How to work with protectors in IFS therapy?

Therapists who are new to practising Internal Family Systems therapy often make the mistake of not spending enough time with a client’s protectors. Psychotherapist Gayle Williamson urges seeing work with protectors as every bit as important as working with exiles, particularly in clients with highly traumatised systems.

‘I can see the little boy, but I can’t get to him. It’s like there’s a big block in my way,’ said my client. Cue the impatient part in me, saying something like ‘‘oh no... this is going to be difficult... we’re not going to get to the little boy before the session ends.” Sound familiar?

Or how about those times when you’ve done your ‘due diligence’ - checked in to see if any protectors have a problem with you going to an exile and addressed any concerns - and then just when the client is reaching a key moment with the exile, a protector inconveniently decides to intervene. Cue the other impatient part of me saying ‘damn this was going so well!’

The impatient parts of me show up far less frequently these days since it really sank in that the work is not about just getting past the protectors to the exiles. That actually, it’s important to spend quality time with protectors - because, after all, these are the parts that are often causing most of the problems in our clients’ everyday lives, constantly criticising them or keeping them on guard against any potential threat or stopping them from being fully present in their relationships.

So letting them get to know you, the therapist, as well as the client’s Self; valuing and appreciating them; and addressing their fears is time well spent. Going slowly, in other words, in order to go fast. It helps to remember that protectors are usually just children too - even if they first appear as scary monsters or fearsome goddesses.

Managers and firefighters

There are two kinds of protectors: managers or firefighters. Managers are very proactive, with their main job being to keep the exiles - the parts that hold our sadness, fear, anxiety, shame and extreme beliefs - under control or hidden away. They do this by managing our lives, our appearance and how we come across to other people through behaviours like criticising us, endless worrying, people pleasing or responsibility taking and intellectualising.

Firefighters, on the other hand, are highly reactive and their main job is to rush in and put out the ‘fire’ when an exile has broken past the manager and is hijacking us with overwhelming emotions. Firefighters really like alcohol, sex, drugs or shopping as well as outbursts of anger/rage or binge TV watching or computer game playing. Their range of behaviours reaches all the way to suicide.

How strong a protector is, will be in proportion to how traumatised the exile it protects is. But all the protectors are just doing their best to keep the exiles from overwhelming us, even if they often don’t succeed.

Is it a protector or exile?

I found starting off that it was often quite hard to tell if I was speaking to an exile or protector, and it’s something I think you develop more of an instinct about the more experience you get. You can, of course, just ask - ‘what role do you have in John’s system?’ Most of the time, if the part says it isn’t doing any job then it’s probably an exile. But sometimes protectors deny they are performing a particular role or may not realise that they are doing a job.

So, other clues may be that while many clients can picture an exile, protectors are often experienced as something more abstract - such as a big block, a heavy blanket, a dense mist or a colour - or sometimes they’ll appear as a mythical character or a monster. Frequently they’re also less talkative than exiles. But IFS isn’t an exact science, it’s a relational one… so it’s just about taking your time to flesh out parts and trusting that between you and your client you will get where you need to go.

Talking to protectors

There are some standard befriending questions to ask protectors either through direct access or insight, some variation of:

● What do you do for Mark?
● How did you get this role, what happened?
● What are you concerned about if you don’t do this job for Mark?
● How old do you think Mark is?
● If Mark can help the one who’s vulnerable, would you be interested in doing something else?

But if I sense that the protector is a strong one - the kind that just fills a client’s head with fog or wipes out all thought or feeling - I wouldn’t jump straight into questioning. I’d probably say to the client something like: “See if you can find a way to sit next to this part.. not too close but just see if you can be even a little open and curious and just sit alongside it. It sometimes helps if you tighten your core muscles a little so that this protector can maybe feel you a little more easily.

