Recruiting “parts” to fight addiction: a three-step exercise

Last post I promised to share some ideas for breaking the feedback cycle of addiction. Today I want to suggest a three-part intervention strategy for doing just that. In a nutshell, (1) tune into your emotions, (2) see what “parts” (in IFS terms) those emotions belong to, and (3) help those parts calm down and work together. Help them to understand each other rather than disrupt and hurt one another.

[Please note that I’ve revised this from its original form, posted two weeks ago — 8th November]

This little three-part exercise can be led by a therapist or coach or else pursued solo. Note that this is not classical IFS therapy (which I’m still studying). Rather, it’s a hybrid I’m playing with and continuing to explore. It’s by no means a nicely packaged and approved therapeutic system. Rather, it may point to an approach for helping people who need more direction and guidance (more “coaching”) than IFS normally provides.

Over the past year, and using IFS principles more and more, Maya and I explored the conflictual relationships among her parts. Besides Madam Z, the internal critic, and Piya, the “firefighter,” Maya’s parts included a very sad girl who could not give up her preoccupation with the tragedy of her life (which hinged on her mother’s rejection and self-denigration). Much of Maya’s internal conflict triggered excessive waves of grief and self-rebuke. It would take up too much time and space to explore these themes in a blog post. It took a lot of time to discover them in therapy. But meanwhile, Maya kept drinking large amounts of cheap wine, almost every night, wrecking her health, and reinforcing her sense of hopelessness. It seemed urgent to find an exercise that could help, with me or without me, starting now.

So this is what we came up with:

1.Tune into your feelings — your emotions — as they come and go. (Starting with deep breathing and body awareness is helpful!) This is mostly just standard Buddhist “Vipassana” meditation — the practice of paying attention to whatever arises. But it’s directed toward feelings more than perceptions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Follow the emotions, surf them, watch them come and go, don’t think about them too much. You might expect oodles of shame and anxiety. Practice your ability to discern, because some of these emotions might be so common that they seem like background noise. There may also be streaks of unexpected emotions, such as bolts of anger when you thought you were generally “nice”. With emotions like anger and fear, which have a definite object, try to be aware of who/what that object is. Is it self or other? Stay at the surface of awareness. Don’t “go deep.” Let the emotions come to you. You don’t have to go hunting.

2. Notice that each emotion may be felt by one or more parts. Which part is revving up now? Anger might go with the harsh internal critic, but anger might also go with the defiant “fuck you” rebel part. Get a sense of which part is becoming activated. Shame probably goes with a very young part — perhaps a part that (in IFS terms) remains an exile…not fully conscious, perhaps actively shunned or rejected. Anxiety also may be felt by young “exiles” — cringing, alone, scared, helpless — or by “managers” (e.g., parts who organize, take care, or judge) when they sense that they’re losing control. These managers can also be young. (A deeper discussion of what these parts actually are has to await a later post.)

Note that anxiety will usually not be experienced by firefighters. They are more reckless, and they tend to feel excitement, desire, or triumph. Notice that parts are sometimes very stuck (unchanging); other times more fluid and perhaps even growing, evolving before your eyes. Notice how some parts reliably trigger other parts. It’s very common for the firefighter (let’s get drunk!) to trigger the internal critic (how could you?! After last night!?!). And vice versa — but that needs to be saved for a future post too.

3. The last step is to act on this internal world, i.e., to guide it as it evolves and changes. This way of framing things deviates from IFS orthodoxy, but the underlying goal and the net effect could be almost identical. Now comes the sense of being a coach…or even a parent. IFS stresses the power of the Self — “Self” with a capital “S”. That’s the part that’s not a part. The Self is viewed as a compassionate, perceptive and aware place within oneself — a centre — that recognizes and accepts the various parts along with their needs and concerns (e.g., their emotions, their goals). So, from this place, you can soothe the anxious child, comfort him or her so there won’t be so much loneliness or dread. You can also connect with the Firefighter, and coax it (in a friendly way) to relax, to look before leaping for that bottle or that pipe. You can help antagonistic parts disengage, lay down their arms for awhile. For example, judging, critical parts can be asked to back off: we can tell them we appreciate their vigilance, but they’re coming on too strong and it’s not helping (e.g., too much shame, augmenting the Firefighter’s urge to drink or take drugs).

The parts can also act on each other directly. For example, Maya’s internal critic, Madam Z, is conscientious and determined. Her eagle eye is tuned to drinking behaviour and related cues, especially late in the afternoon, and she’s full of suggestions as to how to override the urge. “Wouldn’t this be a good time to start your yoga? Stop thinking about the store’s closing hours!” Maya came to realize that Madam Z wasn’t always punitive. Sometimes she was more like an athletic coach, authoritative but supportive. And she gradually learned to use Madam Z’s industrious, exacting manner to organize her behaviour and negotiate with other parts — especially the firefighter, who only wants to drink. Wait! There’s more to do. You don’t have to start drinking now. You can drink as a reward after completing your assignment.

