Why Slowing Down The Internal Family Systems “Unburdening” Process Can Help You Heal Via Memoir Writing

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For those of you who are familiar with the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, you know that the main goal of the IFS practice is to become intimate with all of your protector parts (the ones that either try to keep you safe or the ones that act out when you feel unsafe) so your wise spiritual Self can heal the hurt inner children (exiles) that our protector parts are scared to let you close to. We all have these protector parts. They’re our winning strategies for surviving our early life, but they may have outworn their necessity. They’re our go-to numbing strategies. They’re our adaptive inner children who figure out early on how to be pleasing or lovable or good enough.

But underneath all those protector parts (the inner critic, the part that worries about the bank account, the do-gooder parts, the caretaking martyr parts, the spiritual bypassing parts, the addict parts) lie precious, vulnerable inner children, which IFS calls the “exiles” (because they’ve been banished to inner prisons by protectors who are scared that their hurt feelings will overwhelm you and prevent you from functioning and keeping up with your adult responsibilities.

The main goal of IFS is to relax the protector parts, earn their trust, figure out how they think they’re helping you (even if they’re also harming you or other people), and get them to step back so you can get close to the exiles and all their intense feelings, sensations, beliefs, and memories (“burdens.”) When Self reunites with these hurt, abandoned, locked up inner kiddos, it’s a beautiful, tender, and heart-opening process.

It’s also painful, because those inner kiddos usually want you to feel some of their feelings, like helplessness, worthlessness, powerlessness, shame, terror, confusion, sadness, and betrayal. And those are hard feelings to bear on your own, which is why Self holds those kiddos on the inside and, if you’re blessed enough to have a good IFS therapist, your therapist (or you best friend maybe) holds you while you hold your kiddos, to co-regulate you while you co-regulate with the burdened exiled part. We call this “unburdening” in the IFS world.

*Lissa and Frank Anderson, MD, master IFS trainer, Harvard psychiatrist, and author of three books about IFS will be co-teaching WRITE TO HEAL: IFS + Memoir Writing to teach you how to slow down the healing and unburdening process while also writing your memoir. Register here.

For those of you unfamiliar with IFS or the unburdening process, it goes something like this:

Steps of Unburdening


In IFS, we never go to the exiles without making sure our protectors are on board to let us approach them. We do this with the 6 F’s-

  1. Find (the part in your body)
  2. Focus (your attention on it)
  3. Flesh out (Get to know the part and how it thinks it’s helping you)
  4. Feel towards (Assess how you feel towards the part. If you feel any of the 8 C’s- Curiosity, Calmness, Compassion, Creativity, Courage, Clarity, Confidence, or Connectedness, there’s enough “Self” there to proceed. If you don’t like the part or are scared of the part, that’s probably another protector part, and you repeat the process.)
  5. BeFriend (You can befriend the part by asking the following questions- How did it get this job? How effective is it at doing the job? If it didn’t have to do this job, what would it do instead? How old is this part? How old does it think you are? What else does it want you to know? What does it want for you?)
  6. Fears (Ask what this part is afraid would happen if it didn’t do its job. Often the answer will lead you to an exiled inner kiddo.)

Once we get to know any parts that don’t want us to go to the inner kiddos or are trying to distract you from doing so, we can earn their trust and ask them to step back, go into another room, relax, or give space. Once all protector parts have said yes, you can proceed to the next step.

CONNECT EXILE WITH SELF: Hurt inner kiddos often feel abandoned and do not know that have within you a wise, mature Self. They often think you’re much younger than you are, much less competent than you are, and far less capable of taking care of these exiles than you actually are. Introducing the exile to the wise Self who can reparent those kids is a sensitive, heart-warming moment of healing. Sometimes there is a sweet, happy, tearful reunion. Other times, the exiles are distrusting and avoidant or angry and hurt that you’ve left them alone for so long. Either way, reconnecting the exile with Self is a key part of the healing process. Memoir writing can help bond Self to the exile. (We’ll tell you how in Write to Heal: IFS + Memoir Writing.

