Max Littman, LCSW
October 29, 2023
Martha Sweezy’s recent book on shame and guilt (in my view a seminal work in the IFS catalog) illustrates the perspective that most, if not all, burdens are rooted in shame. To a certain extent, I agree with this claim. I would add that powerlessness is the core ingredient to shame, worthlessness, and burdens.
If we were to split the proverbial atom of burdens, I believe the bonded elements we would find inside would almost always be powerlessness and worthlessness. In instances not involving human action or negligence (e.g. natural disasters), I suspect powerlessness would be the only element found within the core of the resulting burden.
What do we in the healing arts make of or do with this awareness of powerlessness inside the core of burdens? Being with systems that have sought us out for healing is an entirely different practice than reading, writing, thinking about, or discussing the topic of burdens and powerlessness.
That is what I wish to address by sharing a method I’ve stumbled upon, developed, and used successfully in many unburdenings. My hope is this method will help others to increase access to Self energy and to help parts feel seen, heard, understood, cared for, and, as appropriate, unburdened.
What is Meant by Powerlessness
Powerlessness can mean different things in different contexts to different people so I’d like to take a moment to be as clear as possible.
In the context of parts and burdens, powerlessness refers to the lack of control or influence over a given situation, which results in or brings an awareness to an unfavorable, unsafe state of being.
I invite the reader to pause to consider this claim about powerlessness and burdens. What emotions, feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations arise? Are you able to notice them? Are they blended with you? Will they give you some space to befriend them? What are they communicating? Do you already have distinct relationships with the part or parts that are present?
I imagine there are many types of parts that could be present such as disagreeing ones, resonating ones, or vulnerable, activated ones. Take whatever time you need with your parts before proceeding.
Before jumping into the method for unburdenings, let’s take a look at the relationship between powerlessness, protectors, exiles, Self, beliefs, and burdens.
Powerlessness, or even the threat of it, motivates our protectors, calls them to action, and is the original source of their fragmentation from the Self. They seek to retrieve or replace the lost power or influence on environmental factors for the exiles and system they protect.
Our exiles, excluding any exiled protectors, are parts of us that innocently, curiously, playfully, and concentratedly interact with and investigate the seen and unseen universe, including the energies in and amongst us.
Before exile, they emanate tremendous amounts of Self energy, especially the qualities of curiosity and creativity. When they encounter powerful forces that call into question their own ability to favorably influence their environment, oftentimes by a human-related external force, an internal dynamic can develop where protectors form and move to the forefront of our psyches’ control center. These protectors exile these exploring, growing, and experimenting parts of us to protect the system from experiencing or reexperiencing powerlessness and potential harm.
Here I’ve included the only section on a specific set of protectors: perpetrator parts. As I laid out in the section on protectors, I believe all protective parts, to one degree or another, are devoted to a project of accessing and maintaining power. I believe perpetrator parts, aside from maybe self harming and suicidal parts, use the most forceful strategies in accessing and maintaining power.
Perpetrator parts are the parts of us that use positions of authority or influence to gain or sustain power in ways that are intentionally and/or indiscriminately harmful to other systems, and often mimic the parts of those who have harmed us in the past.
Self and Power
Self is an innate energy source. Unlike protectors, Self does not seek out power or energy. Unlike exiles, both burdened and unburdened, Self is a conduit and nurturer of growth, experimentation, and exploration rather than simply being interested in or drawn to those movements.
Self embodies power, uses power, contains power, and, at the same time, does not equate to power. It is an energy source unto itself. It has no agenda. It flows and exists in ways that we may comprehend in some ways, but its origins and true nature are likely to remain a mystery to us.
Beliefs: Protective Agents of Power
Beliefs are powerful agents that are oftentimes acquired and utilized by protectors. They can form from direct events, develop subtly over time, and can spread between internal and external systems. Beliefs can be the outer coating or shell of a burden. They can be painful for the internal system to be aware of, but far less painful than being in direct contact with powerlessness.
Perhaps the most infectious and deeply ingrained beliefs in the western world are what we in IFS refer to as cultural legacy burdens. These include individualism, racism, patriarchy, and materialism. Protective parts weaponize the beliefs and virtues from these ideologies to protect a person’s system from powerlessness and worthlessness.
