Self-Therapy: working with Exiles

This is the most transformational stage of the IFS therapy work and should only be worked in self-therapy setting when you have not had any significant trauma which could overwhelm you.

This is a guest post from Kasia Galagus who described working with Exiles. Enjoy!

In my previous post I described the process of working with Protectors. This post relates to working with Exiles. This is the most transformational stage of the IFS therapy work and should only be worked in self-therapy setting when you have not had any significant trauma which could overwhelm you. Otherwise, it is better if you start working with Exiles with an IFS Therapist who can support you.

We only progress to Exiles with a permission of Protectors. If your Protector is reluctant to let you work with the Exile you need to reassure it or even go back and work with its concerns. If there is more than one Protector guarding the Exile, check with all Protectors before moving on to the Exile.

However, If you are ready, follow the process below:

IFS therapy - step 1: Get to know your Exile

Access the Exile

Focus on your inner world.  Explore thoughts, feelings, body sensations or mental pictures that are present or arise within you. Exiles can carry very strong emotions so ask it to contain its feelings and not flood you. Repeat this message if you feel blended with the Exile. You can consciously decide to be partially blended if you can tolerate a certain level of painful feelings (it is called conscious blending)

Check often if you are in Self-energy.

Unblend from Concerned Part

If you notice you might be blended with another part, separate using techniques as described before.

Getting to know your Exile

You may already have an experiential understanding of its emotions and possibly its memories from connecting to it. Explore the full story of how it was wounded.

Develop a trusting relationship with your Exiles

Start with curiosity and listen to the story. If there is enough of your Self-energy, as you witness the pain of the Exile, you will develop natural compassion towards it. Compassion is very important to the Exile. The more compassion you have, the safer it feels and this builds trust and connection.

Understand and Witness Childhood Origin of the Exile

Encourage the Exile to reveal itself and tell you its story. Listen compassionately and witness its pain. The source of the pain needs to be “experienced and witnessed” to be “metabolised” by psyche. We are the meaning making creatures and understanding the origins of pain will help us to let it go.

As Jay Earley points out “You must fully feel the experience, make sense of it, integrate it into your notion of who you are in a way that doesn’t leave you with a negative, inaccurate view of yourself”.

Reparent your Exile

Even though we cannot change experiences from the past, we can change how we relate to them and therefore how they affect us. This is what transformation or healing in IFS therapy is at its core.

If during these early difficult situations in life we had internal resources or external support, we would have processed the pain at the time and emerged without frozen emotions. This is what the Self can provide the Exile with now. It can assist with a new positive experience to replace the original painful one and transmute negative beliefs and trapped pain.

How to re-parent your Exile:

Visualise joining it in the original childhood situation (as the Self with all the adult knowledge and Self-capacities). Be with the Exile in the way it needed someone to be with at the time of difficulty. It might need to be seen and understood, supported, or protected from harm. It also needs to know that whatever happened, it was not its fault.

This process is NOT about making the Exile change in any way; it is not about convincing it to feel and think differently about the situation or itself. It is about empowering the Exile by providing whatever it needs to “process” the experience in a healthy way.

Experiencing the old situation in a new way will bring the Exile to the present from being stuck in the past. Here and now, the deepest needs which were not met in the original situation are fulfilled by your Self. As the Exile and your Self are entering in this new relationship, the Self becomes an ideal Parent. This experience transforms the Exile and it feels differently about itself and the world around it.

Retrieve your Exile

Sometimes it may be necessary to remove the Exile from the situation, especially if it was abused or felt trapped. Ask if the Exile would like you to act and bring it to a safe place. This imaginary safety place may be a protective shield or a light or a specific place that the Exile knows and associates with safety. The aim is for the Exile to be in control and feel empowered so be aware of any rescuing parts that may want to jump in and take the lead.

In IFS therapy ongoing relationships between the Self and the Exile are crucial in healing and transforming so the Exile does not feel abandoned. Maintain them and give it anything it wants or needs. The Exile needs to know that you will be consistently connected over time and it can count on you being there for it especially when it is triggered.

IFS therapy - step 2: Unburdening your Exile – healing the wound

It is important to understand the IFS perspective that “the burden is not intrinsic to the Exile, that is why it can be released. The exile itself was not created by the childhood incident – the burden was” (* quoted from “Self-Therapy”, Jay Earley)

Our original psyche is a harmonious interplay of multiple, healthy Parts. When a challenging situation happens and we are not able to process it, a deep hurt is experienced. A part splits from the harmonious psyche, takes on the weight of the unprocessed pain and the system becomes dis-harmonious. Trapped emotions are tied up with unprocessed feelings and unhelpful patterns of protective behaviour are created to compensate for this. Exiles carry the original pain of feelings and beliefs whereas Protectors acquire maladaptive strategies to that pain.

The final step in the process of unburdening in IFS therapy is a symbolic internal ritual of letting go off pain and negative beliefs. Always ask the Exile if it is ready to let go. Sometimes the ritual is not necessary as previous steps were enough to unburden the Exile.

Below are the steps of Unburdening Ritual:

Name the burden and negative belief to let go.

Sense how the Exile is embodying the burden/belief – tune into body sensation.

Ask the Exile how it would like to release the burden. In IFS therapy, we usually use one of the natural elements as “it symbolises the burden being carried away or transformed by something elemental and powerful and therefore permanently gone” *

The burden can be:

  • released to LIGHT
  • washed away by WATER
  • burned in FIRE
  • buried in EARTH
  • blown away by WIND

or whatever feels right to the Exile.

Sense what it feels like as the burden leaves the body. Notice natural energy emerging (lightness, joy, strength, playfulness, freedom or love). They were likely the original qualities of the Part before the burden. Allow these qualities to be experienced.

Over next few weeks follow the Exile to check if transformation still holds. Evoke feelings and sensations of transformed energy.

IFS therapy - step 3:  Release / Unburden Protector

If the Exile has been transformed and is no longer in pain or danger, the Protector can be freed as well. As Protector’s role is crucial in guarding the Exile, it must be aware of Exile’s transformation before it releases its role.

Ask the Protector if it realises the Exiles transformation. Introduce transformed Exile to it so they have a chance to be together in the same space. Visualise them connecting and ask the Protector how it feels about what happened to the Exile? And about its protective role not being necessary anymore?

Be aware the Protector may guard other Exiles as well so it may not be ready to be released (Other Exiles need to be released first). However, if its role is no longer needed it can be unburdened and it can choose a different, healthy role.

Unburdening can happen naturally or may need Internal Ritual. Follow the same procedure as unburdening Exile i.e. release burden to one of the elements.

Integrating with the rest of the system

Every Part is interrelated to other Parts of the internal system. Any unburdening will affect internal dynamic between Parts. After any unburdening, ask all Parts if any of them is upset by the work that has been done and subsequent changes. Reassure Parts that you, the Self will assist with any re-adjustments. Some Parts may feel exposed without protective mechanism that is no longer active or threatened by new qualities which were not safe to show before. Listen and reassure. Do self-therapy session with any concerned part if needed. If Parts are not acknowledged they may otherwise sabotage the transformation.

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