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  • Writer's pictureChristina Cunningham Spinler

Understanding Parts

In the world of psychotherapy, especially within Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, the concept of "protectors" is key to understanding how we manage emotional pain and trauma. IFS suggests that our minds are made up of different parts, each with its own role and function. Protectors are particularly important as they work tirelessly to shield us from emotional distress.

What Are Protectors?

Protectors are parts of our psyche that take on roles to protect us from emotional pain and trauma. These parts are essential for survival, especially when we face overwhelming stress or past traumas. Protectors can be divided into two main types: Managers and Firefighters.

  1. Managers parts are proactive, attempting to prevent pain and trauma from surfacing by controlling our environment, thoughts, and behaviors. Managers strive to maintain stability and prevent triggers that could lead to emotional distress.

  2. Firefighters parts are reactive and step in when pain or trauma has already been triggered. Firefighters aim to extinguish the emotional flames by any means necessary, often through distracting or numbing behaviors.

Common Protectors and Their Roles

  1. The Perfectionist

  • Role: Strives for flawless performance and high standards.

  • Function: By pushing the individual to achieve perfection, this protector attempts to avoid criticism, rejection, and feelings of inadequacy.

  1. The Controller

  • Role: Seeks to manage and control situations and relationships.

  • Function: Ensures safety and predictability by keeping a tight rein on the environment, thus avoiding unexpected events that could lead to emotional distress.

  1. The Caretaker

  • Role: Focuses on pleasing others and taking care of their needs.

  • Function: Gains approval and avoids rejection by ensuring others are happy and satisfied, often at the expense of the individual's own needs.

  1. The Inner Critic

  • Role: Constantly criticizes and judges the individual.

  • Function: Pushes for better performance and behavior, aiming to prevent failure and rejection by highlighting flaws and areas for improvement.

  1. Shame

  • Role: The job of shame is to prevent further hurt and rejection by keeping us from repeating actions that might lead to social or personal disapproval.

  • Function:  It discourages behaviors or thoughts that might lead to criticism or rejection by others. It keeps us aligned with social norms and expectations, thereby helping to maintain relationships and social acceptance. It shields us from exposing our weaknesses or past mistakes, which could lead to further emotional wounds.


  1. The Addict

  • Role: Engages in addictive behaviors such as substance use, gambling, or excessive eating.

  • Function: Numbs emotional pain and provides temporary relief from distress, though often leading to further issues down the line.

  1. The Compulsive

  • Role: Turns to compulsive behaviors like cleaning, shopping, or workaholism.

  • Function: Distracts from emotional pain by providing a sense of control and accomplishment.

  1. The Dissociator

  • Role: Creates a sense of detachment from reality.

  • Function: Escapes overwhelming feelings by mentally distancing from the present moment, providing a temporary reprieve from distress.

  1. The Self-Harm Part

  • Role: Engages in self-harm behaviors.

  • Function: Coping mechanism to express and manage intense emotional pain, albeit in a destructive manner.

  1. The Binger:

  • Role: Engages in binge-eating or binge-watching TV/movies.

  • Function: Provides immediate distraction and relief from emotional pain and distress. By focusing on eating large quantities of food or consuming hours of entertainment, this firefighter part helps the individual temporarily escape from overwhelming feelings and stressful situations. Binge behaviors are common coping mechanisms that serve to numb emotional pain and provide a sense of comfort or distraction. While these behaviors may offer short-term relief, they often lead to further problems, such as health issues or feelings of guilt and shame.

Why Understanding Protectors Matters

Understanding and acknowledging your protector parts is important for fostering self compassion, understand, awareness and fostering personal growth. Instead of seeing these behaviors as negative or harmful, IFS helps us view them as protective measures we've adopted to cope with past traumas and stress. By recognizing the roles these parts play, you can start developing a more compassionate relationship with yourself. Now, protectors yes are trying hard to help, but as we know they can be painful and not helpful. The goal is to unblend from parts or soften them so they allow "you" to make decisions vs. the part. But never make them go away.

In therapy, working with these protectors means helping them feel safe and understood, which allows them to step back. This, in turn, lets you address the deeper emotional wounds they're guarding. This whole process promotes healing and balance, leading to a more harmonious internal system

The goal is to bring in more "self energy" into your system so the parts don't have to work so hard.

To bring more self-energy into your internal system, it's helpful to unblend from your protective parts. This means recognizing that these parts, while trying to protect you from emotional pain, sometimes overshadow your true self. By gently stepping back from these parts, you create space for your self-energy—characterized by calmness, curiosity, and compassion—to lead. This process involves mindfulness, therapeutic dialogue, and visualization techniques, which can help you approach your internal world with more compassion and ultimately foster healing and balance. What that might look like would depend on the individual, but the journey itself can lead to increase self awareness and self-responsibility.


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