Let me know if it seems to know you are there and how it reacts.” Usually the client will report that the part seems to have eased off a little. But because of how all-consuming such protectors can feel to clients, I tend to continue with direct access at first - “So Kate tells me you’ve eased back a little, thank you for doing that. I thought it might just be easier if I spoke to you for a while, and explained to you what it is we’re doing here. I’m the one who helps Kate to help her parts, the ones who’ve been badly hurt… and we can even help you too if you’re interested? Because I suspect that you’ve been working hard for many years protecting some of these parts and you must be so tired…”

If the client reports no response of any kind, I just keep talking gently to the part and helping the client to stay in an open and curious state towards it. Don’t be discouraged if you get nothing back; yours and the client’s patience will pay off. Often, I have gotten to the end of a session like this, and been unsure if anything got through; but then on asking the protector if it would be ok if we talked to it again next week, suddenly getting a strong ‘yes’ - which I take as evidence that we’ve, at the very least, peaked the protejctor’s interest.

If the protector is being particularly nasty and critical towards the client, then I’d ask the client to see if they can put the part in some kind of room - making sure it has a window so they can see each other - before guiding the client to talk to it while remaining outside the room.

Case example 1: Learning from a mistake

But no matter what training you undergo in IFS, your best teachers will always be your clients. There are some clients who are a delight to work with - you know the kind, those who just ‘get’ IFS and where everything goes smoothly. But those aren’t the clients you want for the most part, because you won’t learn what you need to learn.

I’ve had some pretty challenging client parts come my way in the past few years, and while I might have wished for an easier ride at the time, I’m grateful for them now for what they taught me and are still teaching me. Case in point: my client Ella* (not her real name) was born in communist East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the age of five, it was thought she was too thin and so she was packed off at the recommendation of a doctor to some kind of medical camp, where she would stay for several weeks while they tried to make her put on weight.

Prior to this, Ella had also been in 9 to 5 creche care from age 1, where she’d had a variety of uncaring experiences. When we first started doing parts work, none of Ella’s parts would talk to her. I was quite new to IFS at the time, still working predominantly from Janina Fischer’s Structural Dissociation model, which doesn’t really address protector parts.

So her parts were likely picking up on a lack of confidence in me; but it also took me a while to realise that a particular part WAS in fact talking to us all along - a protector that just said “I don’t know” or “there’s nothing going on” in response to everything.

Me: “I wonder where you feel that part in your body?”
Ella: “I don’t know.”
Me: “Do you have any sense of how you feel towards this part?”
Ella: “I don’t know.”
Me: “Do you notice any images in your mind...any thoughts...any sensations in your body?”
Ella: “No, there’s just nothing.”
Me (my own frustrated part probably sneaking in here): “So I wonder if you might feel a little frustration right now?”
Ella: “I don’t know.”

Sometimes, we’d get to a stage where Ella could hear thoughts like ‘Oh, there’s no point doing this... it’s never going to work. Is this even a good technique?” We’d turn to the ‘no point’ protector then, but there was the same lack of access. Thankfully, I graduated fully into the IFS model, and my parts detector started functioning better so that one day I got Ella to focus on the part that was saying ‘I don’t know’.

“Can you ask it, Ella, why it always says this?”
“Oh,” said Ella, surprised to be finally hearing something. “I just heard ‘too dangerous.”
“Can it say more?”
“He says bad things will happen.” Do you know what he means by that Ella?
“Yes, he’s worried bad things will happen if he lets me speak to the other parts.”

When Ella asked him what bad things, she got an image of the camp. The part went on to say that he was very old and tired, and once we made sure he knew who Ella was and how she could help the parts stuck in the camp, the old man was willing to grant some access but ‘not now’. We told him no problem, we’d respect his judgment and stop there but could we talk to him again next week? Yes.

I can’t say it’s been smooth sailing since then, but Ella rarely has problems hearing from her parts now and has been able to go in and witness several camp and creche exiles, and redo some key scenes. Her “I don’t know” protector always monitors our work and comes in at a certain point to say ‘that’s almost enough’ or sometimes simply ‘no more’.

He’s also said a few times now when we check back with him at the end, “you did well; you didn’t hurt her”. But I made a mistake with him recently which I am still working with Ella to repair. We had been working with a five-year-old exile stuck in a lonely, dark place. Ella witnessed the little girl’s experience and then went in and spoke to her parents on her behalf, as the girl asked her to. I then got Ella to ask the little girl if she wanted to leave where she was, and immediately the protector came in and said ‘that’s enough’.

