Lesson 1 of 7 - reduce psychological wounds

An Introduction to
Effective "Parts Work"

How to Harmonize Your
 Personality Subselves

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/gwc/IF/ifs.htm

Updated  01-21-2015

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      This Lesson-1 article describes an effective way to free your true Self from false-self dominance and reduce psychological wounds - inner-family therapy or "parts work." This is included in the Lesson-1 guidebook Who's Really Running Your Life? (Xlibris.com 4th ed., 2011).

      This brief video overviews what you'll learn in this series of Web pages. The video mentions eight Self-imprvement lessons in this Web site  - I've simplified that to seven.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lesson 1, Parts 1 and 2

  • how inner-family therapy evolved

  • Q&A about personality subselves, and...

  • personal recovery from inherited psychological wounds

      If you're skeptical and/or curious about the reality of personality subselves, read this letter to you and interview one of your subselves. Then return here. I encourage you to read this entire 7-page article. With the resources above. it will provide an important conceptual foundation for freeing your wise true Self to guide your days and nights, reducing your psychological wounds, and protecting any young people in your life from inheriting these wounds.


      Meet other people interested in freeing their true Selves in this free (private) international FaceBook discussion group.

      These eight pages describe how to harmonize your inner family of subselves to reduce key personal and social problems and improve your wholistic health, serenity, productivity, and relationships. In what follows, personality "parts," "subselves," and "inner-family members" all mean the same thing.

      The content here comes from the teachings of psychologist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. + these authors + practicing inner-family therapy with well over 100 clients since 1992.

      Let's begin with a quick summary of basic concepts and parts-work terms:


      It's now widely accepted that the human brain is composed of many different regions that function simultaneously like an interactive network of mini-computers - e.g. one region decodes sounds, another colors, a third area decodes smells, etc. These regions can be seen functioning in real time via brain-scanning techniques like Positron Emission Tomography (PET). These many neural regions work together below our consciousness to produce sensory events like "I see and hear my child laugh."

      One implication is that human personalities (traits + abilities + preferences + reflexes) are not monolithic entities. They are the result of interactive "subselves" or "parts" - brain regions - which can range from integrated and harmonious to dis-integrated and conflicted. People with unusually dis-integrated sets of subselves have been called "multiple personalities" and dubbed "crazy." .     

      Recent advances in child-development and family-systems knowledge strongly suggest that the degree and quality of early-childhood nurturance has a profound and lasting effect on how personality subselves develop and function. Other Lesson-1 and Lesson 6 articles describe in some detail how parental neglect, abandonment, and abuse ("trauma") unintentionally promote up to six psychological ''wounds'' in their vulnerable young children.

      A growing number of mental-health professionals believe - as I do - that these wounds and a wide-range of psychological and social problems (symptoms) are caused by dominant personality subselves + personal and public unawareness. It's unclear whether subself dis-harmony can promote some physical illness and even premature death. .

      Our subselves have individual identities, and form alliances, coalitions, and power hierarchies with each other. They each have a unique role or "job," and interact according to group rules. Our team of subselves interacts like a group of people functioning together. Hence the term "Inner Family System" (IFS). One implication is that normal family-systemsí therapy principles apply to our inner family too. My experience from providing inner-family therapy since 1992 confirms this.

      Each of our subselves has unique abilities, ages, goals, thoughts, feelings, values, and perceptions. They can be male, female, or neither, regardless of our physical body. Partsí overriding aim is to keep themselves, certain other parts, and us as a whole safe. Individual subselves can be misinformed and/or have very distorted memories and perceptions of past or current reality.

      Our subselves can cause us and others pain and harm because they see no better choices at the time. We have no innately bad or evil parts, despite superstition and appearances to the contrary. Each subself means us well - as it defines "well." Their definitions often differ, and can change.

