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Listening to Parts: A Path to Healing and to a Higher Self

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

Parts is parts.
Wendy’s Commercial, 1984

In a previous article, I proposed that we all have “parts,” as in “There’s a part of me that really doesn’t want to believe that we all have parts.” For purposes of this article, I will assume that you either believe me or you’re willing to go along for the ride for a while. Either way, I hope that you’ll find the ride worthwhile. I know that I have.

Before we get into the meat of the matter, I’m going to set up a model and introduce some terms. I’ve taken the following ideas from three primary sources: psychologist Dick Schwartz’ concept of Internal Family Systems, the ideas expressed by trauma experts Ohno van der Hart, Ellert Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele on what they call Structural Dissociation, and my own experiences in working with people with multiple personalities.

Regarding the latter, I won’t regale you with impressive stories of working with these people because I have a great deal of respect for them and, besides, I’m not writing this to feed my ego (or am I?). At any rate, what I found in each case was a “system” of “parts” vying for control of one body. Each part had its own personality, voice, gender, world view, age, sense of time (or stuckness in time), and, in some cases, physical attributes. For example, one part might wear glasses to correct nearsightedness, where none of the other parts (among literally dozens) needed this. In many cases, I found it helpful to hold group meetings (family therapy sessions?), with as many parts as wanted to attend, in order to sort out issues within the system.

Being an avid reader, especially of information about trauma therapy (my specialty), I came across the concept of Structural Dissociation (van der Hart, etc.). Here I found terms like “Emotional Parts” (dissociated aspects of one’s personality that carry severe emotions like fear, terror, shame, and so on) and “Apparently Normal Parts” (whose responsibility it was to make the individual (the body?) look functionally normal to the outside world). I could see similarities between these concepts and the “parts” I had met in my clinical work with multiples.

More recently, I came across Internal Family Systems, a mash-up of various theories about working with families and the idea that we all have parts. In a sense, this was what I was doing with my group/family meetings as described above. Here, I ran across concepts such as Exiles (parts that carried the effects of trauma not unlike Emotional Parts described above and that had been exiled or pushed away because they cause trouble), Protector parts (Managers and Firefighters that serve to strategically or tactically, respectively, protect us from the Exiles’ pain or outside pain), and the Self (a core aspect of us that is perfectly healthy and that, under ideal circumstances, should provide leadership to the other parts).

In looking back at all I learned in school and since then, I found this concept of parts, or something like it, in many psychological theories, from Freud to modern-day trauma therapy (as demonstrated above). This all made me think, hmm, maybe there’s something to this parts thing.

So, I began to listen to these parts, both in my clients (multiples and “normals” alike) and in myself, with unconditional (meaning non-judgmental, non-pathologizing) regard. At first, this was tough to do because the Protector parts started ringing the fire alarm and said, “Don’t go there, dude!” But, as I listened to them too, they relaxed and seemed to find it rather pleasant and refreshing to have their stories heard. This eventually opened the door for Exiled Emotional parts to reveal the terrible wounds they carry. These parts may have been crying out for attention for a long time or may have gotten out of control when triggered by outside influences. As they felt cared for and heard by me and, more importantly, by the client’s Self, they started to feel better and the whole individual/system started to stabilize, calm down, and be able to function much better under the leadership of the Self. We had opened the “cracks” and let the “light get in,” as Leonard Cohen suggested.

I want to note at this point that this process of listening to parts can fly in the face of some other therapeutic methods and definitely conflict with the Positive Mental Attitude, “turn that frown upside down” mentality of American culture. To actually listen to and have positive regard for what some call defense mechanisms and the pain they try to protect us from might turn the mainstream therapy process on its ear.

But wait, there’s hope! Let’s take a simple example from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is all the rage these days with insurance companies (and this may tell you something, but that’s another story altogether). Let’s say your typical, garden-variety CBT therapist has helped you identify some thought patterns that involve “distortions” (which is shaming in my book but let’s go on). Let’s say specifically that you have been “catastrophizing,” meaning thinking about an event or situation as worse than it actually is (as judged, of course, by the all-knowing CBT therapist). Ordinarily, the therapist might try to convince you to stop this way of thinking and help you find ways of doing that. You may find this helpful in the short-run, but the catastrophizing part of you, probably a Protector, will then shape-shift into some other form, such as a stomach ache. So, you go to the doctor and get that fixed. Then follows another Protector shape-shift, this time into hypertension and risk of stroke. Hmm, this is a wily critter.

OK, let’s back up and imagine that after having identified the distortion of catastrophizing, the therapist helps you listen to this part instead of insisting on stopping it. As you (your Self) listens, it (the part) tells you that it wants to keep you safe from an Exiled Emotional part that carries fears stemming back in time from when you, as a young child, met up with something terrible. I won’t specify what this was, as “terrible” is in the eye of the beholder. At any rate, you (your Self), either on your own or with the help of the therapist, listen to the catastrophizing Protector and ask it to step back so you (your Self) can care for the fearful part and hear its story. Once this is done, you (the Exiled Emotional) calm down and you (your Protector part) no longer feel the need to catastrophize or shape-shift into some other Protector form. You (the whole system) then avoid stomach aches, hypertension, risk of stroke, etc. All this from shifting your attitude (and that of your therapist) about parts. Yay for you!

Before I come to the end of what I want to say about listening to parts, I feel it important to say something more about the Self, which has a very spiritual aspect to it. Schwartz describes the Self as having eight characteristics: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness (note the alliteration). The Self, which is said not to be a part itself, lies underneath the parts within us and seems to be a core or higher aspect of the “real” you. This seems to correspond to what, in some spiritual traditions, gets referred to as Buddha-consciousness (Buddhism), Christ-consciousness (Christianity), Atman (Hinduism), the Tao (Taoism), stillness (Eckhart Tolle), and so on. In those rare moments when the parts step aside and allow the Self to take the lead, one can find oneself (one’s Self?) in a state of pure peace.

But don’t take my word for it. Start listening to your parts today and see what experiences you have.

As always, let me know what you think of this article. Thanks!

Copyright 2014 Daniel J. Metevier


Schwartz, R. (1995). Internal family systems. New York: The Guilford Press.

van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Internal Family Systems

Structural Dissociation

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