Negotiating with a Protector for Self-Leadership

In the standard IFS procedure, once you have gotten to know a protector and have developed a trusting relationship with it, you ask its permission to work with the exile or exiles it is protecting. IFS understands that most protectors can’t fully let go of their roles until the exiles they are protecting have been unburdened. Once you have permission, you go through a series of healing steps with the exile, and then you return to the protector to see if it now can let go of its protective role (see Stage 2).

However, there are situations in which it may take quite a while to heal the exile being protected. And if more than one exile is being protected, it may take even longer. If you have an important situation coming up soon in your life that involves a protector acting out, it can be very helpful to find a way to get that protector to relax even before all its exiles have been healed. This can be done by explaining to the protector how it is safe for it to let go of its role and allow you (in Self) to behave in a healthy manner in that situation. I call this negotiating for Self-leadership.

There are also other situations in which negotiating for Self-leadership can be helpful. Suppose you have unburdened the exiles behind a protector, and you have asked the protector if it can let go of its protective role. It has relaxed to some extent, but it hasn’t let go completely. By negotiating for Self-leadership, you can convince it to relax even further. If the protector you are working with took on its protective role mainly through childhood conditioning, negotiating for Self-leadership may be the best way to help it let go.

Let’s consider the point in the IFS process when you have gotten to know a protector and have developed a trusting relationship with it. When a situation arises that activates this protector—such as meeting a new person, going out on a date, or interviewing for a job—the protector usually takes over and performs its extreme role. For example, it might make you withdraw, get angry, shut down emotionally, or please people. If it is an Inner Critic Part, it might start pushing and attacking you.

The protector performs its role because it is afraid of what would happen if it didn’t. For example, it may be afraid that you will be judged, shamed, rejected, or betrayed if it doesn’t do something. These fears come from childhood, when you actually were hurt in one of these ways. However, in the current situation in your life, it isn’t as likely that you will be hurt in the way the protector fears.

In negotiating with a protector, it is best to deal with a specific situation that is coming up soon. This allows you to negotiate with respect to the exact parameters of that situation. You can learn to negotiate with the protector to allow you (Self) to take the lead in this situation so you can respond in a healthy way rather than in the dysfunctional way that comes from the protector. For example, suppose you receive constructive criticism from your boss and the protector normally withdraws or gets angry. If you are instead able to respond from Self, you can take in the criticism, decide whether it seems valid, and then either disagree with your boss or develop a strategy to improve your performance.

The protector became extreme in childhood because it was dealing with a dangerous or harmful situation—for example, you were ridiculed when you didn’t do something perfectly or you were yelled at when you made a mistake. The protector becomes activated in your current life because it believes that the same harm is going to happen now.

Ask the protector what it is afraid will happen in the upcoming life situation. When you learn what it is afraid of, let the protector know that you agree that you don’t want this to happen either. This helps to further build an alliance with the protector before you proceed to negotiate a different response.

Then explain to the protector that your current situation is very different from your childhood one. Acknowledge that the protector’s role was needed back in childhood and give it appreciation for what it did for you at that time. Then explain that the current situation is different. The people you are dealing with today won’t hurt you the way your parents (or other people) did back then. Or even if they do, you can figure out a way to handle this. In addition, you were under the power of adults when you were a child, but you aren’t under anyone’s power now. Therefore, the protector doesn’t need to perform its role.

Explain to the protector that you can make good decisions and handle the situation successfully from Self. Describe the healthy way you plan to handle situation and the advantages of doing that. Ask the protector if it would be willing to relax and allow you to handle that situation from Self when it arises.

For more details on this process, see my book Negotiating for Self-Leadership in IFS or a couple of chapters in Self-Therapy, Vol. 2.

In Stage 4, you have the opportunity to negotiate for Self-leadership with the Inner Critic Pattern you are working on in a specific Practice Situation that is coming up soon in your life. First you choose a Practice Situation and then you choose one of the underlying fears that have been driving this Critic to attack you. This leads to a sequence of steps which culminates in a guided meditation for negotiating with this Critic for Self-leadership. This makes it even more likely that this Critic will be able to let go of its judgmental role in that situation and maybe in others as well.

This Practice Situation is also the one that you work on in Stage 5 to set up a real-time practice for activating the healthy capacity instead of the Inner Critic Pattern.