By Alex Chapunoff, LMHC
You may be happy to learn that, as a whole person, you have many parts. The body has many parts, why should the mind or personality be different? The way you think, feel, and act is a composite result of how your parts are doing. It makes more sense than the typical “unitary” approach in psychology where a person is seen as being “one personality only” or, at most, two personalities—conscious and subconscious. It explains things that prior seemed incomprehensible.
To illustrate: a guy wants to stop smoking but can’t. He tries and tries but just can’t do it. Patches, gums, e-cigarettes, meds, courses, hypnotism, therapy: none works, none helps. How could this be? How is it this person is incapable of not smoking cigarettes, especially when he never smoked one for the first twenty years of his life? The problem is perplexing and more problematic when one uses the old unitary approach because then he must be seen as irrational or weak or having a disease (addiction).
From the perspective of “parts”, though, it is understood part of him wants to be healthy and quit smoking and do whatever it takes to accomplish that but another part of him loves smoking—loves how it feels and looks—and wants to keeping puffing away. These two parts counter each other so that for every step forward he takes a step (or more) backward.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy model developed by Richard C. Schwartz is so called because it has discovered that each of us is really a system of parts, comparable to how a family is a system of persons. Now, as Korzybski famously said, a map is not the territory. And that’s a good thing to know, and a good thing in itself. Can you imagine using New York City as a map of New York City? A tad impractical and pointless. Rather, a map is valuable to the extent it works and helps orient you so you know where you are and how to get to your destination.
As a therapist and person, I have found IFS provides a valuable map to how the psyche actually works. It sheds light on, and helps resolve, issues that would have taken much longer with conventional (unitary) therapies.
In 2015, a Pixar movie called Inside Out was a big success and, notably, it’s about a teenage girl and her psychological parts. It sometimes happens that mainstream industry produces something interesting and sophisticated, albeit in a light style with widespread appeal. According to Wikipedia, Inside Out made over $857 million in worldwide revenue and won several awards, including a Golden Globe.
That’s a lot of people learning about IFS’s core concept without even realizing it.
The film deals with a young girl named Riley and her coming-of-age travails as she and her parents move to San Francisco from Minnesota and she struggles to find her way in her new school. Things start out well but then take a left turn. Meanwhile, we get to look under the hood, so to speak, and see her parts: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. Each is personified as a character with its own appearance, perspective, and agenda. Inside is where the real action is, outside life is simply the corresponding reflection which results from all the internal happenings: the functioning of—and interrelating between—the five parts. Some parts work together, others are in conflict. Riley is traumatized by her move because some of her parts don’t take it well.
All this is basic IFS. One difference is that in IFS a person is considered to have many, many parts: one for each emotion, habit, tendency, role, function, and so forth. Another difference is that in IFS there is the Self, which is not actually a part so much as the very ground and foundation of your consciousness. It is loving, lucid, curious, energized and firmly anchored in the present. The non-judgmental approach of Self helps bring parts out of their shell. The interaction between a part and Self tends to have a liberating, transformative effect. Healing occurs. A part previously regarded as a “nuisance” or “villain” is now a friend. This is how IFS works. In Inside Out, the part of Joy most closely resembles the Self. (Pixar’s storyline states, “Although Joy, Riley's main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.”)
Are parts real? Yes, if your mind is real, then they are real insomuch as they are parts of your mind.
Is having parts like having Multiple Personality Disorder? No. MPD is a dissociative disorder, typically developed as a means of coping with trauma. Having parts is totally normal and healthy, a basic phenomenon of the human psyche. If a part is not doing well, it needs to be bettered through inner communication, not “removed.” When we open up to our parts, we learn things from them and they learn things from us.
Some of your parts may be doing well. But some may be stuck and neglected and “frozen” in time. Many were formed in childhood. They may be causing you problems, although in reality they are trying to help—but in a way that isn’t working. No matter how well-intentioned, a part rarely, if ever, has access to the whole picture.
Inside Out shows how parts can change and grow when they are given attention and updated by interaction with—and intervention from—the Self (or Joy in the film). This is all the more vital when trauma has occurred because trauma causes undue limitation and neglect of one’s potential, which often leads to decline or at least stasis.
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