SELF BEARS WITNESS TO WHAT THE EXILE WENT THROUGH: Once protectors have relaxed and made space, the wise Self approaches the exiled part in the inner world (usually with eyes closed) and makes itself know. This reunion is often quite tender. Sometimes the exile is very happy to see that Self is there, but sometimes their hesitant, mistrusting, scared, or angry. After all, they’ve been abandoned in inner prisons, often for decades, so they’re a bit like rescue dogs or foster children. You have to earn their trust slowly, gently, and with patience.  Once connection is made, the exile is invited to enter a space in the inner world where the part can show your Self everything the part feels, remembers, senses, believes, and feels in their body. There might be flashbacks, images, sensations, sounds, intense emotions. Self simply holds space and witnesses the exiled part’s pain, helping to co-regulate the part and help it feel seen, heard, validated, believed, and safe. This is one of the most beautiful steps for memoir writing. (We’ll express how to do this safely, without backlash, in Write To Heal: IFS + Memoir Writing.)

REDO WHAT SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED: When the exile has shown you everything it wants to, Self goes back in time and enters the scene to do a “redo” of what should have happened (the exile will instruct how it should have gone). With a kind of active imagination in your inner vision, you redo the scene, following orders from the exile and giving this little one what she really needed, which didn’t happen back then but can happen now. This step can be fun to write fiction with. Let your exile’s imagination dream up what should have happened, and then honor that exile by writing the fiction redo. We’ll express how to do this in a fun, bonding way in Write To Heal: IFS + Memoir Writing.)

RETRIEVE FROM THE SCENE: When the redo is complete, you rescue the exile from that stuck place back in time and take the exile someplace peaceful and relaxing (the exile will tell your wise Self where it wants to go to feel safe and peaceful).

UNBURDEN: You and your Self then invite the exile to let go of all toxic beliefs, feeling states, and sensations which have been stuck since the original traumatic event. (Your exile will usually be happy to give it up to the elements—wind, water, fire, earth, light, or some other way of letting go.) Memoir writing can be highly effective as this stage of unburdening to slow down and deepen the unburdening step.

INVITE IN QUALITIES THAT DID NOT DEVELOP: You invite the exile to invite in new supportive, positive qualities to fill the space created by the unburdening.

CHECK IN WITH PROTECTORS: Once the exile is safely in its new place with its newly installed programs, the protectors who stepped aside to let the Inner Pilot Light do the healing are invited to come see how the exile is doing. (Usually the exile is pretty relaxed or even blissed out and the protectors feel happy and relieved.) The protectors learn over time that the Inner Pilot Light does a better job protecting and healing than the (usually young) protectors do. The exile will tell you how often it wants to be visited by the Inner Pilot Light in the inner world in order for the unburdening to be permanent (usually, a daily check-in for a minimum of thirty days makes the healing permanent).

FOLLOW UP WITH THE EXILE EVERY DAY FOR 30 DAYS: After exile unburdening, it takes 30 days of daily check-ins to repattern the neural pathways and hardwire the new pathways for neural memory reconsolidation. Writing a letter or check in to your newly recovered exile every day can cement this process.

I’ve been using memoir writing as part of my own unburdenings in my personal IFS therapy for many years, but this is the first time anyone, as far as I know, is teaching how memoir writing and unburdening can happen together.

I asked Frank Anderson to teach this class with me since both of us are IFS practitioners, and both of us have written IFS-informed memoirs. We’re so excited to be creating a new curriculum to share with our students in Write To Heal, and we’re having a blast doing so. This is not an official training for therapists and we’re not offering CEU’s, so anyone interested in IFS or memoir writing as a therapeutic process can take the class. But if you are a therapist, you’ll learn a process that might be a beautiful thing to share with your clients.

Learn more and register here.

We hope to see you in January!

PS: I’ll also be teaching IFS + Memoir Writing (but without Frank) on an island in Malta. Come write with me in Malta!

Love Bigger book cover image.