Four Types of Subselves

      Our inner-family members can be grouped by their function: Managers, Inner Kids, their Guardians, and Others (below). Though each of us has a unique group of subselves, most people's personality-parts are similar in function - e.g. most of us have a tireless Inner Critic, a Perfectionist, and a Driver/Achiever who (usually) wants to  get things done now

      A universal Manager subself is our true Self (capital "S"). Its unique talent is providing consistently effective leadership to all other parts if they allow that Some Inner Kids or Guardians distrust or donít know our Self. As a disgruntled musician might wrestle the baton from a scorned orchestra conductor, one or more distrustful subselves can disable our Self. Such distrustful parts are then called a "false self" here.

      Parts-work veterans often report one or more spiritual parts within or "nearby." Many meditative or sensitive people know of this One without parts work. This subself ("the Spirit within") gives wise, loving counsel at critical times if we get quiet and listen for its "still small voice." Some feel it is the voice or presence of a benign, loving Higher Power.

      People have experienced spiritual subselves throughout eras and cultures, calling them my "Higher Self," "indwelling Christ," "Great Spirit," "guardian angels," "sprit guide," "Old Ones," or the like. We each are free to decide whether we have such a part and can access its caring strength and guidance at key times. This spiritual subself and Higher Power play a critical role in the efforts of most people who seek to manage a toxic compulsion and/or to reduce psychological wounds

Subself Traits

      Each subself needs recognition, appreciation, and respect. They react if they do or donít get these from each other and other people. They also need to feel secure, important, and useful (in that order), and they react if they donít. Some people who had too little nurturance as young kids have subselves who have never felt recognized, valued, protected, and safe. Over time, appropriate inner-family therapy (parts work) can change that!

      Subselves communicate with our conscious mind in many ways: thoughts ("inner voices"); inner images or pictures; emotions (including numbness); memories; senses; hunches and intuition; day and night dreams; and body sensations. Our subselves can hide, camouflage themselves, and/or avoid people and other subselves they see as unsafe.

      Our "unconscious mind" may be the pool of knowledge, memories, perceptions, and beliefs that are protectively repressed from our conscious awareness by some Guardian subself.  As our inner safety and clarity grows over time, some unconscious "content" can be safely revealed to our conscious awareness.

      Our subselves can be paralyzed, exhausted, hysterical, repressed, or overwhelmed. They can't be "killed," "fired," or "ejected" because they're areas of our brain. Early in parts work, most subselves donít trust this, and fear losing their job and/or being banished, "killed," "locked up," or exiled. They can learn to do different jobs for us, and often want to if it seems safe to do so. For example, a Saboteur subself can become motivated to give us affirmations and encouragements, or to help us remember names and dates better. (Are you interested?)

      Like plants seeking the sunlight, our subselves seem to be primarily motivated to seek wholistic health. Given safe new experiences, information, and perspectives, our personality-parts can change their values, attitudes, and goals - often quickly. Such changes usually cause us to feel, think, perceive, and act differently.

      Many psychological and some physical discomforts, like head and stomach aches; muscle tics or spasms; tight throat, stomach, or shoulders; tingling; numbness; coolness; flushing; etc.- may be caused by subselves fighting.

      Some physical symptoms can also be caused by one or more anxious subselves trying to "tell" us something. When they feel truly heard and credibly reassured, such physical discomforts often recede, unless there's an organic cause. There is little doubt now that our "minds" (subselves) affect our organs and body functions, and vice-versa.

      When subselves feel safe enough, theyíll reveal themselves to us (our true Self). They'll communicate, learn, and eventually may negotiate for new inner-family roles. As with physical people with common interests, this ability to "talk" allows trust-building, mediation, and conciliation. Subselves' cautious openness to change allows growth of inner- family teamwork and harmony over time. This is the central goal of inner-family therapy (parts work).

      Some Guardian and Child parts have lived their entire life in terror, shame, hopelessness, and silence. Like young Holocaust survivors, they initially may not be able to even imagine safe, enjoyable inner and outer environments, because theyíve never experienced that. To keep safe, such subselves use strategies like hiding, camouflaging, using false images, impersonating other parts, pretending to co-operate, sabotaging inner-family work, and disabling your true Self

      The "seeds" for personality subselves seem to be natural components of our DNA and neuro-chemical makeup from birth. From new radiographic technology (brain scans), we now know that (a) different parts of our modular brain activate in different situations, and that (b) our neurological system constantly shifts its electro-chemical connections (synapses).

