetent and, after stewing over it for a while, you come to believe that the world is unfair. You need to take the time to think this through with outside support and figure out what, if anything, you did poorly and how much of this resulted from office politics. This will help you integrate the experience into your psyche and sense of self, and learn from your mistakes without taking on a negative view of yourself.

Problematic Experience

When you have a problematic experience as an adult, you usually have the resources to metabolize it properly. You know how to articulate the problem, you are intellectually and emotionally mature, and you may have support from friends, family, or a therapist. As a child, you often don’t have the resources to metabolize difficult incidents. You can’t do it on your own, so you need a great deal of sensitive support from your parents or other adults. The more painful and traumatic an experience, the more you need support to be able to metabolize it. And this support often isn’t available, either because your parents don’t realize you need it or because they don’t have the capacity to provide it. Or, worst of all, because your parents were the source of the traumatic incident.

Burden for the Exile

An experience that isn’t metabolized creates a burden for the exile that experienced it. In IFS, a burden is a painful feeling or negative belief that an exile takes on as a result of a painful or traumatic situation. In order to heal that child part and help release its burden, the memory must be re-experienced and processed to completion. This happens during the “witnessing step” of the IFS process.

The Importance of Compassion in Working with Exiles in IFS

In order to work successfully with an exile, you must not only be separate from it—you also must feel compassionate and connected to it. It isn’t enough to be curious and open with an exile the way you would with a protector, because compassion is vitally necessary for healing an exile’s suffering. To be fully in Self with an exile requires compassion and connectedness. It is fine to start out feeling only curiosity about the exile, but as you listen to its feelings and story, you are going to be witnessing pain, often excruciating pain. This will naturally open your heart to compassion as long as nothing is blocking it.

Difference Between Compassion and Empathy

Let’s look at the difference between compassion and empathy and, in addition, how they are related. Empathy is a way of resonating with another person’s feelings (or with an exile’s feelings). Compassion is a feeling of loving kindness toward someone (or an exile) in pain. Empathy often leads to compassion; you resonate with someone’s pain, which stimulates your compassion for him or her. Therefore, the two often occur together. However, it is important to understand how they are different, especially in relating to your exiles. If you feel empathy for an exile without also feeling compassion, there is a danger that you will become too blended with her (because of the resonance) and lose contact with Self.

The State of Compassion

In a state of compassion, you are separate from the exile while still feeling caring and loving, which helps you to stay in Self. Compassion is crucial for work with exiles. Their pain can be so formidable and tortuous that it may be hard for them to open up to you without this tender, gentle quality. When we feel held by the compassion of a friend, we feel safe enough to reveal our most vulnerable places. Our exiled parts feel the same way. They need our compassion to be ready to come out and be seen. Not only do they carry pain from childhood wounds, they often feel hurt and rejected by us because we have pushed them away and excluded them from our inner family for years. This adds insult to injury. They were injured when young, and then they were dismissed by us because we couldn’t handle their pain. So they have been in eternal exile.

Luckily, compassion is the natural human response to someone who is suffering, as long as one is in Self. In an IFS session, the Self is there to give the exile the gift of being seen after years of being locked away in the basement. When the Self witnesses a child part’s pain and suffering with compassion, the exile feels touched and grateful for being seen, often for the very first time. Finally, it isn’t alone.

What You Feel Toward the Exile

When you check to see what you feel toward the exile, sometimes you may just feel neutral. You may feel separate but not particularly caring or connected. This is probably because you are blended with a concerned part that wants to stay distant from the exile or with a part that wants to remain intellectual or guarded. Ask that concerned part to relax and allow your natural connectedness and compassion to arise. If it won’t, ask it what it is afraid would happen if it did, and reassure it about its concern. Once it has relaxed and allowed you to feel your natural caring for the exile, you can proceed to learn about the exile’s pain and negative beliefs and form a loving bond with it, providing a firm basis for the healing steps to follow.


Basic IFS Course Starts June 11

IFS Basic CourseI have had many requests to offer a Basic IFS Course at a time that works for Europeans and others who haven’t been able to attend my Basic Courses because of the time difference. So I will be offering one on my Monday morning, which is the afternoon on the east coast and the evening in Europe.

The Basic Course teaches you how to access Self and work with protectors. It teaches you how to work on yourself using IFS and how to do peer IFS counseling with other people in the class. Therapists and coaches also take the class to learn about IFS, though it is not professional training in IFS.

The course is experiential; it includes practicing IFS sessions for homework in pairs, group exercises, and demonstration IFS sessions with volunteers from the class.

