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How Parts Work Helps Us Get to Know Ourselves

Part 1: Accessing the different parts of our minds and psyches.

Key points

  • Parts Work is a therapeutic lens that assumes that each of us has many different parts to our minds and psyches.
  • Parts Work helps us generate new, creative solutions to internal problems we’re facing.
  • Parts Work can help us understand the unique topography of our internal psychological landscape.
Justin Posey/Death to the Stock Photo
Source: Justin Posey/Death to the Stock Photo

An integral part of my relational trauma recovery work with clients involves the therapy tool of “parts work.”

Parts Work – specifically getting to know the disowned and disavowed parts of us and then actively working to reclaim and integrate them into our conscious adult lives – is a critical skill we build in relational trauma recovery work.

But what exactly is Parts Work?

Parts Work is a way of thinking that has roots in many schools of thought: Gestalt Therapy, Internal Family Systems, Voice Dialogue, and even Jungian Archetypal work. Each school of thought has its own methodology, but Parts Work, as I define it and use it in my sessions, is a therapeutic lens that assumes that each of us has many different parts to our minds and psyches. Each of these parts (or subpersonalities) has unique needs, wants, and beliefs and may be consciously or unconsciously helping or harming us as we move through our days encountering different situations, triggers, and scenarios.

By bringing our awareness to these many different parts within us – giving each a voice, learning what each needs, wants, and fears, and understanding when, how, and why each gets triggered – we are then more able to lovingly integrate (but not eliminate) the many aspects within us to create more choice, expand our capacity to creatively problem-solve, and to give us a greater sense of wholeness and aliveness in our daily lives.

You may be asking, What is an example of a disowned and disavowed part? Examples are as multitudinous as there are people on the planet, but here are a few examples to illustrate what this might subjectively look like for some people:

Imagine a young woman who put aside the part of her that believes in earth-based spirituality and intuition because, growing up, she didn’t live in a family system in which it was psychologically and emotionally safe enough to own that part, or for her family to see that those topics were important to her. Instead, this girl learned it was psychologically and emotionally safer to be smart and accomplished, so she poured all of her energy and time into academics to belong, fit in, and keep herself safe, disowning those earlier interests and relegating them to “childish fantasies.” She disavowed the spiritual, soulful, intuitive, and mystical side of her.

Now imagine a young boy who loved musicals and theater and the color purple but who was teased by peers and his family for being “effeminate” for liking those things, and so, having learned that it wasn’t “safe” to allow himself to love what he loved, compensated by throwing himself into sports (a pursuit acceptable to his family and peers), even though sports and competition didn’t feed his self. He disavowed the creative, performative, entertainer side of him.

Finally, imagine a woman who grew up steeped in the Purity Culture of evangelical Christianity and didn’t allow herself to experiment with her sexuality and partner preferences as she came of age as a teen because it would have been “wrong." And let’s imagine that this young woman, fearing retribution from her family and church community, instead did what she was "supposed to do" and married young in a “socially acceptable” heteronormative construct, and didn’t have sex before marriage. She disavowed the sexually fluid, sexually curious, sexually dynamic part of herself.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a million other ways that we grow up in our families, communities, and culture and come to disown and disavow parts of ourselves.

Now our task is to identify these parts and work toward re-integration.

So how do you know which parts are inside of you? The discovery of your own unique parts is a unique, lifelong journey. No one can tell you exactly what your own Parts Work process or results will look like (though a good therapist can skillfully help you access this), but I personally believe that virtually all of us have at least three key, archetypal Parts within us which I will discuss in a future post. In the meantime, to consider the following questions:

  • What do I have strong, knee-jerk reactions to? What engenders really strong reactions in me?
  • What do I loathe or dislike in others?
  • What do I hunger for and find myself drawn to but won’t really let myself have?
  • What did I love at age 6, 8, 10, and 12?

Get curious about these aspects of yourself that you may have disowned and what parts of you may have been relegated to minor roles in your life. You can then make gentle and consistent movement back to those parts.

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