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  • Sean Cuthbert

Working with Protective Parts in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Updated: Mar 12

Like every other creature in the natural world, humans are designed primarily to survive and reproduce. A state of constant happiness and contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival. Evolution has prioritised the development of a large frontal lobe in our brain (which gives us excellent executive and analytical abilities) over a natural ability to be happy and this indicates a lot about nature’s priorities.

Nature’s failure to eliminate something like depression in the evolutionary process (despite the obvious disadvantages in terms of survival and reproduction) is due precisely to the fact that depression as a Protective Part or adaptation can play a useful role in times of adversity, by helping the depressed individual disengage from risky and hopeless situations in which he or she cannot win. Depressive ruminations can also have a problem solving function during difficult times.

These Parts of the personality are rarely dealt with or addressed respectfully in most therapeutic approaches. However, in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy, the attention and care given Protective Parts is very different than what most psychological therapies try to bulldoze over. IFS holds that Protective Parts are in place for a reason. They are at some level actually serving a function or purpose for the person. Most importantly, Protective Parts are always fear-based. If they truly give up their role, they are concerned that something catastrophic will happen in the clients system - either something that has happened historically or generationally. When we go and connect to Protective Parts in an IFS therapy session they invariably reveal how they are trying to help the system, often so the person doesn’t re-experience the dangerous situation. For example, a common dynamic internally is where a brutal Inner Critic will send hateful messages internally with the positive intent of keeping the client hidden and small so they don’t try too hard and experience disappointment or make themselves the target of external criticism - something that has happened either in childhood or in the family-of-origin.

Using this framework, even the most extreme Protective Parts that usually scare clients (and their therapists) such as suicidal ideation and self-injury can be connected with and witnessed for their positive intent. For example, suicidal Parts usually show up internally when there doesn’t seem like any other option for escape. Self-injuring Parts may be trying to increase or decrease autonomic arousal in the person's system.

The Protective Parts of clients show up for innumerable reasons but one of the major ones in the therapy is the fear of the therapy itself, of feeling difficult emotions and the intolerable nature of these because they were never fully metabolised and processed in the first place. Protective Parts are often holding concerns about whether the client will be able to handle the emotion being held by more vulnerable Parts of the system (called “Exiles” in IFS). Often, after some negotiation, Protective Parts are able to ease back and allow the client to be with the vulnerability and very rarely do Exiles overwhelm the system if all of the lead up work with Protectors is done. The true change of IFS means being in a healthy Self-led relationship with your Parts, embracing change if it’s truly wanted, and ultimately changing how you get your needs met - going inside in the first instance rather than looking externally.