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.

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