I had a therapist for a couple of years who practiced with me something called “Parts Work.” It is deeply rooted in Jungian psychology, and at its essence draws upon the fact that we have many different parts inside of us and all deserve an equal voice. What tends to happen in fragmented psyches is that certain voices or parts get much louder and take up all the space. These parts showed up in childhood and were actually at first trying to offer help and protection. So if you had a highly critical parent who expected perfection, you might have a part in you that is a tough perfectionist, because at the time this seemed like the surefire way to be loved and approved of by the parent. What happens, though, as we grow up, is that we are no longer served by that perfectionist voice. She ends up making us feel like shit, no matter what we do. The idea of Parts Work is to calm down all those different parts and let the Center, or Self, or Internal Parent, or Soul or whatever you want to call it be in charge, and then the other parts don’t take over and drive us mad. These parts still have a voice, but they aren’t in charge, and they are sometimes firmly told to please cease their chatter. They are extras – not the lead. (Something tells me the writer of Pixar’s Inside Out experienced his own level of Parts Psychology.)
This was profound and important work. First of all, it was unusual – therapy was no longer going to be about complaints and grievances. There was work to be done. (Hurt Little Girl Victim Part can take over the therapy room, and she sometimes needs to for a little while. But not forever.) Second of all, it delivered actual results, and pretty quickly. I started to see the different “people” in my psyche that had taken over my entire Self: the Critical Perfectionist, the Frightened Child, the Angry Defensive Teenager. These were three of my key players, and there was absolutely no room to breathe with them taking up all the space. I either felt self-hatred, fear, or anger. It kept me a victim and a blamer, perpetually not good enough. There was very little access to my true sense of Self. Part of the work was giving them each a fair voice, calming the louder one down (Critical Perfectionist) and letting the quiet one talk (Frightened Child.) What starts to happen is that when you give them a voice and listen, they actually do calm down or speak up as necessary. They want to be heard, and they want to hear each other. And it allows the sense of Self, which is always kind, calm, and loving to be in charge. And then the Parts are like, hey thanks, I really needed to share that. Or, hey thanks, I’ve been getting tired of hearing myself yell.
This is often work that gets done in meditation, too, specifically mindfulness. We become aware of all the voices in our heads telling us what to do, think, and feel, telling us who they think we are. Mindfulness asks up to pay attention but not get caught up and always come back to that larger sense of Self, the one who knows. The loving awareness. After a while these voices become sort of funny, because we know that they are just psychic mush left over from dysfunctional childhoods or the simple fact of being humans. It is still important that we listen to them, that we pay them some attention, but we don’t have to take them so seriously.
What I have noticed is that much of my initial internal reaction to things is coming from some child part of me. Call it instinct, if that works for you. I either feel frightened, offended, hurt, ignored, or annoyed. These are my go-tos. In reaction, I either want to fight back and defend, offend, or hide in a corner. If I do react from this place, I tend to cause harm, because I am reacting to something that didn’t actually happen. If I instead pause, breathe, and give the situation some space, I soon come to that settled sense of Self that can view objectively what is happening and what actions should be taken, if any. When I was teaching, whenever I got an email from a parent or administration, my first thought was I am in trouble. I did something wrong. My body clenched. My stomach dropped. That is a six year old girl reacting. When I opened the email, more often than not, it was benign. Or it was praising. Or perhaps it was presenting a problem, but it wasn’t attacking me or blaming me. I often had the same experience when I received feedback or was asked to speak with my boss. I’d clench my fists and brace myself to take it and immediately become defensive in my head. I can still do this when my father calls me. The little girl in me is really scared that she did something wrong. But nothing was ever wrong the way that child part initially perceived it would be.
Before I knew any better, I used to react to perceived threats without any thought that I was incorrect in my assessment. I defended, offended, or ran away and felt like a victim, because I thought this was keeping me safe and the right thing to do. It was actually creating chaos and dysfunction and harming my relationships. I can still react, on occasion, if I am particularly stressed, but mostly I have learned to trust that my initial reaction is not rooted in present reality and I can pause until whatever Part it is has calmed down. Then I can respond. I love pausing. It is a key tool in my life. I try to pause with everything, even seemingly innocuous texts and emails. There is no rush. It is also pretty fascinating to observe what comes up when you choose to give twenty four hours (or more!) before responding to an email. I once paused for three weeks on tending to a disagreement with a friend, and it ended up being a most empowering experience. Sometimes it is OK to leave things messy. The key takeaway is that the Self knows.
The Self, the Internal Parent, the Higher Power can make healthy decisions and respond with grace, but it requires patience and calming down the voices that want so desperately to be the center of attention. Their roles are valid and sometimes necessary, but they just don’t have the substance to steal the show.