It seems to me (though it deviates from  IFS orthodoxy) that this internal “friendliness” can be understood as a continuum or spectrum of self-care, with soothing or compassion at one end and firmness or self-direction — let’s call it guidance — at the other end. As with good parenting, a balance is needed. IFS suggests that different parts (as well as the capital-s Self) flesh out that continuum, from one pole to the other. In fact, in the mysterious language of the internal landscape, it may be the sense of “we” that’s most beneficial. Parts often feel alone — and in that they are relatively helpless, bound by habits they’re not skillful enough to overcome. But once there’s a we involved — a source of care that’s bigger than just this present-tense state of drive, this wish, this moment — they can feel taken care of, they can feel stronger, more secure, and they can more effectively promote their own well-being.


11 thoughts on “Recruiting “parts” to fight addiction: a three-step exercise

  1. Dr. Kenneth G. Wilson November 10, 2020 at 10:23 am #

    Hi, Marc, I have ben following you and your integration of early development & neuroscience and utilizing that component in my treatment of SUDs and affective disorders. Transactional Analysis (TA) has been part of my treatment repertoire since the early 70’s and I have always wondered why Europe picked it up as American Psychologists rejected it as pop psychology. I just restarted my own blog and out of respect for your expertise will explore the similarities between IFS which probably has it’s intellectual roots in TA. The strategies you are utilizing with Maya are analogous to those use in TA. TA utilizes concepts like reparenting in recognition of the attachment issues which occur with caregiver deficiencies.

  2. Tim Greenwood November 10, 2020 at 11:06 am #

    Hey Marc. Will try this method over the next couple of days. Still have stubborn areas of resistance and addiction that flare up. Don’t know about the rest of the world but was actually “Addicted” in way to the continual chaos of Donald Trump and would call my forays into falling his goings on “Trumping” and recognized it as an addictive pattern as it was often unconscious, gave me comfort – but then usually led to being somewhat spaced out. Feel like the whole world to some extent, at least those vulnerable to “Trumping” have been granted some freedom. Thanks for your great work.

    • Marc November 11, 2020 at 8:05 am #

      I was addicted to the election news too! I was up several nights in a row past 3 AM, even after Biden’s victory was in the bag. I think it’s understandable though. Drama, melodrama…has been a staple of human activity for aeons. It’s the enactment of narrative, after all, and narrative is our fundamental language. So naturally it commands our interest and involvement.

  3. Max Lloyd November 10, 2020 at 3:39 pm #

    Hi Mark. Really interesting blog, thanks. I am really impressed with your overall approach, as spelled out in The Biology of Desire, and try to get all my AoD clients to read it. Some other approaches that use the “parts” approach are gestalt therapy (sub-personalities) that can be named and dialogued with, plus schema therapy -in particular schema mode work, which emphasises the role of Healthy Adult in recovery from dysfunctional patterns. Both would combine well with your IFS approach. Thanks for your work!

    • Marc November 15, 2020 at 5:47 pm #

      Hi Max, It’s true, IFS does overlap with these other therapy schools. But it’s also unique. I’m really still learning the basics so far. But it seems that the main goal of IFS is not to interpret the inner dialogue or even to change it, but rather to give clients a sense of how to do that themselves, by connecting to the various voices with awareness and compassion. The key insight is that people who suffer, in addiction or in other ways, are usually ignoring parts of themselves that need to be heard, listened to, and soothed. The impulsivity of the “firefighter” (which is central to addiction) is seen as a desperate effort to reduce anxiety when the parts of the self don’t know each other.

  4. C.e.goul November 10, 2020 at 3:58 pm #

    Hi, I just read the entire article, I don’t get it, or remember what I just read. Blame it in my adult A.D.D. I’ll read it again. I would like to say I have been clean since September 25, 2020. I’ve fought crack, alcohol, and most recently, methamphetamine smoking. Lost interest in alcohol, crack, well, I had found meth. Meth, well got tired of the people, games they play, the terrible cycle of getting ,using, recovering from using. You get the just. I’ve deleted anyone to do with that life from social media and my phone. Going as far as submitting crime tips! Whatever works to keep me away from them. A very supportive boyfriend, who recovered from alcohol and drugs over 9 years ago has stuck by me through it all.

    • Marc November 15, 2020 at 5:51 pm #

      It is a bit unusual, this form of therapy — very different from the conventional “thou shalt not take drugs” approach. But if using drugs is causing serious harm, then it may be useful to combine the “compassionate” aspects of IFS with the “leadership” of parts of the self that are good at guidance and self-control.

  5. Eric Nada November 15, 2020 at 11:53 am #

    Marc, So glad to be here as you share your experiences with IFS. I really look forward to your continuing along these lines, it sounds so intuitive and useful. I wish that I would have had access to therapists who could have offered me a process such as this instead of just pointing me over and over again toward the 12-step/disease route. I want to hear more.

    • Marc November 15, 2020 at 5:56 pm #

      Hi Eric. There’s lots to talk about here. I’m just finishing this intense IFS workshop (six full days!), and I find hidden gems in IFS that I really didn’t imagine. It’s a powerful form or therapy with a unique methodology and radical goals. Oddly enough, the upshot of it is simply self-awareness: listening to what’s going on in our own minds. Check out some of the literature, if interested, and we could arrange another Zoom call.

      • Eric Nada November 19, 2020 at 11:33 am #

        Marc, I would love that (I actually sent you an email a month or so back asking about this very thing). Where might I find useful literature?

  6. synergyinrecovery November 30, 2020 at 7:21 am #

    Hi!! MARC I really like your blog. And also I write one for you if you wanna see then check it plz. [Click it]…

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