Are 'parts' real? A comment on 'parts work' and our imagination.

It is common and understandable to have reactions to "parts work".  It is becoming a common way of working with trauma and family dysfunction that has been made popular by Internal Family Systems (IFS). I use it a lot in my work with people.  Common reactions are - I don't have parts, I am just me, or that parts are not real; we imagine them.  There may be other reactions. One that comes up for me (even though I work in this way) is that I don't like to go along with the latest fad and that nothing is new. 

So, I want to put IFS into perspective and discuss how we might see a "part."  

Conceptualizing our psyche as made up of parts is nothing new. Whether it is spirits, different energies, Freud's Id, Ego and Superego, the true self and false self, different systems of emotion, thinking and body, or even contradictory feelings we are at war with, humans have experienced themselves and made sense of it by seeing different aspects within the whole. 

IFS is just one recent development in this area. Richard Schwartz has put his particular spin on it, which has resonated with many people. I like the IFS way of conceptualizing this multiplicity within us in several ways. 

1) No bad part.  

Orientations in psychology don't all have this view from a perspective on defenses or faulty thinking and problematic behaviour viewed as unhealthy or defective. IFS has the possibility of bringing so much self-compassion to the table.  Why is this?  IFS understands parts are born from what has happened to us and the many creative ways humans (and children) have to survive and adapt.

2) It is all a system

It satisfies my brain to figure out how things happen, and everything is connected We are a system within many other systems, and we take in and reenact those systems we swim in. It gives a straightforward developmental process to understand how we shut off parts of our authentic being and live a restricted life.  The good news is that we can begin to peel away the layers and dismantle the impact of patriarchal, discriminating, hateful, shaming, and singleminded systems by working with our parts to create a freer, self-compassionate system.

3) Work towards being self-led

 Self-led means that healing our system depends on us. Bringing our compassion, curiosity and presence to our parts is what heals us and lifts the constricted, fearful and shameful messages we accepted early on.  By working to become self-led, we move away from an outside authority (such as a therapist:) who we might focus on to help us and provide the compassion and presence we need towards our self-empowerment and resilience. That is not to say that relationships are unnecessary; rather, we are the means and authority for our healing.  `

So What Is A Part?

A part has many descriptions. We could call it a reaction, coping strategy, aspect of ourselves, defense, protection, habit, energetic force, and unconscious re-enactment.  The main characteristic of a part is that it is repetitive and has a purpose in trying to manage something internally or externally. All of the above words to describe a part could have this definition.  Calling it a part is simply the limitation of language trying to describe an experience.

Sometimes, we may have a response. Let's say we feel sad in response to a tragedy. Our sadness is not necessarily a "part," although it could be attached to a repetitive response. It could be a momentary feeling that is free to express itself and pass on. We might identify a part that responds to the sadness by shutting it down, a part that fears our vulnerability.

For the most part, a part carries elements of control motivated by fear or shame. A part does not live in the moment. It was formed, lives in the past, and responds to the present. By bringing our self-compassionate presence to these parts of us, we can work with them to release this fear and shame and acknowledge how and why we learned to do this. 

In the moment, we do not necessarily experience ourselves as many parts unless we are ambivalent and stuck between 2 sides of us that have competing desires.  For the most part, when we are in a reaction, that is all there is. We experience that as me right now. We must turn towards this reaction (part) to be aware of it. Becoming conscious of our internal life is nothing new—the difference between noticing the part and acting from the part.

Our Imagination

This is where, in IFS, our imagination comes in.  The noticing creates a space where we can dialogue and learn what this part carries and why it does what it does. Imagination is available to flesh out this experience of the part.  In this way, we start with the experience of the part, for example, shutting down on feeling sad and noticing how that feels in our body. As we sit with that, we might allow an image to represent that experience. If an image comes, it will enable a focus to engage with the part in an internal dialogue.  In this way, our imagination is our friend and is rooted in the experience of the part.

Change is hard.

A habitual response that we might want to change is a challenging task.  From an IFS perspective, it is easy to see why. Our internal system has many layers connected to early experiences of trauma. This is why attempting to replace one coping strategy with a perceived better coping strategy is less effective if we are not paying attention to how that coping strategy connects to the trauma.  A popular catchphrase from neurobiology is' neurons that fire together are wired together'. Our need for this part to repeat what it does to protect us continues to wire together the elements of that response, which makes parts tenacious and singleminded.  

Here is an exercise you can download to explore your parts. It is useful in between sessions to explore the reactions and parts that come up in response to someone or a situation.

If you want to work with parts, contact us to make an appointment.

Delyse Ledgard
Turning Point Therapy
11420 Pemberton Cres,, Delta, v4C 3J4

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