The Power of Unblending in IFS
What is unblending and how Internal Family Systems therapy can change the way you work with clients?
By Tisha Shull
Exploring the internal dynamics
Last week, I attended a workshop that was geared towards women. As we introduced ourselves, I spoke for the part of me that was nervous about being vulnerable in a group of all women. This part was worried that I might be excluded, judged or somehow not feminine enough for this group.
Instead of caretaking me or reassuring me that this group would be different, the leader encouraged me to look at the story that I was telling myself by continuing to let this part lead. She suggested that I disconnect from this belief so that I could be open enough to let this experience stand on its own, apart from my past experiences.
She shared an example from her own life. For many years she had told herself, “I’m broke.” This negative mentality dominated her ability to engage in certain aspects of her life. She couldn't afford to take trainings or buy some of the things she needed. One day, when a number of her colleagues were signing up for a coveted workshop, the refrain came up again, “I’d love to, but I’m broke.” A friend reflected to her, “That's one heck of a mantra you're repeating.” This provocative nudge from her friend precipitated an ah-ha moment and clued her in that she might be blended with a part that was holding some strong beliefs about money. She then began to explore and heal the underpinnings of this internal dynamic.
Finding more space inside
For myself, after hearing her story in the workshop, I was able to make room and turn towards the part inside me that was so afraid around women; to be tender towards it, to understand and acknowledge that it had really been hurt and it was legitimately scared. With this small piece of inner work, I was able to find more space inside, to unblend from the constellation of parts that would regularly take over for me in this kind of group. In a few breaths, I was finally able to feel present and connected to the group, and in the end I had a deeply positive experience connecting with the feminine.
Learning to trust ourselves
Time and time again, life gives us the opportunity to notice when we’re blended; with a belief, a story, a part or cluster of parts. It seems that no matter how much I work with my own system, I continue to learn about Unblending from my parts. Without this knowledge, my experience with this group of women would have followed my old narrative: I don’t belong here, informed by the exile who feels alone and uncared for. Though it’s not always easy for ourselves or our clients to gain perspective in the moment, unblending enables us to rebuild, reshape, relearn, and learn to trust ourselves in the world.
Unblending is an IFS term
It does not yet appear in the dictionary. Unblending refers to the internal pause that gives us the ability to acknowledge there's a part present and to be with it - instead of from it.
This concept to blend and unblend as referring to our inner parts has been one of the most helpful tools for me as a human and as an IFS therapist. When we are blended with a part, we experience the part's reality as though it is the only truth. For example, when we are in a deep depression, the pit of despair, it seems that no other reality exists. Depression is so blended with us that it can almost feel unbearable. It is as though the part puts blinders on our vision of the world and disallows the existence of other experiences or realities.
How to unblend
I have found that there are two basic components to unblending. Pause and turn towards. There’s that first pause when you notice a part is overwhelming you or even dominating your narrative. And then the second step is turning towards the part, ideally from self.
With certain parts finding that pause is more challenging. This is especially true with parts that are more somatic, parts that activate the sympathetic nervous system, parts that have strong emotional charges (sadness, depression), or parts that are routinely activated by certain people) or situations.
I have a couple questions that I like to ask inside that allow me to pause and turn towards blended parts.
What part is here? Or Who is here? (I spend some time identifying it, how it feels, what’s happening in the body? Is it affecting the breath? )
What is the part worried/concerned about? (Is there something about the situation that is bringing it up?)
What does the part need from me right now?
These questions are merely a guide that works for me. Everyone has the ability to find out what works best to unblend their blended parts. Play around with it the next time you notice you’re blended with a part.
What kind of inquiry allows you to pause and turn towards your part? I find it's best to keep it simple and tender. Find your own language for being with your parts, see what feels right. Sometimes you need to sit down and close your eyes, especially as you are learning, but also anytime a part begins to overwhelm you. The trust that develops in your own system as you gently pause and turn inside enhances the deeper work with exiles and trauma they may hold.
Parts don’t blend without a reason
When parts are blended in the extreme and it's hard to get space inside, it's a clear indication that deeper things are happening for the system than what is going on at the moment. Our blended parts are incredible indicators of inner work that wants to happen; a message from the inner self to shine a light on something that hasn’t yet been truly understood or witnessed.
If the parts felt safe, then they wouldn't feel the need to blend so thoroughly. If we find that we have parts that are dominating ourselves or our clients, we can try to meet them with compassion and curiosity. It is important to remember that these parts are here to protect and not to harm. They have a lot to teach us about ourselves and our systems.
Our blended clients
One of the roles we embody as IFS therapists is to be Parts Detectors for our clients. It can be obvious when a client is blended with a sad part or an angry part but when a client is blended with a familiar narrator or amiable people-pleasing part our work becomes a little bit more nuanced.
Teaching our clients to unblend in the moment as well as outside of the therapy office can be delicate work. How do we ask a worried protector to give the client space when it's not feeling safe?
