NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Parts Work in Therapy: Is a Split Off Part of Yourself Running Your Life?

Generally, we tend to think of ourselves as being integrated beings with unified personalities. We might recognize certain contradictions in our personalities but, on the whole, we don't usually think of our personalities as being made up of "parts." However, based on Richard Schwartz's Internal Family Systems theory and other ego states theories, our personalities are really made up of a core or center with various "parts" that operate in various situations (for a more detailed explanation of personality "parts," go to Schwartz's website:  Internal Family Systems - Self Leadership.

Parts Work in Therapy

"Exile" Parts of Our Personality:
According to the Internal Family Systems theory, the "exile" parts of personalities hold our pain and shame, traumatic feelings that we often suppress. The "exile" parts are usually unconscious. We exile them from our awareness because they are too painful to deal with on a conscious level. However, these "exile" parts can play a very powerful driving force in our lives without our even realizing.

When these traumatized "exile" parts are triggered, often without our realizing it, we will often react in a fight, flight or freeze mode, which means that we either get angry or confrontational (fight), we run (flight), or we get emotionally and sometimes physically immobilized (freeze).

Ultimately, the goal of doing "parts" work in psychotherapy (also called ego states work) is to integrate the various parts of the personality that are currently unintegrated.

When I say that parts of the personality are unintegrated, I'm not referring to Multiple Personality Disorder (or as it is now called Dissociative Identify Disorder), which is an extreme form of unintegrated personality parts. Rather, I'm referring to the average person's personality that has many different facets to it, which could include these "exile" parts if there was trauma.

The Core Self:
In order to work towards a more holistic, integrated personality, a person must first be able to access and develop that part of him or herself that Richard Schwartz identifies as "the core self." Richard Schwartz identifies the core of a personality as that central part of ourselves that intuitively knows what's best for us. The core self is compassionate, caring, and has insight and understanding about what's best for us. Some people call it their "gut."

When you're able to access the core self, you're able to come from a place of an intuitive understanding about what you need and what's best for you. Rather than your behavior stemming from a traumatized place, you come from a place of strength and resilience.

Other Personality "Parts:"
The Internal Family Systems model also identifies other personality "parts" like "manager" parts and "firefighter" parts, which you can learn more about at Schwartz's website (see above).

There are many different types of psychotherapy "parts" work psychological theories used in psychotherapy and in clinical hypnosis (or hypnotherapy). I've referenced Richard Schwartz's work because he tends to have one of the more accessible explanations on his website for how we are often driven by these different "parts" in our lives.

For this article, I'm focusing on the "exile" parts because they're often more difficult to access and identify and they often cause the most problems for people.

The following vignette is a composite of many different clients and people that I've known over time. It does not refer to any particular person, so there is no identifiable information. The purpose of this vignette is to demonstrate how "exile" parts can be an unconscious driving force in a person's life and how this can be resolved:

When Dan came to therapy, he was a very lonely man in his late 30s. He wanted very much to be in a relationship, but whenever he got involved with a woman and he started to develop feelings for her, he panicked and he ran away from the relationship. Once he was out of the relationship, he usually regretted leaving and wanted to try to reconcile. With regard to intimate relationships, Dan had a lot of ambivalent and conflicting "parts" operating in his personality.

At the point when Dan began therapy, he had just broken up with Maureen for the second time. They had been seeing each other for over a year before this second breakup. Dan talked about really loving Maureen, and he knew that she really loved him too. In most ways, he could see where they were well suited for each other. But the longer that they were together and the closer they got, the more afraid that Dan became. He expressed his fear as a feeling that engulfed and enveloped him until he felt so panicked that he had to get out of the relationship. When he thought about his fear objectively, he couldn't see that there was anything that Maureen was doing or not doing that caused him to feel this way. So, he knew that his fear, which bordered on terror, came from within himself.

Dan wanted very much to overcome his fear so that he could remain in his relationship with Maureen, but he didn't know what to do. Whenever he tried to work this out on his own, using sheer will power to overcome his fear, eventually, he would be overwhelmed with panic. At that point, the only thing that provided him with any temporary relief was to get out of the relationship. But, as previously mentioned, no sooner would he get out of the relationship than he would miss Maureen terribly and want to get back with her. Fortunately, Maureen was very understanding and patient. She knew that Dan had underlying emotional problems that were overwhelming him. But, for all of her understanding, these breakups were very difficult for her too, and she urged Dan to get psychological help.

As you can imagine, Dan had a very traumatic family background. Dan was an only child. His mother was extremely depressed and emotionally unavailable. She spent most of her time in bed, too depressed to rouse herself. As a small child, Dan felt lonely as he watched, helplessly, his mother descend into the depths of her depression.

Dan was close to his father who worked full time and could only spend time with Dan at night or on the weekends. Dan's father was a warm, affectionate man who was very loving towards Dan. Dan's paternal grandmother lived across the street, and Dan would often spend time with her when his mother spent day after day depressed in bed. His grandmother was also a loving presence for Dan.

But a tragic thing happened when Dan was only eight years old: His father and grandmother were killed in a car accident. After that, Dan's world changed dramatically. Not only did he have to deal with the loss of the two closest and most loving people in his life, but he was left to deal with these losses on his own.

