Understanding Parts Therapy and How Parts Work Helps Us Heal
As the old saying goes, the whole is simply the sum of its parts. Let’s explore how parts therapy can empower the many moving parts of the self to produce a more harmonious lifestyle.
Parts therapy refers to a collection of psychotherapy techniques that help clients heal by addressing the different parts, roles, or sub-personalities within the psyche.
This therapeutic approach recognizes that our inner landscape is complex and composed of many aspects rather than a single unified self. By working compassionately with these inner parts, deep healing can occur.
Understanding Parts Therapy
The foundational idea behind parts therapy is that there are many sub-parts of the self that each hold different memories, emotions, desires, and ways of viewing the world. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to these autonomous complexes within the psyche. Others have called them sub-personalities, ego states, inner child work, etc.
Parts therapy helps clients get to know, understand, and ultimately transform the inner parts that may be stuck in old traumatic patterns or extreme polarizations. The goal is to foster communication, collaboration, compassion and integration between the parts so the client experiences their mind and life with more inner harmony and wholeness.
Concept of Parts Work Therapy
The concept of parts work emerged from gestalt therapy pioneered by Fritz Perls which had clients role play different sides of themselves. Psychodrama and voice dialogue also contributed.
Nonetheless, modern parts therapy owes much to the development of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model created in the 1980s by psychiatrist Richard Schwartz. Schwartz proposed that we all contain an inner family of sub-personalities that interact and influence our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. IFS provides a clear framework for identifying, understanding and healing inner parts.
Techniques Used in Parts Therapy
While parts work is the central unifying theme, practitioners draw from various therapeutic modalities to facilitate healing inner parts. Some common approaches include:
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence-based psychotherapy approach developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro. EMDR utilizes bilateral stimulation in the form of eye movements, taps, or audio tones to process memories of trauma while the client focuses on the disturbing event.
This facilitates the reprocessing and integration of dissociated, maladaptively stored memories and allows the client to heal from trauma. EMDR therapy is particularly compatible with parts work because it directly addresses the isolated traumatic memories held in exile parts.
Ego State Therapy
Based on psychodynamic ego state theory, ego state therapy, developed by John and Helen Watkins, identifies distinct ego states formed during pivotal life experiences. These ego states represent different modes of thinking, feeling, and behaving that manifest as sub-personalities.
Ego state therapy aims to resolve internal conflicts between these various ego states that may have competing agendas or opposing viewpoints. Techniques used include ego state mapping, dialoguing between ego states, and merging or integrating these inner aspects.
Gestalt therapy, pioneered by Fritz Perls, influenced early forms of parts work. The “empty chair technique” is commonly used where the client moves between two chairs, role playing both sides of a conflict between two inner opposites parts, giving voice to each side.
Increased inner dialogue raises awareness between polarized parts of the self. The primary goal of Gestalt therapy’s experiential techniques is integrating disparate parts of the self into greater wholeness.
The Role of Different Parts in Therapy
What role do these inner parts or sub-personalities play on the path to healing through psychotherapy? Some key concepts:
Parts in the IFS Model
IFS identifies three broad categories of inner parts that serve important roles:
- Exiles – Hold suppressed traumatic wounds, painful emotions, memories or experiences that the conscious mind has disowned or repressed due to feeling overwhelming. Providing a witnessing presence that allows exiles to emerge safely is essential for the healing process.
- Managers/Protectors – These parts have the role of protecting exiles from further pain or trauma. They employ coping strategies like avoidance, distraction, perfectionism, over functioning, etc. Too much protector influence creates inner rigidity. Healing managers involves addressing the underlying exile pain they formed to protect.
- Firefighters – React impulsively under stress through fight, flight, freeze responses. Impulsive firefighters are prone to self-destructive habits, angry outbursts, avoidance, etc. Their role is modified when the underlying triggers they are reacting to are resolved.
- Self – The inner Self represents the core essence of the individual – an inner source of compassion, perspective and confidence in managing life and relationships. Self energy is curious, calm, connected and capable. Parts therapy aims to strengthen clients’ calm in their inner Self.
Understanding ‘Exiles’ in Parts Therapy
In the IFS model, exiles represent the suppressed emotional parts that hold painful memories, wounds, and trauma from the past. Exiles contain the emotions and vulnerable child parts that were banished from conscious awareness because feeling the full intensity of these wounded parts felt unbearable or overwhelming at the time.
They are kept buried to allow functioning in daily life. However, exiles influence behavior unconsciously. Providing a safe, witnessing therapeutic space where these parts can emerge and be heard, seen, and understood is an essential part of the IFS healing process.
The therapist’s compassionate, caring presence helps exiles unburden the strong emotions, memories, pain or shame they carry. This releases the burden held within the psyche.
The Firefighter Role in Parts Therapy
Firefighter parts tend to react impulsively and distract from core issues through fight, flight or freeze responses. They manifest as self-destructive habits, addictions, angry outbursts, avoidance behaviors or dissociation.
Firefighters are focused on immediate emotional regulation and survival, not on addressing the underlying root causes fueling their intense reactions. Parts therapy helps modify extreme firefighter reactions by recognizing their protective intent while also uncovering the underlying wounds or triggers they are defending against.
As exiles are addressed and healed, firefighters no longer need to act out impulsively, allowing more stability and a sense of calm.
Parts Therapy in Trauma Recovery
Parts work can be deeply relevant for healing from trauma. Two perspectives that inform parts therapy for treating trauma are:
Structural Dissociation Model – Views trauma responses as resulting in dissociated self-states or parts – such as an overwhelmed emotional part stuck in the trauma, child-like parts, and an avoidant functional adult part that emerged after the trauma to keep functioning.
Parts work from this perspective, such as in phase-oriented treatment, focuses on differentiating and then integrating these dissociated parts through stages of stabilization, trauma processing and reintegration.
Somatic Psychology Approach – Notices how trauma gets imprinted and stored within the body and muscles as painful memories, tensions, and sensations.
Somatic experiencing, yoga, and body-oriented practices are used in parts therapy to help release these imprints and memories trapped within the physiology. Bringing compassionate awareness and releasing these somatic burdens allows associated emotional exiles parts to unburden.
Overcoming Challenges in Parts Therapy
While parts work can lead to deep healing, some common obstacles may arise:
Addressing Internal Conflicts
A common challenge that arises in parts work is internal conflicts between different sub-personalities such as between wounded exiles and the protective parts that formed to keep them safe, or between inner critics and more vulnerable parts of the self.
The grounded Self energy plays an important role in mediating or facilitating dialogue between conflicting parts to understand their perspectives and find solutions that meet the needs of all internal parts.
Managing Dissociative Identity Disorder
In more severe cases, extensive dissociation can manifest as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) where amnesic barriers exist between alternate identities or self-states.
In these situations, professional guidance is needed to carefully improve internal communication, diminish dissociative barriers, and facilitate collaboration and joint functioning between parts. The risks of destabilization need to be adequately managed. However, parts work can still help reduce symptoms of chronic dissociation.
The Goal of Parts Therapy
The overall objective of parts therapy is to help clients evolve towards the following:
A Sense of Wholeness and Integration
Rather than compartmentalized inner conflict, one feels harmony between parts of the self.
Healing from Within
Parts transform (unburden) by addressing root causes rather than just managing symptoms. In turn, clients develop self-leadership skills.
In summary, parts therapy provides a valuable framework for resolving inner conflicts, reintegrating dissociated memories and emotions, and laying the foundation for deep holistic healing.
By embracing all aspects of oneself with compassion, we become more whole.