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  • Writer's pictureBradley King

Maleficent Through the Prism of IFS

Updated: Jan 31

The other night my daughter asked me to read her the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. The story (if you didn’t know) is about a princess born to the King and Queen of a mystical kingdom. To celebrate the birth of their new daughter, the King and Queen host a lavish celebration for all in the Kingdom. Along with the subjects, they invite seven “good” fairies who live in the realm. However, on the night of the feast, a dark Fairy crashes the party and is upset that she hadn’t been invited. She is further enraged when she finds the good fairies each received a gift of jewellery. In an act of vengeance, the dark fairy casts a spell on the baby child whereby she will fall asleep for 100 years if her finger is pricked by a spindle. What caught my attention, was the way the “dark” fairy had been depicted. She was short, wore all black, she was overweight and voluptuous with a witch’s long nose and wart, and flaming, angry eyes.

I asked my daughter what she thought might have happened had the king and queen not ignored the dark fairy and had invited her openly. We imagined the dark fairy arriving in good humour, perhaps a little sheepishly at first as she may not have been used to being included in the court’s proceedings. We imagined her slowly revealing that she wasn’t such a “dark” fairy after all, but rather within her dark arts resided great wisdom that she could share with the court, benefitting everyone.

In a way, the imagined plight of the dark fairy is analogous of the way Internal Family Systems (IFS) views the nature of psychological suffering. The basic premise of IFS is that our psyche or mind is not singular, but rather is made up of parts. Some parts are called exiles or vulnerable parts that are “burdened” by the inevitable wounding that occurs when our core needs for attunement are not met sufficiently in childhood or adolescence. Another category of parts are protector parts that work to stop us from further wounding via seeking to control how we behave in the world or via dissociating, soothing or distracting us when we are triggered into vulnerable feelings and beliefs. Underlying and permeating our parts lies our deeper Self; a benevolent, curious and compassionate presence-energy that is within each of us no matter how complex and wounding our history. In IFS, it is through accessing this deeper Self energy that we are able to heal and unburden our parts leading to more connected, curious, calm and compassionate lives.

In the story, the King and Queen are like our “manager parts” that control who we can associate with and what we are allowed to do in the world. In the story, they decide that certain fairies are appropriate guests and some fairies are not. As such, they “exile” the dark fairy by not inviting her. Unfortunately, just like our personal exiles can from time to time, the dark fairy resists being exiled and crashes the party. When this occurs there is great fear and an excessive response from the protective parts (ie all spindles are banished from the Kingdom, imagine the yarn bombers consternation!) and the exiles are again exiled into the darker corners of our psyches.

In IFS, Exile parts are usually associated with our most vulnerable, tender feelings and beliefs. Common exiles include those burdned by feelings of shame, unworthiness, rejection and isolation/loneliness. Common exile beliefs are “I’m bad”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m unworthy of love”, “I deserve to be alone”. However, the dark fairy clearly does not represent these tender forms of exiles. She is powerful and enraged.

Importantly, powerful feeling parts can also be exiled and these usually centre around the various feeling states associated with the emotion anger. Often this occurs when we are very young and grew up in an environment where it was not safe to express emotions like anger and rage, where our caregivers or community reacted inappropriately to the natural expression of such emotions. Evolutionary psychology posits that anger is a normal human emotion that we have evolved to express and serves a prosocial purpose if expressed in a mature way. Mature expressions of anger serve the function of communicating to those around us when a boundary has been violated, that there has been a form of injustice. The recipient of our anger can receive this message, adjust their behaviour appropriately and/or make reparations for the injustice caused.

In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT, another popular form of psychotherapy), anger is thought of as a secondary emotion to a primary emotion. In IFS language, this suggests that for the dark fairy, she may have been triggered into a primary exile part like a rejected part or a part that felt sad and unworthy when she realised she wasn’t invited to the baby’s party. However, we don’t see or feel the dark fairy’s primary exile because she has blended with her angry protector, which is raging for justice and revenge and the tender exile has been effectively shut off or suppressed. This is not a mature expression of her anger, but rather an angry part unleashed without connection to her deeper Self.

If the dark fairy arrived in my clinic for IFS therapy, the process could take numerous pathways. However, given her difficulties with anger at the party, a likely initial process of healing would include teaching the dark fairy about the existence of her parts and normalising that this is a universal truth. We would discuss that our parts are actually heroically trying to help us, keep our lives functioning effectively and that they are stuck with burdens and in reality really need our help. Therapy would then help guide the dark fairy to connect to her angry part (or angry parts if there are more than one) and to build a relationship between her angry parts and her deeper Self. In that way, the angry part can understand there is a compassionate and curious Self available that can listen and validate her concerns whenever she needs it. This may be the first time in her life she has felt that form of love and connection and to think it comes from within us all! This is usually a deeply cathartic, healing experience for the part itself and the client’s system as a whole.

Once the angry part is connected to the dark fairy’s deeper Self, the part will usually allow the next step in accessing the primary exile - let’s say it is indeed a sad part that believes it is unworthy of connection and love. In IFS, there is a safe ritual like process of connecting to vulnerable wounded exiles and that helps them to unburden. When this process is completed correctly, there is a reorganising of the inner system of parts around the now unburdened and healed exile. A number of things can change when this occurs and often the main protectors associated with the exile can change their protective roles or take a big break or relax back greatly. Again, this can be a deeply healing moment in the therapy.

For the dark fairy, one could imagine that after a period of IFS therapy, the next time she is not invited to an event, she would be solidly grounded in her deeper Self such that she would be able to notice if any parts were triggered. If they were, she could listen to them, validate their concerns and let them know that she (Self) would address those responsible for hurting them (her parts) in a calm, centred manner if this was indeed needed. If there were any new exiles triggered (primary or secondary) she could bring that information to therapy and the unburdening process could be instigated again with the newly identified protectors and exiles. One of the beautiful elements of IFS therapy is that a virtuous cycle often occurs. As the client meets and unburdens their parts, they access more self energy, which in turn allows a deeper connection with their parts and deeper unburdening occurs. This cycle can manifest in the client’s life as more and more connection relationally, incresased clarity of life direction and a greater capacity to find and share their unique gifts with the world.

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