Over the past year, ‘parts work’ has become an essential component of my personal and professional practice. It is an approach based on the work of Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems. He wrote a book, No Bad Parts, which is a must-read as far as I’m concerned – the reflective exercises alone are worth the price, and they’ve made a meaningful impact on my life.
They have also helped me change the lives of others. What a bold thing to say. But it’s true!
This past month a client of mine said, “Jim, I had a breakthrough… I’m seeing things differently now. This has changed my life.” A bold statement, for sure, but it’s worth sharing. This stuff works.
What the Heck is “Parts Work”?
The world is complicated, confusing, fast-moving, and just plain hard. Our inner world is the same. Parts work offers a way to unbraid our complicated inner environment and gain a sense of control.
In practice, I have come to see parts work as a method of understanding personality (and associated behaviors) as components of a system. The value of this approach is multifold.
First, separating ‘parts’ of our personality from the whole allows for forgiveness – that is, a person is not defined their anger or defensiveness, though part of one might hold those dispositions.
The second benefit is that, equipped with understanding and forgiveness, one can more accurately engage in targeted healing and support.
“The world is complicated, confusing, fast-moving, and just plain hard. Our inner world is the same. Parts Work offers a way to unbraid our complicated inner environment and gain a sense of control.”Tweet
An easy way to envision it: you are not your right hand. Your right hand is part of your body, but it does not define you. It is a component of the greater system of the physical self.
The right arm can just sit by your side, dormant, or it can be called it into action. It might engage consciously (to throw a baseball, to wash a dish), subconsciously (recoiling from a pin prick), or somewhere in between (tapping on a desk, or absently twiddling thumbs).
Your body is not its hand. And your mind is not its anger.
This is good news! Your perfectionist tendencies, your impatience with coworkers, or the people pleaser in you who knows how to work a room… these are all parts of you. They do not, in isolation, define you.
‘Parts work’ begins with an interest in unbraiding components of the human experience for a fuller understanding – a too often overlooked, but essential, approach to coaching. It’s deeper, more important, and more effective than commonplace personality tests.
Noticing the Parts
Anger is an emotion you experience. The way you experience anger, the sort of things that trigger it, and the way you behave in the presence of the emotion… that’s still not ‘You’; it is part of you. Part of you has the ability to become intense and angry and loud.
“Part of me is furious that my neighbor lets his grass grow so long,” one might think.
You are not furious and reactive. You are experiencing fury due to the interpretation of an external stimulus, which stepped on the toes of a Part of you, who has an origin story all its own. In this case, something about the neighbor’s grass caused part of you to respond.
I say ‘who’, since Dr. Schwartz, the pioneer of this approach, finds it helpful to envision these parts as individual beings. In a less personified way, they might be referred to as schema, or a “knowledge structure that allows organisms to interpret and understand the world around them. Schemata are a method of organizing information that allows the brain to work more efficiently,” (Simply Psychology, 2023).
Personifying parts allows us to name and understand them with greater clarity. With this approach we can examine their sensibilities and origin stories (why does something like uncut grass bother you so much?) and, importantly, how internal parts interact, like members of an internal group of people.
No need to go at it alone – reach out to schedule a workshop or call: https://bedrockedu.com/contact/Tweet
Dr. Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory does exactly that. He identifies that these parts will often interact inside of us the same way a family or group of friends might interact. One part of you might be angry that the neighbor let his grass grow long – that part might have had an adverse childhood experience when your father lost emotional control when you failed to do your weekend chore of cutting the grass, and the way your young brain tried to survive the experience was to respond with intensity and anger of your own – that part, the angry one, might want to knock on the neighbor’s door and set him straight.
Again, that’s not you. A part of you has a history that has predisposed this reaction. Moreover, the instinct of that part might be in conflict with a more passive, people pleasing part of you. This other part might have also been built in childhood, but through a different experience. For example, in a household of emotional volatility, keeping the peace might have been the best possible approach to safety. That angry part was there if needed, but the peacekeeper part was the first to be tagged in.
Now, as an adult, you are experiencing internal conflict as one part of you (built from experience) is battling another part (also built from experience) to navigate the current experience.
Phew! There are a lot of factors at play. This sounds like a lot of work!
It is. But like all worthwhile endeavors, the work will be worth it.
Disclaimer: in any coaching relationship, the coach should be quick to connect a client with a licensed psychotherapist whenever necessary. When investigating the ‘parts’ of a client, be conscious of traumatic experiences and refer out where appropriate.
No Bad Parts
Too often, we take a purely behavioral approach to emotion regulation. When we try to simply discipline ourselves away from anger, toward more patience, we find only temporary solutions. We have to identify why the anger has arrived in such a way, then ask ourselves what we want to do about it. To be clear, there is definitely room for discipline here, but we should be careful to apply our discipline where it is actually needed.
When we get mad at ourselves for not having greater emotional control, we complicate an already burdened part of ourselves with guilt and shame. It is not a lasting solution.
It’s important to see this without judgement. As Dr. Schwartz puts it, “there are no bad parts, only burdened ones frozen in the past that need to be unburdened rather than punished,” (Schwartz, 64). Often, punishing the parts of you who are responsible for less-than-ideal behaviors will burden them further – a degrading cycle that an alarming amount of people find themselves caught in. Instead, heal them, change them, let them evolve.
So slow it down, work to understand, and forgive before progressing.
As Dr. Schwartz puts it, “there are no bad parts, only burdened ones frozen in the past that need to be unburdened rather than punished.” (Schwartz, 64)… instead, heal them, change them, let them evolve.Tweet
If you were to call upon the right hand to write a letter, the energy of the nervous system would focus on the right hand and the task it is expected to perform. If the handwriting got sloppy, you might recognize that this is not the way the right hand is supposed to behave, then consciously adjust. This process is almost always three steps: 1) recognize, 2) adjust and hopefully, 3) habituate a more desirable behavior. Turns out, we can do the same with our mind.
You would not get angry at your hand for the way it writes, you would regroup and make an adjustment. Take the same approach to the less visible parts of yourself. Offer them grace.
And extend that grace to others. Your neighbor didn’t mean to hurt you when he let his grass grow long. Just like you didn’t mean to infuriate the driver beside you in traffic when you nosed into the turn lane without indicating.
This is just scratching the surface… there is a deep and involved body of research to explore here. And plenty of meaningful individualized work to be done. Whether you are a leader, a manager, a coach, a friend, or someone doing their own internal work, keep this idea in mind. And as always, reach out for support.
James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.