      As our brain develops, Manager parts (like our Achiever, Judge, Explorer, and Creative One) seem to evolve naturally, unless blocked by our environment. Inner Kids and their Guardians appear to be created by early-childhood trauma like neglect, abuse, and abandonment. They may or may not remember these events vividly or tell us about them when they feel safe.

      Subselves may live in the present or the past. Against all logic and experience, some still believe the traumatic conditions that activated them may happen again "today." Such Guardian and Child parts are forever on guard against a danger that hasnít existed for years. Proactive parts work can free these subselves to live safely in the present and redirect their energies in healthier ways.

      These are key components of the inner-family system (IFS) concept. Now letís review some basic... 

  Parts-work Terms (alphabetically)

      If you're new to subselves and parts work, invest time in getting clear on the basic concepts and terms below. As a self-check, imagine defining each term below to an average high school student.

Blending, coined by psychologist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., this describes an excited subself infusing your true Self with its feelings, views, and needs. When blending happens, you (i.e. your true Self) experience what that other subself feels, thinks, and believes. You are then controlled by a ''false self.''

      Your Selfís calm, balanced, far-seeing leadership is usually lost until the excited part calms and/or unblends. A skill that increases during effective parts work is learning to persuade blending parts to "step aside" from (free) your Self, without losing their intense feelings or needs. Then they can be respectfully heard, and their needs filled.

      Blending happens in situations that Guardian subselves and/or Inner Kids believe are significantly threatening. Any subself can blend with (take over, disable) your Self, but Inner Kids and their Guardians are specially adept at it. People who seem "childish" or naive at times probably have a young subself whoís often blended with their true Self.

"Direct access" happens when an outside person (e.g. a therapist or other supporter) speaks directly with one of your subselves. The alternative is indirect access, which may feel safer during early inner-family work. This happens when the outsider asks your Self to ask or inform the part in question - so "You" (your Self) acts as an intermediary. When subselves trust the parts-work process and certain outsiders, theyíll usually communicate directly, unless other parts object and interfere.

Disowned parts are aspects of our personality that we reject or deny. For example, if you have a (young) part who really wants you to focus only on its needs or to act violently, your inner Critic will probably have been trained by your parents to see that selfish part as "bad." Once so labeled, other subselves will work fiercely to block, paralyze (repress), and ignore such "awful" parts, causing us inner conflict.

      Psychologists Sidra and Hal Stone propose that we feel most intensely attracted to or repelled by people who act out their version of our disowned parts. Have you ever met someone you "couldnít stand"? The reason your subselves intensely dislike them is probably an instinctive recognition of part of yourself that you "canít stand" which is displayed by the other person. In later parts work, we come to calmly accept ("own") all our subselves and the array of gifts and limitations they bring us.

Dissociation / Dissociative Identity disorder (DID) - this term denotes involuntarily defocusing from current inner and outer environmental events and realities. Common examples are daydreaming, fantasizing, and trances. DID is the updated psychiatric term for "Multiple Personality Disorder" (MPD). I believe dissociation is caused by protective subselves disabling the true Self in the present moment See Blending, Multiplicity, and Splitting.

False Self describes a mind-body state where a person is controlled momentarily or steadily by one or more Inner Kids and/or Guardian subselves. Some people call this common state dissociation (from reality).

      Many adults who were traumatized as kids have never experienced their Self in consistent control. Such people (i.e. their dominant subselves) are skeptical that they have a gifted, reliable inner team-leader and a more serene and productive way of daily living available to them.

I, Me, and Myself (or my Self) can refer to...

  • your active true Self, or...

  • the other subselves currently controlling your Self (your false self), or...

  • your whole mind-body self (little "s"). See self below.

Because of these several meanings, early parts-work ideas and conversations can be confusing.

"Go inside" means "get quiet and undistracted, breathe easily from your belly, and focus steadily on your current thoughts, emotional and physical feelings, senses, needs, and any inner images." The alternative is focusing your attention and on things outside your physical body. Going inside can range dynamically from shallow to deep trances, and describes the mind-body state resulting from effective meditation and self hypnosis.

