Jay Earley, Ph.D.

Polarization is an important concept in IFS. We often find ourselves in conflict about how to respond to an issue in our lives. One part of us feels one way, and another feels quite differently. One part wants to take a certain action, and another wants to do the exact opposite. Polarization can show up in our lives in a multitude of ways. It can cause us to procrastinate, be indecisive, have “mixed feelings,” or vacillate about what action to take. We may judge ourselves and then defend against our own judgments. In these situations, if you really listen inside, you will hear arguments going on between different parts of you. Even experiences like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, which at first glance don’t look like inner conflict, are often rooted in polarization.

IFS understands that inner conflict results from two parts being polarized, which means they are opposed to each other, feeling and acting in ways that are contrary, like reaching out versus holding back. One part might want something, and another might be afraid of it. One might work hard toward a goal, and the other might sabotage this effort. Each part is convinced that it must take an extreme stand in order to deal with the destructive actions of the other. For example, a Dieting Part becomes very strict to counter the indulgent tendencies of an Eating Part, and the Eating Part feels that it must rebel against the rigid control of the Dieting Part. Polarized parts are often locked in an unending struggle that causes intense emotions and counterproductive behavior. Usually, both polarized parts are protectors that are guarding exiles, and sometimes they are even protecting the same exile using opposite strategies.

With IFS, you get to know each polarized part and develop a trusting relationship with it, just as you would with any protector. This helps you to realize that you don’t want to get rid of either side because each of them has something to offer and each is trying its best to help you. Then, you can guide the two parts in having a dialog instead of fighting each other. This helps each part to stop seeing the other as an enemy and to recognize its positive qualities. They learn to cooperate with each other instead of being at war. In some cases, you may have to heal the exiles they are protecting before cooperation is possible. However, since they both want the best for you, this is always achievable. The key is for each protector to trust that the Self understands and cares about its mission. Then they will let you help them learn to collaborate with each other on your behalf.