Using Parts Work to Facilitate Healing
By Annabelle Mebane, MA, AMFT
If you’ve ever seen the Pixar film Inside Out or noticed that one “part” of you may feel excited about something while another “part” feels anxious, or “part” of you feels grateful while another “part” feels sad, you have a basic understanding of what therapists refer to as parts. The idea with parts work in therapy is that inside of us, there is a Self at the core of who we are that is our basic essence. And as we move through our lives, we develop and experience different “parts” of our selves that show up in response to particular experiences we have. According to Bessel van der Kolk (2014), “parts are not just feelings but distinct ways of being, with their own beliefs, agendas, and roles in the overall ecology of our lives” (p. 282).
Parts are like their own specific, unique individual.
Like in Inside Out, parts are like different characters that exist inside our minds that show up with a particular way of viewing and approaching things. They each serve an important role, and they also each have their own unique ways of getting us stuck at times. A number of therapy approaches, including Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), utilize parts work to help clients learn to recognize and respond to their different parts more effectively.
We often get into trouble when one Part starts running the show or gets shut down.
As van der Kolk (2014) noted, “how well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills – how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another” (p. 282). IFS and AEDP can help us improve our internal leadership skills by helping us to notice and name our different parts, get curious about the function or role that part is serving, how and why it may have developed, what it may be protecting us from, and how it may be driving unworkable behaviors when it takes over.
Every Part, no matter how difficult it may seem, deserves our care.
Therapy can help us develop compassion for even the most critical or stubborn parts of ourselves as we get curious about the pain from which these parts were born. We begin to recognize that we all have “manager” parts, who serve as proactive protectors in an effort to maintain control, and “firefighters”, who are the more extreme reactive protectors who will do anything to try to get rid of our emotional pain after the fact. We also have “exiles” that hold both our deepest pain and wounds as well as our most sensitive, creative, playful, innocent sides. According to Anderson, Sweezy and Schwartz (2017), “these parts have been shamed, dismissed, abused or neglected in childhood and are subsequently banished by protectors for their own safety and to keep them from overwhelming the internal system with emotional pain” (p. 4).
To have different Parts is to be human.
As we make space for each of these parts, we begin to learn our experience is nuanced and that “it is normal to simultaneously experience conflicting feelings or thoughts” (p. 289). When we regain the ability to see each part as but one part of us and our experience, rather than “blending” with or overidentifying with a particular part, we then regain our own agency to resource and respond to these parts more effectively.
By engaging in parts work, we make space to welcome our exiles back home, attune to their pain, meet them with the compassion they’ve always deserved, and in undoing our own rejection of those exiled parts, we make space for the tender, intimate, vital energy to reemerge as well.
Parts work helps allow us to create the room to recognize that we are more than any one part, and we are also more than the sum total of those parts. That there is a Self that was there before any of those parts developed – a Self that is curious, observant, and inherently worthy of love and compassion. And it is that Self that can help us lead all of those other parts that have developed as we move through our lives.
If you or someone you love might benefit from therapy for codependency, relationship issues, anxiety, low-self esteem, trauma or depression, please contact Jodi Staszak, LMFT. Jodi offers Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) and Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) for individuals, and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, in addition to Overcoming Codependency groups for individuals struggling with codependence. Jodi can be reached at 619-818-0375 or JodiS.MFT@gmail.com.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Anderson, F., Sweezy, M., & Schwartz, R. (2017). Internal family systems skills training manual: Trauma-informed treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD & substance abuse. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing & Media.