Hit bottom - reaching a point of accumulated weariness, desperation, pain, and hopelessness and making permanent changes in key attitudes, priorities, and behaviors. Common examples are ending addictions, toxic relationships, and other unhealthy behaviors. This is different than experiencing a "mid-life crisis" (like a career change) because it is driven by pain, weariness, and despair. Frequently, people will not commit to parts work until they hit true (vs. pseudo or trial) bottom. This seems most apt to occur in mid-life or later. 

Inner family denotes all your subselves as a group. You may prefer another term, like "my team, troop, squad, community, tribe, clan, gang..." Experiment, and use what term emerges as most comfortable to (all of) you.

Inner-family system - includes all your personality subselves plus the rules and boundaries that govern them and the partsí dynamics that result. Similarly, your outer (physical) family system refers to all the people you designate as "family" + the boundaries that separate them from other people-groups (systems) + the roles, rules, and dynamics that regulate them.

Inner voice usually refers to a conscious thought stream. It may also denote hunches, intuitions, "feelings," premonitions, "senses" (as in "I sense that you're bored"), and expectations. Inner voices and physical and emotional feelings are major ways your parts express themselves. Itís normal to have several inner voices going at once ("self talk").

Job retraining refers to negotiating with a subself to shift its goals and energies to a new role in your inner family. This happens only after the part comes to trust that your true Self, and perhaps other parts, can reliably provide the protection for other subselves and you (the host person) that it has worked at all its life.

"Living in the past" refers to a subself who is sure s/he lives in the calendar time and situation where the host person was originally traumatized. Such subselves are usually Inner Kids and/or their devoted Guardians. Dr. Richard Schwartz calls such parts "exiles."

      Thus a grown woman may have a young part who believes that any moment her (remembered) drunken father (or any man) may barge into her bedroom and molest her, and that thereís no one around who will believe or protect her. Reasoning with such parts usually does not help them change. Experiencing, like re-doing and rescuing (below), does help.

      If such subselves feel secure and are respectfully asked "what year is it?," they will often quickly name a date many years ago. After trust and security-building, such terrified, misguided parts can eventually visit the present ("time travel"), and when feeling safe enough, come to stay. This causes observable mental, emotional, and behavioral shifts.

Multiplicity denotes the normal human trait of having...

  • a many-sided "self," "psyche," personality, or "character;" and...

  • several "minds" (conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious).

Multiplicity is now observable in real time: Radiographic and thermal brain scans reveal that up to a dozen or more brain regions activate concurrently for what we experience as a single event like "stroking the cat."

Part or subself refers to a functionally-unique brain region in a normal infant, child or adult. Average people seem to have 15 to 25 or more subselves without being "crazy" in the least. Each subself brings us one or more unique abilities, is basically benign, and can communicate with our true Self and each other in various ways. 

      Writers throughout history have described our parts as sides ("she has a witty side"), aspects, alter-egos, subselves, (inner) voices, inner demons, moods, subpersonalities, "something in me," character defects and flaws, talents, ego states, archetypes, complexes, potentials, gifts ("Noriko has a gift for music"), and personas.

Parts work is the intentional process of meeting, assessing, owning, rescuing, re/training, and (eventually) harmonizing all your subselves under the leadership of your talented true Self. Parts work is also called Inner Family-System (IFS) therapy here. Some related clinical schemes are called Voice Dialog, Psychosynthesis, Active Imagination, Gestalt therapy, and Theophostic counseling.

Personality or psyche is the mix of your attitudes, beliefs, values, associations, reflexes, limitations ("I can't cook"), habits, talents and gifts, dreams, abilities, and traits. These are all caused by your subselves, genes, and organs.

Pseudo recovery (wound reduction) occurs when distrustful, misinformed subselves artfully fake recovery beliefs and behavior but really don't trust the Self and a Higher Power to guide the host person safely. Until these Guardian and Child parts feel safe enough, they will deny or justify this protective pretense. Over time, effective parts work can reassure such subselves and begin true recovery (inner-family reorganization) - a permanent (core value) change.