For more information, click

10am – 12 noon pacific time
(1-3 pm eastern, 6-8 pm UK)
June 11 – July 16 (6 classes)
Cost: $300, $250 if you enroll by June 5
Click here to enroll



Continuing IFS Work in a New Session

Frequently, you will end an IFS session before you have completed the piece of work you started—in other words, before you have fully unburdened your target part and any exiles it is protecting. When you begin your next session, it is often useful to pick up the work where you left off in the previous session. This isn’t always necessary. Sometimes you may want to begin a new session with a different part because something urgent has come up in your life. However, don’t wait too long to pick up the thread of previous work so you don’t leave your parts hanging or lose track of the exploration you have already begun.

How to Continue Your IFS Session

Here’s how to continue from where you left off in a previous session. First re-access the part you were working on. Review your notes from that session to jump-start your memory, reminding yourself of what you learned about the target part, your relationship with it, and where you were in the IFS process. Remember to be aware of any concerned parts or protectors that didn’t fully step aside. You may need to begin with one of them.

Remember how you knew the part in the previous session through a visual image, body sensation, emotion, and/or internal voice. Re-access the part using that modality. For example, if you had an image of the Caretaker as a mother with an apron, use that image to re-access the part. Ask the part what it is feeling now and if it is ready to continue interacting with you. Then continue where you left off at the end of the previous session. For example, if you were getting to know the caretaker but hadn’t yet understood its positive intent for you, ask questions that will uncover that. Sometimes you may need to get to know the part over again to renew your connection with it experientially.

Don’t assume that the part will be exactly the same as before. Be prepared for it to feel different now than it did in the last session or have different things to say to you. For example, maybe the caretaker was very concerned about your husband in the last session, but now it is worried about your child.

Working with a Stubborn Protector in IFS

Suppose you are trying to get permission from a protector to work with and heal its exile.

The Stubborn Protector

What do you do if you’ve tried everything and the protector is so stubborn that it still won’t budge? Sometimes you have a protector that is strongly resistant to allowing you to access the exile because it doesn’t trust that you will be careful or it doesn’t feel respected by you. It is afraid that you will try to push past it or sneak around it to get to the exile. It believes that its protective role is essential and must not be violated. With a protector like this, it can be helpful to reassure it that it is in charge of whether or not you work with the exile. Let it know that you respect its need to protect, and you won’t do anything without its permission. This is actually true.

Getting Permission

The way IFS operates is that we never work with an exile without getting permission from all protectors that might object, no matter how long this takes. We only work in a cooperative manner. Let the part know that you won’t try to take away its power. You will only move ahead if it agrees to do so. (Of course, you have to mean it.) If you make this very clear to the protector, this will help it to trust you. It is likely to listen to you because it realizes that you want to cooperate with it, not fight it. And once it is willing to listen, you will be able to reassure it about its fears and gain its permission.

Additional Approach to Gaining Permission

Here is an additional approach to gaining permission that can be effective. Offer the protector hope. Protectors are often tired of their jobs, even though they hold tightly to them because they believe they are necessary. A protector’s role often requires it to do distasteful things like being shut down or judgmental. Furthermore, this role often doesn’t work very well— the exile gets hurt anyway. It’s been a long, hard road, and the protector gets little or no appreciation; in fact, other parts often judge the protector for doing its job. If you ask a protector how it feels about its role, many will tell you that they are very tired of it and would love to give it up, but they don’t think that is possible. If you let them know that, once you heal the exile, the protector can let go of its role, it is likely to give you permission.

Working through Judgment as a Protector

The following article describes one aspect of what happens in an Interactive/IFS Group.

Working through Judgment as a Protector

We Develop IFS Protectors

We all want to be liked; we all want closeness with others.  To express these desires directly to other people puts us in a vulnerable position. We fear that they might not reciprocate, or they might even reject us or put us down. So we develop IFS protectors that block our own desires and the accompanying vulnerability. In an Interactive/IFS Group, I encourage people to reach out to connect with those group members they are drawn to—to take the risk to make themselves vulnerable in this way.

The group helps people to become aware of their protectors that defend against vulnerability and risk. If you defend by being nonchalant, someone in the group will probably point it out. If you defend by being judgmental and arrogant or by being distant and cold, you will probably get feedback about it. This gives you a chance to discover how you are defending against your desires (and vulnerable exiles), and to try out different behavior.

Fear of Being Rejected or Shamed

When Sharon joined the group, she had a tendency to defend against her softness and openness. She didn’t feel safe to show her desire for other people for fear of being rejected or shamed. Instead she had a protector that adopted an internal stance of arrogance and judgment. “There’s something wrong with you. I’m not sure I’ll let you in.” It was also a way for her to feel better about herself.  Another protector pretended not to need others. “I don’t care. I don’t need you.”  She wasn’t consciously aware of these attitudes and rarely expressed them, but they would leak out in little ways, and they kept her from being vulnerable.

As the group developed, Sharon got feedback from time to time when her judgmental style would leak out. She was very aware and dedicated to her growth, and she had a courageous way of acknowledging difficult things about herself without being defensive. So when Sharon got this feedback, she was not only willing to acknowledge that she had been judgmental but also to explore what she was defending against. She often discovered that hidden beneath the judgmental protector was a desire to make contact with the person.

