By Mary Kruger, MS, LMFT, “IFS with Eating Disorders and Addictions” Topic Expert Contributor
The key IFS concept of befriending dangerous firefighters who drink, drug, starve, binge, purge, or engage in other nefarious behaviors is sure to challenge the precepts our therapist parts hold regarding how to work with eating disorders and addictions. I came out of my family therapy training armed with various interventions aimed at eradicating these symptoms. Despite my best efforts, the firefighters often not only won but became stronger and more clever. I quickly abandoned the adversarial strategy and began to work collaboratively with my clients from a place of curiosity.
Dangerous firefighters are actually parts who are extremely dedicated to their job of protecting exiles when the management system can no longer contain or control the situation. They react impulsively, without thought, and in spite of dire consequences. They are generally not appreciated by other parts, family members, the therapist, and society in general.
Firefighters are also the key to a successful outcome with our addicted clients because nothing will shift without their permission or cooperation. It is those firefighters who must realize that what they are doing is not working anymore. In order to take an authentic A.A. First Step, it is the firefighter who must realize that power has been lost and things have become unmanageable.
As an IFS therapist, I continually scan for parts of myself who may want to judge, criticize, shame, threaten, collude with, fear, caretake, or become polarized in any other way with my clients’ firefighters. Firefighters sense even the slightest threat and will quickly become mobilized to maintain their protective roles. This will often translate into an increase of symptoms in the client. Working with my own parts before, during, and after sessions enables curiosity and compassion to emerge. Firefighters respond well to authentic and regular doses of Self energy.
Most clients enter treatment for their addictions or eating disorders because a manager wants to get things under control or in order to please or appease someone. After asking what brought a client to treatment, I ask what their part that wants to drink/starve/binge, etc., says about being here. Recognition of the firefighter’s existence, and the invitation for it to speak, is both a profound and a beautiful moment. It is also the first step in befriending that part.
Today I experienced a wonderful moment with a client I have recently begun to work with who has been struggling with a prescription pill addiction. I honored that one part of him was truly interested in stopping. I also suggested that he didn’t know the other part of him that used pills. It was apparent that the part had not agreed to stop. He was both intrigued by the possibilities and relieved that he was not a failure. He left looking forward to our next session.
I would love to hear other folks’ reactions to or experiences with befriending dangerous firefighters.