Just as we might say, “Part of me wants to eat this big piece of chocolate cake and part of me knows I’ll regret it later,” any situation we face typically elicits different responses from within. As a culture, we tend to see people as being fairly simple. How many times have you been expected to answer a question with a yes or a no? Or that you only want one of the options and not the others? But humans just aren’t like that!
Today we’re going to do a brief overview of how to learn about your Internal Family. If you want to learn more, there are books, websites, and trained professionals who can help you. Today is just an introduction in which we’ll cover:
Talking about your “Parts” is a way of describing the mixed ways you feel or react to a situation. It’s as if each “Part” is a different version of who you are that has a particular set of goals, fears, and methods of coping. For example, part of Robin has created a whole plan for being healthy and is really good at sticking to the plan. But another part feels scared and alone because all she really want is for someone to take care of her; when things feel just too hard, that part copes by whipping up a chocolate mug cake. It can seem crazy that she’s both incredibly good at sticking to health goals and incredibly weak when it comes emotional eating.
That’s why using the Internal Family model can be really helpful for understanding and addressing what you do and who you are. It’s a way to acknowledge that each part has a reason for why it behaves or feels the way it does. Many of us have lived our lives feeling ashamed of some parts of ourselves so this can be both scary and terrifying to acknowledge that each part has our best interests at heart, even if that part goes about it in a way that we find destructive or shameful.
It’s common to have one part that wants to connect and be with other people and another part that just wants to be alone. Sometimes the part that wants to be alone is afraid of being hurt or overstimulated. Sometimes the part that wants to be alone is giving you the break you need in order to be your best the rest of the time. Sometimes the part that wants to be alone achieves that with a meltdown or withdrawal. Sometimes the part that wants to be alone has other strategies.
By acknowledging that part and its motivations and strategies, we can get a lot further towards finding what really helps. For example, Tim might say, “I have a part that gets really tired and uncomfortable interacting with people and I have a couple protective parts that can help. One protector causes a meltdown that makes it easier for me to be alone–I don’t have to explain or admit anything, I just make it happen. Another protector sends me off to the bathroom to sit on the toilet and play games on my phone–again, no need to explain or admit, just disappear.”
Talking about parts is a non-judgmental way of acknowledging the ways in which we try to meet our needs and then work to address them in a healthy way.
Protectors? We just threw out a new concept of protectors so let’s take a minute to talk about them. Protectors are the parts we are most familiar with. They are the coping strategies we use to help ourselves when we’re uncomfortable in a situation. This is not to say that you personally do any of this on purpose! There is no blame here. In your particular inner-workings, these are the ways your internal family has learned to maintain equilibrium.
You may hate and despise your particular protectors, you may want them to change or go away, or you may consciously choose what they do. Panic attacks are a protectors–they make a lot of drama and noise in our heads that distracts from the underlying feelings (often shame, fear, overwhelm, hurt). Positive self talk is a protector. Emotional eating is a protector. Routines and rituals are protectors. Cutting is a protector. Schedules and calendars are protectors. People pleasing is a protector. Meltdowns are protectors. Smoking or drinking are protectors. Restrictive eating is a protector. Journaling is a protector. Exercise is a protector.
We purposely put a mix of behaviors that most people would label as “good” or “bad.” Keeping a calendar is good, smoking is bad. But we’re here to tell you that neither one is bad. They are both parts that are doing the best they can to help you. Let’s be really honest. Pick a “bad” habit. Smoking, cutting, emotional eating. It’s actually helped you, hasn’t it? It’s helped you feel better when things were hard. It’s helped you keep your temper when you were inclined to do something regrettable. It’s been a stabilizing feature of your life when other things felt out of control. So let’s be honest and acknowledge that.
Important Note Before We Continue: If you are at risk for hurting yourself or someone else, please get help right away. In Colorado, we have 24-7 walk-in mental health crisis centers with caring people who are ready to help. Anywhere in the USA you can call 1-800-273-8255. Or do a web search for a suicide hotline in your country. This article is just an overview and not mental health care advice.
We have found that if you’re working on this alone, for many people the best way to start is by thanking your protector for all it’s done for you over the years. A lot of people are scared that thanking a part gives it power–but it doesn’t. Thanking is a powerful behavior. Thanking puts you in control of the situation. Thanking says that you see what the part has done and you aren’t going to battle with it anymore, you’re going to work with it.
So for Robin this might look like, “Thank you for emotional eating. You’ve kept me from losing it with the kids more times than I can count. You’ve helped me feel cared for when I’m tired and lonely. When I didn’t know what else to do, you jumped in and took care of the situation.”
