Understanding Inner Conflict
One of the biggest reasons that we do not achieve our goals in life (or in therapy) is because we have unresolved conflicts between different parts of ourselves. This isn’t meant to minimize legitimate barriers—such as poverty, illness, lack of social support, or currently living in an unsafe environment—all of which can interfere with healing. However, if you feel stuck or unable to reach your potential despite your hard work, then parts work therapy might provide valuable insight.
Parts work therapy attends to the conflicts between parts that when left unresolved can sabotage your efforts toward healing. For example, within therapy there are times when you might be attempting to work through a difficult or traumatic memory. Even though you are ready to heal, there might be a part of you that interferes with the process in an attempt to protect you from vulnerable feelings that feel threatening to your sense of self.
“Successful treatment of childhood trauma or Complex PTSD requires the ability to work with parts and ego states. Within parts work therapy, you achieve trauma resolution by recognizing disowned parts and giving these parts a voice. The goal is to help you develop an embodied sense of self that can compassionately hold your emotions, vulnerable sensations, and young parts of self.”
–Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Parts Work Therapy
Parts work therapy holds a basic understanding that the members our family of origin are internalized as parts of our sense of self when we are children and remain within us as we grow to become adults. Parts can also represent younger versions of self—this is sometimes referred to as your “inner child.” Unresolved traumatic events from childhood can be held in a young part of yourself until you have an opportunity to attend to these memories.
There are many therapeutic approaches to working with parts, notably, Ego State Therapy (Watkins & Watkins, 1997), Gestalt Therapy (Perls, 1973), and Internal Family Systems therapy (Schwartz, 1997). Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy offers a valuable model which identifies three common categories of parts: exiles, managers, and firefighters. Exiles carry the burdens of trauma including the emotions and memories. Managers work to stay in control of vulnerable feelings often by working hard or manifesting as a relentless inner critic. Firefighters “act out” with addictions or self-harming behaviors in order to prevent exiles from emerging. A primary goal of IFS therapy is to help you develop a relationship with the Self—which Richard Schwartz describes as the confident and compassionate core of the individual that can serve as a source of wisdom.
When Inner Parts Act Out
In truth, most people have parts…and this doesn’t mean that you have multiple personalities. Rather, it is a sign that you are human and have your share of hurts and wounds that need attention. Moreover, our parts hold important gifts that when accessed can help you to access your creativity, joy, and an reclaimed sense of wholeness. Here are 5 common signals that a part is showing up for you—and valuable strategies for how to resolve inner conflicts:
- Perfectionism: If you are like most people, you prefer to be seen as strong, capable, intelligent, and in control. However, it is important to recognize that nobody feels like this all of the time. Getting in touch with the true you—even the messy, hidden parts of yourself—is an important step toward healing. This can involve taking off the masks that you might wear to protect yourself in your daily life and a willingness to accept your imperfections without judgment.
- Self-aggression: If you find yourself being excessively hard on yourself, it may be worthwhile to get curious about the part of you that is angry. Self-aggression can range from self-critical thoughts to self-harming behaviors or suicidal fantasies and urges. Sometimes, self-aggression is a sign that it wasn’t ok or safe to be angry at a parent when you were a child. As a result, this anger can turn inward toward yourself. Sometimes the inner critic is repeating words that were said by a critical parent. Gestalt Therapy invites you to placing the critical part in the empty chair and giving yourself an opportunity to talk back to your inner “bully”. In addition, it can be important to give the angry part of you a chance to have a voice. However, instead of attacking yourself, ask this one important question, “who am I really angry at?”
- Regression: It is common to sometimes feel or act younger then you actually are. For example, this might happen when you return to visit the home that you grew up in or when you are in conflict in a relationship. You might start crave foods that you liked as a child or you might try and pick a fight with a loved one. When you are feeling small, ask yourself, “how old does this part feel?” Maybe you have a memory of a time or event connected to that young part. One powerful practice for times that you are feeling little inside is to imagine the adult you compassionately and lovingly holding this young part of yourself.
- Self-Sabotage: It is painful when we know what we want for ourselves but can’t make or sustain the changes that would create a healthier or more successful life. This often indicate a conflict between two parts of self. For example, you may be ready for new growth but you may also feel frightened of change. Therefore, you might resort to old patterns, even if they are unsatisfying or unhealthy, because they feel safe and familiar. We often reject the parts of ourselves that “act out.” This can start a vicious cycle in which the marginalized part (often a young part) becomes increasingly frantic and is more prone to sabotaging our goals. Rather than punishing yourself, try exploring what this part really needs. As we make space for these needs we are more likely to channel them into healthy, conscious choices. (Click here to read more about The Causes of Self-Sabotage).
- Pervasive Shame: Shame is characterized by the belief, “I am bad.” This emotion is based upon a distorted sense of yourself as being unworthy, damaged, or a failure. Adults who were abused or neglected as children will often blame themselves. This can lead to the feeling of shame. When shame shows up, it is common to feel changes in how you experience your body. For example, you might notice changes in your posture such as lowering your head or having a harder time making eye contact. Or, you might find it intolerable to sense and feel your body at all. A valuable somatic psychology practice for unwinding shame is to slowly build tolerance for the physical discomfort. Once you can feel your body, you have greater choice about how to move and breathe. There is tremendous power in reclaiming your body from shame.
Healing in Relationship
Working with parts provides an opportunity for self-awareness and can lead to a greater sense of integration. While self-help techniques are valuable, most of the time parts work therapy requires the support of a trained therapist. The structure of psychotherapy and knowledge of a trained therapist can hold the depth of container for the process that cannot be achieved on your own. When looking for a therapist, I encourage you to find someone who is familiar with parts work and other trauma-informed therapy approaches such as EMDR Therapy or Somatic Psychology. Importantly, you do not have to suffer alone.
Want to learn more about healing PTSD?
The Complex PTSD Workbook is now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.