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  • Writer's pictureWendy Rolon

What’s Parts Therapy?

Updated: May 1

I do a lot of parts therapy with my clients, so I wanted to explain what that is, and how it works. Parts therapy, also known as Internal Family Systems, is an evidence-based psychotherapy that was created by Richard Schwartz. He’s got some great books on the subject, like Internal Family Systems Therapy and No Bad Parts - Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model. If you’d like a thorough history and deep dive into IFS, I recommend either of those books. In addition, Tom Holmes has written an excellent and very accessible book on the subject, with illustrations, called Parts Work- An Illustrated Guide to Your Inner Life, that explains his way of combining psychology with spirituality to use parts work with clients. I’ve adapted my own version of this amazing modality, and I’m excited to tell you about it. I’ll cover the basic idea of parts therapy, and use example scenarios to help you understand the concepts and how this way of doing therapy works. Parts therapy is a particularly accessible healing modality, and I’d love it if your research here motivated you to try it out. To that end, I’ve included a free downloadable PDF at the end of this post that can help you get started befriending your parts! And of course, if you have any questions, comments or would like to know more, just reach out to me and I’d be happy to chat with you.

The Basic Idea - Multiplicity of Self

The basic idea is that we’re all made up of various parts, something Schwartz calls “multiplicity of self.” Imagine yourself saying “a part of me feels like…” or “a part of me really wants to…” or “a part of me can’t stand it when…” We have sad parts, angry parts, jealous parts, parts that are afraid of being abandoned, parts that want desperately to help or maybe keep things under control, parts that want to run away, etc. If you saw the Pixar movie Inside Out, you’ll likely remember the various characters, Joy, Sadness, Fear and Disgust, that were all part of the main character’s Self. 

Just like in the movie, these parts often operate inside us without our conscious awareness. This can become a problem when we’re taken over by, say, an angry part who yells at everybody. Once the yelling is done, feelings are hurt, and the angry part subsides into the background. Typically an embarrassed part will step in at this point or maybe an ashamed part that promises never to get angry again. As you likely well know, this can start to become a big mess. But in parts therapy, there’s another really important concept, which is the idea of the Self with a capital S. This Self resides in us all and is naturally Curious, Compassionate, Confident, Calm, Clear, Connected, Courageous and Creative. All good things! So, what we practice in this type of therapy is stepping back just enough so we can connect with the true Self and witness the parts doing their thing. We don’t witness them to judge, (that would just be another part, the judger). When we are in a place of Self, we witness for the purpose of having compassion for our parts, showing them love and offering them soothing, recognizing that the messes we often get ourselves into are simply life’s predicaments, part of the human experience, and are far more tolerable when we can soften into the idea that these experiences 1) are not unique to us, but universal and 2) can be navigated gracefully by leading with what Schwartz calls Self Leadership

Three Main Part Types 

Let’s talk more about the parts and their functions. There are three main types of parts: managers, firefighters and exiles.

Each plays a different role in our behavior and emotional life. What they have in common is that all parts are trying to keep us safe. So everything you do, even maladaptive behaviors like binge drinking or infidelity, is an attempt to keep yourself safe. I’m wondering if contemplating that idea creates some self-compassion for you, or maybe you're having a hard time believing it.

Before we continue, take a moment and consider being open to the idea that everything we do is an attempt to create safety for ourselves. So ok, wow, that one time when I (fill in the blank with a regrettable behavior that comes to mind) I was really just trying to keep myself safe. Take a moment to let that land. How does it feel? What we do in parts therapy is tap into your true Self, that is compassionate, wise and undamaged, to figure out what exactly was going on for you when you did that regrettable behavior, not for the purpose of being judgmental but for the purpose of getting a better understanding of what your needs were in that moment and how you were trying to protect yourself. 

Managers: The job of the manager is to step in and problem solve, get things done, keep things organized, etc. They can be helpful and also, they can be controlling and judgmental toward others and ourselves. For example, I might be driving in a new city and accidentally turn down a one way street going the wrong way. A manager part in me might scold, “Wendy! You really need to pay better attention!”

Some managers might go home and start researching tips for how to improve your driving. Others might be mean and take up residence in your head as a judging voice who likes to remind you on a loop that “You’re a horrible driver!” Still another type of manager might default to blaming others for our problems. In this scenario, I might turn the wrong way down a one way street and once I notice what I’ve done, blurt out something like “This city really needs to do a better job trimming the trees so that I can see the damn street signs!” Before you read on, take a moment, imagine you’ve driven the wrong way down a one way street and see what voice pops into your head. Do any of the parts I’ve just described resonate with you?

