What Is Parts Work?

I talk a lot about parts work on social media because it’s been one of my favourite ways to work with client’s, as well as one of the most helpful frameworks in my own journey. I thought it was about time I wrote a more detailed blog post about what parts work actually is, and why it can be so supportive. My perspective of parts work comes from a blend of Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Inner Relationship Focusing (IRF). I received training in both (basically first level), in the MindBody Therapy Certification that I took through Embodied Philosophy.

Psychologist Richard C. Scwartz created IFS when working with a population of bulimics and saw that they naturally described different parts of themselves. He then over time, learned how to relate to each part, which led to authentic change. IRF is based off the work of Eugene Gendlin and a term he coined; the felt sense. I find IFS to be more structured in that we’re naming parts and directly communicating with them, asking more specific questions. IRF on the other hand, feels more fluid to me. We’re relating to something in us, the felt sense, and spending time with it, allowing for it to move into more clarity informing us and guiding us.

When it comes to IFS the premise is that our psyche is made up of various different parts. There are parts called protectors that do just that. They have roles to protect us and keep us safe in various ways. On the outside these roles can look like people pleasing, binge eating, exercise addiction, perfectionism, isolation, humour, aggression, preoccupation with the body, avoidance of the body, chronic restriction (dieting), spending hours on social media or watching television, etc. IFS sees two types of protectors; managers and firefighters. The managers do just that. They try to manage life and situations so as to not experience discomfort. This could look like the people pleasing, perfectionism, humour, or an inner critic, etc. The firefighters come in and put fires out when discomfort has arisen. This can look like binge eating, or any other form of ‘self-sabotage’ that numbs or distracts or might feel compulsive.

We also have parts known as exiles. These are the parts of us often known as the inner child, except we actually have multiple younger parts. These parts of us are also what we might call the shadow. They’ve been exiled because they carry pain from the past, that at the time, we didn’t know how to deal with and/or didn’t have support with. Our exiles are often stuck at a particular time in childhood. These parts often carry beliefs and feelings that come from conditioning and trauma. Just because these parts have been exiled or pushed into the shadows, doesn’t mean they don’t impact us though. Our exiles can leak out, and this is often when a firefighter protector will jump in.

Another part that IFS acknowledges is the Self. Self is known as the natural inhabitant to our seat of consciousness. What happens though, is that we become blended with our other parts and then these parts are what drive us. We see the world through the part we’re blended with, putting us in a state of partiality. Self is our core essence and the part of us that doesn’t carry wounds or conditioning. The goal of IFS is to develop a different relationship with our protectors so that they can begin to trust us enough, to give us permission to meet our exiles. Once we’ve connected with our exiles, we also need to build trust with them. Over time we may be able to unburden (‘heal’) them, leading to the protectors not needing to do their role to protect us. We do all this with Self being in the drivers seat, which is a process in and of itself. The intention is to become more Self led, while recognizing all of our parts have positive intent.

If you consider your thoughts, emotions, urges, and impulse to be coming from an inner landscape that’s best understood as a kind of internal family, populated by subpersonalities, many of whom are childlike and are suffering, then it makes more sense to take that next step of comforting and holding these inner selves rather than just observing and objectifying them.

Richard C. Scwartz

In IFS we can experience our parts as sensations, emotions, images, or inner dialogues. In IRF we are working with the felt sense, which isn’t just feeling. Eugene Gendlin says this about the felt sense:

“A felt sense is a meaningful body sensation. More than a feeling, more than a sensation, it captures the whole of an experience. It is ever forming. It implies movement forward or next step. When experienced, we often feel a shift in our state or experience.”

He also said, “Focusing is this very deliberate thing where an “I” is attending to an “it.”

IRF helped me deepen my embodiment. It helped me start to get a grasp on how to sense my inner environment. It helped me learn how to feel, but also so much more than that. There are suggestions and reminders offered for how to be in relationship with the felt sense. IRF really helps you learn the language of the body in a unique but potent way. I call it body sensation literacy.

The presence language used with IRF supports in moving from identification with what you’re experiencing, to observation. We’re not in presence if we’re identified, much like being blended with a part in IFS language. When we’re in presence, this also supports us in remaining within our capacity (window of tolerance). When we move outside of our capacity, we aren’t able to integrate our experience. Both also require that we wait for a response, rather than seek answers. With parts work, we’re also working with the implicit, which is not known consciously yet held in the body. When we stay in cognition about something it limits us in resolving it.

On that note, we also limit ourselves when we just conceptualize parts work and not drop it down into the body. That being said, sometimes we will experience a part through inner dialogue, but this is much different than the brain’s normal mental chatter. It can take some discernment to understand what is mental chatter and what is the inner dialogue of a part. I’ve found that when I’m experiencing a part through inner dialogue, it speaks simply with shorter statements or responses. The process of parts work takes patience and really slowing down to allow for the unfolding of what wants to come through. Some days I find my experience to be more sensations based, while others can be more visual, and others yet include more inner dialogue.

A large part of parts work is also about changing how we relate to our inner environment. We tend to either avoid or try to control. It’s a paradigm shift in that we’re moving from hierarchy to right relationship internally. This is what learning to reparent ourselves is all about when we embody it. I have personally experienced such a shift in self-compassion and feeling more whole with parts work. Many of my client’s express the same. Not to mention the behaviours they struggle with begin to shift because we’re working with the roots of them, rather than at the behavioural level.

My new offering, RETURN, will be digging deeper into parts work and how we can change that inner relationship. So much of RETURNing to ourselves is about getting to know all parts of us and shifting our relationship to these parts, so that we include them. Stay tuned!

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