Understanding Internal Family Systems – Part 2: Meet the Exiles

(All stories in this article are composite sketches, compiled from real-life stories. None of these stories represents any one person dead or alive. But they are all true.)

Roni was a pastor’s wife. Unfortunately, this meant her life was lived in a fish bowl. Everyone saw her and everyone had an opinion on her behavior. People noticed how she dressed, how she responded to criticism, what skills she had and didn’t have, how her kids were dressed and behaved; it was an endless exam. But, she thought she handled criticism well and prided herself on not letting other people get to her.

One night, her pastor-husband came home from a board meeting. At the meeting, he had been attacked viciously by two board members regarding a story he had told in his sermon. They felt it was highly inappropriate and could lead to members of the church thinking he supported a particular sexual activity. He came home in tears and poured himself a large glass of wine.

Roni fought with herself about what to say. The problem was, she had told him during the week he was making a mistake with that story. The exact thing she predicted was what happened. She had a gut feeling people would misunderstand his point if he used that story from his childhood.

He also remembered she had told him this, for after sitting down, he looked right at her and said: “And you’re no better than all the rest. You’re just a big prude like the rest of the church.”

Panic struck Roni like a physical force of nature. She didn’t even know why she felt this panic. But it was so strong, she was still awake at 2 am, long after her husband starting snoring. She had thoughts of shame, guilt, insecurity, and doom. She was sure he was going to pull away from her. By 3 am she finally succombed to sleep, but was awake again at 4:30.

Over the next few days, she settled down emotionally, but then noticed an old habit was back. She was picking at the skin on her arms. She would catch herself doing it and then she would stop. But as soon as she stopped thinking about it, she would go back to picking at the skin. By the end of the week, she had several open sores that she had to put bandages on.

What had happened to Roni? If you haven’t already, go back to this first article I wrote in this series and review the basic terms I will be talking about in this article. Simply, Roni was seeing an Exile in her life manifesting herself. This Exile is a feeling and belief she had started to have as a young girl. She had tried to manage this old part of herself. She certainly tried to forget about this part. She did all of this without really knowing this Exiled Part existed.

Over the next few days, she settled down emotionally, but then noticed an old habit was back. She was picking at the skin on her arms. She would catch herself doing it and then she would stop. But as soon as she stopped thinking about… Click To Tweet

Exiles are those thoughts, feelings, experiences, or reactions from our past that bother us so much we don’t ever want to re-live them. We create most of our internal family system to prevent the exile from showing up. In Roni’s case, the Exile showed up as soon as her husband accused her of being part of the group attacking him. At the end of the article, I will show exactly how this worked in her life.

First, let’s understand more about Exiles.

Exiles may have been birthed from traumatic events, but they don’t have to be. We don’t know why we react the way we do sometimes. We especially are clueless why we reacted the way we did when we were children. For instance, we may experience great inner pain just seeing Mom drive away from the school the first day of kindergarten. Another child might experience that pain and then an hour later have let go of it. But we might feel that way for the entire school year–or beyond.

No one knows why we are resilient to one painful experience and not another. No one knows why we have fear of one thing and not another. We just do. And when we have a significant reaction to a situation–especially if that keeps happening–we try and figure out how to handle it. As time goes by, these inner creations handling the situation become Managers in our sub-conscious. They ever live to keep the bad feelings from happening again.

Exiles are those thoughts, feelings, experiences, or reactions from our past that bother us so much we don’t ever want to re-live them. We create most of our internal family system to prevent the exile from showing up. Click To Tweet

Why do we feel we have to manage bad thoughts and feelings? At the time we first experienced them, they overwhelmed our Core Self. And because they did that, we had extreme feelings in every part of our brain. Notice how children tend to over-react to small problems and you’ll see what it feels like to have an Exile take over. Can you imagine being an adult and losing your mind when you can’t have another cookie?

Exiles prevent healthy emotional regulation. So we create Parts of us to keep the Exiles from showing up and ruining things. But we are not able to do that all the time. Certain things will trigger us whether we like it or not. And when an Exile comes to the surface and tries to take over an adult’s life, it can be difficult to deal with.

When an Exile does take over, we call that Over-Integration. And when they do over-integrate, there are some predictable and nasty results.

1. They React to Things That Aren’t Affecting Them: For instance, a child might experience physical abuse at the hands of a parent. And it may happen after someone comes home from work. The noise that used to happen to signal the abuse might be a slammed door. Let’s say that person grows up and their spouse comes home and slams the door. Instantly, a sense of fear and immobilization (frozenness) comes over them. Their normal feeling of love and affection for their spouse is replaced by a sense of helplessness and anxiety. They might be edgy for the rest of the evening. In this situation, the Exile is reacting to a slammed door. But the adult is not in the Exile’s situation. There is nothing tying the two together other than a slammed door. But Exiles don’t care. They just react if something reminds them of their problem. This can bring confusion and stress when there shouldn’t be any.

