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IFS-Informed EMDR

Dealing with internal protectors: the missing link in EMDR.

Bruce Hersey, LCSW

Bruce Hersey, LCSW

• 0 min read

IFS-Informed EMDR: Dealing with internal protectors

In one sentence: Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS) can provide direction for working with the internal defenders that inhibit dual attention during EMDR therapy.

In one paragraph: IFS informs EMDR by identifying inner entities which can be seen as acting distinctively from the Self (a.k.a. the Adaptive Network). By negotiating with a client’s protectors during EMDR using the IFS framework, we can flip the roles of these entities from protection to healing to bring the underlying exiled trauma into clear view.

Inner-Connective Healing in EMDR with IFS

Have you ever found yourself stuck in Phase Two? Maybe you’ve spent session after session developing and installing resources which seem to disappear when the client is challenged during attempts to process trauma targets. Or maybe you’ve noticed that your client is having trouble maintaining dual attention between the bilateral stimulation (BLS) and the target. It’s obvious that something is holding them back from being able to proceed on their healing journey, but you’re unsure how to break through.

Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS) is an evidence-based therapy that views the psyche as comprised of a Self & parts. Much like in an actual family, the members of a person’s inner family can take on drastically different roles, often having their own perspectives, interests, memories, and motivations. Underlying all the disparate parts is the core Self, which can have a healing relationship with each part.

In the IFS framework, there are parts called “protectors” that exist to protect the Self and other, more vulnerable inner parts from pain. Protector parts can be impervious to EMDR resourcing, often due to their implicit, learned sense of urgency and their compelling protective mission.

IFS provides a compassionate, relational view of the ever-present and ever-ready family of inner protectors, and explores how they relate to the Self, the central entity that embodies the healing energy of the Adaptive Information Network.

The presence or absence of the Self in relation to any prospective target part determines whether trauma processing can proceed safely and effectively.

Especially in complex trauma, the presence of the Self is predictably blocked by legions of protectors who do not know of the Self’s existence or don’t trust its capabilities. Yet each of these parts contains its own Self-energy which can be discovered and kindled, unlocking fuller access to the Self’s healing energy.

Integrating IFS with EMDR

There are many ways in which IFS can be useful in EMDR therapy, such as gaining permission of all the parts before embarking on a specific procedure, or looking for an interfering part when processing is blocked. A thorough integration of IFS with EMDR rests on a foundation of significant training in both methods. For EMDR therapists, this means embarking on a committed path of learning the IFS model through experiential training.

Using our refined IFS-Informed EMDR (IIE) approach, we can identify and begin to work with protector parts that are in control (“blended”) and block the path to trauma processing. These protectors can materialize in a variety of ways, such as dissociation, somatic experiences, avoidance, blocking beliefs, and acting out behaviorally.

Indirect Trauma Processing

When it comes to understanding how protectors inhibit the success of EMDR, we can draw from other psychological frameworks which focus on defense mechanisms of individuals that help them cope with traumatic memories.

James Knipe pioneered the concept of processing psychological defenses within an EMDR framework, advancing the work of A.J. Popky. Popky’s Level of Urge to Use (LoUU) is limited to compulsive and addictive behavior, while Knipe proposed a Level of Urge to Avoid (LoUA) scale to address avoidance encountered within the context of administering EMDR, and with respect to engaging in specific adaptive and appropriate behavior in life. Knipe’s approach is to desensitize the avoidance urge, thereby indirectly desensitizing the underlying trauma.

Expanding upon the range of defensive behaviors addressed by Knipe and Popky, IIE defines and measures a Level of Urge to Protect (LUP) to encompass urges to engage in any possible protective behavior or stance, including avoidance, compulsions, and addictions.

Protectors may appear to have a negative cognition at first, but closer inspection reveals that they act based on a positive intention. They have a job. They serve a greater good: survival and adaptation.

