Having a protective system is crucial for survival. It is important to understand that this is part of being human. However, parts can take on extreme roles if they are forced into action by experiencing some adversity before the client is ready or skilled enough to handle this adversity. Some parts will fill in gaps in the family, help the person escape, or fight the unavoidable pain. These protective strategies may have been appropriate and necessary at the time but as the person grows up (and hopefully no longer in these situations) these coping mechanisms can become a problem in the person's life and relationships.
Given the protector's dedication to safety and their aversion to feeling vulnerable, the thought of doing internal work with these parts can be frightening to the client. This is especially so when we start to talk about processing trauma memories. In my opinion, trauma therapists (including me) gravitate towards working with these vulnerable parts (memories), and for different reasons, we want to go in deep and begin the desensitization process quicker than the system may allow. However, if we do that too quickly we could run the risk of violating these protectors’ rules and cause a stall in the treatment.
So, to take a more collaborative approach, we try to understand and respect these protectors for the work they have done. When you and the client can do this, the system calms down. That’s when we build trust and confidence that the hard work can be done.
So let's take a look at several techniques (that work and don’t work) that you can use to build the relationship with these protectors. We will look at the managers first then the firefighters.
3 Techniques that often fail with manager parts:
1. Attempting to outwit managers.
2. Going blindly ahead without the manager’s support.
3. Annihilating the managers.
If there is one thing I learned from IFS and working with my clients’ parts, it’s that I am not smarter than they are. Clients who have complex trauma have an antenna that can pick up any hint of me trying to outsmart them or get rid of them. They have a very good parts detector.
Coincidentally, this is a skill you want to build moving forward - having a good parts detector. With the veterans I work with especially, I need to be straight up, because if I’m not, they will pick up on it and I will lose the trust with these parts.Then it’s game over. Well, you know what they say: it is not in the rip, it is in the repair. But you get the point. I am telling you this going in so you know what to expect. Our goal with manager parts is to keep them in the loop, not try to get rid of them, and ultimately become an ally instead of an enemy.
Now, with all of that being said, there are some things that work and the list I am going to share with you probably won’t come as a surprise. But again, I want to give you some things to consider before working with the manager parts.
4 techniques you can use to stay engaged with manager parts:
1. Ask managers to explain their conduct. Managers must learn how to be direct, to express their fears and goals without the drama of cold or extreme behavior. The fear of letting anyone close to them must be confronted gently but still must be addressed.
2. Teaching managers to reveal their feelings. Although the managerial weapon of numbing all feelings breaks the survivor's connection to many emotions, this does not mean that managers have no feelings. They are terrified too. When managers act coldest, they are usually aching to communicate their emotions. I once had a client who told me he didn't regret anything he did. I thought to myself maybe he doesn't but I bet there is a part who does. The bottom line is that when you have a thought or feeling about something there is usually another part of you that feels the opposite. I have seen this time and time again with the “feelings are a sign of weakness” narrative. Even though it may seem like parts don't want to talk about their feelings, they do. They just don't know how to do it or maybe they need to build more trust in doing so.
3. Allowing managers to have a say in the treatment planning. Even though managers can be wise-sounding and have been leading things, they are not the Self. With that being said it doesn't mean that we should push them aside without their help. It is OK to receive their help and this could be a key step in moving forward with exploring the inner world of the client.
4. Teaching managers how to hope. Over time the managers learn that the Self is capable of maintaining health and balance throughout the system, even when parts experience strong emotions. This discovery of the Self’s confidence gives managers hope. Once I had a client who described his protector as an engine with its throttle at full capacity at all times. In fact, he would often say this manager part is not a part of me, it is who I am. That told me that he was doing this for a long time. Or this part has been doing this for a long time. So I suggested to him that instead of turning off the throttle completely we simply adjust it a little bit. When this part heard this it resonated so much that it provided relief not only to the part but the rest of the system. After that session, he was calmer and more trusting in the process. Experiencing this in real time provided significant hope that this was going to work. You see, for the first time, this part relaxed and provided relief to his system: something both this part and he needed.
The bottom line is that managers’ growing trust in the client’s Self often frees other parts to trust the Self. As the Self works with the managers, the Firefighters feel relief because the managers are now less critical and less undermining of their efforts. Similarly, the exiles also feel a sense of comfort and are less distant from these managers. Remember: despite the blow-ups or rigidness from the managers, they tend to run the show. They manage the client’s day to day life. So, in a way, the rest of the system learns to rely on these manager parts. They are watching closely and if the managers can trust and relax a little then the other parts of the system can do the same. Based on my experience, it is working with manager parts that takes time. And it should. The protective system does not become the way it is overnight so changing it will take some time.
Dick Schwartz says in one of his books that the length of treatment is based on 3 things:
OK, so I hope by now you have a deeper understanding of these Manager parts. Not only should you know some of the key roles they take on but also what they need to feel more comfortable and safe. If you would like to learn more about Managers please read The Mosaic Mind and IFS Second Edition. That is where most of this content comes from. Stay tuned for Part II where we will take a deeper look at Firefighters.