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Discovering IFS: Meeting the Protecting System

Updated: Apr 11

Please note: This is a continuation of the previous article titled "What is Internal Family System", which I invite you to read to better understand this one.

Here, we will deepen our understanding of the Parts that belong to the protecting system.

Before getting to know those parts individually, we can look into the theory behind "systemic thinking".

Systemic thinking is a method where we don't study each part individually, but instead, we examine how each part interacts with others and how its surroundings influence it.

This approach was introduced to the field of psychotherapy in the 1970s by the emerging field of family therapy.

In IFS, our focus is on analyzing the relationship patterns between parts and their impact on the system and individuals, rather than just the characteristics of each part.


The first category of parts with which we usually interact belongs to the protective system and are called managers. The primary function of a manager is to keep the pain of the exile deactivated by keeping the person in control when it comes to relationships and situations.

Managers are the parts that help people to function in their daily lives and to adapt to their environment.

One of the key traits of managers is that they are socially acceptable, adopting the beliefs, values, and biases of society in order to be accepted by others.

They also carry the heavy burden of parenting the exile by controlling the situation.

Two of the underlying voices that characterize managers are

self-criticism and perfectionism: the hope is that by being perfect and accepted by others, no unpleasant feeling will be activated.

Talking about managers: it is essential to understand that different types of Managers appear in different situations.

There might be a manager who strives for career, success, or wealth, so the person can be in a position of power and be distracted from or compensate for complicated feelings such as inner shaming, fear, sadness, and despair.

We might also find a manager who does the opposite by making the person passive, apathetic, or pessimistic so he won't take any risk that might arouse a sense of failure.

Managers might use worry and anxiety as a mechanism to anticipate problems so they are prepared when something comes, but this won't lead to life a fulfilling life; on the other hand, they might minimize problems to avoid stress, but the downside of it is that the problem might get worst in the long term.

Managers tend to exert control over interpersonal relationships in varying ways. Some choose to maintain distance and appear cold, while others prioritize pleasing others and suppress their own needs; this prevents people from having a more profound, intimate connection.

Different manager in different areas of life act differently, but they all share a common goal: to keep the vulnerable feeling of exile away.


As we have seen already, managers focus on maintaining the person in control at all times and pleasing everyone by protecting the System from any vulnerability.

Firefighters react fast when, despite the manager's work, this vulnerability gets triggered or has been treated.

As firefighter in real life turns down the fire and rescue people, this type of protector react when the pain of the exile gets activated, and their job is to turn this activation down.

Firefighters are determined to protect the system at any cost, and they tend to act impulsively and reactively. Although their goal is the same as that of managers, their methods often conflict with those of managers, and other parts of the system do not appreciate their protective function.

Managers are socially accepted, but firefighters are not in many situations because of how they try to protect the system. They do so at any cost, without considering the negative impact on the people around them or their health.

Firefighters have the determination to protect the exile at any cost and tend to be reactive, impulsive, and unthinking.

One of the primary strategies that is used is the 3'F: Fighting, Flying, and Freezing.

They may dissociate and numb the person from feeling by using substances, activities, or distractions; examples of this can be drugs, sex, mindless use of social media, food, or any activity that helps us to disconnect.

In a relationship, firefighters can make the person very aggressive when the person feels attached, or they might take the extreme stand to cut the person off from that relationship.

Traditional therapy sees the behavior of firefighters as pathological; IFS sees the intention of protecting something, and we try to negotiate with them.

The ultimate goal is to reconnect to the Self so it can help with the problems of Exile.

An extreme example of a firefighter is suicide: the pain of the person is so unbearable that the only option available is to quit life.

As for Managers, we can find different types of firefighter activities that are used: when one doesn't work, they try another.

Example of interaction

Managers and firefighters have one goal in common: protecting the exile.

For example, in an interpersonal relationship, we might have a manager who pleases the other to be accepted, but if pleasing is not enough and a sense of rejection starts to surface, a firefighter might kick in and take distance from this relationship.

The interaction between those two parts is not always linear; in fact, there are cases where a particular system is more in control than another.

There are people whose system is dominated by managing parts, while other people who have problems with addiction or cannot manage their anger are dominated by firefighters.

When we embark on the journey of inner work, it is crucial to be respectful and appreciative of the work done by our protector parts. Even though they may exhibit dysfunctional behavior, we must remember that their efforts have enabled us to survive until now.

The protection system is young, and when it came to being our protector, it didn't have the cognitive function to understand what was right and what was not. 

Therefore, it would be counterproductive to blame this part for its work rather than acknowledge its efforts, as it could lead to further alienation and inner turmoil.

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