2. They Cause the Managers to Become Reactive: Remember that the job of the internal Managers is to keep the Core Self from feeling what the Exiles are bringing. So, if the Exile starts to react, then the Managers kick into high gear. Because Managers are often more logical and idea-oriented than the Exiles, an adult may not notice their reaction as childish. It may even seem logical and reasonable. For example, consider an adult that is told he is having a performance review in a few days. Suppose this kicks in a reaction from an Exile that gets angry because every time Mom came to check his room if it was clean, she always found something wrong with it. But in this case, instead of the Exile taking over, a Manager jumps in. This Manager is called an Anxiety Manager. This Anxiety Manager gets the man to obsess over everything that has happened in the past six months on the job. He can’t stop thinking about how he could have improved things, how he could have worked better with the team. Then, the Anxiety Manager begins catastrophizing. This Manager tells him that it would be good to start working on his resume in case he loses his job. So even though he is not being controlled by the Exile with its anger, he is controlled by the Manager with his anxiety.

3. The Managers Might Not Be Enough to Control the Exile: Some situations keep happening and some Exiles keep responding. There may come a point where the Managers cannot control the Exiles. That creates a situation where more drastic means are necessary. At this point, the Managers call in a specialist: The Firefighter. The job of the Firefighter Part is to distract the Core Self with an intense activity that will not allow the Exile’s reactivity to control. For instance, let’s examine the situation a 15 year-old girl might face. She grew up with a belief that she would never measure up to her older sister. This caused her pain and shame. She hates that feeling. So she created a Manager that criticizes her and forces her to work extra hard to accomplish everything her sister did. But at various times, she falls short. The Critical Manager can’t keep the pain away from her because of her perceived failure. So a Firefighter shows up. This Firefighter says that if she focuses completely on never gaining any weight she will be perfect. From that point on, this Firefighter challenges every single bite of food. Within weeks, the girl is battling anorexia. The Anorexia Firefighter is so all-encompassing, she no longer feels the weight of shame and pain from the Exile. Of course, she is no longer eating either.

Remember that the job of the internal Managers is to keep the Core Self from feeling what the Exiles are bringing. So, if the Exile starts to react, then the Managers kick into high gear. Click To Tweet

What is really wrong with Exiles?

First, the Exile has been ignored for so long, it is getting more and more reactive. The Exile wants to be heard and let the Core Self know that it is hurting. But because our entire inner system exists to keep Exiles from being heard, the Exile feels more and more….well, exiled.

Second, the Exile is burdened. This is a word we use in IFS to describe what the original child was hurt or wounded by. Whether it be rejection, pain, guilt, loss, doubt, worry, stress; the Exile wants to solve the pain. And because that Exile still exists in our memory, it is going to keep reacting until its pain is gone.

So how do we help the Exile? Simple. We unburden her.

The best way to describe this is to highlight what Roni was facing.

In elementary school, Roni had a best friend she did everything with. For several years, they stood against all the rigors and challenges of playground cliques as a single unit. They trusted and loved each other. But at one point, Roni attended a birthday party of another girl in her class. Her best friend hated this girl, and Roni had not realized it. When they were at school the next day, her friend ended their relationship. It was harsh, sudden and decisive. They were never friends again.

It didn’t help that it happened two months after Mom and Dad split up. Her parents’ divorce was the bigger pain, but Roni focused all her reaction on the smaller one of losing a friend. In that memory, she believed that in every relationship she would do something to mess it up. She believed both her parents’ divorce and her friend’s departure were her fault.

Over time, she developed a Manager to help her cope with this. This was her Shame Manager. The Shame Manager would push her to correct every problem in every relationship before they got out of hand. She apologized for things that weren’t a big deal. She spent hours rehashing relationship problems until everyone was happy.

But in her situation with her husband, she couldn’t think of a way to fix it. She was at a loss. So, she resorted to a Firefighter which had always worked to distract her. This Firefighter got her picking at her skin. As she did this, endorphens were released and she felt a little better.

Here’s how she was helped. She was enabled to go talk to the fourth grade exile. The “her in the future” was able to talk to “her in the past” and tell her a few things. She told her that the divorce was not her fault. She told her that the friend turned out to be a very toxic and harmful person in the future. She helped her to know she didn’t have to worry about people leaving her. The Exile calmed down and even seemed happy again.

From that point on, Roni has had no problems with that Exile. And the Managers have been quiet.

And her skin is healing nicely.

One thought on “Understanding Internal Family Systems – Part 2: Meet the Exiles

  1. “She apologized for things that weren’t a big deal.” I do the same thing, apparently. Sometimes it flips and I expect an apology for what the other individual doesn’t consider a big deal.

    In my family of origin (FOO), my mother always decided what was allowed to be a big deal.

    O.K. Almost always. 😉

    Wrapped up with the effects of other controlling behaviors, I didn’t develop trust in my autonomy. And THAT also drew derision from both parents. The end result in me: be perfect, read her mood, or give up.

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