Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) works with our subpersonalities, called “parts.” An important aspect of the therapy process involves getting to know protective parts, which handle your interactions with the world and protect against your experiencing childhood pain. Ideally we get to know a protector from a place of open curiosity and compassion, which comes from our true Self. This isn’t just a matter of getting information and insight into this part. You are developing a relationship with the protector. A crucial part of your success in IFS depends on the degree to which you are really connected to the protector and it trusts you.
Protectors take on extreme roles because they think they have to handle situations on their own. They either don’t know that Self is there, or they don’t trust Self to handle the situation. Jim has a protector named the Prof who arranges for him to be intellectual and in control of himself and situations he is in. This part is afraid that if Jim becomes emotional, he will get out of control and be in danger. The Prof does his best to run the show and keep Jim safe. This part doesn’t realize that Jim has a Self who can handle situations and emotions, who has the strength and compassion to allow feelings without getting overwhelmed by them. This protector doesn’t realize that Jim’s Self can handle potentially difficult situations from a centered place. So the Prof feels that it must always be in charge, and there is an urgency about this because of the danger it perceives.
A major goal in IFS is for parts to learn to trust the Self. Then they can relax and allow the Self to take the lead and handle things. The protector needs to know that Self is there and that Self has strength, compassion, and other qualities that are needed for dealing with life situations and the pain of exiles. The protector needs to learn that you (Self) care about it, understand what its role is, and appreciate the work it has been doing for you all these years. This allows the protector to relax to some extent, to begin to trust you in Self, and to allow you access to the child parts it is protecting.
For this relationship of trust to develop, you must be in Self, which means that you are truly interested in having a relationship with the protector. You are really curious to learn what it has been trying to do for you and why it thinks that this protective role is so important.
Most protectors have been working hard and tirelessly for your benefit for many years. At least they think what they are doing is for your benefit. In fact, they usually think that you would be in serious trouble if they didn’t do their job. They long for someone to understand why they are doing their role and appreciate their efforts. As you find out about the protector and understand its motivations, it is very helpful if you appreciate what the protector has been trying to do for you. Remember, even if the protector is causing problems in your life, it does its’ role because it is trying to help you and protect you from pain.
By: Jay Earley, Ph.D.
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Jay Earley, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice and an IFS teacher. He is the author of Self-Therapy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Inner Wholeness Using IFS. See his website www.personal-growth-programs.com