How “Parts Work” Can Help You Be Your Own (Best) Therapist

I have spent the past month or so immersing myself in group training and personal explorations in Internal Family Systems (IFS). Many of my clients and friends have heard me talk about “parts” and how bringing awareness to them can create a shift in our system – disrupting the ways we typically treat ourselves, respond to situations, get triggered, or act-out. I have discovered that it can be hard to share my enthusiasm for this learning without getting into the nuts and bolts of how the model works. I suggest checking out this clear and comprehensive introduction by Derek Scott (the trainer I am working with right now):

What I would like to do here is to share my Top 10 of why I find this work compelling and how it can be applied to everyday life, without getting too much into the specifics of how the model works:

  1. “All parts are welcome” (Richard Schwartz) – Most of us have a part that is Critical, which might berate you, say, for losing your cool at work. This part wants you to look good but can be harsh. Even though you may wish to be free of this harsh critic, it has probably been with you for a long time and may feel less of a need to get on your case if you show it some appreciation or at least acknowledge that it is there, probably for (what it believes is) a good reason.

  2. All parts have positive intent – if a part of you seems unhelpful, such as a part that eats a lot when you are feeling out-of-sorts, try imagining that this part is trying to help you feel better (even if it is destined to backfire!). An analogy is a child that tells their parent, “I hate you!” That part might be trying to communicate something on behalf of another part that feels hurt or unseen and (sometimes) all the parent can see is the anger and concludes that the child is being “bad” or says something like, “you don’t really mean that”.

  3. You are not your parts – so, continuing with the previous example, the child may have a part that hates their parent in that moment or that thinks they need to lash out at their parent to be seen and uses words that have a lot of impact, but this is not “who they are”.

  4. When a part arises, ask yourself, “How do I feel toward this part?” If the answer is negative or wary or rejecting or ambivalent, then you have found another part! You may want to either: a) see if you can bring more curiosity or compassion to the "interfering" part; b) ask the "interfering" part to step back or soften. For example, I have an impatient part that becomes tense in certain situations. If it comes up and I ask myself, “how do I feel toward this part?” the answer might be, “I try to be in the moment, but I just can’t do it!” I am now encountering my trying part and a discouraged part. If they are willing to step back, I can get to know the part that gets impatient. I could then ask that part if it can share anything with me about what impatience feels like, where it is felt in my body, how far back it remembers feeling this way, etc.

  5. A goal of this work is to really listen to and see a part, be separate from it and with it, coming from Self, a place that is capable of compassion and curiosity and clarity. Let’s say I have a part that feels misunderstood. If I can get to know that part and see what beliefs it has about itself and others, how it came to feel misunderstood, what that was like, and so forth, and the part - probably around since childhood - knows that I (coming from Self) “get it”, then it can be free of the burden it has been carrying. Situations that were upsetting before, when the part often felt misunderstood, no longer have the same charge.

  6. When what is coming up for you has an agenda, it is a part, not your Self (thanks for this, Derek!) – so, for instance, if I become aware of a part that really wants my clients to understand something I am sharing with them, even if this part has a positive intent such as helping a client to learn or grow, these are teaching or helping “agendas”. If I become aware of this part, I can ask it to step back, so I can be with my client in a more open, curious way (that is less about me!)

  7. When the idea that a feeling or response to something is a “part” doesn’t seem to fit for you or you just can’t see a part, you may be too identified, or blended, with it. This is often true for an angry part. We have probably all had the experience of being angry at a partner or co-worker or friend, and all we want to do is justify why we are angry or blame the other person for how they “made” us feel. It is only when we cool off that we can get any perspective on what happened or separate ourselves from this cluster of parts (anger, justifying, blaming) that got triggered in the first place. We can, sometimes only in retrospect, become more aware of the feeling that came before the anger so that we can “be with” this part in such a way that the system doesn’t feel like it needs to activate an angry part. Or we can just be aware, when it does come up, that anger is a part. Sometimes awareness is enough to significantly shift our system.

  8. Parts that are activated are trying to get our attention – in the previous example, the part that was beneath the anger, maybe a part that felt unrecognized, is trying to communicate with us. Maybe it wants recognition from the external world, but what it needs is recognition from us. “I know how hard you worked on that project and when your co-worker criticized it you felt like your work wasn't valued. I know you really care about this project,” and so on.

  9. When we pay attention to a part, it can change or take on another role, which changes the whole system – if the part that wants recognition from co-workers gets it from you instead, it doesn’t have to work so hard to “prove” its worth. Maybe the critical or angry or blaming parts won’t have to step in to make you “feel better” and you won’t have to feel the shame of “looking bad” for getting so riled-up, and so on.

  10. Sometimes we need outside support to help us notice our parts and how they interact – it can be fun and fascinating work to pursue collaboratively, with a therapist or friend who has your permission to name the parts they see and can hold space for exploration.

I welcome clients that are interested in experimenting with this creative and powerful approach to inner awareness and growth. Even though I have a big skeptic part, I have seen plenty of evidence that these techniques “work” in a life-enhancing way. Please call for a free consult.

Graphic credit: Richard Schwartz, 1995.

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