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.