We live in a society where drug and alcohol use is common and socially sanctioned. From the morning coffee to the office party where alcohol flows freely, to relaxing at home with a cigarette or a joint.
From an Internal Family System (IFS) perspective the use of substances may be the chosen activity of a Firefighter – the part of the system that is aware of an exiled part attempting to enter consciousness. The firefighter wants to distract from the activity of the exile and may use alcohol and/or drugs to do so. Other common tools include gambling, overwork, binge eating, sex bingeing, cutting, watching television, sleeping etc.
It is important to recognise that the firefighter is not a “bad” part (there are no “bad” parts) although other parts (managers) may judge them as being dangerous or out of control. Manager parts and firefighter parts tend to be polarised in the system; one addicted to substance use, the other to being virtuous.
Firefighter activities are designed to protect the system from the extreme feelings and beliefs carried by exiled parts. The firefighter is concerned that the energy of the exiled part (shame, despair, fear etc) may flood the system and take over (blend). The firefighter may also remember a time when this did happen – perhaps in childhood or adolescence – so from its perspective it is being wholly reasonable in its concern and justified in its behaviour. Firefighters work hard to protect the system in the best way they know how. If you ask them they may let you know that they are tired from having to work so hard.
Helping the firefighters
In order to help overworked firefighters we ask them if we can access the vulnerable parts they are connected to. If the firefighter gives permission we can find out more from the exile about what is going on for it – assuring it that we will continue to listen and asking it not to flood us with extreme thoughts and/or feelings. Once the young exiled parts has let us know about all the burdens it has been carrying we are able to invite it to release them. It no longer needs to carry them once the information is held by us. Once unburdened an exile can return to its original or preferred role in the system and the firefighter no longer needs to be active to protect the exile, or protect the system from the exile. The firefighter can then find a different and preferred role in the system.