For example, in one early group, Jill was telling the group about her anger and desire to pull away from a friend. When Sharon pushed Jill hard not to do that, I encouraged Sharon to explore why she was doing this. She realized that she saw Jill as doing something similar in group, and she didn’t want Jill to pull away from her. When she told Jill this, Jill took in the feedback, but then Jill also told Sharon that Sharon had told her in an aggressive manner that made Jill pull back.

Changing Way of Relating

Knowing that she felt good about Jill, Sharon was surprised to hear this, but she took it seriously and became interested in changing this way of relating. I encouraged Sharon to show her positive feelings directly to Jill, and she was able to express some affection in a soft, open way. This enabled the two of them to make warm contact.

Beginning Work in an Interactive-IFS Group

This is an excerpt from a longer article, The Interactive Group Experience.

At some point I may encourage you to initiate some interactive work—to pick someone in the group and tell them your initial impressions of them or your reactions to them. After even a short time in the group, you will have initial reactions to every person in the group, so it’s just a matter of picking someone to start with, probably someone that you feel safe talking to. The reactions you express can be positive or negative, big or little. Many people start out with positive reactions because they find these less threatening. This also helps to build initial trust and safety.

For example, you say,

“Mary, I really like the way you come across. You seem really honest, and not afraid to say exactly what you are feeling. And you say it in a way that doesn’t offend people.”

Then I ask you to tell her how that makes you feel toward her. You say,

“I feel warmly toward you, and I feel like I can trust you.”

Mary then responds with her reaction to what you said. For example,

“Thank you. That makes me feel really good. I’ve been working on that for a long time. It’s nice to be recognized. I like you, too.”

Your first interaction might begin with someone in the group giving you their initial impressions of you. For example, John says,

“It seems like you’re a nice person, but a part of me wonders if you would ever say anything negative even if you were feeling it. So far it seems like you’re mainly trying to please people.”

It is then your turn to respond. You might feel embarrassed (or hurt or angry) in response to what he said. If so, you say,

“A part of me feels embarrassed by what you said.”

Or you might respond to the content of John’s perception of you, by saying whether you think you have been trying to please people in group. The dialogue between you and John continues until it came to a conclusion that is satisfactory for both of you.

One of your first interactions might involve receiving positive feedback. For example, Betty says, “I really like what I’ve seen of you so far. You seem warm and caring and really perceptive, especially for someone so new to the group. A part of me feels happy that you’ve been so understanding and supportive with me, you know, especially last week.” You might take in her feedback, allowing it to make you feel good about yourself, and respond to Betty in a warm way.

Or you might get embarrassed or deflect the compliment. In that case, I would encourage you to examine why it was hard for you to take in her positive feedback. For example, a part of you might not feel worthy, or a part of you might feel afraid of the contact with Betty. You might then experiment with taking in Betty’s feelings and respond with your feelings toward her. A short dialogue would ensue.



Conscious Blending

When an exile is in a lot of pain or suffering from trauma, it is important to unblend from it so that you can work with conscious blendingthe exile safely, without the danger of being overwhelmed by pain or re-traumatized. However, there is an exception to the need for unblending. Sometimes it is all right to feel an exile’s pain. If you don’t feel thrown off by the experience and it doesn’t keep you from being grounded, you can allow yourself to experience it. In fact, sometimes it will feel right to you to sense this pain. And the exile may want you to experience her pain directly because this helps her to feel fully witnessed by you.

Experiencing the exile’s pain in this way means that you are simultaneously in Self and consciously blended with the exile. The exile is showing you her emotion by having you feel it. That is fine as long as you can tolerate this experience and you remain centered and able to be there for the exile, and as long as this doesn’t trigger any protectors. Often it is all right to experience the exile’s suffering up to a certain limit. Let it know if it gets to be too much, and ask the exile to contain the rest.

In some cases, you may be able to feel the pain fully and even express it. You will know how far you can go in this direction. This approach is similar to some cathartic therapy methods. However, in IFS, we only move in this direction if it is both safe and productive.

I call this conscious blending because you are aware that you are blended and are purposely choosing to allow it. This is very different from being blended without realizing it or being overwhelmed emotionally. By blending consciously, you know that, even while you experience the exile’s emotions, you are grounded in a presence (Self) that is much larger and stronger than she. This gives you the opportunity to tolerate how much of her pain you take on.

If you check inside, you will know whether conscious blending is the right thing to do—whether to unblend from an exile’s pain or allow yourself to feel it. The main criterion is whether or not you can tolerate the pain. The more fully you are in Self and the more compassion you feel for the exile, the more likely it is that conscious blending will be possible.

SElf-TherapyThis article is an excerpt from my book, Self-Therapy.