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  • Writer's pictureClair Neill

How Firefighters Can Help or Hinder Our Healing: Their Role in Internal Family Systems Therapy

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is a powerful form of psychotherapy that helps people to better understand and manage their emotions and inner selves. One key aspect of IFS is the concept of "firefighters," which are parts of ourselves that act impulsively to distract us from painful emotions or memories. In this post, we'll take a closer look at what firefighters are, how they can help or hinder our healing, and share an example of someone who had a particularly activated distraction firefighter.



What Are Firefighters in IFS Therapy?

Firefighters are a subset of our inner selves that are triggered when we are feeling threatened, overwhelmed, or vulnerable. These parts react quickly and impulsively to distract us from painful emotions or experiences, often by engaging in behaviours that are self-destructive or addictive. Firefighters can take many forms, including substance abuse, self-harm, overeating, doom scrolling or numbing.


How Firefighters Can Help Us

While firefighters are often associated with negative behaviours, they can also serve a positive purpose in our system. In some cases, firefighters can help us to cope with overwhelming emotions and experiences by providing a temporary distraction or release. For example, a firefighter may prompt someone to go for a run or engage in other physical activity to release pent-up emotions.


How Firefighters Can Hinder Our Healing

While firefighters can be helpful in the short term, they can also hinder our healing in the long run. If we rely too heavily on our firefighters to distract us from painful emotions or experiences, we may never address the underlying issues that are causing us distress. Additionally, relying on negative behaviours like substance abuse or self-harm can create a cycle of shame and guilt that perpetuates negative patterns.


An Example of an Activated Distraction Firefighter

Let's consider the example of Maria (not a real person) who has struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for years. Maria has a distraction firefighter named "Wine," who prompts her to have a glass of wine whenever she starts to feel anxious or stressed. While Wine initially helps Maria to relax and feel less anxious, over time she starts to rely on it more and more. Eventually, Maria realizes that Wine is actually making her anxiety worse by causing her to feel guilty and ashamed.


Working with Firefighters in IFS Therapy

The key to working with firefighters in IFS therapy is to acknowledge and accept them without judgment, while also working to address the underlying issues that are triggering them. By identifying the emotions and experiences that are causing us distress, we can learn to regulate our emotions and manage our inner selves in a more positive and healthy way.


Firefighters are an important aspect of our inner selves, and understanding their role in our system can help us to better manage our emotions and behaviours. By working with our firefighters in a non-judgmental and accepting way, we can learn to regulate our emotions and break free from negative patterns that may be holding us back.

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