Addictive Behaviors
July 9, 2024

Addictive behaviors addressed within the framework of Internal Family Systems (IFS)

Protective Parts:

In IFS, addictive behaviors are seen as protective parts, who work hard to shield the individual from overwhelming emotions, traumatic memories, or perceived threats. These parts may contribute to addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism to manage difficult feelings such as anxiety, shame, guilt, or unresolved trauma. For example, these parts might use substances to numb emotional pain or to maintain a sense of control in chaotic situations.

Exiled Parts:

Exiled parts hold the core emotional wounds and traumatic memories that the individual seeks to avoid or suppress. Addictive behaviors can temporarily silence these exiled parts by providing relief from painful emotions or memories. These parts often carry deep-seated feelings of shame, unworthiness, or powerlessness, which may drive the addictive cycle.

Firefighter Parts:

In IFS, Firefighter parts react impulsively to manage intense emotional distress when protective strategies fail. They may engage in binge eating, substance use, or other compulsive behaviors as a means of immediate relief from overwhelming feelings triggered by internal or external stressors. At one point in time, this became a very useful and even lifesaving strategy. These parts need to be acknowledged for the ways they tried to protect, even if those methods are no longer serving them in the same way.


Therapy involves fostering internal dialogue and empathy towards all parts, including those driving addictive behaviors. Yup, you read that correctly. We don’t squash those protective parts, but instead create a safe space to approach them with compassion and curiosity rather than judgment. That’s when these protective parts can begin to address the underlying motivations behind addictive behaviors (which always involves some kind of survival mechanism). Firefighter parts often operate with positive intentions, aiming to protect the individual from emotional pain, prevent overwhelm, or maintain a sense of control. Recognizing and validating these intentions is essential in building trust and rapport with the part, which creates an opening for deeper exploration and healing.

This is just a glimpse into how Parts Work/IFS could be helpful in addressing addictive behaviors.

Please reach out to one of our trauma specialists for more information!

Healing is possible.

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