The magical question
Luckily, The IFS model has given us an excellent tool for assisting our clients in unblending. Once a part has been identified, we ask our clients the magical question: “How do they feel towards this part?”
This question creates room for that two step unblending process. It creates the pause, and it quickly puts the client in the seat of the Self - the ability to turn towards and remember, “Oh right, I'm not this part. How DO I feel towards it?”
Creating space inside
Challenges can arise when our clients have parts with strong feelings about the part that is currently being explored. For example, when you ask the question, “How do you feel towards part A?”, another part, part B, will answer. Once part B has had it’s say, it is important to come back to the magic question: “How do you feel towards it?” again until one of the qualities of Self answers the question. (Or if your own therapist part’s detector feels that the client is feeling enough Self-energy toward the part). Here you have guided the client to create the space to be with their part, unblended. It’s from this place that the part is finally able to be understood. From here, you can ask the part about its fears and its history.
A story of unblending
As an example, I was working with a young woman with lifelong severe rheumatoid arthritis. She is starting a business and was having trouble with one of her family members. The family member was supportive financially, but put pressure on my client by always asking where she was with the business and making suggestions. This pressure would bring up a slightly dissociated, unmotivated part in the client.
This part would sometimes distract her all day and felt as though it was keeping her from succeeding. When we worked with this part in session the dissociation was so blended that it was hard for her to get space within and when I tried to talk to it directly, it would make her feel really uncomfortable and dizzy.
One day recently, the part was blended and the client was having a tough morning because of it. Yet, this day the client didn’t feel a frustration towards the dissociation and the lack of motivation, there was curiosity when we asked how she felt towards it. She unblended a bit from a very worried protector. The part, when it had space, let her know that it was afraid that if she did too much, bad things would happen.
When we asked the part about its history, it shared that when she was diagnosed with the RA as a young girl her doctors told her if she did too much or overdid it she would end up in a wheelchair, a terrifying and unmanageable stress for an 8 year old already in so much pain.
This part had been trying to keep that from happening for over twenty years by holding her back in its own way. It felt that it had needed to blend with her to keep her safe and healthy. And though the family member was trying to be supportive, she ended up triggering some very deep fears. And these triggered parts led this client to understanding her system more clearly, so that she could eventually work with the exile holding the worry and fear.
Feeling the original pain of trauma
Blending with exiles can feel different than being blended with protectors. The core beliefs that exiles hold can feel more true when exiles are blended; “no one loves me, I could be hurt, I’m not worthy, I may die from this feeling.” When blended with exiles, the client is feeling some of the original pain that they felt when they experienced the trauma that created the belief. This can feel incredibly overwhelming and sometimes can bring up hopeless parts that believe it will never get better.
Asking exile parts to unblend and give the client space so that they can truly be witnessed is an important part of the healing process. BUT exiles have often received the message that they are too much. Remembering that the exile is a younger wounded part and taking extra time to sensitize to the shift in energy inside the client is imperative.
This young part has injuries and pain specific to their own experience and needs extra sensitivity and confidence.
Unblending therapist parts
Before asking the exile to unblend, it’s helpful to check in with our own systems. How am I feeling towards this client's exile? Do I have parts present? Do I get scared or feel more responsible when the exile is here?
Holding confidence and compassion for the exile is important. This child needs to be fully witnessed and understood.
The value of blending
I have found that sometimes the exile actually needs to blend with the client to truly be felt - especially if the trauma the exile is holding was pre-verbal or hard to articulate with words.
If you feel this is the case, you can ask the clients permission for the exile to blend. “Is it okay for you to feel this now?” and then you can continue to make sure the exile feels the difference of having Self there. The exile may be expressing a lot of emotion but you can gently ask, can he feel you there as he shows you all of this? Does he feel like you're getting it? Is there more this little boy wants to show you or let you feel?
Giving exiles permission to be in the state that they are, while being witnessed by Self, allows them to attach to us and trust us more. Usually as this happens, they naturally unblend, communicate more clearly and shift into a more healed version of themselves.
New way of being
Once we learn and can teach our clients the power of unblending, we will be able to navigate life, relationships and challenges from a place with more access to Self.
My own opportunity to heal some of the pain that I had experienced from being excluded by groups of females arose with my blended parts. They gave me a gift, the opportunity to integrate what had happened to me. The teacher who asked me to question the old pain story invited me to heal. Instead of moving back into the disconnected, nervous place that my parts were afraid of, they got a chance to be seen in how bad their experience was.
This felt really good for the parts that carried the wounds and the story. When we track our parts in blending and unblending with awareness, life gives us the opportunity to experience them until we really learn what our internal systems need. And eventually we can meet our blended parts with welcome and intrigue.
If you want to learn more about Internal Family Systems therapy and the unblending process, join the upcoming workshop by Tisha Shull and David Kitchings.