On questioning, he said he feared the little girl would be hurt if taken away but refused to say any more. We were at the end of the session so had to stop there; but when we tried to return to the little girl at the next session, there was a barrage of protectors, the first of which insisted: “There’s no five-year-old, she’s gone.” They’d hidden her away again - triggered by us trying to take the girl away, just as she’d been taken away to creche, taken away to the camp.

Ideally, I could have anticipated such a response and taken more time to explain to protectors what is different about what we are trying to do as compared to the camp and creche experiences. I could also have gotten Ella to show the protector where she would retrieve the little girl to and how safe it was. So that’s what we’re doing now, working patiently to regain the protectors’ trust.

Case example 2: What Self?

Protectors can also keep the Self locked away - the core you, your essence, your soul. The Self needs a mature body to fully manifest its qualities of calm, connectedness, compassion, curiosity, creativity, courage, clarity and confidence. So those parts that step in to protect us when we’re children also feel they need to protect the Self.

A recent client example really highlighted this for me. My client is in her mid-50s with complex trauma involving parental neglect and illness. Parts work has transformed our sessions and the weekly changes in Liz* (not her real name) are great to see. But our work is somewhat painstaking; where with some clients you might get to negotiate with two or three protectors and even unburden an exile all in one session, Liz and I have been working with several protectors around two linked exiles for nearly four months now. But we had a breakthrough
last week.

Liz was going to go in and help one of the exiles with a particular medical situation -something she had been trying to do for at least three sessions. But each time she tried, a protector would come up saying Liz couldn’t protect herself in the situation, or that she was incapable of helping. Then she met a protector holding a set of armour for her to wear, saying she wouldn’t be taken seriously without it. Liz told the protector who she was but it didn’t make any difference.

So I asked the armour protector to look at Liz and tell me who it saw - always a great intervention when you’re not quite sure if the client is in Self or not. “An old and shrivelled person,” Liz reported. We told the protector that this wasn’t Liz, it was another part and that we’d talk to that part and get it to step back.

So then Liz focused on the old and shrivelled part:

“She says she’s hiding me.”
“You? Who does she think that is?”
“She knows me - the 54-year-old adult me - but she’s afraid if she lets me out I’ll be too vibrant.”

Now I was excited as I sensed a real turning point... but trying to calm that excited part of me and stay open.

“Ask her what concerns her about that?”
“Well, if I appear too well, then I won’t get help, she says.”

Since the age of around 11, Liz had been hiding herself in nondescript clothing. She still doesn’t eat well and often looks very pale. There are exiles who feel so confused and sad about why their mother and father didn’t notice when something was wrong, and now this protector helps make sure their need for help is obvious. When Liz told her how much had changed in her life, there was still a concern about who would help if help was needed, because you couldn’t rely on anyone to be there – particularly if you seemed okay.

Liz was able to tell the protector: “You’re right, we can’t rely on anyone outside ourselves to be there, but I’m not going anywhere, I will always be here to help any parts that need help.” And because of Liz’s growing Self-energy, the protector accepted this and agreed to let Liz help the exile. So now it’s about continuing to check in with the old and shriveled protector and make sure she’s okay for Liz to take the lead with her parts, reassuring her when necessary that it’s okay for Liz to feel good now, and also showing her the work Liz does with any exile so that eventually she will be able to take up a new role within Liz or perhaps even just rest.

Last words

It’s probably only when I did some work involving my own protectors that I really got how important the work with them is. So doing your own parts work is something I’d definitely recommend - as well as getting support from an IFS supervisor. Personally I now have nothing but respect and admiration for our fierce protectors and their role in helping us survive.

But if all else seems to fail, don’t forget flattery: protectors love to be praised and acknowledged. It won’t get you everywhere exactly, but if a client can genuinely thank and appreciate the protector’s good intentions and hard work, and just how weary they must be, it will go a long way.

*Client's permission was obtained for this article but identifying details were changed to protect confidentiality.

Gayle Williamson is a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice in Dublin, Ireland.

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