• Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

You might have heard about parts work through your own therapist or even through some amusing internet counselling memes (yes we have memes). Parts work is used in various ways by many counsellors, but is the centrepiece of an approach called Internal Family Systems that I often talk about with clients and use in my sessions.

Internal Family Systems (or IFS) was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz and it’s based around the notion that we all have these different parts inside us (like a family) that have developed over time. All of these parts developed with good intentions and usually to protect us from something our brain has learned might be harmful for us because something similar caused us hurt and pain in the past, often when we were young. They are all just parts that we have needed at some point in our life and now they might be working a little too hard and it can feel like they are in the driving seat.

Examples of Parts

The anxiety part is there to protect us from doing something that might cause us distress or pain. That part of us has developed as a survival mechanism and is constantly trying to keep us safe even though whatever was deemed as a threat to our emotional or physical safety is probably long gone.

The depressed part is often there because at some point in our lives someone caused us pain. Maybe as a small child, maybe an adolescent, maybe as an adult. Whenever it happened, the pain and hurt was so bad your brain decided that this must never happen again. The way your depressed part can achieve that is by emotionally and physically holding you down (or depressing you) so you aren’t meeting new people, trying new things, or being out in the world where you could be hurt again.

The inner critic part is there to motivate us and protect us from making a fool of ourselves, or in the case of a particularly harsh inner critic, the intention is to crush our confidence completely so we don’t put ourselves in any situations where we might be judged or rejected.

The control part is there to help us to feel safe in the world, because if we can control our environments and how people behave in them, then there will less chance of unpleasant surprises and therefore less chance of harm.

The getting on with life part is the part that makes us focus on things like work, school, chores, socializing, and other aspects of our everyday life. However it does this by blocking out any connection to our true feelings as this seems like an easier and safer way for us to go through life.

The people pleaser part often develops when people have grown up in environments with conflict and perhaps separation of caregivers/parents. This part is basically trying to keep everyone together, avoid negative feelings and hostility because that part remembers how painful this was as a child. These parts will say yes to avoid upsetting another person. They can also leave us feeling exhausted, not getting our own needs met and perhaps having our boundaries violated.

woman and question marks. She is trying to figure out her emotional parts.

Who is Running the Show?

Managers: these are the parts that run the everyday stuff. Managers try to keep us in control and protected from any possible hurt distress or pain. Here you would have for example your anxiety part, your getting on with life part and your people pleaser part.

Firefighters: these are the upper-level managers that step in when our exiles are triggered to put out emotional fires. Firefighters will drive behaviours such as alcohol use, self harm, food binges, acting out sexually, and compulsive exercise. They want to extinguish the pain or discomfort quickly, they swoop in and take us out so we are protected from being emotionally overwhelmed by our trauma.

Exiles: these are the younger parts of ourselves that have experienced hurt. Often these parts have been suppressed or “exiled” to allow us to get on with life. Many years might have passed since we experienced hurt or pain or emotional rejection and a part of us might have tried to create separation between our present and our younger selves. That younger part of us is still there, it’s the one reacting when situations become unsafe, situations that somehow remind our brain of the past. This is what our brain does to keep us safe, it stores all of our painful experiences in this timeless, suspended state so we can avoid being hurt again by avoiding anything vaguely resembling what caused that pain.

Self: we all have a self or inner self and this is never lost. Our true self is never lost, it’s always there inside us, but it can seem hidden by all the other protective parts that have had to come in and make sure we are safe. You can recognize your self as being those moments of calmness, compassion, or clarity, moments you feel connected and real. Though it might feel challenging to connect to, or even be aware of a sense of self, know that it’s always been there.

So What’s the Goal?

Well the first goal would be to start identifying your parts. Notice what comes up for you, especially in moments when you feel emotionally triggered in some way – which parts are coming up for you? The next step would be trying to connect with those parts, being curious about them. Asking questions such as how long they’ve been doing their job for and what are they scared of might happen if they stop? What points in your life, maybe when you were younger did you need these parts?

Most importantly, we learn to develop compassion for these parts, appreciation for the work that they’ve been doing to keep you safe. This might seem like an unusual approach because we are so used to trying to push away negative feelings or sadness or anxiety, but pushing parts away never really works. What works is embracing what lies in your way. What works is bringing those parts closer so we understand them, we can appreciate what they’ve been trying to do for us, and we can help those exiles (the trauma of our younger selves) to feel safe and therefore not triggered by situations in the present that remind them of pain in the past.

By identifying the parts that come up for you, being curious about what their good intentions are and thanking them for the job they’re trying to do, can be incredibly healing and can let those parts know they can step back a little.

Check in with your parts today. Be curious. Be compassionate. All parts are welcome.

Thanks for reading :)

Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Registered Clinical Counsellor

North Vancouver, B.C.