Befriending, not Unblending

IIE understands defensive behavior as being carried out by a conscious relational entity, or part. When approaching the entity with an agenda of desensitizing a protector, this disrespects the entity’s protective role and places the therapist in a polarized position. To circumvent this polarization, IIE establishes a “Discovery Contract” with the blended protector entity. The Discovery Contract is an agreement to utilize BLS to obtain a deeper understanding of the protector’s role and experience.

Although IFS-Informed EMDR’s Discovery brings about indirect desensitization of the underlying trauma and often results in desensitization or “unblending” of the protector, these are byproducts of the Discovery process. They are welcomed, but they are not the focus of Discovery. Instead, the therapist needs to be clear and authentic in making and adhering to the Discovery Contract by starting from a place of genuine curiosity.

A Bilateral Stimulation Centrifuge

Discovery moves toward increased differentiation of the protector from the “exile” or wounded entity it protects, and the Self which emerges in the process. Just like a solution in a centrifuge, all the components separate out. Self-energy emerges from within the protector, grows and builds upon itself until it reaches a critical mass. A phase shift occurs, and healing takes precedence over protection. At this point the therapist can recontract with the newly present Self and less charged protector to pursue healing of the traumatized exile. We can then construct an IIE Assessment Phase to start the process of directly healing the underlying trauma.

What About Complex Trauma?

In cases of Complex PTSD, Onno van der Hart suggested three modifications to the EMDR Standard protocol in cases of complex PTSD. IIE’s Discovery aligns with all three in the following ways:

  • Increase capacity: Capacity translates to Self-presence, which in IFS, normally happens through identifying blended parts and taking the time to understand their need to blend, as well as their fears of the consequences of unblending. IFS calls that therapist communication with blended parts “Direct Access.”

  • Restrict processing: In cases where processing attempts activate a protector, it’s necessary to restrict processing. One way to restrict processing is to focus exclusively on the blended protector rather than the heart of the trauma that activates the protection.

  • Increase interweaves: Discovery uses sets of BLS with increased interweaves of two main types:

    • Self-Resourcing: Opportunistically 'tapping in' any glimpses of Self-energy that spontaneously appear during the processing

    • Informed Curiosity: Asking questions based on IFS and memory reconsolidation designed to support a deeper understanding of implicit learning, fears and purpose

Negative Cognition or Positive Intention?

Protectors are powered by urge-energy and organized by purpose. Though they may appear to have a negative cognition at first encounter, closer inspection reveals they act based on a positive intention. They have a job. They serve a greater good: survival and adaptation. They also have fears. What happens if they don’t do their job?

Bruce Ecker’s Coherence Therapy clarifies the importance of identifying implicit memories (unconsciously learned schemas) in facilitating memory reconsolidation in experiential therapies like IFS and EMDR. Protector parts have positive intentions and fears in IFS.

Protector Positive Intention (PPI): “I have to excel at everything, or I will be completely unnoticed and uncared for, as though I don’t even exist.”

Level of Urge to Protect (LUP): “From 0-10 how much do you feel, right now, that you need to excel at everything, or you will be completely unnoticed and uncared for, as though you don’t even exist?”

The Takeaway

IFS informs EMDR by fleshing out neural networks to include dimensions of consciousness and relationship. The Adaptive Network is a Self which transmits healing energy to target networks better understood as burdened parts within a dual attention relationship.

When functional dual attention is prevented by blended protectors, we can pivot from pursuing direct trauma processing to developing a deeper understanding through befriending the protector in a Discovery mode.

The Discovery process utilizes bilateral stimulation to resource Self-energy found within the protector while uncovering the implicit origins of its protective mandate.

Ultimately, the energy of the protector flips from protection to healing, the underlying exiled trauma part comes into clear view and a bridge is formed from Phase Two to Phase Three.

If you’d like to learn more about Bruce’s approach to IFS-Informed EMDR visit where you’ll find pre-recorded workshops, or visit for live experiential trainings.

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