Richard Schwartz: Working With IFS Protectors

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "No Bad Parts" by Richard C. Schwartz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who are “protectors” in IFS? What role do protectors play in our psyche?

“Protectors” are the parts of ourselves that guard our “exiles”—the youngest and the most vulnerable parts of ourselves—from unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and memories. In other words, protectors are the defense mechanisms we use to avoid getting hurt.

Keep reading to learn about the concept of IFS protectors and how to work with them in therapy.

IFS Protectors

Our protective parts are the parts of ourselves that take on the role of defending our exiles from future hurt. For example, if there was an exile that felt shame for crying publicly, there might be a protector who shows up when the exile is feeling especially sad who tells the exile to “suck it up.” Schwartz emphasizes that where there are exiles, there are always protectors. 

Schwartz distinguishes between two types of IFS protectors. Managers are protective parts that act preemptively to keep us safe by attempting to control our environment—carefully managing who we date, what we wear, and how we’re perceived to ensure that nothing can happen to trigger the same feelings experienced by our exiles. Managers are often our most critical inner voices. Their burden is containing and protecting the most vulnerable parts of who we are. 

Firefighters are protective parts that act reactively when they think we’re in danger—usually when there’s an overwhelming flood of emotions. Firefighters want to remove us from what we’re feeling. They might make us throw ourselves into work, binge-watch a show, use substances to numb pain, or, in extreme cases, commit suicide, in an attempt to remove us from what we’re feeling. Their burden is suppressing powerful emotions when they do flare up. 

(Shortform note: The manager and firefighter roles are not uniformly dysfunctional. For example, healthy managers help us make sure we’re well-fed, sleep enough, and make decisions based on our core values. Managers only veer into the harmful when they become too controlling and begin policing thoughts, behaviors, or feelings. Similarly, firefighters help to soothe, distract, or numb ourselves when we’re overwhelmed. For example, in the face of the rising death count during the Covid-19 pandemic, many people avoided watching too much news, choosing to connect virtually with family and friends instead.)

The 6 Fs: A Strategy for Working With Protectors  

While not described in No Bad Parts, IFS outlines a process known as the 6 Fs, which offers a road map for working with protectors.

1. Find: Instead of trying to find a specific part directly, identify a challenging situation or behavior in your life. Talking about a challenge can sometimes help you find the part associated with that challenge.

2. Focus: After finding the part that’s impacted, focus inward on the emotions and physical sensations associated with the part.

3. Flesh out: Flesh out the part by listening to its story and learning more about its feelings and needs.

4. Feel: Ask yourself how you feel toward the part. If you feel nothing, that part is still blended with the Self. If you feel annoyed or frustrated, the Self is likely blended with another part because the Self only feels compassion for its parts. However, if you feel open and curious toward the part, then you’re operating from a state of Self-leadership.

5. Befriend: When both the Self and the part are present, the Self can befriend the part and begin to form an authentic and loving relationship based on mutual respect and compassion rather than fear or control. 

6. Fears: Discover the deepest fears of the part. Deeply held fears often keep parts trapped in unproductive roles. Understanding the fear is the first step in letting the fear go.

Richard Schwartz: Working With IFS Protectors

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  • A detailed look at IFS—a psychotherapy model that challenges the idea of a unitary mind
  • Why it's normal to have conflicting voices in your head
  • What IFS therapy looks like in practice and its benefits

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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