Updated: Mar 12, 2020
On a bad day, our psyche can be like a minivan with no one driving and no one in the passenger seat. The back is filled with unruly people of all ages, acting up and behaving badly. No one is in charge, everyone is unbuckled, and no one is aware of the impending careening. Ok, I'm being dramatic, but let's look at this.
We therapists refer to this illustration of the psyche as parts. A more technical term is ego states. Sometimes it's obvious in our language: "A part of me wants to eat that fourth slice of pizza, (oh, is that just me?) and a part of me knows I'll regret it". Sometimes, it's more subtle. We may find ourselves behaving poorly in certain situations—like when we visit our parents or a sibling and suddenly realize we are tantruming just as we did when we were much younger. Or we find ourselves abusing substances or food. Or there's a voice that drives us to get things done, do what's right, be better or one that criticizes us harshly. These are parts of ourselves, our psyche, that are being triggered. Before I explain more, it's important to know that No, you are not crazy and you don't have multiple personalities.
***Dissociative Identity Disorder is a serious version of ego states where each ego state becomes a sort of embodied persona. This is rarer and not what I am referring to here.
Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Richard Schwartz in the early '90s, looks at everyone as having an "inner family". Just like with external families, our parts can be in conflict with each other. They may exhibit distrust toward each other and the external world. Often they sabotage.
Looking at ourselves in terms of parts, however, can be reassuring. Seeing ourselves in parts means that not all of us is troubled. It's just a protector part taking over or a wounded part needing some attention and care. When we get to know these parts, dialogue with them, relate to them; they begin to integrate allowing us to feel more whole. Let's break it down:
***side note: IFS has a great book and workbook called Self Therapy by Jay Earley with exercises to help you do this work on your own. However, a trained therapist is good to consult with to guide you and make sure you are really integrating the practice for the best outcome.
First, we have a Self. This is our wisest, most confident and compassionate part. Most of us can identify at least one place in our life where we feel most our Self, e.g., at work or when we demonstrate a talent or when helping someone, etc. The Self demonstrates leadership.
Second, IFS identifies wounded parts, also known as Exiles. These parts are typically younger, traumatized, and hurting parts. They don't like to have a light shown on them, don't care much for attention, but they are always hurting in the background, barely detectable.
Next, we have Managers. These parts try hard to maintain some order in our external and internal worlds to distract the Self from the Exiles. These parts manifest as getting our to-do list accomplished, or over-working or people-pleasing or intellectualizing, or being overly critical of ourselves (Inner Critic). But all of that helps us fit into the world and not be rejected or abandoned.
Last is our Firefighters. Firefighters swoop in when we need a quick escape. They will help 'drown' out the pain of the Exiles. So their job is similar to the Managers but also in direct conflict with them. Firefighters exhibit addictions or otherwise "less socially-acceptable" behavior than the ones Managers exhibit. If you are excessively drinking, drugging, shopping, sleeping, gambling, sexing, or surfing, then your Firefighters have, most likely, just responded to your internal 9-1-1.
Now here is the key point. None of these parts are bad. The Managers and Firefighters have been designed by your psyche to survive emotional pain. They are actually trying to help! They just need to learn better ways to do so. When working from our Self, we can talk to our other parts to help everyone get along, learn new ways of dealing and even heal a wounded child part or two...or ten.
With an experienced therapist, you can get to know your parts, get help identifying who's who, and find ways to dialogue, re-educate and ultimately heal those parts so that the Self can lead more often and more completely.
How I envision it is we want all your parts riding in the van. We want your Self at the wheel, your Inner Coach riding shotgun, and all the other parts nicely strapped in with their favorite video games on iPads. Everyone is quiet enough to let the "Self' drive. Everyone is happy in their respective roles and the road ahead is clear.