IFS Unburdening: Release Your Emotional Weight

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "No Bad Parts" by Richard C. Schwartz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What exactly is “unburdening” in the IFS? What is the purpose of the unburdening process?

In the Internal Family Systems (IFS), unburdening follows unblending: When we’re no longer blended with our parts, we can start the process of helping our parts unburden, or let go of the emotional weight that keeps them trapped in their roles. Unburdening is key to healing the Internal Family Systems. 

Keep reading to learn about IFS unburdening.

What Is Unburdening?

In the IFS, unburdening is the process of releasing the emotions your parts have been carrying. Parts won’t fully unburden unless they trust the Self to lead. However, once the Self is able to help the parts feel safe enough to unburden, they’re able to let go of the roles they’ve been forced into and take on healthier roles within the internal family system. For example, a part who has taken on the role of protector who no longer needs to protect an exile might instead put its energy towards forging new social connections or exploring creative outlets. 

(Shortform note: IFS therapists emphasize that unburdening must be a spontaneous process. We can’t force parts to unburden themselves, and following all the right steps doesn’t mean a part will automatically unburden. Parts will only unburden when they’re ready.)

Before we can unburden our parts, we must be able to access and communicate with them. Our exiles, the most wounded parts of ourselves, are often the hardest to reach—buried deep and guarded by protective parts working to prevent our exiles from emerging and getting hurt again. So, in order to access our exiles, we must first work with our protectors.

(Shortform note: There are three main reasons why some parts of ourselves become exiles. First, a caretaker or peer responded negatively when we showed vulnerability. This can be especially true for young boys. Second, a caretaker or peer responded negatively when we were too exuberant or active. This can be especially true for young girls. And third, our emotional response to being hurt was criticized or shamed by others.)

Protectors must give us permission to access our exiles. The most important thing to communicate to protectors is that the Self is capable of keeping the internal family system safe. Then, when the protector trusts the Self enough, they will step back in order to allow the Self to speak with an Exile. This process can take a long time. For example, if a part is not willing to allow the Self to access an exile or even talk, an IFS therapist might encourage the Self just to imagine sitting next to the protective part, allowing the Self to build trust through proximity.

The 6 Fs: A Strategy for Working with Protectors  

While not described in No Bad Parts, IFS outlines a process known as the 6 Fs, which offers a road map for working with protectors.

1. Find: Instead of trying to find a specific part directly, identify a challenging situation or behavior in your life. Talking about a challenge can sometimes help you find the part associated with that challenge.

2. Focus: After finding the part that’s impacted, focus inward on the emotions and physical sensations associated with the part.

3. Flesh out: Flesh out the part by listening to its story and learning more about its feelings and needs.

4. Feel: Ask yourself how you feel toward the part. If you feel nothing, that part is still blended with the Self. If you feel annoyed or frustrated, the Self is likely blended with another part because the Self only feels compassion for its parts. However, if you feel open and curious toward the part, then you’re operating from a state of Self-leadership.

5. Befriend: When both the Self and the part are present, the Self can befriend the part and begin to form an authentic and loving relationship based on mutual respect and compassion rather than fear or control. 

6. Fears: Discover the deepest fears of the part. Deeply held fears often keep parts trapped in unproductive roles. Understanding the fear is the first step in letting the fear go.

When our protectors allow us to access our exiles, we can begin to develop trust with the exiles. The most important thing to communicate to exiles is that you have compassion for their pain and trauma. Then, invite them out of the sad place where they are. When inviting exiles out of the past, you can ask them to imagine a place or time that feels safe for them. You can then invite them to let go of the emotion they’ve been holding, even visualizing washing it away or releasing it into the air. 

(Shortform note: According to IFS therapists, it is not enough to listen to an exile’s story. In order to heal an exile, we must fully integrate the exile’s experience into our identity, so that instead of being embarrassed or ashamed by the feelings or experiences of our exile, we appreciate them and understand them as a critical piece of who we are.)

IFS Unburdening: Release Your Emotional Weight

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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