For a friend of ours who smokes, this could be, “Thank you smoking part. It was so awful what happened growing up and I didn’t have anyone to help me. You kept me from feeling completely overwhelmed by the trauma. The pain was crushing and you distracted me and comforted me.”
In her medical practice, Robin taught this technique frequently and has seen just the thanking be enough to let people work together with a part instead of battle it–but it certainly has never been that simple for us! Those who know Robin intimately know that she has always struggled with a crippling fear of not having anyone to take care of her. This can seem silly from the outside because she’s a very competent adult with family and friends. But on the inside this fear is both very real and fairly logical. In our immediate family, she is the Mom and she’s a highly sensitive mom who is acutely aware of each person’s needs and wants and preferences–not many people are able to provide the same level of attuned attention to someone else’s feelings and despite him loving her very much, it’s certainly outside Tim’s skill set.
So if all the parts are good but they are doing things we want them to stop doing–then what? Just as we might find ways to redirect a child, we can find new jobs for our parts. When Charlie was in a serious throwing stage, we bought ping pong balls in packs of 50 and handed him ping pong balls all day with the reminder, “We only throw ping pong balls.” During that stage, we must have bought many hundreds of ping pong balls. But it worked. Nothing was broken and he eventually outgrew the behavior.
Your Parts can also be redirected. Robin’s people pleasing part has a new job of thanking people when she’s grateful for them. In the type of situations where Robin would have previously been busily people-pleasing and erasing her own thoughts and feelings in order to make other people happy, she has taught that part to take a back seat and relax while other parts do their work. But the people-pleasing part is really good at thanking people, so it’s become one of her happiness habits. Any time that she notice someone doing something that she’s grateful for, she won’t stop talking about it until she’s sent an email to the appropriate person.
When we were at the Nature and Science Museum but all Charlie was interested in was the plumbing and a maintenance guy took the time to explain to him how it works–she sent a quick email to the membership desk thanking them and that email ended up being read to the entire staff at a meeting where the maintenance guy received public recognition for his awesomeness. When Eleanor told us about a teacher helping her through a worry, there went another quick email–the teacher replied that she (the teacher) was having a really hard week and had been thinking about quitting and it meant so much to her to hear that she’d made a difference.
After years of working with her people-pleasing-part, Robin has given it a new name. It’s her grateful part. And it helps her see all that we have to be grateful for throughout every day. It can be a little annoying to the rest of us to constantly hear, “I’m so grateful for…” but it has helped the rest of us be more grateful too. While her grateful part started by focusing its gratitude on other people, it’s now quite adept at being grateful for her other parts and most days she walks around with a constant string of encouraging thoughts, which she’ll verbalize as well. And it’s an intrinsic part of one of our most basic behavior-modification strategies with the kids that we’ll write about another time, Randomized Rewards with Thank yous.
Over time we’re going to include lots of different techniques for addressing your feelings and behaviors and those of your partner and children. In the meantime, there are some wonderful resources out there for learning more. This article has barely scratched the surface of what understanding your parts can do for you. Our favorite book for learning about your parts is Self Therapy by Jay Earley. Or you can go directly to the source, The IFS Institute, formerly called the Center for Self Leadership. Why all this talk about Self? We completely left off the most important concept…Self. So we guess we’ll just have to write another article soon to explain Self.
This article is not about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy but we’ll just say that we’ve found that for our family, we’ve preferred to use a mix of therapeutic techniques including Parts to address the same behaviors for which others might opt for ABA. We find it successful, developmentally appropriate, and neurologically reasonable to chose from a mix of occupational therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, Internal Family Systems, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the Nurtured Heart Approach (a form of Parent Effectiveness Training), randomized rewards, parenting SOCOs, and other techniques that have helped our kids thrive despite some fairly troubling behaviors.
Acknowledging these behaviors as methods to maintain internal equilibrium and then working to find less disruptive methods or create an external environment where the methods are accepted has provided a balance between letting each person be themselves while also respecting the boundaries and needs of our family unit. It helps the kids both function in a neurotypical society and be their own neurodivergent selves. We feel a complex situation (being a square peg in a world that has a lot of round holes) requires a complex solution (teaching the square peg to find square holes and be comfortable if they choose to be in round ones).
The next time you behave in a way you don’t like, try saying, “A part of me is trying to take care of me by…”
Have you used parts before? Or are you ready to try it now? Can you think of a child or partner’s part that has been especially active in your interactions lately?