Michael Elkin: Befriending Anger, Addiction and Suicide with IFS

In this episode...

Most of us have been conditioned our whole life to have strong moral judgments against things like addictions or suicide. Right? Aren’t these just categorically bad things that we have to fight against?

This is really what is so mind-bending and revolutionary about the IFS (Internal Family Systems) model of psychology.

Michael Elkin has a reputation within the IFS community for enthusiasm teaching about what IFS calls our Firefighter parts of us—the protective parts of your personality that typically show up as extreme beliefs or behaviors like anger, addictions, compulsions, or suicidality.

“Your willpower and your conscious decisions have very little to do with what you wind up actually doing.”

We talk about how the state of mind that IFS calls Self (all of our core spiritual qualities) has the power to heal and transform any parts of you that have become extreme, unhealthy or unbalanced.

In IFS, the term "firefighter" refers to a protective part of the psyche that acts compulsively to put out the flames of emotional pain in the system. Example of so-called "firefighter behavior" are rage, addictions, and suicidality. Attempting to merely constrain or contain firefighters often results in a strengthening of the undesired behavior. IFS offers a path to negotiate with firefighters by offering them respect for their hard work protecting the person and relief by healing the pain they are afraid of.

I have to say this is NOT what typical psychology or typical theology offers. Traditional psychological and religious teaching usually tells people to constrain their bad thoughts or behaviors.

Manage your anger. Fight your depression. Overcome your addiction.

But these management tactics require constant vigilance, and like a virus mutating in response to survival pressure, there’s a hardening or resistance to change.

We discuss how, instead of fighting and resisting so-called “bad” parts of you, it’s far more productive to become curious and explore the motivations behind behavior or feelings that aren’t in your best interest.

"And the minute you define someone as a bad person or as a bad part, you essentially give up any ability to interact productively with that person or that part."

– IFS Senior Trainer Michael Elkin

Michael Elkin is a psychotherapist in private practice in Newton Centre, MA. He has conducted training for IFS therapists for years as an IFS Senior Trainer & Lead Teacher and AAMFT Approved supervisor. His focus areas of treatment include migraines and somatic issues, trauma survivors, addictions/substance abuse, phobia and anxiety. 

Mike says, “I made my living hustling pool and hustling poker. And it turns out that that is very good training for psychotherapist. Because in poker it’s pretty simple you see what people do and you bet they keep doing it. Hustling pool involved convincing people to do something that was clearly not in their best interest.”

Elkin’s book is called Families Under the Influence: Changing Alcoholic Patterns.

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