Although I am relatively new to Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, I have been a trauma therapist since 2013.  In the early stages of my career, I tried to get as much training in trauma work (from graduate school or CEU events) as possible, but I found myself being taught basic tools like journaling and creative activities that activate the right brain and access feelings differently, without really learning about the true nature and manifestations of trauma. It wasn’t until I became trained in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) in 2013, that I really learned what trauma was and how to understand it. 

Adding EMDR as a tool in my toolbelt helped me move clients toward healing in an exponential way. Despite seeing incredible success, however, I had some clients and situations that were a huge struggle for me. In some cases, the client would do incredible work in reprocessing one week, only to find the following week that a part of the client was completely shut down and unable to continue the treatment. Sometimes that part would be shut down for a couple of weeks; other times, clients would terminate therapy after a huge breakthrough but before arriving at the destination.  Occasionally, we would try to reprocess a trauma memory or trigger only to find ourselves blocked by dissociation, emotional overwhelm, or suicidal ideation; and despite my best efforts to “slice it thinner”, create safety through the therapeutic relationship, and utilize grounding techniques, we would get stalled out.  

As I have continued to learn and grow as a trauma therapist, I picked up new skills and perspectives to continue to help my clients heal. The most powerful healing accelerator post-EMDR training has been the integration of Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy into my practice. IFS has added some key missing pieces that helped explain why I stalled out with those previously mentioned cases, as well as strategies to help improve my work with trauma in the future.

If you are unfamiliar with Internal Family Systems Therapy, click here to read our blog post about the basics of IFS, where we will explain the IFS language of Protectors, Managers, Firefighters, Exiles, and Self.

Using IFS to Prevent Blocks in Trauma Work:  Understanding Protectors

As I learned about the existence of “parts” and the roles they play in our system, I have a completely different perspective on what was happening when I got stuck with clients in a session. At this point, I realized that most of the time I got stuck, I had inadvertently bypassed or engaged in a power struggle with my client’s protectors.  

In order to avoid getting trapped in a power struggle, it is important to get to know and respect all the parts that are activated in the system around a traumatic topic or event. This can be done through an “internal conference” or “parts mapping” experience.  (I will post a blog in the future with more information on these IFS techniques.  If you are interested in more information on these, please check out the work of Richard Schwartz including “No Bad Parts” or (Schwartz & Sweezy) “Internal Family Systems Therapy, Second Edition”.)  

Protectors are highly protective or fearful of the Exiled (burdened or traumatized) parts.  Protectors try to either prevent Exiles from being triggered or keep Exiles locked away, fearful of what they might do if they are allowed to break free.  Individuals can never experience peace as long as parts of themselves are Exiled or cut off.  It is essential to heal and integrate these parts into the greater whole for true healing to happen. 

But first we have to overcome the objections and fears of the other parts of the system that worry that connecting with Exiles will only make things worse.  

Common Protector Fears

There are some common fears that occur in protector parts, whether those protectors are Managers or Firefighters.  Those common fears include:

  1. Exiles will overwhelm or take over the system.
  2. Exiles can’t change; what’s done is done and there’s no point in going back.
  3. Going back will trigger dangerous Firefighters.
  4. The practitioner won’t be able to handle the Exiles; they’ll be repulsed or overwhelmed and reject the client.
  5. The protector (Manager) will lose its job or be eliminated.
  6. Secrets will be exposed that either the internal or external system can’t handle.
  7. They need the protective cloak or the Manager or Firefighter because without it they could become too needy or vulnerable.

Being familiar with these common fears of protectors can help you anticipate, validate and help the client’s parts to overcome these fears and to create therapeutic buy-in in order to heal Exiles and help your client heal from trauma.