Fire Fighters: These parts want to avoid confrontation of all kinds. If I was criticized by my boss, a firefighter in me might hear the clock alarm go off the next morning and suggest that I just call in sick and go back to bed. Maybe things with your boss have gotten so bad that you want to apply to a new job but for some reason you keep putting it off. It may be that a firefighter part is blocking your ability to move forward because these parts just don’t like change. They perceive it as unsafe, so even if you're miserable in your current position, your firefighters might try to convince you that it’s better than the unknown. Firefighters avoid, so when your partner doesn’t tell you that things aren’t going well at their job, it might not be because they want to hide things from you. They might be gripped by a firefighter part that doesn’t want to feel exposed, and so tells them to just keep their head down and hope the problem will go away by itself. Firefighter parts can also be connected to addiction. Addiction can take hold in your life if you have a firefighter part that drinks heavily to avoid pain, sadness, loneliness or grief. Just one more drink, it’ll be fine. I’ll stop tomorrow. What kind of firefighter parts do you have?

Exiles: These parts are the most fragile of the three and most often not in our conscious awareness. Managers and firefighters work hard to protect them. Let’s go back to our first example. I drive the wrong way down a one way street. I realize what I’ve done and I gasp, my palms get clammy and my heart starts racing. Right away the manager starts yelling at me, but why? What’s the manager trying to achieve? What’s the manager’s job? Most often, a manager will emerge as a defense. A manager will take action in order to protect a way more fragile part of you, an exile.

To appreciate exiles, we need to understand a person’s backstory, which is part of what we do in therapy. Let’s say I grew up with an older sister and everything seemed to come very easily to her. She did well in school, was popular, had lots of friends, was pretty, confident, excelled at sports and other hobbies… you get the idea. I tried to keep up with her, to match what I thought of as her success, but I was shy, I was terrible at sports, I had ADHD so school was a struggle. By the time we were teens, I hated my older sister. I was jealous of her and I was also ashamed of myself for not being able to be like her. My sister would complain to our mom that she was tired of chauffeuring me around after school, and said I really needed to get my driver’s license. Learning to drive was no big deal for her, but for me it was actually kind of difficult. There were so many cars on the road and they were driving so fast! When I heard my sister complaining about needing to drive me everywhere, I felt a lump in my throat. I wanted to scream that it wasn’t fair that everything came so easily to her and she just didn’t understand. She’d never understand. Of course, when the day came for me to take my driver test, I felt so much pressure to pass, I could barely walk a straight line. There I was in the driver’s seat, my palms were sweaty, my heart was racing, the instructor was wearing this horrible cologne that made me want to barf, and yep, I failed the test.

That’s the backstory. So let’s go back to our example. I make a wrong turn, I gasp, my heart is racing and I curse myself for being a terrible driver and admonish myself that I need to do something about this. This manager part is actually trying to protect me by making it clear that my behavior isn’t safe for a more fragile part of me that remembers failing that driver test and generally feeling inadequate all the time, in the shadow of a perfect older sister. That fragile part is the exile. She’s hiding somewhere in a corner of my mind, without a voice, flattened by the memory of “you’re not good enough.” So we see the manager, yelling at me, trying to keep the exile safe by telling me to stop doing things that activate that “you’re not good enough” story. Exiles are lurking in the shadows, far from our conscious thought but positioned at the hub of the wheel of our existence, in a position to have a huge influence on what we think, feel and do, potentially without our even realizing it. Meanwhile, this angry manager’s job is to keep the vulnerable exile safe, which means any time there’s a threat that I’ll have to relive that shame and activate this story that says “I’m inadequate” the manager will jump in front of the vulnerable exile and run interference by yelling at me, or strategizing, or blaming someone else for my feelings, etc. 

The same scenario might play out but instead of activating a manager, you might find yourself taken over by a firefighter. I make a wrong turn down a one way street and after a ragged inbreathe and flush of sweat across my back, I laugh out loud and try to forget what just happened. The following day I decide to walk instead of drive, telling myself that walking is healthier anyway, even though my destination is 10 miles away and I’ll have to walk home in the dark. Once again, a part, in this case, a firefighter is jumping in to try and keep the exile (I’m not good enough), safe by making sure the “you’re inadequate” story doesn’t get triggered by my “bad” driving. Generally, a manager will try to keep you safe through action, and a firefighter will decide to avoid situations and thereby steer clear of scenarios that expose an exile.

