I’ve been getting more clarity around the protective part of clients I see, and wanted to flesh out some of my thoughts. Those of you familiar with Internal Family Systems (IFS) will immediately know what I’m talking about. You can learn more about IFS here.
IFS explains parts in more detail, which I won’t go much into here, but for today’s purpose it helps to know we all have a protective part, and it protects us from our wounded part getting hurt again. Often times wounded parts, or “exiles”, are born in childhood, and are quite young and frightened inside of us. I see this a lot in clients who have trauma triggers in their current relationship, but the trauma is from their family of origin.
What I’m becoming more aware of, though, is a wounded part born out of adult betrayal and a unique protective part that emerges. I’ve had several couples where there has been a massive betrayal/attachment wound. And there seems to be two main ingredients that create a very unique protective part:
1) A betrayal that cut to the very core of the person, that involved Partner B making a series of decisions that made Partner A feel profoundly unsafe. I think all betrayals are going to cause a ton of awful emotions for Partner A, but these are ones in which Partner A felt that their safety and wellbeing, financial stability, something core to their safety was intentionally put at risk by their partner.
2) The client feels they betrayed themselves by not being more aware of what was happening. The client lost their ability to trust themselves. This may be because they weren’t aware of something huge happening, or because they had an inkling and didn’t stop it. Sometimes clients will say something like, “if I were to trust and then get hurt again, I honestly don’t think I could forgive myself, I couldn’t even live with myself.”
When these two combine, it’s like the protective part almost completely blocks soothing from the other partner. This protective part says, “You were too stupid to protect yourself before, now I won’t budge an inch.” And of course, it’s completely devastating and exhausting for their partner. Battling any protective part, as a therapist or loved one, feels impossible.
I am still feeling out how to work with this part, but I’ve found two ways that are helping me get a little wiggle room. The first is to honor the protective part. This sounds like validation, but it’s more specific. I’ll say something like, “I want to honor this protective part that’s coming up right now. It’s understandable it’s here. Like you said, you are so angry at yourself for not catching this sooner. So this protective part is here now, saying, I won’t let you not catch this again, I won’t let you be asleep again.”
The second way is to ask where their true self, or other part is. Is it behind this protective part? Can they feel that other part? And feel out what it’s longing for. All the while, I never push that too much. If the protective part senses I’m trying to get it to drop it’s defenses, it will roar back to life. So I’m always trying to dance between the two.
My final thought with this is that I don’t know if it’s safe for the client to trust again. So I don’t ever want to push or lead a client to trust if their system is truly sensing that they may be betrayed again. I want to be on the leading edge, with the purpose of the client really feeling out if they want to trust again.