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  • Writer's pictureSean Cuthbert

When Parts are at war: Polarizations in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

In Internal Family Systems (IFS), "polarizations" refer to the conflicts that can arise between different parts of an individual's internal system. Specifically, this common occurrence highlights an adversarial relationship between two protective parts over how to manage the overwhelming feelings of a part holding the residues of an adverse experience, which in IFS is called an Exile. When this polarization is allowed to continue inside a person without any mediating force, the opposing views of the polarized parts tend to become more extreme over time and have greater consequences, both internally and externally.


An example of a polarization is when a person might have a part that is a brutal "Inner Critic,” which constantly judges and berates them, while another part, a “Perfectionist” may be continually striving to do everything extremely well. These opposing parts may battle for control, leading to an inner tug of war that creates rigidity and chaos, and is experienced by the person as exhausting. In this example, both parts may be protecting the same Exile, who may have survived a childhood where they were constantly belittled for making mistakes or were in some kind of danger (either physically or psychologically) when they were less than perfect.


Two parts in conflict in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy.

In this way, protective parts often view vulnerability and emotional pain held by Exiles as a central unsolvable problem. Some parts (usually Managers) work proactively to prevent this pain from reaching consciousness. Other parts (usually Firefighters) work reactively to suppress and distract once that pain has reached consciousness or is visible in the external world. Either way, as both groups try to solve the problem of emotional suffering held by Exiles, they routinely come up with contradictory strategies and get into disagreements over how to do this adequately. Both are ultimately failing and both stand to gain significantly if we guide the client’s Self to offer a new, more effective solution. Consequently, we can afford to be hope merchants as we really do have another option that will solve their problem and all the to reconfigure into another role, become less active inside, or just rest.


Unlike in other therapeutic approaches, we do not expect or demand trust from these polarized protectors, but we merely ask them for the opportunity to earn their trust. To do this, the client’s Self gets really curious and seeks to fully understand the protective role. When this is achieved, we can offer each side of the polarization the opportunity to try something new and that is not so onerous for each, and/or to gain help from the client’s Self. It is important that any assistance the Self provides is offered with any expectation or judgement. If there is an agenda that the protector/s must change this is indicative of a Self-like part, rather than Self. These parts can sometimes be very sensitive to outside efforts to control.


When each sides of a polarization are acknowledged and truly appreciated by the client’s Self, polarized parts generally become more willing to allow the Self to take over the job of caring for, protecting, and healing the Exile. Protectors can then become freed from their thankless job and find their preferred role in the internal family. When each sides of a polarization are acknowledged and truly appreciated by the client’s Self, polarized parts generally become more willing to allow the Self to take over the job of caring for, protecting, and healing the Exile. Protectors can then become freed from their thankless job and find their preferred role in the internal family.


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