Befriending Dangerous Firefighters?

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.

6 Responses to “Befriending Dangerous Firefighters?”

  1. Julie says:

    Hi Mary,

    I have been reading this blog with great interest. I hope you don’t mind me asking a general question which isn’t directly related to this post, but I haven’t been sure where to ask it. All I am curious about is what happens in the IFS model to exile parts which aren’t exiled anymore. Is there a different term for them, or do they just kind of fade out of the scope of the model because they aren’t so problematic anymore?


    • mary kruger says:

      Hi Julie:
      Thanks for the interest. Once exiles are released from their burdens(constraints), they return to their original intended state / form. Their energy is always present within us, like an atom. Therefore they don’t disappear, but take on new roles. As they are usually younger, child parts, they often enjoy play and fun.

  2. Eating as a Path to Yoga says:

    I’d love to hear more about the relationship between Somatic IFS and healing our eating firefighter parts.

    • mary kruger says:

      Thanks for the inquiry!

      I do a fair amount of somatic work with clients, focusing on parts in the body, body parts which parts react to, body movement which incorporates dance and yoga, and various experiential exercises, including sculpting.

      I’m looking forward to expanding upon this topic in a future blog. What a great idea!


  3. Eileen says:

    A year ago I don’t think I would have believed that this kind of befriending could happen with firefighters. The one I was dealing with at the time came out pretty fiercely with self-harming behaviors that seemed to be provoked by the perceived threat from all work I was doing in therapy. Unlike exiles whose vulnerability I could recognize and respond to compassionately, or highly logical managers that would engage in dialogue, this firefighter seemed to hold immense power and anger, and threatened to destroy all the progress I’d made with other parts. It was scary to work with her, and frankly it seemed absurd to even want to befriend her. But after months of building trust, I have to say that she is now one of my favorite parts, and I have a deep appreciation and understanding for her what she does (which is no longer manifesting in self-harm behaviors). Although I feel daunted right now by my work with another protector, I keep reminding myself of how impossible it once seemed with the last one, and how profound my relationship is now with that part.

    • mary kruger says:

      Hi Eileen:
      My apologies for the delayed response. I have spent the last few weeks traversing New Mexico unplugged.

      I was very moved by your personal account of working with a dangerous firefighter. It takes great courage to move towards befriending parts we fear or dislike. I am so happy that you two are now friends. It still amazes me that beneath the exterior, we often find that the part has good intentions. It was delightful to hear that this is now one of your favorite parts. I must confess from the therapists perspective, I often feel a fondness for firefighters.
      Wishing you much luck as you continue on your inner journey.

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