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This article may not make much sense to you if you aren’t already familiar with the Internal Family Systems model (IFS). If that is the case, go to IFS-Institute.com to learn more about this amazing modality that has such far ranging benefits from healing trauma to improving communication to becoming a better leader.

I LOVE how it feels as a Certified IFS practitioner to help the client explore and get to know their parts (also known in various modalities as subpersonalities). My client and I are both often surprised by what we learn from their parts. It feels like detective work. We work together to detect parts and then connect with them, one at a time.

Much like Richard Schwartz, the creator of the IFS model describes, I learn so much about the IFS model from my clients and their parts.

Together, we learn the history, intentions, frustrations, beliefs and hopes of the client’s parts. One part leads to another as concerned parts show up to defend and assert their conflicting agendas.

As we meet each part with curiosity and respect, they begin to relax. As we learn about a part, other parts seem to listen and learn along with me and the client. The system gradually relaxes over time as new relationships are developed between Self and parts. The system relaxes more as healing and understanding occurs between parts.

What seems to motivate burdened protectors is the pain of exiled, vulnerable parts. In what feels like a natural unfolding, protectors eventually relax enough to consider the possibility that Self can help with the exiles they have organized themselves around.

After protectors trust us enough, we connect with the exile by learning about their history. We learn about their pain. Self (the wise authentic Self, capable of healing and leading the internal family) might even voluntarily feel some of their pain to really get a sense of what the exile has been holding all this time.

Now the exile feels safe with Self. They feel seen and understood – perhaps for the first time since they were burdened with painful emotions and beliefs.

This is where ‘loving the process’ ends for me.

The entire time I have been working with the client and their parts, THE UNBURDENING PROCESS has been the ultimate destination, looming at some point in the future. But because the unburdening process (as I have been trained to facilitate) occurs to me (my parts) as made-up, hocus pocus, magic, imagined, not real, pretended, nonsensical, and ridiculous, I shift from being present, compassionate, and curious, into following a script that doesn’t feel right to me.

It feels SO inauthentic. So detached from reality.

I was talking with Alison Dyer, who went through Level 1 with me and was finally able to sort all this out for myself. Here’s what makes a lot more sense to me.


I believe the unburdening process begins for me and my parts the moment I connect with a part.

Maybe even the moment I notice a part without the distorted lens of a burdened part. That unburdening gradually builds along with the relationship that is developed between Self and the part I am giving my attention to.

By the time I get to the exile, the protectors I have been in relationship with, who now trust me with the exile are partially unburdened. All that is left for them is to see that their exiles are free.

As I witness, retrieve, validate, and re-parent the exile (which can take some time), the exile gradually relaxes as they feel safer and safer. Part of the unburdening happens as the toxic and painful beliefs are updated.

Humans form beliefs to explain what needs to be explained. With burdened parts, those beliefs may have made sense in the context of the pain, fear, loss, and/or trauma that demanded an explanation. Once exiles feel seen, understood, appreciated, loved, and supported, they are open to updates that provide more accurate explanations for what happened to them.

For example, a 15-year old version of myself decided I wasn’t worth caring about when I got beat up and was blamed rather than comforted and cared for. What was unburdened for this part was the story (belief) he told about how much it hurt to come home and be blamed for being bullied. He believed he didn’t deserve to be cared for. Once I earned the trust of this exile by witnessing, comforting and caring for him, he could see that being blamed had nothing to do with him and everything to do with parents who were too overwhelmed by life to have the capacity to show care for me or my siblings.

None of that unburdening required bringing in the five elements or releasing balloons. But my therapist facilitated the unburdening in this manner, and it seemed to work.

The unburdening DID happen. But was it necessary to involve the five elements and have my exile use them to release its burden to the universe? Until yesterday, I didn’t think so.

After speaking at length with Alison, I realized that what has occurred to me as an unnecessary and fantastical process is actually very real and necessary.

I now understand that a ritual or ceremony helps integrate the unburdening that unfolded over the entire process of building trust between Self and the exile as well as every single part that was involved in the protection of the exile.

The lightness and spaciousness of the unburdened state is facilitated by the ritual that completes the unburdening process and makes the invitation of qualities possible and logical.


If you would like to learn more about what it would look like to work with me to unburden your system, read about me, my approach, and my philosophy at https://billtierneycoaching.com/my-coaching-approach/  


I created a group coaching program that uses the IFS model and I call it The Self-Led Project. To learn more, click the button below.

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