In the story of Alma, she has two protectors, Clara and David. IFS distinguishes between these types of protectors: Clara is a manager, and David is a firefighter.
I didn’t give these terms in the IFS Theory 101 series because I find that distinguishing between types of protectors is one of the top causes of stress and confusion among learners of IFS, and one of the least important things for IFS clients to do. The distinction is mostly there to help practitioners.
But people do refer to managers and firefighters quite often, so if you’d like to know what they are, read on!
Types of Parts
In order to clear up some common kinds of confusion about parts, I’m going to back up and take you through all the types of parts in IFS. Here’s a diagram of how they break down:
Parts: healthy and burdened
The first division is between burdened parts and unburdened parts. Unlike theories that say our personality gets splintered into parts by trauma, IFS says we’re born with parts. So that means some parts are perfectly healthy. Other parts, though, pick up burdens when you go through something upsetting that you don’t fully process. So all parts start out healthy, but some become burdened.
Burdened parts: exiles and protectors
There are two categories of burdened parts: exiles and protectors. These two categories hold different kinds of burdens.
Exiles hold the impact from the upsetting event, so their burden is made up of beliefs and feelings. They’re called exiles because those beliefs (like “I’m not good enough”) and feelings (often fear or shame) are so unpleasant that these parts are pushed—exiled—out of consciousness most of the time.
Protectors hold the burden of a strategy for keeping the exile, well, exiled. When exiles are triggered by situations reminiscent of the one that burdened them, they become energized enough to break free. Protectors try to stop that from happening. They’re called protectors because they aim to protect the vulnerable exile from the outside world, and to protect us from feeling the exile’s pain.
Protectors: managers and firefighters
Drilling down even further, we can divide protectors into managers (or proactive protectors), and firefighters (or reactive protectors). Managers and firefighters differ in when they use their strategies to protect us. Managers try to prevent exiles from getting triggered, and firefighters cope after exiles have been triggered.
In the story of Alma, Clara is a manager. She is proactive, using self-doubt to avoid getting into situations that might trigger Belle, the exile. Clara is highly aware of other people’s expectations of Alma, and capable of planning far in advance. She tends to inhibit Alma, making her act more carefully. Some common types of managers include inner critics, people pleasers, and taskmasters.
David, on the other hand, is a firefighter. He is reactive, using procrastination to soothe Belle once she’s already been triggered. Like a real-life firefighter, he doesn’t mind doing some damage as long as he puts out the fire. He has a strong sense of priorities, and soothing Belle is number 1. Keeping other people happy and planning for the future don’t even come close. He often jumps into action so fast that Alma doesn’t even notice the flicker of shame from Belle before she starts procrastinating. To Alma, her sudden urge to scroll through social media is inexplicable—but strong.
Like David, some firefighters use behaviors to soothe or distract, like shopping, gambling, overworking, or nail biting. Other firefighters use substances like food, alcohol, or drugs to soothe. It turns out that many “vices” are really just firefighter strategies. Still other firefighters use angry outbursts to distract from a deeper pain. But not all firefighters run hot; some help people zone out so they can disconnect from their feelings.
If neuroscientists ever find that parts can be located as neural networks in the brain, I suspect that managers will have a presence in the prefrontal cortex, with lots of rational thought and planning ahead, and that firefighters will have a presence in the limbic system, with fight-or-flight reactions.
Why it matters
The most important reason to distinguish between managers and firefighters is to remind ourselves that firefighters aren’t the enemy. A lot of people are tempted to side with a manager against a firefighter: “the procrastination is the problem, we must figure out how to stop it!” But the root problems are the unprocessed pain and the lack of internal teamwork. Ganging up on the firefighter won’t solve those problems. So we describe firefighters in all their socially unacceptable glory in order to be crystal clear that yes, even these parts have good intentions and deserve our respect.
The second reason to distinguish between managers and firefighters is to help us negotiate with parts more effectively. Managers are often tired of doing their job all day every day, and they’re often aware that their strategy isn’t working very well. After talking to a manager about these downsides, the manager might be willing to let you help its exile. But firefighters are often proud of their work. Their weak spot is different: it’s that they get a lot of flack from other parts and other people. You can win their respect by honoring their dedication, and offering to make it possible for them to take a more appreciated job.
When both managers and firefighters feel heard and valued, many possibilities open up: compromise between parts, allowing the Self to take some of the responsibility off of their shoulders, and unburdening of all three types of burdened parts.