by Jay Earley, PhD
In Internal Family Systems Therapy, part of the 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.
Parts 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 part 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.
Trusting the Self. 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. Full trust may not happen until after a part is unburdened, but a good deal of trust can (and needs to) be gained while you are getting to know a protector. 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 exile (or exiles) it is protecting.
This relationship with the protector will become even more important later in the IFS process, after the exile has been unburdened, when you see if the protector is ready to let go of its protective role. This can only happen if it really trusts you.
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 aren’t just getting to know it so you can move on to the exile. You aren’t just giving lip service to the fact that this protector has a positive intent for you. 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.
Appreciating Your Protectors. 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 think their role is crucial. Often they don’t even like their role but they feel that someone must do it. They frequently feel misunderstood and judged by parts of you for doing their role. And this is because our parts do frequently judge our protectors. Even those protectors that are proud of their role are often tired of it and would love to take a rest, but they feel that is impossible. If they took any time out, you might be flooded by pain or left vulnerable in dangerous situations.
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.
My Story. I remember a time this was really brought home to me in my own work on myself. I have a protector called the Accomplisher, who works hard to get things done in my life in an efficient, organized way. However, it doesn’t believe that I can have any pleasure or aliveness while I am accomplishing. It believes that this work is just a drudgery, and I must get it done as quickly as possible so I can enjoy myself afterwards. The problem is that “afterwards” practically never comes, and I used to spend a lot of my life doing things in a boring, mechanical way.
I had worked with the Accomplisher many times, and gotten to know it. I had worked on the exiles that it protects and did some healing with them. I worked on letting go of the Accomplisher, not acting in its extreme ways, taking it easy while working, being more present, enjoying myself more. And this worked to some extent. However, I realized that I hadn’t really formed a cooperative, trusting relationship with this part. I had just been trying to get rid of it.
So I reconnected with it, and took some time to appreciate not only what it was trying to protect me from, but the many things this part does contribute to my life. Because of the Accomplisher I am able to get a lot done in an efficient way, and this really does make my life easier, and it makes it possible for me to be so successful professionally. Instead of trying to get rid of the Accomplisher, I gave it appreciation. And I recognized that it was polarized with another part that wanted to be free from struggling and to have aliveness and pleasure in my life. I understood that it wasn’t a matter of letting go of the Accomplisher as working in a cooperative way with it so that it could still do its job while allowing me more aliveness in the process.
I did this work in the morning one day, and then late that afternoon I noticed that I was feeling very sad. I couldn’t imagine why so I took so time to explore myself. I discovered that the Accomplisher was feeling sad about all the times in the past that I had devalued it and tried to get rid of it. It only allowed me to feel this sadness now that I had stopped treating it badly and connected with it. It was actually grateful for the way I had changed my relationship with it, and this freed it to feel its pain at the way I had treated it before.
This was a real eye-opener for me. I realized that my parts really do have feelings about the way I treat them, and that my relationship with them is crucial. Over the next few days, I felt an unusual sense of well-being which seemed to come from having more inner harmony among my parts.
How to Accomplish This. After you come to understand a protector and find out what its positive intent is, you can enhance your relationship with it by letting it know about your understanding and appreciation of it. You can say any of the following statements to it:
I understand why you (do your role).
I get why you think that is important.
It makes sense to me.
I appreciate your efforts on my behalf.
I appreciate what you originally did for me.
I appreciate what you have been trying to do for me throughout my life.
I appreciate what you are trying to do for me.
After saying this, check to see how the part is responding to you. If you don’t notice any response, check to see if the part is aware of you. Even if the part has been responding to your questions and giving you information about itself, it may not be fully aware of you as a separate entity (Self). If this is the case, ask it to become aware that you are there. Then say the statement of understanding or appreciation again, and check to see how the part is responding to you. You will often notice a shift in the part’s feelings, a
sense of gratitude, or perhaps a relaxation of its rigid stand.