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Unpacking parts of self

Unpacking parts of self

This one has been brewing for quite a while, and as ever I usually get my inspiration for these weekly musings from the themes that appear to be present in my sessions with clients during the preceding week.  Back in February I introduced the concept of ‘parts of self’ which is an important way of us understanding what might appear to be contradictory feelings or beliefs or reactions to things. If you missed that blog, go back and read it HERE – it’s a good summary that might be useful to read before getting too far into this one.

We all have various different ‘parts’ but it doesn’t mean we have different selves, nor do we have multiple personalities.  Knowing our parts and understanding how to work with them allows us to uncover beautiful aspects of ourselves as well as healing old trauma wounds.  Working with the framework developed by Richard (Dick) Schwartz known as Internal Family Systems (IFS) is one of the most helpful ways that I’ve found for people to connect to, heal and work with parts of self.  According to Dick, we might imagine that we have three categories of parts:

  1. Exiles – usually our younger parts that hold deep emotions, vulnerabilities and who have needs memories that went ignored, unmet or unresolved. They carry our trauma but are not our trauma.  They have been exiled only because there has never been space for them to have their hurts processed.
  2. Managers – these are the parts that keep us functioning in the world. They are the parts that I imagine we’d talk about at a job interview – being organised or perfectionistic.  These parts are responsible for managing (controlling) people, spaces, and places to make sure we’re safe enough and to ensure those wounded exiles aren’t being seen in the world.
  3. Firefighters – these ones are the back-up protective parts that step in when our manager parts have been overwhelmed or have dropped the ball. They are pretty impulsive, and their primary focus is to engage from a place of desperation to get the pain to go away.  Examples of firefighter parts are addictive behaviours, disordered eating behaviours, dissociation, or self-harm.

These parts are all different from what we might call our true ‘self’ or ‘adult self’ – Dick calls this our ‘Self with a capital S’.  Ultimately our goal is to operate as much of the time from our place of self…but I think when we think or talk about ourselves, we are more often than not coming from one of our manager parts.  And often those managers are pretty tired because they’ve been doing their management roles for a really long time.

I sometimes use my own experience to illustrate parts, because I think that sharing my experiences of unpacking some of these categories can be really helpful as wrapping our heads around these concepts can be a bit tricky.  For example, I have a ten-year-old part who learned to be super independent when she went to boarding school.  Now there are a lot of different parts of me who are 10 years old because let’s be frank, going to boarding school at that age is super complicated.  My independent manager part came along to manage all the very sad, lonely, and homesick parts and she does an excellent job of a number of really adaptive things.  She’s the part that I credit with navigating tricky times in my life solo, the part that thought that moving to Australia from the UK with two children under five was a totally realistic prospect, and she’s probably played a part in some of my career choices, for example setting up a private practice on my own.  She’s tricky though because she can keep people at arm’s length and can make maintaining friendships harder than it probably needs to be and probably (definitely) makes me hard work in relationships!  Working with her is a bit of an ongoing process – she the part of me that encompasses what I consider to be one of my strengths, even though she evolved from a trauma-time (as all our manager/protector parts do) and I have to keep her in check (often!).

Last up this week, and to bring a slightly fun way to conceptualise parts I’m going to draw on the mighty Taylor Swift!  A music video for one of her new songs that dropped last week, Anti-Hero, I think illustrates what it’s like to have some parts that are a little bit wild! (Click HERE to view that).



If you’d like to explore your parts of self and would like a safe space to talk about how they may impact your mental health, please get in touch with us: / / 03 9077 8194.


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