Parts Are Different Ages

In my work with clients, I show a lot of curiosity to the parts, starting with their age. This evolved organically when I found that most clients who were able to find parts inside themselves were very interested in exploring how old these parts were and what events in their life created them. Parts usually come online in childhood, in response to either a major event like a death, a move, an illness, an accident, a mean teacher, or a trend, like a neglectful parent, a competitive sibling, an unaccepting community or a difference in neurological wiring. In general, clients would report that they had three or four main parts, the youngest being newborn to preschool age, the next being between 8-12 and the next being a teenager. Often there would be a part in their early 20s as well. Sometimes these parts would exhibit manager behaviors and at other times they would act more as firefighters. What I liked about my client’s use of age to relate to parts was that they could connect with their memories to really see that these parts were obviously aspects of themselves. In our work together they could use the anchor of a part’s age to help track down the life experience(s) that created them, which meant these parts were the representatives of my clients’ personal histories, and that was something we could honor together. 

A client whose single mom had serious mental health challenges might have a 10 year old part, who swapped roles with mom to become the parent when they realized their mom wasn’t up to the job. At a young age, this client became very organized (mom couldn’t keep track of a schedule), a good listener (mom was lonely in her mental illness and needed a confidant), and a generous helper (mom couldn’t manage household tasks like shopping or picking up siblings from school, etc.). Let’s call this part the Helper. This 10 year old Helper was also constantly vigilant and worried all the time because she was overburdened with a level of responsibility she just didn’t have the skillset to manage. She also learned that her needs were not a priority and would not be met, couldn’t possibly be met, so it might be better to just not have them. Adult clients who come to me with this kind of background still have that young part operating inside them, impacting their ability to trust others, and to get their needs met or even to truly know what their needs are. 

Parts Like to Work Together

Parts often like to work together, with the older parts coming to the rescue of the younger parts. For example, this ten year old Helper part we’ve been exploring, who’s generous, patient and a hard worker, after quietly maintaining her role for many years, might be assisted by a 17 year old teenage firefighter part who’s fed up with being “good” and is fueled by the desire to escape and be free. She notices that the 10 year old part has become exhausted by taking care of mom, and declares angrily, “Omg this is bullshit! Let’s get out of here!” A part like that, let’s call her the Rebel, might steal some cash and the car keys from mom’s purse, pick up a couple of cases of beer and a group of friends, and spend a school night getting wasted in the high school parking lot. She’s trying to help that 10 year old version of herself, the Helper, escape, and this is her 17 year old way to do it. This strategy, while suitable for a teenager, is not appropriate for say, a 45 year old man with a partner and children. And yet, if a younger version of you used this strategy to good effect, that part lives on in you and can cause quite a bit of trouble for adult you, unless you can step back, notice what's happening, and unburden this part, offering compassion and support. 

Protecting the Exile

So now that we see how this manager (the Helper) and firefighter (the Rebel) work together, let’s go back to the beginning. Who are these parts protecting anyway? Well, we see a 17 year old part trying to help a 10 year old part, who is very overburdened taking care of mom. And who is this 10 year old part protecting? If she’s been living in a family where mom is unavailable and has been for as long as she can remember, she likely won’t understand why mom’s the way she is. Many children in this situation soldier forward as best as they can, with a vague sense that something has gone terribly wrong and it might be their fault. They blame themselves. Was I too much? If I was better, easier, smarter, smaller, a boy instead of a girl or vice versa, or maybe not here to begin with, would mom be better off? Is it my fault mom’s unhappy? These types of questions are held in secret by an exile who’s locked away from our conscious awareness. So this ten year old Helper part is trying to protect a more fragile part, usually very young, who blames herself for her mother’s mental illness. Typically, people come to therapy completely out of touch with their exiles. As we work with the parts, and build trust, parts start to feel safe enough to show us what they’re protecting, a part of you that is probably pretty lonely, tucked way back in the corner of your consciousness. These parts need your help and parts work can teach you how  to give it to them.

