After You Have Obtained Permission to Work with an Exile

When you want to work with an exile, the first thing you do is to obtain permission from the target protector, are you free to work with the exile?

That depends on whether there are other protectors that feel this exile is dangerous. Often you can simply move on to working with the exile, but it would be wise to deal with any additional resistance now. Otherwise, these protectors will repeatedly interrupt your work with the exile.

Therefore, if it seems called for, ask if there are any other protectors that don’t want you to access the exile. Usually they will step forward, and you can ask about their fears and reassure them, just as you did with the primary protector. This will usually clear the way for uninterrupted work with the exile.

However, sometimes protectors pop up later. While you are working with the exile, if a protector feels threatened by the pain that is coming up from the exile, it may reactivate to block that pain. You may get sleepy or distracted. You may go into your head or get angry. Use your parts-detecting ability to recognize when such a protector has been triggered. If it is the same protector that has already given you permission, ask what happened in your work with the exile to make it change its mind. Usually it’s because the pain of the exile started to emerge in an intense way. Find out what it is afraid of now and reassure it about that fear.

If it is a new protector that you haven’t gotten permission from or haven’t worked with before, you may need to spend some time with this protector, getting to know it and its positive intent. Then ask its permission to go on with your work with the exile.

Sometimes, if an exile’s pain is threatening to overwhelm you, a protector will keep jumping in to stop this from happening, and no amount of reassurance will work. Then you must negotiate with the exile about unblending even before you ask the protector for permission. Once the protector sees that the exile has agreed not to flood you, it will probably give the go-ahead.

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 order to heal that child part and help release its burden, the memory must be re-experienced and processed to completion. Having the experience witnessed by the Self is an important aspect of this.

Names for Parts in IFS

It can be useful to have names for your parts when doing IFS.

Since your goal is to develop a relationship with each part, giving it a name enables you to keep track of it over time. The name can be a descriptive phrase, such as the Controlling Part or the Sooty Demon. It could be a person’s name, such as Walter. It could be the name of a character, such as the Tin Man; a famous person, such as the Buddha; or a mythical being, such as Athena.

Instead of imposing a name on a part, let it name itself. That way, the name will reflect how the part sees itself rather than how you see it. For example, you might see a part as the Monster, while it might see itself as the Warrior. If you keep referring to it as the Monster, it may feel judged and close down its communication with you. It is best to get to know a part as it understands itself because your view of it may be biased by your judgment of it, and therefore you won’t learn what the part is trying to do for you. You goal is to understand the part from its perspective.

Sometimes the name of a part will change over time as you get to know it better, just like the image. Allow this to happen. Let the name change anytime that feels right so the name reflects your new understanding of the part or how the part has transformed.

For example, suppose the sad little girl in gray started out being called the Resigned Part. After she transforms to the older girl in the sparkling jumpsuit, she might be called Jazzy Girl.

Blending in IFS

A part is blended with you and has taken over your seat of consciousness when any of the following is true:
Blending in IFS

  1. You are flooded with the part’s emotions to such a degree that you aren’t grounded. You are lost in those feelings. For example, if the part feels resentment, you are fully caught up in its anger without having any reflective distance.
  2. You are caught up in the beliefs of the part so that you lose perspective on the situation. You see the world through the distorted perception of the part. In addition, you aren’t able to recognize that this is one of many perspectives—you simply see it as the truth. If the part believes that the world is dangerous, that is the way you see the world, without any thought that you might be projecting your own beliefs onto the world.
  3. You don’t feel enough of your Self. You don’t have enough access to a place in you that is separate from the part from which to witness it and understand it. You have no center or ground.

Blending an Extreme form of Activation

Blending is a more extreme form of activation. Even when a part is activated to the degree that you feel its emotions and it influences you, you may still feel separate from it. You may be able to see that your emotional response is exaggerated or that your perspective is skewed.