Putting It All Together
In summary, I believe burdens consist of a sense of powerlessness, are frequently linked to feelings of worthlessness, and originate from a specific moment or series of moments in time where access to a suitable influence on the situation was lost or never present, hindering the ability to bring about meaningful change in the given context. For a clearer illustration of this definition of burdens, I offer the following diagram and a description that follows:
Beliefs are the outer shell of the burden, followed by a sinewy mesh of memories, sensations, feelings, and emotions, and, finally, inside the core is powerlessness that is oftentimes bonded to worthlessness.
I’d like to propose one way to go about this in practice that I have already employed with promising results for many clients. The unburdening steps I suggest are more explicit, imagery-based, and metaphorical than the standard protocol. I do not use this method of unburdening in all cases and I am not trying to and do not see a need to completely reinvent the wheel Dick Schwartz developed.
- Self Energy Check – First, check to be sure there is a critical mass of Self energy present in the therapeutic space, there has been consent from protectors to be with the targeted exile, and there is a connection between the target exile and Self.
- Consent – Next, check for consent from the target exile and its protectors to locate the burden. I recommend giving this plenty of time, befriending protectors thoroughly before beginning this process.
- Locate – If given permission, guide the exile to locate the burden in or around its body. If needed, be a hope merchant. You can do this by letting the client’s system know there is a foreign object embedded in the exile that has grown over the years, is the source of their pain, will continue to infect its host if not removed, and can be safely extracted. I often suggest the burden is like a tumor or a bullet. This externalization can help an exile recognize that they are not one in the same as the burden they carry and reduce the shame felt by the exile and its identification with the burden.
- Concerns – Check and address any concerns from all parts about a closer investigation and extraction of the burden. There may be very important reasons why the exile or another part value the burden being there, or there may be another reason why it is not safe currently to investigate, locate, or extract the burden.
- Examination – Once there is consent, have the exile examine the burden with the client’s Self. You may want to have the exile touch the burden to see what memories, feelings, and beliefs inhabit this burden. I’ve found it helpful to ask if there are one to three words or a sentence that best describes the burden. This option often leads to the exile feeling seen, understood, and cared for in its original experiences of powerlessness and worthlessness. Checking on the size of the burden relative to the exile’s body can also be helpful. This all can begin and facilitate the process of witnessing.
- Recheck Connection – Checking in on the client’s Self energy and connection to the exile throughout this process is crucial. This can be done in many different ways such as listening to tone of voice or observing body language. But what I most highly recommend is going back to the most important question in the 6 Fs protocol: how do you feel toward this part? Continue this process until the part expresses there is nothing else to be witnessed, said, or done before extraction. Be sure to always double check on this before extraction. I recommend encouraging the client’s Self to check with the exile directly if anything else needs to be witnessed, understood, said, or done before extraction.
- Extraction and Release – Once the exile indicates explicitly that it’s a go, follow the unburdening protocol of having them take the burden out of their body and release it to wind, water, earth, fire, light, or something else of their choosing. Then follow with the usual subsequent unburdening steps (e.g. welcoming in qualities, checking back in with protectors, checking back in with the exile for completion, and having the client check in with the exile at least once daily for three weeks).
A common fear expressed in the extraction process is that there will be a gaping hole left afterward. Here I’ve found it helpful to assure the exile and larger system that after extraction and release it will get to take in qualities of choice that were obstructed from entering that can ultimately fill up the space left by the burden being gone.
I’ve also found that in cases of repeated and complex trauma, this process can take months and involves more than just what happens inside of the session. It may be unsafe to extract and release the burden in one go, and with repeated interactions with and being taken care of by the client’s Self energy, the burden can be drained and shrunk to a size more reasonably safe for extraction and release.
If a client’s system becomes overwhelmed by being in contact with the burden and is not ready to release the burden, one option I’ve found helpful is to invite the burdened part to place the burden into a place of their choosing for safekeeping until it is safe to continue the unburdening process. Many parts like to place the burden in a locked safe and in a known location in the client’s past or present.
An important takeaway: this method is a facilitator of the relationship between the client’s Self and their exiles. The most important factor to consider in using this method is Self’s relationship with the part. The relationship is the healing agent, not the particulars of the method.
