The Power of Befriending the Exile Within

Exiles in the Psyche

I had a dream that there was someone else living in my apartment when I wasn’t there.  A friend turned to me and said, “Hey, did you know there is another woman living here with you?”  I shook my head.  If it was true, how was it that I had never encountered her? Gazing around my messy apartment, I realized it explained a lot.

When we are young, we all learn how to exile parts of ourselves. Life demands things of us before we are ready, before we know how to show up to them.  So, we show up the best we can. We improvise.  Spontaneously and instinctually we adapt, and because of this, we survive.  It’s brilliant really, a testament to the genius latent in every person.  Then, we grow up, and we find that the same set of tools that were so successful once, don’t work anymore.  Perhaps we find that our relationships never last, or that we choose to stay in abusive ones to avoid being alone.  We find the same pattern happening over and over again and feel helpless to do anything about it.  But we aren’t helpless.  There is a way forward.

Rejection as a Coping Mechanism

When our unconscious coping patterns make life difficult for us, it is really the exiled parts of ourselves that are trying to get our attention.  They are making life difficult because they don’t want to be exiled anymore.  But, because rejecting those parts was so successful initially, our automatic response when they show up in our adult lives is to reject them again.  It is important to understand that these parts were never worthy of rejection to begin with.  There was merely no room in whatever situation we found ourselves in for them to be nurtured and loved.

We continue to reject these exiles as adults because we haven’t gotten the memo that the situation that required their exile is over.  By continuing the pattern of rejection we feed the need of those parts to be seen and heard, and they get even louder.  Instead of continuing the cycle of rejection, what if we get quiet and listen? What if we give those parts of ourselves permission to be here instead of struggling to make them go away?

Getting to Know Your Exiles

Recently, during a bad night of insomnia I met one of my exiles.  I wanted desperately to sleep, but there was some part of me that categorically refused.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I decided to meditate.  I focused on my breath, dropped back into witness consciousness, and created space for the part of me that refused to sleep.  That part of me was very anxious, and I was very uncomfortable being present with her.

Staying with my breath, I allowed whatever was showing up to simply be.  I didn’t try to change what came up or to make it go away.  After a while I sat face to face with the part of myself that had been secretly living in the metaphorical apartment of my life.  A young, terrified woman who, of course, was me.  A part I had minimized, ignored and denied.

I looked at my life, at the episodes of debilitating anxiety and of emotional volatility, of despair and loneliness, at the moments of wanting to give up and wanting it all just to end. I saw how I had done my best to pretend it was no big deal.  All of those behaviors were the exiled part of me struggling to get my attention, struggling for life, and every time I had paid no attention.

The Woman Behind the Mask

The behavior of minimizing was modeled for me, growing up in a home where my mother’s own patterns of anxiety and emotional volatility were normalized and never acknowledged.  My parents’ story was that we were a perfect family.  We lived in an affluent community where good grades were a must, college was a given, and a lack of success was shameful.  There was no space for my anxiety, a thing I had an enormous amount of, so that part of me was exiled.  There was no space to live the soul centered life I craved.

I learned that the way to survive was to be tough, to be accommodating and to pretend at all costs, that everything was ok.  The result was a belief that if I’m charismatic enough, productive enough, talented enough, funny enough, then I will have convinced people that I’m worthy of love.  If I can do that, then I don’t have to acknowledge how anxiety rules my life and affects those around me.

The fear of people seeing through my facade runs deep.  In all of my interactions with people I spend the majority of my energy trying to hold the finely crafted pieces of my mask in place.  If I feel tired or not interested in spending that kind of energy, I avoid engaging with people.  The idea that I must not let people see what’s behind my mask is so ingrained that I never even considered it an option to take the mask off.  During that sleepless night, when I finally acknowledged myself as I truly am, I realized that though taking off the mask would take courage, it was at least an option.

Letting the Exiles be Seen

The next day I showed up to yoga class with my mask in pieces.  I did my best to go with it, and without much effort settled into the flow of the class.  As I spoke the cues, moving through the poses, parts of my own practice that I usually don’t share because I’m afraid people won’t like it, spilled in.  It was the most authentic class I have ever taught.  After the class, instead of the rejection I feared, the response I got was joy, connection, and encouragement.

I went to a meeting later about scheduling more yoga classes.  I mentioned that I liked to pile things on my plate and then get overwhelmed that I had made so many commitments.  The facilitator, instead of being impatient with me, gave me complete permission to do things at my own pace and to only commit to what I felt comfortable with. It seemed incredible.  The world had embraced me without the mask.  I had been oppressing myself for so long for no reason.

I went home thinking, this must be what grace feels like.  Then, I cried deep tears of regret as the realization settled in.  I had set such unrealistic standards for myself, had put on so much pressure, had kept myself locked up.  Who had actually benefitted from me doing that?

The Hoʻoponopono prayer came to me then, and I whispered to my inner exile,

I’m sorry.

Please forgive me.

I love you.

Thank you.

Welcome Yourself Home

What I am beginning to understand is that the point is not to fix anything. There is nothing to fix. We are already complete. When our unconscious patterns show up and make life challenging for us we have an opportunity to identify our exiles, to invite them in, and to listen to their stories. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, every time we welcome our exiles home we make the world holy, by making it whole.

We need to imagine our exiles as having creative lives of their own and to support them in developing their gifts.  These gifts aren’t just for us, they are for sharing with the world.  For as Bill Plotkin tells us, “nature depends on us to embody our souls. The world cannot fully express itself without each of us fully expressing ourselves.”

Next time you are feeling helpless you might stop a moment to wonder about your exiles.  Meeting them for the first time can be challenging, because by their very nature they are unconscious to us.  There are infinite ways that these meetings come about. Knowing that the exiles are there in the first place can be very helpful in those moments when you are brought face to face with one.  If you are able to recognize the exile as yourself, then you can begin the work of welcoming yourself back home.

Katherine is a yogi, writer and herbalist. She lives in the Pacific Northwest where she teaches classes and workshops.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.