Imagine a scenario in which your boss tells you that you have to rewrite a report you submitted. You feel inadequate and a little depressed, but you still have enough perspective to recognize that this is a passing reaction. You have thought about the supervisor’s criticism, and you understand what happened and can think through what to do in the future.

Your inadequate part is activated, but you have some distance from it. It isn’t completely blended with you. Your Self is still occupying the seat of consciousness, which allows you to see that you are basically competent. Even though you feel down, you know it will pass.



All Parts Have Positive Intent

Experience with IFS shows that every part has a positive intent for you.

It may want to protect you from harm or help you feel good about yourself. It may want to keep you from feeling pain or make other people like you. Every part of you is trying to help you feel good and avoid pain. This is how we are constructed biologically, and our psyches work the same way.

Since some parts keep us stuck in negative patterns and have a destructive impact on our lives, it may be hard to imagine how they could be trying to help. The answer is that despite their best intentions, these parts don’t always act wisely; they take extreme stances or behave in clumsy and primitive ways. However, if you look under the surface, you discover that they are always doing what they think is best for you. They may have a distorted perception of situations and an exaggerated sense of danger, but their intent is always positive.

For example, Joe has a part that makes him close his heart and lose interest in women whenever a relationship turns intimate and moves toward commitment.

At first, he didn’t approve of this Closed-Hearted Part of himself and wanted to get rid of it because it was preventing him from finding love.

However, when he looked deeper through IFS therapy, Joe found that this part was trying to look out for him. It was terrified that he would be taken over by a woman and lose himself, which is exactly what happened with his mother. When he was a child, being close to a female meant being controlled by her. So this part protected him in the only way it knew how, by withdrawing.

It said,

“I just want to keep you safe. I don’t want this to happen to you again.”

Joe’s Closed-Hearted Part shut him down because it saw danger that wasn’t there. It distorted the present based on the past.

Power of Parts

Power of Parts in IFSThe concept of parts in IFS corresponds to ideas from other forms of psychotherapy—for example, defenses, psychic forces, self-images, introjects, and schemas. However, these concepts are normally seen as just mechanical or biological descriptions of how the psyche operates. Parts, or subpersonalities, may operate in similar ways, but they are alive and personal. They do what they do for reasons of their own, and they have relationships with you and with each other. For example, suppose you are using the defense of repression, which makes a certain memory unconscious. IFS recognizes that a protective part is purposely excluding that memory from your awareness for a reason. Perhaps it is afraid that the memory would cause you to be overwhelmed by pain.

Parts Are Entities of Their Own

Parts are entities of their own, with their own feelings, beliefs, motivations, and memories. It is especially important to understand that parts have motivations for everything they do. Nothing is just done out of habit. Nothing is just a pattern of thinking or behavior you learned. Everything (except for purely physiological reactions) is done by a part for a reason, even though that reason may be unconscious. For example, if you get distracted at a certain point while exploring yourself in therapy, this is probably not an accident. A part wants to distract you because it is seeking to avoid something.

Understanding the psyche in this way gives you a great deal of power to change your inner world for the better. Since parts are like little people inside you, you can make contact with them, get to know them, negotiate with them, encourage them to trust you, help them communicate with each other, and give them what they need to heal. When you do, you will have an enormously increased capacity for understanding and transforming your psyche—for achieving wholeness.

You may treat the idea of subpersonalities as simply a useful metaphor for viewing the psyche, which it is, but it is much more than that. If you treat the components of your psyche as real entities that you can interact with, they will respond to you in that way, which gives you tremendous power for transformation. Are they actually real? I believe so, but I invite you to read this book, do the exercises, and make up your own mind.

IFS Latest In Therapy Methods

IFS is the latest in a long line of therapy methods that work with subpersonalities. Early methods were Jungian analysis, Psychosynthesis, Transactional Analysis, and Gestalt therapy. More recent approaches are hypnotherapy, inner child work, Voice Dialogue, Ego State Therapy, John Rowan’s work, and others. IFS is the latest and most sophisticated of these methods. And many forms of therapy that don’t explicitly work with subpersonalities nevertheless use concepts that are quite similar, such as “schemas” in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

IFS Recognizes Power and Importance of Self

IFS represents an advance over these other methods in a number of ways. It recognizes the power and importance of the Self and bases the therapy on relating to your parts from Self.

