Appreciating our Firefighter Parts
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll suggest rebellion, selfishness, recklessness. Instead, consider these actions as a way to take care of a person's inner world. A way to find a sort of inner balance. Not a balance of zen and bliss, but rather keeping the scales balanced between painful feelings, functional actions, and rest and comfort.
The short version of this post: an invitation to view our parts that 'act out' by over-eating, excess drinking, drug use, cutting, rage, compulsive shopping - to view these parts that take these actions with compassion. Firefighter parts want comfort now, and they are fueled by the pain that our Exiles hold.
Sex, drugs, binge eating, drinking – all of these actions are considered Firefighter parts – and the goal of Firefighters is feel better now. They are the pressure release valve, the numbers, the distractors.
All of us have Firefighter parts and they certainly can be out of balance. The out of balance actions or desires of Firefighters is directly correlated with the amount of pain that Exile parts hold. (Exiles carry our deepest wounds, and are pushed away and covered up by protective parts, like Firefighters.)
Rather than looking at actions as good or bad, an option is to view the actions along a continuum of extremeness. In balance, Firefighters bring comfort in moderate amounts, and their own innate desires are less intense.
More extreme Firefighters might ‘act out’ by binge eating or excessive drinking or bounteous drug use. Or sexual acting out, like cheating, risky sex choices, strong attachment to pornography. Or compulsive shopping. Or cutting. Or watching TV endlessly. Or whatever feels hard to ‘control’. Those are Firefighter parts that are more extreme, and reflects a deeper pool of Exile pain.
When using the Internal Family Systems model, every single part has a positive intention. So what kind of positive intention might these parts have, the ones that take actions that are deemed socially unacceptable, risky behavior, illogical?
The intentions of Firefighter parts are to give us some relief, and they want that relief right away. Firefighter parts are the first responders to distress. They can't wait until after you’ve saved enough money, or lost some weight, or after you finish your to-do list. Not in a safe and moderate way. Comfort now is their goal and job.
I love the IFS approach to Firefighters so much because it does not pathologize the parts or the person. Instead, there is understanding and compassion for these parts. Even the most extreme of these parts have positive intentions of trying to help, trying to give rest and comfort and relief.
But what about Firefighter parts and their actions that cause havoc, hurt people, ruin relationships?
There is no doubt that some of these Firefighter actions can have serious consequences. Firefighter parts certainly inflict real pain and real problems internally or on other people. Especially in the more extreme roles, there is an abundance of blame and shame going on internally. And the shame and blame just keeps growing when pain is inflicted outwardly towards those we love and care about. And ultimately a person does own responsibility for any pain inflicted upon another person, and that adds to the burden for our parts to work through.
This method of approaching all parts with compassion, and understanding that the parts have a positive intention, gives space for healing. It may be slow, it may be messy, but ultimately that compassion and awareness and understanding is the foundation for parts to heal and change.
Firefighters, Managers and Exiles - the Inner System
Firefighter parts get into tangles with the Manager parts, who have other jobs, like saving for retirement, or practicing, or working, or adulting. The conflict between Firefighter parts and Manager parts then becomes such a fabulous way to avoid the pain of Exile parts. Arguing internally about eating, drinking, drugs, exercise, money, and so on is such a good distraction from deeper pain! And in turn, the pain that the Exile parts hold is the fuel that keeps Firefighter and Manager parts stuck in their unending patterns.
If your goal is to ultimately lessen some Firefighter activity, one possibility is to help the Exile parts. Healing the Exiles lowers the fuel in the fire, and Managers and Firefighters get more choice and ability to change how they function.
A first step in working with Firefighters is to notice that it is a part of you taking action, it's not all of you. Any internal comments or criticisms or judgments are coming from other parts. This awareness creates space for each part to have their own process and experience, which is a step along the path to compassion and healing.
When seeing other people’s Firefighter parts in action its so very easy to get pulled into judgment. Again an option is to see it as their parts. That their parts are working hard, and they all have a positive intention, remembering that these actions all take place within a bigger inner system.
Firefighter parts are important to me because they are often shamed and unappreciated, maybe even hated. I know my manager parts struggle with acceptance of my firefighter activities, and it is a constant area of growth for me to notice them as parts and then work with my other parts to give them all space and care. All of us deserve rest and comfort, and our Firefighter parts are on a dedicated mission to give that to us, even if sometimes the method they choose causes discomfort from other parts.
With love and appreciation for all of your Firefighters,