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  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Parts Work in Therapy

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.

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