The IFS method takes you deep inside yourself while still remaining alert and in charge during a session. It doesn’t just work with parts in isolation; it has a sophisticated understanding of the relationships between parts that guides the therapy method.

As you will see, the most important relationship is between those parts that protect us from pain and those child parts that are in pain. The problems that occur within the human psyche are largely structured around the need to protect ourselves from pain. Since the IFS approach is organized around this, we can have respectful sensitivity to our pain and defenses while pinpointing our work with laser-like efficiency.




Fall 2018: Introduction to IFS

Fall 2018 Introduction to IFSIFS Introductory Seminar (Free)

IFS is based on the idea that the psyche consists of sub-personalities, called parts, which make up a kind of inner system. Parts often get into conflicts with each other and act in dysfunctional ways in an attempt to protect us from pain. All of this happens largely outside our awareness, and when we do see what is happening, we frequently try to banish the parts that are causing the difficulties. Yet this is hardly ever solves the problem. IFS, on the other hand, teaches us to relate to our parts with openness, curiosity, and compassion, not judgment, which allows each part to reveal its hidden agenda and the pain it defends against. This paves the way for healing and transformation, which can be accomplished by following the detailed IFS procedure.

This free introductory seminar will introduce IFS and give you a taste of working on yourself using this approach.

It will include experiential exercises and a demonstration IFS session. You can ask me questions about the model and about the upcoming Basic IFS Class.

Monday, Oct. 8
4:30-6:30 pm pacific time
(7:30-8:30 pm eastern)
Click here to enroll

Unblending from Judgmental Protectors

What Is Required for Unburdening to SucceedIn order to get to know an exile successfully, it is important for you to be in Self, just as with protectors.

To check for this, notice how you are feeling toward the exile.

  • If you are feeling curious, accepting, connected, or compassionate, you are in Self and can proceed.
  • If you are feeling judgmental, angry, or scared of the exile, or if you want it to go away, you aren’t in Self.

You are blended with a concerned part, which is a protector that is worried about your working with the exile. You have already obtained permission to work with it from the protector that was your original target part, but there may be other protectors that don’t think it is safe to open up to the exile. This concerned part is one of these. Ask the concerned part to step aside so you can be in a position to help transform the exile. Often that will be enough for it to relax and let you return to Self. Then you can go on to get to know the exile.

Sometimes a protector isn’t afraid of your working with an exile, but it has negative feelings toward the exile, which blocks your ability to listen to it from a caring place. Here are the two most common reasons for this, and how to respond to the protector so it will step aside.

  1. The protector may be upset with the exile because it has caused problems in your life. For example, the exile’s fears have kept you from taking risks to move ahead. Or the exile’s feelings of worthlessness have made you depressed. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that there would be a protector that doesn’t like the exile and wants to eliminate it in order to solve this problem. However, this attitude will not lead to healing. Explain to the protector that you won’t let the exile take over. Your goal is to help the exile unburden itself of the fear or insecurity she carries so that she won’t disrupt your life anymore. Ask the protector to step aside and allow you to relate to the exile from a loving place so this unburdening can happen. Since this responds directly to the protector’s concern with the exile, it is likely to agree.
  2. The protector might feel judgmental towards the exile because she is scared or insecure or weak, or just because she is too emotional. These judgments usually mirror the attitudes your parents had toward you when you were young, since protectors sometimes model themselves after your parents. (In psychotherapy, this is called internalization.) Explore with the protector where it got these judgments so it realizes that they aren’t actual truths about the exile but rather parental attitudes it took on. You can also explain that the exile is only feeling scared or insecure because of what happened to it when you were young and vulnerable, so it isn’t really the exile’s fault. This may also help the protector to relax its judgments. Then ask it to step aside so you can heal the exile.

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.”