Recovery refers to the proactive process of empowering your true Self to (a) lead and harmonize your inner family of subselves over time, and to (b) reassign and retrain some subselves to new roles. True (vs. pseudo) recovery produces significant emotional, mental, spiritual, behavioral, and sometimes physiological changes in the host person over time.

Re-doing is a powerful parts-work technique. It involves planning and rehearsing, then vividly recalling a past real-life trauma, and revisiting it with your present Self and any other desired healthy parts and/or people. The goal is to intervene safely in the remembered traumatic process and help affected subselves experience a safer outcome in the present. 

Rescuing is a form of redoing, and is a key parts work technique. It involves identifying parts living in the past, patiently gaining their trust, preparing a safe, nurturing (inner) place for them in the present, and helping them transfer safely out of their traumatic environment to join other subselves in the real present. Rescuing paralyzed or exiled parts can help thaw frozen grief, heal toxic old shame, and see the world as it really is. A symptom of a successful rescue is having life-long fears, anxieties, and frustrations permanently recede.

self (small 's') denotes your physical body and all your subselves and spirit together. Your self is the whole person who is called by your name, including all partsí dreams, genes, hopes, fears, skills, limitations, and history. Thus your true Self (below) is one element of your self.

true Self (capital 'S') refers here to the Manager subself that every person has (including you) whose natural skill is consistent, effective leadership of all other subselves.

      Your true Self calmly assesses, prioritizes, problem-solves, delegates, motivates, affirms, encourages, co-ordinates, facilitates, negotiates, and makes wise, wholistically-healthy short and long-term decisions. Do you believe you have a true Self?

      Your Self will help all other parts develop and use their individual skills and gifts, adapt to their limitations, and develop stable senses of safety and individual and inner-family purpose and pride. Your Self is not more "powerful" or important than any other subself. S/He is vulnerable to being disabled or paralyzed by other mistrusting, anxious, reactive parts. Your Self's wisdom and competence develops as you age. It may relate to your soul.  

      When your true Self is trusted and free to guide your inner family, you feel notably confidant, alive, aware, serene, calm, clear, grounded, centered, alert, "up," confident, focused, resilient, motivated, energized, light, compassionate, patient, and "in the flow." When did you last experienced that state of Being? Can you imagine feeling that way most of the time? Effective parts work promotes this!

Split and Splitting refer to the process or state of having one or more subselves (a false self) take over and disable your true Self. It can also refer to the reality of having dynamic subselves. When you're "split," youíll experience life as your dominant subselves do, feel what they feel, and act the way they want you to. Progress with parts work allows you to become aware of being split, and free your Self to guide you.

      Splitting is a reflexive way of surviving emotionally-intolerable situations. Some mental-health workers call this common process and state dissociation and work to reduce "dissociative disorders"  - i.e. false-self dominance and inner-family anarchy and chaos.

      Over time, subselves' increasing trust in the wisdom of their resident Self reduces their need to take over (blend). The term "split personality" affirms the reality of subselves in typical wounded (vs. sick or crazy) kids and adults. Also see Blending and False self.

"You" (here) means...

  • your unblended true Self, or...

  • the subselves currently controlling your Self (a false self), or...

  • your whole (mind + body + spirit), depending on the current context.

Also see "I, myself" above.

      We've just reviewed some key inner-family concepts and terms in preparation for learning how to do effective parts work. 

 Reality Check

      Pause, breathe, and reflect: how do these ideas feel to you so far? They probably differ from your prior beliefs about personalities. Skepticism, scorn, and cynicism are usually caused by scared Guardian subselves defending against new information and possible change (fear of the unknown).

      Try for the open "mind of a student" and learn more about working with your busy subselves before making up your mind. Option: if you haven't yet, try this safe, interesting experience of interviewing one or more of your subselves, and then read my letter to you. Then return here.

 The next six pages describe a powerful, practical way to increase your true-Self leadership and reduce your psychological wounds - "parts work."...

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