Other relatives, who were well meaning, spent most of their time trying to shore up Dan's mother, who was not emotionally equipped to deal with the loss of her husband and mother-in-law and to take care of an eight year old son. Since Dan tended to be quiet, these relatives assumed that he was sad, but that he was basically all right. They did not suspect the depth of Dan's trauma. They made sure that he was fed and clothed and taken care of in the most concrete ways, but they didn't understand that he was very much suffering quietly.

After the death of his father and grandmother, Dan coped with the losses by doing what many children do at a young age--he entered into a fantasy world where he imagined that his father and grandmother were not really dead--they were really somewhere else and would come back at some point. It wasn't that Dan was delusional or psychotic. On a rational level, he understood that his father and grandmother were dead. But, to an eight year old, that kind of loss is very hard to understand. And since he had no one to process this loss with, he dealt with it by sometimes entering into a nether world in his dreams where he would see his father and grandmother, and they would tell him that they weren't really dead. This is a common reaction for both children and adults who are emotionally stuck in their grief and are unable to grieve this kind of loss.

As Dan got older, he learned to suppress his emotional needs because there was no longer anyone in his environment to fulfill them. Not only did he suppress these emotional needs, but he also felt ashamed of them, as if there was something wrong with him for having these essential needs and he was undeserving of having them fulfilled. No one knew what was going on internally for Dan, so there was no one to tell him that his need for love was a normal part of life. Instead, unconsciously, he developed a sense of shame and fear about it. and he felt like he was unlovable.

Here is where we can begin to understand how "exile" parts develop: His feelings of shame and fear for the need to be loved was unbearable for him, especially at such a young age, so these "parts" went underground. This is how Dan protected himself from enduring feelings that were overwhelming for him. But even though Dan was not always consciously aware of these "exile" parts, these parts were there just under the surface and were there to be triggered emotionally under certain circumstances.

Throughout his life, Dan was always vaguely aware of a deep sense of loneliness and despair at certain times. Whenever he felt these feelings, they were accompanied by a strong sense of shame because he felt unlovable and undeserving of love. He tried to ignore these feelings by staying busy all of the time. Even though he was lonely, he also tended to shy away from relationships or close friendships because he was too afraid of allowing himself to be vulnerable again and to getting hurt.

These conflicting "parts" were a constant struggle for him, and he often found it overwhelming to manage them all. Prior to seeing Maureen, Dan struggled in two prior relationships. But when he was in these relationships, his fear of getting hurt far outweighed his loneliness, until they built up into a panic in him and he had to get out. Once he was out of the relationship, the fear and panic subsided, but then he felt very lonely again. This was an ongoing cycle. By the time he was struggling with these feelings with Maureen, he realized that he was in an untenable position, and he wanted to overcome these conflicting feelings.

Using clinical hypnosis and "parts" work in psychotherapy, I helped Dan to develop a stronger sense of self (the core self that I mentioned earlier). We also worked with the conflicting "parts" to understand what they needed so they wouldn't keep getting in the way of Dan being in a relationship. This was difficult work, and it took a while for Dan to work through these issues. He also grieved, really for the first time in a meaningful way, the loss of his father and grandmother and also the emotional loss of his mother. Even though his mother was alive, she was not emotionally available to Dan to give him the love and caring that he needed and deserved.

Once Dan completed the "parts" work in therapy, he worked through his trauma. He had more of a sense of equanimity and openness. He was no longer triggered emotionally when he and Maureen got close and they were able to go on to have a stable, satisfying relationship.

Why Are "Exile Parts" So Powerful?
When we suppress powerful traumatic emotions because we don't know what else to do with them, they are, by nature, unintegrated with the rest of the personality. Metaphorically, it's as if we've locked up these "parts" in the "basement" in the depths of our "emotional homes." These painful parts are often filled with shame and fear. Often they can remain in the "basement" dormant for periods of time. But when we find ourselves in situations where these "parts" are triggered emotionally, they come alive with such a force that we might feel overtaken by them. They bring with them all of the unexpressed and undischarged energy that are stored in them.

Very often, these parts emerge when we get close to people. The closer we get and the more intimate the relationship, the more likely that these "exile parts" will come roaring up to the surface with tremendous primal energy. This could take the form of a panic attack or the need to run or emotional numbness. When we go through this, we might not even know what hit us--we just know that we want it to stop. And, at that point, we might do whatever it takes to make the pain stop--break off a relationship, drown our feelings in alcohol, numb ourselves with drugs and, in extreme cases, some people attempt suicide.

It's important to understand that even though these "parts" sound negative, they're not inherently "bad." According to Richard Schwartz's nonpathologizing model, these "exile parts," which store the emotional pain and trauma, should be thought of in terms of feelings that have not been emotionally metabolized. They are neither "good" nor "bad." They're just split off, dissociated parts of ourselves that need to be integrated through "parts work" in psychotherapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you find that you can identify with the composite vignette that I've presented above, don't suffer alone. You could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist who does "parts work" or, as it is also called, ego states work.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist.  I have helped many clients to overcome overwhelming emotional conflict so that they can lead fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my article:  Psychotherapy and Creativity: Reclaiming the Power of Your Inner Voice