Reasons to Switch Target Parts in IFS

Let’s suppose you have chosen a protector to work on, called your target part. As you are getting to know it, another part may emerge. It is best to take a moment to feel the new part’s emotions or body sensations and perhaps ask it a question or two. Then make a conscious choice about whether to ask it to step aside so you can continue with your original target part or whether to switch and make the new part your target part. Let’s look at a variety of reasons you might choose to switch target parts.

A Concerned Part or Protector Won’t Step Aside

Suppose you are working with a target part and you check to see how you are feeling toward it. If you are feeling judgmental or angry toward it or you want to get rid of it, you aren’t in Self. You are blended with a concerned part that feels judgmental, angry, and so on. You acknowledge the concerned part and then ask it to step aside. If it won’t step aside, you ask what it is afraid of and try to reassure it about its fears. If it still won’t step aside, you have no choice—you must switch and make the concerned part your target part.

The same thing can happen if you are trying to work with an exile, and a protector jumps in and blocks the way. You ask what the protector is afraid would happen if it allowed you to work with the exile, and then you attempt to reassure the protector that what it fears won’t happen. If the protector isn’t reassured and refuses to give you permission to work with the exile, you must switch and make that protector your target part, at least for a while.

When you switch, keep track of the original target part. When you have worked with the concerned part (or other protector) and it is willing to step aside, or when you have finished with it completely, come back to the original target part and continue with it.

An Important New Part Arises

Suppose you are working with a target part when a different part arises. For example, you suddenly feel sad or ashamed, and you realize that this isn’t coming from the part you were focused on. You spend a moment feeling this new part and hearing its concerns. You realize that this part is very important in your life right now. It is behind feelings and behaviors that you really want to change. So you decide that it is more relevant to work with the new part than the original one. Tell the original target part that you will get back to it in the future (and make sure you do).

A Part Arises That Is Usually Not Accessible

As you are working on a target part, suppose a new part arises whose feelings or beliefs are very vivid and alive to you in that moment, or an exile arises that is full of pain. You realize that this new part is usually not very easy to access, so this is a golden opportunity to work with it. The new part might be an exile whose pain is usually inaccessible, or it might be a protector that is usually vague. Now that this part and its emotions are clear, you may decide that you want to take this opportunity to work with it.

A Part Insists on Being Heard

A new part arises that is different from your target part, and it insists on being heard right now. It doesn’t want to step aside for the original target part. It demands that you pay attention to it. Perhaps this part feels that you have been ignoring it, or maybe it is really triggered and needs to some attention. You don’t want to go against a part with such an urgent need because it will lead to bad blood. Let the original target part know that you will come back to it in the future, maybe even in the same session. Then turn your attention to the part that is demanding attention. Spend as much time with that part as it needs. Then you can choose to go even further and transform the new part or go back to the original target part.

The Target Part Is Afraid of Another Part

You are working with a protector—let’s call it Part A—and you ask it what it is afraid would happen if it didn’t perform its protective role. It says it is afraid that you will do something destructive or dysfunctional. For example, it says it is afraid that you will get really angry or you will procrastinate about an important task. First, ask yourself whether Part A’s fear is realistic. If Part A didn’t perform its role, would you be likely to act in the dysfunctional way that it fears? You need to be in Self to answer this question accurately.

If you aren’t likely to do what Part A is afraid of, its fear is unrealistic. This means that it is a good idea to work with Part A to help transform it. However, if you would do what Part A is afraid of, it wouldn’t make sense to continue to work with it since it is giving you sound advice. It is warning you about something problematic that you might actually do.

In this case, switch your attention to the part of you that might actually get angry or procrastinate (or whatever the protector is concerned about). Let’s call it Part B. Not only is it important to transform Part B, but you can’t realistically ask Part A to let go of its role if you haven’t addressed its realistic concern.

Once you have worked with and transformed Part B, go back to Part A and see if it still needs to perform its protective job. If it can now let go, your work with it is complete. If Part A can’t let go, proceed to do the IFS process with it. Since you have addressed Part A’s realistic concern, see what else it is afraid of and work with it to transform that fear.

The Target Part Takes Orders from Another Part

Suppose you are working with a protector, and you ask what it is trying to accomplish by doing its job. It says it doesn’t know. When you inquire further, it says that it was assigned this job by another part, and it just follows orders. It can sometimes happen that one part is receiving orders from another part. In this case, to find out the positive intent behind the protective behavior, you have to go to the source—the part that is giving the orders. That part knows what the behavior is intended to accomplish and protect against, so it makes sense to switch target parts and focus on the part that is in charge. That part needs to be transformed for your behavior to change.

Interactions Between Parts in Conflicts in Love Relationships

When a couples gets into a repeated intractable conflict in their relationships, it is usually because they are triggering each other’s protectors and exiles.

In fact, if you focus on the most frequent type of argument you have with your partner, you can map out the sequence of transactions that happens in which you trigger one of your partner’s parts, he or she reacts in a way that triggers yours, then you react again, and so on. IFS has an insightful way of explaining how these sequences happen, and I can make this even clearer using the Pattern System, a way of understanding personality that is oriented toward personal growth.

Let’s look at an example. Jean becomes upset at her husband, Todd, because she feels that he hasn’t been sensitive to her. She has been feeling despondent over her struggles at work, and Todd hasn’t been very supportive or attentive to her feelings. As a result, her Not-Seen Wound (a type of exile in the Pattern System) has been triggered. This wound comes from not being seen as who she truly was as a child.

However, it is rare that people interact directly from their exiles. Often they aren’t even aware that an exile has been triggered. Instead, people react from a protector that defends against the pain of the wound. So Jean says to Todd, “You are so cold! You never care about my feelings.” Jean has led with a judgmental protector (Judgmental Pattern), which reacts to pain by being critical of other people. This serves two functions. It tries to protect her from feeling her wound, and it is a misguided attempt to get Todd to be more attentive and caring.

Communicating from a protector (a pattern in the Pattern System) usually backfires. When Jean blames Todd in this way, it triggers his Judgment Wound, which comes from having been judged as a child, making him feel bad about himself. However, Todd isn’t aware of this wound and doesn’t show it. Instead, he withdraws from Jean and closes down his heart, which prevents him from feeling the pain of this wound and keeps him away from Jean so he won’t get hurt further. This is his Distancing Pattern.

Conflicts in Relationships

Todd’s withdrawal triggers a second wound in Jean; she feels abandoned by him (Abandonment Wound). Jean defends against this wound by criticizing Todd for withdrawing (Judgmental Pattern), which activates his Judgment Wound again. He reacts to this with more Distancing, so the cycle repeats itself. They often go around this cycle multiple times, escalating their level of anger and hurt in the process.

By exploring and understanding sequences like this in your relationship, and possibly working with the parts involved, you can break these vicious cycles.

Self-Therapy, Vol. 3

This is an excerpt from my book, Self-Therapy, Vol. 3.