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On Being Multiple: You Aren’t Who You Think You Are

You are so much more.

Did you ever say or do something that seemed totally out of character? Did you feel an intense emotion that surprised you? Do you ever find yourself saying “Well, a part of me wanted to do this but I did this instead”? Or, perhaps you find yourself in a continual conflict between striving for something (working out, job search, dating) and then opting out?

For me, this multiplicity can look like the times when:

  • I find myself in writer’s block where doing the laundry is easier than concentrating, 
  • My teenage self is getting frustrated at my elderly mom for commenting on my hair, weight, or how busy I always am, or
  • My occasional irritation at my partner after a long day’s work (when I’m just really hungry and want to be served a meal!), or 
  • I become so invested in a project or hobby I can’t stop.

The multiple personality vibe definitely shows up with my entourage of inner critics and well as my inner cheerleaders. I bet you can name a few when you put your attention on your various habits, quirks and triggers. Welcome to the world of inner parts. 

Parts Work: Internal Family Systems

In recent years, therapy modality called Internal Family Systems is gaining attention from relative obscurity. IFS is a simple yet innovative framework for understanding the complex nature of mind. It offers a language for understanding the drama in your life with curiosity and compassion rather than criticism or blame. The ultimate goal is to learn how to bring one’s “internal family” of parts into greater harmony. The premise is that we all have parts that carry burdens that need to be healed, and crucially, we also have “Self Energy” within that is the source of healing.

The developer of IFS, psychologist Richard Schwartz, is somewhat of a modern day shaman. Over the last 40 years he developed the Internal Family Systems model as a way to help people with trauma and other struggles. The title of one of his recent books, No Bad Parts, pretty much says it all. I see IFS as heart energy work.

In a nutshell, IFS conceptualizes emotions, sensations, thought patterns, etc., as “parts” or aspects of the self. These parts are burdened by personal challenges, including adverse childhood experiences, stressors, and traumas. Parts can also carry legacy burdens that aren’t yours. These are burdens that belong to parents, grandparents, ancestors, or are inherited cultural mores, religious traditions, or systems of oppression. 

As such, the parts can take on extreme roles. In carrying such burdens, these typically younger parts developed certain ways of being in order to manage the unmanageable, but without the skills or inner resources to do so. These parts are like little inner beings running around trying to fix things without the right tools. I think of my temper tantrum 5-year-old who tried to cope with fighting parents. What she needed was a sense of safety and reassurance. Yet, what she didn’t get back then, I can give her now by healing the various parts that came to her rescue. 

Essentially, learning about your parts helps you have compassion about the past, something I call kindsight. At the same time you are reshaping your imagination, and the underlying neural patterns, that allow you to conceive yourself as whole even among the ever shifting moments and inevitable challenges in daily life. I call this kindfulness.

You can reshape your inner social reality and learn to listen to and care for all your parts. There is a lot of self-love in the IFS model. It’s a different paradigm for hope.

Mapping Your Parts

The basic IFS model refers to “parts” to describe the variable states of mind, body, and spirit. 

The protector parts are managerial parts, such as inner critics or bosses, planners, and problem solvers. Or, they may be firefighter parts who rid you of the distress or pain in any way possible, including through addictive tendencies. These parts can be in opposition or collude with one another to wreak some havoc.

These protector parts work very hard on your behalf—not always with the most healthy strategies to cope or survive—and they attempt to keep the wounded parts far away. These vulnerable parts are referred to as exiles because their pain is deep and they are walled off or secluded in your psyche. Really, these exiled parts need all of your love and compassion.  

You might imagine that we all have quite a few parts—protectors and exiles. Healing involves “unblending” from your protector parts (giving them safe space on the inside) by connecting to your Self Energy. The Self in IFS is a wellspring of strengths and potentials for thriving. As more Self Energy is available to establish connection with the exiles, these parts can release their burdens (“unburdening”) and be free to play, create, and innovate. (I refer to this as updating your algorithms). You can begin your own “parts work” by simply naming your experiences:

A part of me is…

A part of me feels…

A part of me wants…

While much of the IFS approach is about befriending your parts, it is ultimately about becoming Self-led. This is a dynamic state of inner leadership that draws on benevolent, wise qualities such as curiosity, compassion, connection, courage, patience, perspective, and so on. When we are self-led, and make decisions from this state of mind, we are more likely to be effective leaders in our families, workplaces and communities.

In many ways the IFS approach is not new. It is not unlike the global variety of spiritual traditions that conceptualize the human experience as having elements, spirits or rhythms. For example, in Traditional Chinese medicine there are personality types based on the Five Elements: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal. There’s Jungian archetypes, astrology, numerology, and sixth sensory intuitive gifts. Native American traditions embrace aspects of nature, animals and spirits, honoring both the internal and external world in achieving harmony. Traditional African religious beliefs include the interplay between spiritual beings and the protective power of the ancestral world.

In psychology, there are the classic “big five” personality traits of extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. When it comes down to it, popular personality measures like the Enneagram, Myers Briggs, or any personality measure is a way to conceptualize the various “parts” or aspects of human characteristics. A person isn’t just one unified entity but a constellation of features that various peoples (including scientists) and cultures construct as social reality.

The IFS model is proving to be very useful and healing for many people. And there is a growing body of scientific evidence to demonstrate effectiveness. IFS is now expanding outside the therapy room and being used in schools, businesses, and global humanitarian efforts to help individuals become self-led, so the world can be led by leaders who are self-led. After all, we don’t want CEOs, presidents and other leaders’ 5-year-old parts making decisions that impact the fate of humanity now do we? 



Image: iStock Photos

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