#partswork #trauma #InternalFamilySystems #innerself #selfcompassion

  • Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Does this sound familiar? You had a pretty good day, finished that project and got praised by your boss, but guess what it is you remember when you think about your day? It’s the person who cut you off on the highway, or maybe it’s the snarky comment made by your colleague that you are now playing over and over in your mind along with a variety of smartass responses you think you should've made. This is a prime example of our brain’s negative bias.

Our negative bias also impacts our relationships. We have a tendency to fixate on what we don’t like about our friends, colleagues, partners, or neighbours, as opposed to reminding ourselves what we love, cherish, and are grateful for.

Simply put, bad stuff has far more of an impact on our brain that the good stuff.

Negative Bias Effects:

• Think more about unpleasant or traumatic events or memories than pleasant ones

• Remember insults more than compliments

• Notice negative behaviours more than positive behaviours

• Focus our attention more on bad news than good

• Respond more strongly to negative events than we do positive events

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” Dr. Rick Hansen

Where Does It Come From?

Negative bias is not a new phenomenon. Our ability to focus on and look for negative information has developed over millions of years as a survival mechanism. From back in our prehistoric days, our ability to survive was based on our capacity to avoid danger, run faster, fight harder, play dead if necessary (yup! there’s our fight, flight, freeze) so we overestimated threats to our safety, and it worked, so we kept on doing it.

Mask Wars

Woman wearing a mask for COVID-19

Jump to 2020 and now here I am standing in a grocery store and guess what my brain’s alarm bell pays attention to? Yes, someone not wearing a mask or someone not physically distancing. This is a perfect example of negative bias. Our brains have learned to judge and be critical of people who are, in our threat sensitive brain’s view, risking our safety. Our limbic system is designed to deal with threats very quickly and efficiently which it does by temporarily shutting off access to our prefrontal cortex, our rational brain. For this reason I’m not thinking “oh, maybe that person forgot their mask, maybe that person isn’t able to wear a mask safely, maybe that person has to deal with judgments every day.” Nope, my brain just goes: NO MASK = BAD PERSON.

Our negative bias tendencies aren’t helped by the media. Our news channels and social media platforms all play into this too. News channels tend to show the negative news stories with maybe one “feel good” story thrown in. You might have noticed during the recent election coverage both here in B.C. and in the U.S., that when we watch debates or interviews with politicians, they don’t often push all the positive things they have done, they push the negative things their opponents have done, or personal attacks on their character. These campaigns can become really nasty, digging dirt on each other and swapping insults. Our brains eat that up.

Trauma & Negative Bias

This bias can be even more pronounced for folks who’ve been through trauma. This is because at some point earlier in life, something harmful or painful has happened, so the threat detecting part of your brain is on high alert to avoid it happening again. There have been many studies conducted that show that people with childhood trauma actually view neutral faces as being angry faces. It’s not hard to imagine how that causes challenges, the world seems even more scary than before and it’s harder to think good of, or trust people who maybe have no harmful intentions toward us. After all, if we are always expecting the worst we don’t give the world a chance to show us its best.

How to Change Negative Bias

One of the most incredible aspects of our neurobiology is how flexible our brain is. This is referred to as “plasticity” that means our brain is very capable of adaptation and change, so in effect we can actually rewire some of our brain’s programming to make it more positive focussed. Here are some steps you can take:

Open Mindedness

Remember that the snap judgments we make about people as we go through our day might be our brain’s negative bias. Try to notice when this happens, take a few deep breaths and allow your prefrontal brain to kick in so you can think rationally and allow for other perspectives on a situation. For example, the person who cut you off might not be a bad person, perhaps they just found out their wife is giving birth and they’re trying to get there, it doesn’t even matter how likely this is, just allowing for other, less negative perspectives can release us from the trap of negativity. You can also do this for yourself, notice how often you talk to yourself in a negative or judgmental way, try to switch it up and be more positive and understanding of your own challenges or imperfections. Saying: “I’m doing the best I can,” goes a long way, even if you don’t believe it to begin with, saying it out loud can help us feel better.

happy smiling dog

Small Moments of Awesome

Mindfulness comes into play here because so often in our day we are so mentally attuned to events that are in the past (especially negative ones) we can miss the small moments of positivity and beauty that are right in front of us in the present. So when you’re on a walk, instead of playing through the day’s events or planning your evening schedule, actually notice what’s around you, look for small moments of happiness, look for nature, watch dogs playing, look at the sky, smile at people, if you get the chance to, offer help or give positive feedback to someone else. On the days where it seems there is nothing to be positive about, try and find something, however small, to be grateful for or to make you smile. There's always cat videos!

Remember to be mindful about the time you spend on social media scrolling through negative stories, look for sites that aim to share positivity, like the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.

