Many people struggle with following through on their plans, commitments, or stated desires.
Sometimes it is as if there is another voice or person inside of us that gets in our way.
This part of us might tell us to postpone an important task until tomorrow, or might tell us that we shouldn’t aim for that promotion. It seeks to lead us astray and ultimately keeps us from accomplishing our long-term goals.
At other times, not only does this alternate voice get in our way, it actually harms us.
Richard Schwartz who has invented an approach to therapy called Internal Family Systems Therapy, has a word for these harmful urges or parts of us. He calls them our “fire fighters”.
What is a Fire Fighter?
Fire fighters are the parts of us that seek to stamp out unpleasant tensions or conflicts from within through impulsive and ill-conceived actions.
They are the impulses to get drunk to deal with a break-up, to go on an eating binge to distract ourselves from unpleasant memories, or to cut ourselves to overcome emotional numbness.
They seek to solve a problem, but ultimately end up causing an even worse problem. Their intent is to put out fires, but their means of doing so are harmful to us.
According to Richard Schwartz, fire fighters are parts of our psyches that have been necessary to prevent what we perceive as unbearable emotions and internal conflicts. Without their rash attempts to distract us, our fear would be that we would not survive or would not be able to cope.
When we look inward we often find that what has necessitated the need for fire fighters are other parts of us which we have exiled or banished from our conscious awareness. Richard Schwartz refers to these parts as our “exiles.”
What Are Exiles?
Our exiles are parts of us that we don’t like and that we find to be threatening to our self-understanding and our everyday functioning.
They are often emotions or experiences that have been labelled shameful or threatening and have had to be banished to the basement of our psyches so as not to flood us with unpleasant emotions or jeopardize how others see us.
These exiled parts of us can get activated or triggered by situations that remind us of how we once felt, and it is because we are not at peace with these parts of us that our fire fighters get called upon to quickly distract us.
Whenever there is a fire fighter at play, there is typically also an exiled part of us that is threatening to enter into consciousness.
Why do We Sabotage Ourselves?
One of the reasons we sabotage ourselves is therefore that we have a divided mind where several parts of us are at odds with each other.
Our fire fighting impulses, for example, are often at odds with our exiled parts which they try to distract ourselves from.
At other times our banished parts are odds with our conscious intentions.
A part of us that feels inferior and rejected might get activated when we sit down to study for an exam because we start to feel that the material is too difficult and that we are going to fail. This might start a battle inside of us between a part of us that tells us to plough through (often referred to by Richard Schwartz as a “manager”) and the exiled part that threatens to flood us with shame and feelings of worthlessness. Another part of us might therefore think of a justification for why we should not be studying but should instead be cleaning our apartment, or a fire fighter might compel us to go on an eating binge.
In this way multiple parts of us might be at odds and take charge of us, ultimately defeating our stated purpose to study and excel at our exam.
How to Stop Self-Sabotaging?
If we accept that we have multiple voices or parts of us that often vie for control of our conscious actions then it follows that every act of self-sabotage is an instance of one part of us that is acting up and defying another part of us which we identify with as our true desire or intention.
The trick to stopping our self-defeating habits or behaviors is therefore to get to know the part of us that gets in our way and understand what other parts it might be reacting to.
If, for example, I find myself being defiant of my boss in spite of knowing that this might get me fired or prevent me from getting a promotion, then it would serve me well to get acquainted with this side of me that is not cooperating with what I say my stated goal is.
One way to do that is to ask the non-cooperating part some of the following questions:
- What does the sabotaging part of me feel?
- What does it look like in my mind’s eye?
- Where is it located in my body?
- What does it say?
- What situations activate it?
- What is its positive intent?
- What is it protecting me from?
Oftentimes, when we approach a part of us which we don’t disagree with or wish we didn’t have from a place of curiosity instead of judgment, it will reveal to us its function and role within our larger psychological reality and will show itself to have an ultimately benevolent intent.
For example, if I approach the part of me that defies my boss, I might discover that it wants to stand up for me to prevent me from getting taken advantage of. I might learn from it that its mission is to protect me from another part of me that was bullied when I was growing up and was too weak and defenseless to cope with the situation. I might also learn from it that it feels angry toward others for imposing themselves on me and I might get an image of it as a fighter with boxing gloves whose presence in my body is felt in the clenching of my jaws and a strengthening and hardening of my heart.
How to Align Your Actions and Your Intentions:
What is needed for my internal boxer to relax and not sabotage my future goal for a promotion is therefore a greater degree of confidence that my bullied child can stand up for itself. For this to happen, I would need to heal the bullied part of me and endow it with resources to fight its own battles. This in turn, would require more in depth exploration of the needs and reality of my exiled part.
Only when I get acquainted with all the parts of my psyche can I begin to negotiate all my opposite wishes and actions in a way that gives all parts of me a voice but ultimately contributes to the one and same overarching goal of acting in the way that is best for me.
If you would like to learn more about how to work with different parts of you in order to achieve more harmony within yourself, I highly recommend reading Jay Earley’s book: Self-Therapy, which will guide you through the steps needed in order to befriend your parts and help them work together rather than against each other.
Richard Schwartz, the inventor of IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy) has also written an easy introduction to some of the concepts introduced in this blog post. It is best ordered through the website for The Center for Self-Leadership which is the official home base for Internal Family Systems training and products.
I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people resolve inner conflicts and get to the root of their self-sabotaging behaviors. Visit my website for more information.