Traditional mental health assessment is typically organized around diagnosing pathology, which is designed according to lists of symptoms chosen by committees of professionals. Instead of this medical model, we can understand the psyche as the activities of a plural mind, in other words we have a Core Self and also many Parts that make up who we are. These diagnoses (such as Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.) can be seen as ways of describing the behaviors of activated parts, rather than labeling the whole person. Instead of pathologizing symptomatic behaviors, we can view them as natural efforts to solve problems, to cope, stay safe and survive.
There is a system known as IFS (Internal Family Systems) that most closely matches my intuition/knowing of how the psyche works, which I will blend into my teaching. How to understand parts? Here are some tenets:
- All parts have good intentions, even those who misbehave. In misbehaving, the part is trying to protect us and keep us functional, however misguided. As an example, if we use drugs, it is to numb pain that the psyche doesn’t have the ability to hold and still remain functional.
- When we are injured and vulnerable parts are wounded, other parts step in as protectors. Again, this is to keep us from collapsing and becoming non-functional.
- A destabilized inner system can become integrated and balanced once it is in relationship with the Core Self.
- The Core Self is not created and cannot be destroyed. It is intrinsic and present from birth.
- Every person has a Core Self, and the Core Self can be accessed for healing in every person.
The trajectory of healing is first going inward and becoming aware of our protective parts. The ways we find our inner parts are via our emotions, thoughts, or sensations in the body. Once we do that, here are the next steps:
- We befriend our protective parts and get permission to help our wounded parts.
- We next form a positive relationship with our wounded (child/exiled parts) and witness their experiences and help them let go of feeling states and beliefs that are extreme or damaging. To truly heal from trauma, we must be willing to be in/with the wounded child part and FEEL what they feel. We express the emotions in order to release them (cry, scream, rage). This liberates protective parts and creates an opening for wounded parts to heal and reintegrate/reinstate the Self as leader of the inner system, rather than the protective parts being in charge.
Here is a rough breakdown of our inner landscape.
Protective Parts: All protective parts are trying to contain or exile the powerful negative feelings and beliefs of wounded parts. The intention is to ward off more harm and keep us safe. What the wounded parts are holding is so powerfully painful, protector parts were created to keep that pain out of our awareness. Protectors can be proactive or reactive.
- Proactive protector parts try to manage our lives in ways that keep the emotional pain out of consciousness. They often focus on motivating us to improve, work hard, be productive and be socially acceptable. At the extreme, this can look like perfectionism, intellectualizing, one-sided caretaking, obsessing about appearance, conflict avoidance at great personal cost and trying to control or please others.
- Reactive Protector parts (“firefighters”) come up when the wounded child/exiled parts have emerged or become activated (when we become triggered), and try to distract/stop emotional pain as fast as possible without regard for consequences. These protectors view their actions as life-saving (saving the Self from the experiences and feelings of the wounded parts). Examples include binging, purging, addictions, ego battles, numbing, dissociating, cutting and suicidal ideation/behaviors.
Vulnerable/Exiled/Child Parts are those that were wounded due to trauma of some kind. Because these parts hold the terror, horror, shame and despair we felt, they are exiled by the protector parts in an effort to keep us functioning and moving forward. Hence our child parts are cut off, isolated, put in a box, forgotten and remain trapped in the past. They long for help, but when they push into consciousness with negative feelings/beliefs/sensations/memories the protector parts experience them as a hazard and push them back down via one of the above-mentioned methods.
The Core Self is the center of psychic balance, the seat of consciousness and the inner source of Love. Everyone has a Core Self. Just as light can be both a wave and a particle, the Self can manifest in the energy of certain “positive” feeling states such as curiosity, calm, courage, compassion and love. The Self is essentially the You who is not a Part. We could say it is our Soul or Higher Self. Parts who begin to form a relationship with Self will feel loved, so the goal is to develop access to the Self…to access Self energy as a wave and be in relationship with the Self as particle. In cases of severe, chronic and complex trauma, we may not have a well-developed Self, and will need a therapist/guide who can provide their Self to us until we develop our own inner Self…in a way parenting us until we can develop our inner parent.
Thus, becoming triggered is an opportunity. When we are triggered, our exiled wounded child parts become activated and we have the opportunity to do some inner work/shadow work. Our protector parts may jump up to try and contain the pain activated by the trigger by attacking the person who caused the trigger and battling them to prove them “wrong” or make them the “bad one”. This does not help our healing but merely creates more trauma to be resolved. Ideally, when triggered we go inward and do the shadow work with our wounded parts. Remember we do not get triggered unless we already have a corresponding wound inside us!