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  • Writer's pictureAndrew White

What is parts work?

Abstract, black-and-white image of crashing waves
Artist: Benbentobox
Healing isn't about getting rid of the bad parts, its about learning to love and accept all our parts - Dick Schwartz, Founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy

Since at least the time of Plato, our models and theories of the mind have broken it into parts. Plato spoke of the mind (what he termed the soul) as having three distinct parts: reason, emotion, and desire. Freud of course separated the mind into three: the unconscious id representing our instinctual drives, the superego the internalised standards of society and the ego which, mediated between these desires and standards. Carl Jung’s clinical and personal experience led him to state that the different psychological complexes within a person, were like autonomous personalities that could disturb our physiology.

Today we talk of the reptilian, mammalian and human brains, which map onto our basic instincts, social bonding and rational human capacities. In neuroscience parlance how we pay attention is divided into the Central Executive Network (focused analysis), the Default Mode Network (associative thinking/mind wandering) and the Salient Network (network subconscious monitoring for novelty and threat). What these differing theories and understandings point to is that the mind is not a monolithic unity and has never been understood as such.

To view the mind as having different parts, has been seen in the past by certain aspects of psychology and psychiatry as an indicator of mental pathology. This view looked at parts of the mind as representing a ‘split’, condemning these experiences in the mental illness labels of schizophrenia (meaning split-mind), split personality (now referred to as dissociative identity disorder) and the voice hearing associated with psychosis.

However, there is a long line of psychodynamic therapists, counsellors, and thinkers who, like Jung, see ‘parts’ as the natural state of a healthy mind. On top of Jung, influential paediatrician, and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, believed that parts of the mind formed what he called a False Self, which grew to protect a person’s vulnerable True Self.

The psychoanalyst Karen Horney described how, what she described neurotic needs, led to behaviour that obscured a person’s true nature. Heinz Kohut, the founder of self psychology, described the ‘self’ as a dynamic and multifarious ‘system’ whose aim was to integrate different aspects of mind. The psychotherapist and counsellor Carl Rogers, spoke of how clients would experience different aspects of self that they moved toward and away from over the course of therapy. Dick Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS), a key influence for Aletheia Coaching Parts Work, also sees ‘parts’ as the natural state of a healthy mind.

Where parts become problematic or indeed pathological, is when past trauma distorts these parts roles, leading to highly rigid behaviour that obscures a person’s sense of presence and wholeness.

Presence and its relationship to parts work

Presence is aware, compassionate and non-judgemental. To be present is to be aware of our being-in-the-world and value it for its inherent truth, beauty and goodness. Presence is primordial and always prior to parts, which have been acquired mostly during the early developmental phase of childhood. Presence can be thought of as the joy of a child playing, a sense of connectedness to the world — that nothing is missing. The goal of therapy and Aletheia coaching is to enable a client to be more in touch with their sense of presence and wholeness, work that begins with becoming more aware of parts.

Hurt Parts and Protector Parts

There are two broad categories of parts: hurt parts and protector parts. There are more layers of parts within these categories, but the below description is sufficient for this introduction:

1. Hurt Parts, are experiences of emotional wounding that we have encountered as children. These parts remember the deep feelings of pain that accompany a traumatic childhood experience and retain a memory of what it felt like as a child before this event caused a split into parts. In other words, it remembers what ‘wholeness’ felt like before the traumatic event.

2. Protector Parts, are those that try and prevent the hurt part from feeling hurt again. They are the well-intentioned aspects of our mind that suppress and keep difficult emotions out of consciousness. Whilst well-meaning, these parts also constrain and limit a person’s experience of themselves as being one of these parts, rather than the whole of who they are. For example, a person might over-identify with a demanding ‘self-improvement part’ that is always taking on new projects to keep a sense of deficiency at bay.

Everyone has parts, and they are necessary for proper psychological functioning. However, the unintended consequences of parts are that we can become over-identified with them and forget the breadth and depth of all that we are. By becoming identified with a part, we can become reactive and fixed in our behaviours and responses.

Trouble with parts is often the reason why someone comes to therapy or coaching in the first place. Parts often have a self-improvement agenda, which views the client as deficient or lacking in some way. Like the example above, if we are over-identified with the parts viewpoint than this partial view becomes self-fulfilling, obscuring the capacity outside its perspective. Often parts are responding from internalised and deep-seated demands or needs to be or act a certain way that stem from painful childhood experiences.

Unfolding parts through parts work

1. Identifying

In Aletheia Coaching, the first step in working with parts comes from identifying those parts throughout the first couple of sessions. This isn’t done explicitly, although if clients come to session speaking of parts, of course the process can start sooner. Generally this process begins through the coach listening for parts in the client’s speech. For example a client might say “there is a part of me that hates my job, but another part that loves my team,” with the coach reflecting back, “It sounds like there are different parts of you that want different things when it comes to work”. The client, if they haven’t noticed it already, will hear via the therapist or coach’s reflection parts of themselves they may have have been unaware of.

2. Dis-identifying

The second step is the subtle act of dis-identifying from the part by simply naming it as such. This action then allows the client to step back from their immediate experience as one of being blended with their parts and experience how they can observe different parts of themselves without having to identify or be these parts. This is done by the client saying “a part of me feels/wants/needs X”.

3. Loving/Valuing

The final step at the start of parts work is loving and valuing these parts exactly as they are. Carl Rogers, one of the giants of 20th century psychology was famous for his stance of unconditional positive regard for his clients. This foundation for an ongoing helping relationship allowed a client to experience maximum freedom during the therapeutic hour. Over time, this freedom would allow the client to develop acceptance and confidence in who and what they are.

This attitude of unconditional positive regard can be applied by the client toward their own parts, even toward those parts that are causing acute pain and difficulty. Whilst it may be tempting to ignore or wish those difficult parts of us away, doing so only suppresses them and makes a client unprepared for when that part is inevitably triggered again.

The purpose of loving and valuing a part, exactly as it is, is so the client can get to know the part and through an inner dialogue mediated by the coach, begin to soften the reactive and rigid aspects of it. Over time as the client notices and becomes familiar with these aspects of self, they become more aware of the part-driven patterns of restrictive and self-sabotaging behaviour. The purpose of this inner dialogue is to develop what Dick Schwartz, founder of IFS, describes as ‘self-leadership’, the ability to manage and live life from a state of acceptance, presence and wholeness, rather than from the reactivity of parts.

Bringing it all together

The challenge in working with parts is that we are often unaware that we even have them, or that much of our behaviour is circumscribed through their fragmented view. Taking a more explicit view of parts and their role in normal psychological functioning can help clients come to know and develop a healthy relationship with the different aspects of themselves, creating space to live in a more authentic and present way.


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