We all have many parts. If you’ve seen the movie “Inside Out,” where all of the characters have people inside their heads representing joy, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust, you have an idea of what I mean. It doesn’t mean we have multiple personalities. It just means that human beings are complex, with many (often conflicting) thoughts and feelings.
Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS, was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, who is a family therapist. At some point he realized that we each have what amounts to a family in our head, and that the different parts of that “family” interact in ways that are similar to the ways members of an actual family interact.
Throughout our lives, various parts take on what they see as needed roles. This often happens when we’re young children, at a time when we don’t have a lot of power or coping skills. This means that their “help” often turns out to be unhelpful, but they keep on doing what they consider to be their jobs anyway, because they don’t know what else to do.
Some examples of the roles taken on by parts are the people pleaser, the inner critic, the overachiever, the underachiever, the emotionally numb one, or the suicidal one.
It can be hard to believe that some of these parts are actually trying to help. One of the most confusing is a suicidal part. How is trying to make someone commit suicide helpful to them? Well, if that person is experiencing extreme emotional pain, with seemingly no hope of relief, that part may think that death is the only way to stop the pain.
Working with a client’s parts is useful in any type of therapy, because a client’s parts can either help or hinder the therapeutic work. I find it to be particularly helpful in my EMDR work, because EMDR processing frequently brings out protective parts. If my client and I don’t identify those parts and help them to feel safe letting us do the work of EMDR, we’re not likely to get very far.
When you notice a part showing up in an inconvenient way, remember that its goal is to help you, even if it’s seeming quite unhelpful. And remember that psychotherapy can help you to help your parts to find new roles!