No Bad Parts 

It’s important to remember that the parts are not wrong. Richard Schwartz reminds us, there are “no bad parts.” Parts are working day and night, with one goal in mind, to keep us safe. Some parts, however, are too young or too traumatized to know how to do this effectively. If we can cultivate the ability to notice when these overburdened parts are activated, we can witness them compassionately and from our true seat of consciousness, the Self, we can offer our parts acknowledgement, soothing and support. 

The Judging Mind

Usually, when we notice our feelings, (I’m angry, I’m nervous, I’m embarrassed), we react by judging them. Let’s say you have an argument with your partner where you become so angry, you hurl a piece of fruit at the wall in frustration. Splat. In reviewing this memory, usually you’ll judge yourself first and foremost. “Yep, there I go again. I’m just like my crazy father.” The judging part can get activated even when we notice that we’re happy, and a vigilant voice inside us worries, “how can I possibly be happy when others are suffering?” Or it could be about noticing how sad you’re feeling and a part pops up to remind you that “other people have it way worse than you. You’re probably making a big deal out of nothing.” So many ways to judge ourselves. So many ways to judge the feelings that come up in our day to day lives. 

Noticing without Judgment

Practicing parts therapy is a good way to learn to notice your emotions without judgment. This practice is at the core of mindfulness, a concept that has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years and was made popular in the US by folks like Jon Kabat-Zinn. It may sound simple but it’s not always easy, especially if you’re used to noticing for the purpose of judging. You might start parts work, and notice how often you judge yourself, and in an attempt to change this, you begin judging that judgmental part, blaming this part for your discomfort. So now you’re judging the judger. Oh dear. It’s quite an experience to notice just how deep the self-judgment runs. But once you’ve logged some time  practicing noticing your parts with compassion instead of judgment, some core stories can come to the surface for care and support. These are the stories of your exiles, usually unavailable to our conscious minds, but buried deep in the vaults. They’re buried because our parts hold the belief that they’re “too much” to deal with and need to be hidden and protected. If we let them come to the surface, they’ll drown us, they’ll cause us to spin out of control and ruin our lives. That may sound dramatic and overly black and white, but that’s how parts tend to think… they’re only kids, after all. 

Self Leadership

One way to get your head around the concept of the Self is to think about who’s noticing your emotions come and go. I don’t mean other people, I mean inside you. Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher I’ve learned a lot from over the years, talks about this, by asking “who’s minding the store?” In parts therapy, the aspect of you that’s “minding the store,” taking care of you by noticing the thoughts and feelings of parts, is the Self. We all have a Self that’s wise, compassionate, and embodies the 8 Cs I mentioned earlier (Curiosity, Compassion, Confidence, Calm, Clarity, Connectedness, Courage and Creativity). A good way to figure out whether you’re leading with the Self is to ask yourself two questions when big feelings come up- 1) who’s driving? And once you've identified the part, 2) is your driver old enough to have a driver’s license? Our parts are often too young to be determining our behavior. Noticing them laboring under burdens way too heavy for them is the first step toward unburdening them and moving into a place of Self Leadership.

As I mentioned, lots of us use the judger part to notice instead of the Self. We notice we’re feeling nervous and another part of us says “damn I’m such a wimp.” But what would happen if you stepped back from the judger as well? You turn the wrong way down a one way street and you become scared, then you judge. Can you step back enough to see both the nervous part feeling scared AND the judging part stepping in to help? Once you can see these parts, you can work with them. What do they think their jobs are? What would happen if they stopped doing them? Where do they hang out in your body? How old are they? How old do they think you are? What do they need from you?

When we take a step back and witness our parts with compassion, some tension immediately falls away. As we learn to relax into our discomfort, a concept I learned from Pema Chodron in the book, When Things Fall Apart, we start to feel compassion for ourselves and for others as well. The storyline of whatever drama is currently unfolding becomes way less important, and we’re able to offer ourselves soothing and support. With our true Self at the helm, we have way more patience and wisdom to draw from as we navigate our relationships, our experiences, and our days on this earth. We mostly can’t control what happens to us in life, circumstances just blaze into the picture, sometimes out of nowhere, but we can work on how we want to respond to circumstances. Practicing living from your true Self and noticing when your parts have taken over and need help, is a great way to heal your heart, build self acceptance, and find emotional freedom.

If you’d like to explore parts therapy some more, check out my free exercise to help you connect with your parts.

Befriending Your Parts
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