Castlewood Eating Disorder Treatment Center Blog

Polarization and Depolarization

Written by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D

Richard SchwartzWith the election in the foreground this year, I am increasingly struck by the parallels between the level of polarization that has locked up our political system and the way our clients’ inner polarities paralyze them. Whenever members of a political system are so distrusting of its leadership and fearing of the opposition that they are willing to damage the whole in order to prevail, the system is in trouble.

I see the same process, for example, in eating-disordered clients when the restricting part is willing to kill the client in order to keep the bingeing part from taking over. Of course, in addition to fighting each other, the restricting and bingeing parts are also protecting highly vulnerable exiles, are convinced that theirs is the best way to do that and that the other’s way leads to catastrophe.

It seems to be a universal rule that the more vulnerable any level of human system becomes, the more the protectors of that system polarize and the less trust exists in Self-leadership. This, of course, becomes a vicious cycle in which each side’s extremes create more extremity in the other, and the absence of attention or caring for the vulnerable elements created more vulnerability. At the same time, in the outside world, the system’s extreme protectors alienate or estrange other systems, which make the outside world more dangerous, increasingly justifying the protectors’ extremes. The US enrages other countries; eating-disordered clients frustrate everyone around them.

Polarization in any level of human system can have many different sources and effects--and, without Self leadership, polarization naturally perpetuates itself. This process often starts after the system is hurt and it then exiles or neglects its injured members. In a hostile or competitive environment, this response makes sense because the injured members impede the system’s operation and because of their vulnerability, they need to be projected. This seemingly natural response, however, sets in motion a number of understandable but destructive processes that become self perpetuating. First, because the exiled members are neglected or disdained, their pain and desperation grows so the system becomes increasingly susceptible to being overwhelmed by or bogged down by them. Consequently, the exiles are increasingly vulnerable to any external events that might upset them. Then, the system’s protectors must work harder to contain the exiles and to control the external environment. They become increasingly interested in power in the outside world and in activities and attitudes that help them ignore or deny the pain within.

Their attempts to control the outside world will create polarizations with other human systems who will respond hostilely to being controlled, which the protectors will use to justify increasing their activities. Other projectors, however, will become frightened and lobby for withdrawing from the outside world and will polarize with the aggressive protectors. In this way, exiling leads to external polarization which leads to internal polarization and to more exiling of the week or injured, and so on. Throughout, the protective factions will vie for control of the system’s operation. In some cases, the aggressive side wins and the system becomes oppressive to inner voices of fear and to other external systems. In other cases, the scared protectors win and lock up the angry ones. For still others, there remains an alternating dominance among these factions. I find that this process operates at all levels of human system whether it is a person, a corporation, or a country. We IFS therapists are acutely aware of how this process works with our clients, but consider this quote from an aggressive protector who was able to hijack a country:

“But of course the people don’t want war… this is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist’s dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship... voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

The speaker is Herman Goering, during this Nuremburg war crimes trial but he is speaking for many politicians and protective parts.

So, how do we help systems at all levels reverse this process and become more Self led? Many have suggested that meditative practices can bring a peace-loving consciousness to the system. I believe that meditation per see is not the solution.

For example, Be Scofield writes that, “As was the case with Zen Buddhism in Japan during and before WWII, the cultivation of stillness, compassion and love can co-exist with the worst fascism and imperialism. The entire institution of Zen Buddhism- the masters, monks and professors supported the cruel and colonizing efforts of the state and emperor. They defended the “wars of compassion,” gorged themselves in killing and advocated merging the small self with the larger self of the state.”

For me, meditation needs to be incorporated into a larger healing practice that not only separates us from our “egos” but also witnesses, retrieves and unburdens our exiles. Unfortunately too many mediators collude with the exiling process because they misunderstand and vilify “the ego,” a practice which encourages us to ignore some parts and repress others. While the Dalai Lama is a force for good in the world, even he falls prey to this common mistake when he says that, “The true practitioner must be a soldier who unceasingly fights his or her inner enemies.” Likewise, another hero, Mahatma Gandhi subscribed to this internal demonizing. He said, “The only devils in the world are those swimming around in our own hearts. That is where the battle should be fought,” which may account for why he was so nasty to those close to him.

The point is that it is all parallel. How people relate internally plays out externally. If you hate parts of you, it’s much harder to generate compassion for people who resemble those parts. Meditation is useful to access Self but only if that is in the service of bringing the same kind of compassion to our inner enemies and exiles that so many spiritual systems advocate bringing to our enemies and exiles. You can’t battle the personalities inside and love the personalities outside. The other element often cited as a solution is the cultivation of the awareness that all human beings are connected. With that awareness we don’t just care about our family and ethnic group but instead we have a more universal compassion. For systems in this polarized, exiling state however, such an expansive level of consciousness either won’t happen or will take a huge effort to maintain because our protectors are constantly shrinking our circle of caring. If you only love and welcome certain parts of you, you will be similarly exclusive in the outside world. The Glenn Becks of the world love those who, like him, have been saved but write off all those that haven’t been. I submit that if you did an IFS session with him you would find that his protectors hate his weak, ashamed or gay parts, which is why his protectors are drawn to creeds of exclusion.


Once we begin to love instead of fight or hate our inner enemies and exiles, and our parts feel connected to our Self and to each other, it is much easier for us to feel the parallel connection to others, even those who are very different or distant from us. The more we connect to the parts of us that resonate with or have empathy for others, the more we can identify with their lives and predicaments. As Wendell Berry said, “The parts are healthy insofar as they are joined harmoniously to the whole… only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” Also connectedness is one of the 8 C’s of Self leadership and is inherent in Self. So as parts relax and trust Self, people naturally have a more universal compassion rather than having to work so hard to cultivate it. When people access Self while they are in conflict, polarizations melt because they see behind the other’s protectors and sense the exiles that drive them. They also sense the Self in the other and feel their common humanity that is obscured when each are dominated by protectors. Finally, they sense that it is safe to expose their vulnerability to one another which, in turn, naturally depolarizes. As Longfellow wrote, “if we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each man’s life sorry and a suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

So, not surprisingly, the larger answer is that polarized systems need consistent access to some source of Self. The problem is that escalating polarized voices can often obscure the Self energy that exists in the system. As Robert Greenleaf, the developer of the servant leader concept, states: “Prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all the time…. The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is the interest, the level of seeking and the responsiveness of the hearers.” I would submit that the hearer’s level of seeking and responsiveness is related to how polarized the system is.

I agree that Self leadership is always there in us, our clients and our country. Whether it can ascend depends on whether the protectors at all levels will allow us to open to it, and that depends on how much Self energy each of us can bring to our own protectors and those around us. I strongly believe that we do not act in isolation. Even when there is no direct link between our efforts and the national or global scene, every Self-releasing session we do on ourselves or with clients contributed to the field of Self energy that will impact larger levels of system, just as every time a client unburdens they have more access to Self the next session.

I’ll end with this quote from Black Elk the Lakota Spiritual Leader who died in 1950.

“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (The Great Spirit)and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this. The second peace is that which is made between two individuals and the third is that which is made between two nations. But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until there is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.”

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