To give a clearer picture of this method of unburdening and powerlessness as the core element of burdens, I’ve included a case example. For confidentiality purposes, identifying information in the following case is disguised.
Jared, a 41 year old, white, American born, cisgender male came to me to work on health anxieties. He reported fears of various unpredictable diseases such as cancer. He was in overall quality health, with no personal history of significant injuries or ailments. He understood this health anxiety to be rooted in the premature deaths of seven family members and a serious hospitalization of his mother when he was in his early 20s.
We began by getting to know an anxious part of him, what Martha Sweezy would refer to as a preventative scout, a type of manager. As Jared focused, fleshed out, and befriended this anxious part of him, it became clear that its role was to protect from potential health risks by looking out for warning signs of their presence.
Jared’s Self acknowledged and appreciated this effort by this part. If ever I was unsure of the connection between Jared’s Self and this part, I’d always ask how he was feeling towards it. Each time Jared’s response indicated a critical mass of Self energy. I encouraged him to share how he felt with the anxious part, and the two-way relationship between him and the part deepened.
When I had an intuitive sense that the relationship was secure, I shifted towards the role of hope merchant. Under my suggestion, we offered the part a path to its preferred use of its own energy: focusing on healthy physical activities and eating habits that his body enjoyed and appreciated. The part was interested. We further shared that we could help the burdened part that it protected, but we would only do so with its permission. The part indicated it would like that and that we had its permission to go help. We double checked with any other parts that had concerns about us helping the exile. We were given a go ahead by Jared’s system to proceed with helping the exile.
Jared’s health anxiety exile was found in a cave, thin, malnourished, and in his early 20s. At first, the exile did not recognize Jared’s Self and was hesitant to engage with him. Without guidance from me, Jared embodied patience, calm, and curiosity with his part.
Over the course of two sessions, Jared’s exile came to trust him and began to share memories of his mother’s hospitalization. Although his mother was hospitalized for symptoms of unknown origins, her doctors had indicated they were not seriously concerned about her long term well being. However, she continued to struggle for weeks. On one occasion, he was with his mother as she suffered in pain. Despite advocating for a different regimen of pain medications, the medical staff was both slow to respond and his mother continued to writhe in pain.
Jared’s exile felt powerless to help his mother.
As this witnessing process continued, I had a sense that an offer for the release of the burden was appropriate. Understandably the part was concerned about the safety of releasing something so big and nebulous. From the ether of Self energy came the process I outlined in the previous section. I explained that what was inside this part’s body was like a tumor or a bullet that, if it remained, would continue to burden it and infect its body. We asked what was needed for it to feel safe for us to extract this burden from its body.
Collaboratively, my Self, Jared’s Self, and the exile came up with a plan to provide the part with local anesthetics on the area where the burden was located and to drain the burden to a size that felt safe for it to be extracted. We also set up a cozy, calming, and peaceful room to do the procedure. Prior to Jared’s Self following through on what the exile asked for, we double checked with the exile if anything else needed to be witnessed, understood, said, or done before beginning the extraction and release process. The part paused for a few beats and then indicated to Jared’s Self it was ready.
I then encouraged Jared to enact, inside, the procedure that had been agreed upon and to let me know when the burden was outside of his part’s body. Once he indicated that occurred, I had us invite the part to release the burden to wind, water, earth, fire, light, or something else. The exile elected to place the burden into a volcano where it melted into lava. We had it check in and around its body for anything left from the burden that needed to go. Nothing was left. It decided to take in qualities of warmth, light, connection, and nourishment. The anxious part that protected it appeared relieved upon checking back in with it.
I’ve covered powerlessness as the core, universal element of burdens, how it forms within an individual, and how that information can be applied to internal systems for the purpose of extraction and release.
Admittedly, this exploration was not exhaustive and there are many other ways to understand and work with burdens. One major area of expansion on this method would be looking at power from lenses of oppression and social justice. I take the stance that IFS trainer, therapist, and author Robert Falconer assumes: radical pragmatism. That is to say, I want to use what is ultimately achievable and useful for the human systems that I serve, including my own.
For feedback and comments, I can be reached at email@example.com.