According to Internal Family Systems, our internal parts have roles. Some are managers who attempt to steer our thoughts and behavior away from perceived pain. They manage their way through it, trying to avoid trouble.
Then there are firefighters. When the managers fail to avoid pain, firefighters come to the rescue.
As adults, we typically don’t appreciate the depth and breadth – and importance – of these personality aspects. Because of our conscious ignorance, we remain in a vicious cycle that began in childhood and most often perpetuates itself all the way to the grave. And we’re none the wiser. Oh, we complain, but you probably understand how helpful that is.
How My Manager and Firefighter Work Together
One of my managers is a non-joiner. He hates people and all that social life entails. He developed as a result of being on the receiving end of a lot of pain. Abuse from my brothers. Minimal social stability. Growing up without friends. Isolation and pain. The non-joiners job is to prevent connection with other people, who are not to be trusted.
Because life is a social event, the non-joiner can’t avoid people. Oh, he makes a valiant effort. I’m more socially isolated than most. But other parts of me enjoy people. And the people closest to me? I want to be connected to them. But the non-joiner is staunch in his resolve. No one, not my wife or kids or any friends, is immune to his skepticism.
Alas, people are unavoidable. Connections, obligations, and the simple presence of other people surround me. I want this. This is life on Earth. But not to my non-joiner. To him, this situation is poisonous. Bless his heart, he fails to avoid social contact. This is where the firefighter comes into to deal with the emergency. The firefighter rescues me from the burning building of social life.
How? By escaping in any way it can offer. Escape into food is a favored method. Escape into non-activity and isolation. Into depression. Into a void. But mostly stuffing my face with food. The firefighter – whom I think of as an alien from another world, wants to snatch me up and transport me back into pleasure. Instant gratification is a way to eliminate the terror of being in relationships.
Food. Television. Self-indulgence. Let’s get some pleasure rolling and stuff this pain! This alien firefighter has tricks up it’s sleep. It hijacks my conscious mind and steers me toward relief. It’s not sustainable relief and long-lasting joy. These are not the realm of firefighters. They want to get you out of the burning building as quickly as possible, with no thought for future plans.