Encoding Positive Events

When something positive happens, a compliment or a fun outing, take the time to recall it, notice how you feel, think about it the next day, and allow it to be transferred to your long-term memory. Negative events get encoded into long term memory more quickly and with far greater detail than positive events so we have to actually do some of the work ourselves to help the encoding process. Savour those positive moments, take a mental photograph and make a conscious effort to think about and recall them.

If you have any comments about this article or would like to talk to me about your own negative bias and how to make a shift, please contact me on your North Vancouver Registered Clinical Counsellor.

Thank you so much for reading!

Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

#negativebias #positivepsychology #trainyourbrain #neuroplasticity

  • Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

Unless you have been living in a sound proofed room with no internet connection or TV for the past few months, then you might have noticed that there is a lot of anger out there, both on our doorsteps and seemingly across North America. The pandemic has brought with it anxiety, financial insecurity, grief, loneliness, and fear for many people and these emotions can often be the good friend of anger. In addition to the pandemic, society currently seems to be permanently on the brink, with anger toward governments, individual politicians, anger toward the opioid crisis, anger toward people living on our streets, anger toward systemic racism, police brutality, and for some people anger toward progress, anger toward change, anger toward diversity and open-mindedness.

an angry woman is doing a karate kick

Anger is our brain’s response to something perceived as a threat. This could be a threat to our or someone else's physical safety, or it could be a threat to our psychological safety and our emotional safety. Though anger feels intense and all encompassing at the time, it’s not usually the emotion driving our response. For this reason, it makes sense to think of anger as a secondary emotion, that means if we look underneath what’s happening, there’s usually something else there pulling that trigger. Often what lies beneath is related to fear, sadness, embarrassment, shame, disgust, or hurt.

The Purpose of Anger

Anger has a purpose and like all of our parts, anger has good intentions. Think of it like anger is our emotional bodyguard and like an effective bodyguard when it senses a threat it acts immediately. Act first, think later. This happens because anger triggers our fight, flight, freeze, fawn response – it is a response to something our emotional brain sees as a threat and when our brain’s threat detector goes off, we have no access to our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows for logical and rational thought. It is offline.

two men fight in a boxing match

Here’s an example of how anger works for us. If we see something that is horrific, like someone hurting someone we love, that anger we feel gives us the energy to act. That is its purpose, it gives us that drive to do something, to object, to stand up for something, to stop harm happening. Another way our anger part works for us is by protecting our emotions. For instance, if a person is scared of their partner leaving them because they have a core fear of being abandoned, then being angry is going to be easier to handle than being emotionally overwhelmed and upset. This is especially important for men as society tends to devalue emotional expression in men, but it promotes and rewards aggression and anger. Watch a game of NHL hockey if you aren’t convinced of this.

Anger can also protect us by pushing people away. If our brain senses a threat to our emotional safety, say perhaps a friend has betrayed us or a family member said something cruel, rather than face that hurt and pain our brain chooses to react with anger to push away any possible upset. This is safety from emotional overwhelm by avoidance.

So is Anger a Problem?

It’s true, anger is a part of being human and it absolutely has its place in our world. Anger though can be frightening for others and it can be dangerous for those who have a tendency to lose it. In addition to the interpersonal risks, out of control anger and rage are also hard on our physical selves. In fact, anger can activate physiological changes that put us temporarily at a higher risk of a heart attack, or other cardiovascular event, for two hours after the bout of anger. Prolonged periods of anger have also been linked to chronic headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and poor immune system health. These physiological effects are due to the chemical and hormonal changes our bodies put into effect to help us deal with the perceived threat. So you might experience an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, more shallow breathing, blood flowing to the limbs or face, a shaking feeling, or a higher temperature (hence the expression "made my blood boil").

Anger Solutions

Pushing anger away, or suppressing it, just doesn’t work. What we can do is change how we react to our anger, it may not seem like it in those moments of rage, but we do have a small space in which we can change how we respond to situations. It's not about not feeling angry, it's about not acting on the anger. By breaking down the brain's programming we can start to work on practicing new ways of reacting and new ways of calming our nervous system.

To get to the root of the anger, it’s incredibly important to figure out what the threat is that you are responding to and it might not be what you think. Just because the anger comes up in certain situations (like when driving or when at work) it doesn’t mean it’s actually anything to do with that situation. It’s likely that situation is just triggering some event that happened previously, weeks or months or years ago. When we figure out what that trigger is, we can be curious about why it’s showing up and how to best work with it. Try to take a look under your anger and see what’s there. It's also important to remember that anger is just a part of you, you are not your anger and most people really don't enjoy losing their sh*t.

Therapy cannot fix 2020, but if this article resonates with you and you would like to book a counselling session about anger issues then please email me on or visit my website

Thank you for reading!

Helen Whitehead, M.C., R.C.C.

Registered Clinical Counsellor, North Vancouver, B.C.

#anger #rage #selfdiscoverycounselling

thoughts from a north vancouver counsellor