In IFS when two parts are polarized, it means they are opposed to each other in an inner conflict. They are attempting to act in opposite ways, such as staying versus going or working versus relaxing. They are fighting against each other’s goals. For example, a part that wants to eat a lot would be actively fighting against the dieting that comes from another part. Furthermore, each polarized part is convinced that it must take an extreme stand in order to counter the destructive actions of the other part.
An Example: The Striver and the Procrastinator
Blake is working on a big new marketing project. He works long hours every day and has very little time for his wife and young son. When friends ask him why he is working so hard, and when his wife asks why she never sees him, he says, “I want to get ahead. I want to get a quick promotion and become highly successful.” However, when looked at objectively, fifty hours a week would be enough in Blake’s company for him to do quite well, but Blake regularly puts in sixty to eighty hours, often going back to work on the weekends. Few people at his firm are doing this, even people who are successfully moving up the ladder.
Blake sometimes skips meals. He occasionally works late into the night, even when there is no deadline the next day. He is often so tired the next day that the quality of his work suffers. Blake has a Striving Part that is driving him to work this hard because it is irrationally afraid of failure. This part is a Taskmaster. It does everything possible to make sure that Blake is a huge success because it is afraid of any hint of failure.
Blake has a second part that plays a major role in his psychological dynamics around work. When Blake was in the early years of high school, he wasn’t a high achiever—quite the opposite. He spent his time having fun rather than doing his homework. He watched a lot of TV. He hung out with friends. He did just about anything except school work. When he had an important assignment, he would procrastinate and then end up doing a rush job that got a poor grade. Sometimes he didn’t do his homework at all.
This behavior came from a Procrastinator Part of Blake. This part wanted to avoid doing anything that would be graded or evaluated. It was afraid of failure, and it dealt with this fear by avoiding projects that could involve failure—virtually all school and work projects. This fear was unconscious. If you had asked Blake why he wasn’t doing his homework, he would have said he didn’t feel like it.
Of course, this strategy was doomed. By avoiding projects, Blake ended up feeling like a failure—the very feeling that his Procrastinator was trying to avoid. Unfortunately, this kind of dynamic is common. Very often our parts cause us to act in ways that go against our best interests and even go against the protective intent of the part, which leads to exactly the situation that the part is trying to prevent.
In Blake’s current life, his Procrastinator is mostly in the background, with his Striver running the show. Occasionally Blake collapses from overwork, often followed by a period of procrastination.
Each of Blake’s two polarized parts has its own protective reasons for performing its role. In fact, they are both trying to help Blake avoid failure; they are just using opposite strategies. The Striver wants to ensure that Blake is a fabulous success, and the Procrastinator wants to avoid trying and failing. Furthermore, each part feels that it must be extreme in order to battle the excesses of the other part.
The Striver says, “I know that Blake has a tendency to be lazy, so I must push him to work very hard in order to combat this tendency. I’m afraid that if I let up even a little, Blake will turn into a bum like he was in high school.” The Procrastinator, on the other hand, says, “I hate the way the Striver pushes Blake all the time. I must try my best to get out from under its thumb so Blake can relax and enjoy himself. I’m afraid that if I let go, the Striver will turn Blake’s life into a nightmare of constant work.” They are both trying to protect Blake from failure and from each other.
Working with Polarization
In order to resolve a polarization, first you get to know each polarized protector and develop a trusting relationship with it. Then you have the two parts talk with each other, and you facilitate their learning to dialogue with each other, cooperate, and eventually resolve the polarization. For more details about how this work, see my book Resolving Inner Conflict or a couple of chapters in Self-Therapy, Vol. 2.
In Stage 4, when the pattern you are working on is polarized with another pattern, there is a sequence of steps for handling this, which leads to a guided meditation for having the two parts dialogue with each other and resolve their inner conflict.