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Parts Work (Internal Family Systems)

Connecting with the parts (our inner children) with curiosity towards them leads to compassion and clarity. Ultimately self love. Re-parenting ourselves. 


Most people are familiar with the idea of having an inner child. However, what we are now coming to a basic understanding of is that we internalize the voices of multiple members of our family of origin. As well as, developing parts in response to how growing up influenced what we believed about the world and what we need to do in order to survive within it. For this reason, there are no bad parts. Just parts that need our help understanding that they are no longer the powerless beings they were back then and need help healing their pain so that you can have more choices around responding in the present moment, rather than reacting from parts that are frozen in the past. 


Parts can be understood as exiles, managers and firefighters. Exiles carry the burden and pain of traumatic memories from the past. Managers work hard to hide and protect the exiles that feel fragile and too vulnerable to be allowed freedom to be seen and heard. Managers often manifest as harsh, critical voices that villainize the exiles in order to try and control their feelings. Lastly, firefighters. Firefighters act out with addictions to substances, toxic people, work etc also in order to protect exiles from emerging. 


You know you are in a part when you are experiencing:

Perfectionism - often the need for control and setting impossible standards for oneself is a result of trauma. Trauma creates black and white rigid thinking bc it sets the nervous system up to be hypervigilant and when we are in this state it’s hard to think outside of the box. We get tunnel vision and want to control everything bc we do not trust that others are capable or will show up for us in a way that supports us. The need to be perfect typically comes from an environment that didn’t feel safe to learn and grow through our mistakes. Or made us feel like love was conditional and performance based so we have internalized that critical voice and now use it to beat ourselves up when we feel we have failed or didn’t do something as well as we should have. This critical voice functions as a protector who wants to make sure you are loved and accepted by your caregivers 


Self aggression - often as kids it wasn’t acceptable or tolerated for us to express our anger towards our parents. Parents communicate this directly or indirectly. Indirectly can mean that when you got angry, the parent would shut down or give a look of disapproval. These small signals tell a kid that if I get angry I will lose approval/connection. Loss of connection/approval feels tantamount to being abandoned and not being able to survive in the world bc our survival system is hard wired for connection = safety. In order to protect themselves from losing connection, kids will learn to turn the anger in on themselves instead. So the harsh critic that torments you is actually scared of losing connection and wants to protect you from expressing anger towards anyone other than you. 


Regression - parts get stuck at different ages depending on when they were developed. This means it’s normal to sometimes feel younger than you are when you are experiencing conflict or heightened emotions. It’s important to ask yourself in those moments, “How old does this part feel?” Stay curious and the part may even have a memory from the past that surfaces that goes along with how you are currently feeling. See if you can visualize this younger you and offer it what it needed back then, which is often a hug or a sense of you having its back letting it know you are there to protect it and make sure everything is ok.  


Self Sabotage - often parts get scared when they sense change happening. They feel totally dedicated to their roles and believe wholeheartedly to do something different would mean you are going to set yourself up for experiencing more pain and disappointment than you can bear. We often judge ourselves when we know we are continuing patterns that feel self destructive but, looked at through the lens of a part, we can begin to feel compassion towards ourselves and offer this part our love and support rather than criticism and shame. Parts have to begin to learn that they can trust the adult you and that you have resources and capabilities now that you didn’t have when you were a kid. This means they need to be spoken to with kindness and respect for the pain they experienced that put them in these roles and created their fears. 


Pervasive shame - this is the experience of feeling like, “I am bad”. It’s seeing yourself through the distorted lens of trauma. It tells you you are unworthy, a failure, no one cares about you, you will be a disappointment to anyone you let in etc. This is the voice that children who grew up neglected or abused internalized. It’s the only way they can make sense of why they feel unloved and unsupported. Shame is held in the body in bracing patterns and uncomfortable sensations. When experiencing shame you may feel numbness, like making eye contact is not tolerable or an overall sense of shrinking to become small. It’s important to begin to learn how to tolerate these sensations by creating a safe container for allowing them to be processed and moved through the body. Learning to be with one’s parts from a place of curiosity and seeking understanding of what happened to them that made them feel or act the way they do is the first step in creating a safer container in order to begin processing shame and releasing it creating new felt senses and patterns in the body. 


It's important that we begin to identify our parts and learn how to communicate with them, in order to begin the process of healing. If you would like to learn more about how to have these conversations, please read my blog entry, "Journaling Prompts for Parts Work".

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