You know what I did this week? I *finally* saw the movie Inside Out, the new film by Pixar that’s all the rage here in the Bay Area (home to Pixar studios) and a film that’s particularly a hit with a lot of therapists given that it’s, well, all about feelings.
As a Bay Area therapist, I may be a little biased but I really liked it.
I liked it not only for the fact that it’s about feelings and that it’s set here in San Francisco but also because it made visible a concept I use almost daily in my therapy room: Parts Work.
Parts Work is a powerful tool designed to help us notice, name, give voice to, and understand the many parts operating within our minds and psyches (as Riley’s feelings in Inside Out were personified and operated in her).
Parts Work helps us to understand the rich, complex, and unique topography of our internal landscape and can help us untangle habitually stuck patterns and conflicts that may be playing out in our lives.
It’s an enlivening and useful tool that can be enormously helpful for bringing clarity to those situations in your relationships, work, and daily life that you just feel relentlessly stuck and confused about.
So keep reading and learn how you can explore and use Parts Work to support you in solving any sticky situations you may be facing.
What Exactly *Is* Parts Work?
Parts Work is a way of thinking that has roots and genesis in many schools of thought: Gestalt Therapy, Internal Family Systems, Voice Dialogue, and even Jungian Archetypal work.
While each school of thought has its own methodology, Parts Work, as I define it and use it in my therapy room, is a therapeutic lens that assumes that each of us has many different parts to our minds and psyches.
Each of these parts (or subpersonalities) has unique needs, wants, and beliefs and may be conscious or unconsciously playing out helping or harming us as we move through our days encountering different situations, triggers, and scenarios.
By bringing our awareness to these many different parts within us – giving each part a voice, learning what each part needs, wants, and fears and understanding when, how and why each part gets triggered – we are then more able to lovingly integrate (not eliminate!) the many aspects within us to create more choice, expand our capacity to creatively problem solve, and to give us a greater sense of wholeness and aliveness in our daily lives.
What Kind of Problems Can Parts Work Help With?
For example, let’s imagine that a young, 30-year old woman comes into therapy because she just can’t make up her mind about committing to marrying the guy she’s been dating for the last several years.
She’s depressed and feeling stuck and hopeless because she’s been wrestling with the “Is He the One? Or Is He Not the One?” question for ages and just can’t seem to get clear but feels like her window to make this decision is closing.
Of course, no one can make this decision for her but in therapy, the goal would be to empower this young woman to be able to arrive at her own right answers in a new, creative way.
So using Parts Work in the therapy room, we would not only bring awareness to, name, and even give an identity to this dominant part of her.
We would also then work to bring awareness to a less-dominant part of this young woman, a part that maybe hasn’t been running the show and who hasn’t piped up very much in solving this problem but who might have something important and clarifying to say…
In giving a voice to this other part and working with it over time, this young woman may feel a sense of relief and access to different perspectives, allowing her to generate new, creative solutions and expand her potential for working through and possibly solving this problem she’s facing.
So How Do I Know What Parts Are In Me?
The discovery of your own unique parts is a lifelong journey unique to every individual.
No one can tell you exactly what your own Parts Work process or results will look like (though a good therapist can skillfully help you access this), but I personally do believe that virtually all of us have at least three key, archetypal Parts within us that take on unique forms and identities: The Inner Critic, the Inner Champion, and the Inner Child.
I want to offer up some inquiries to help you get in touch with these three key parts:
The Inner Critic:
The Inner Critic, as I define it, is the part of us that’s responsible for our feelings of worthlessness. Everyone’s inner critic (or critics) looks different so to get to know yours, ask yourself:
- What do you catch yourself saying to yourself when you feel sad or ashamed?
- Whose voice does this remind you of? Is it a male or female voice?
- Does your inner critic have a shape? A name? An age? What are they dressed like? If you were to draw a picture of it, what would it look like?
- What do you know makes your inner critic louder? What situations, locations, and people trigger your Inner Critic and make him/her come to life?
- If you were to take a guess, what does your Inner Critic need and want? What are they most afraid of?
The Inner Child:
The Inner Child, as I define it, is the aspect of your psyche that’s very young and childlike, a part that embodies the experiences (both good and bad) that happened to you before puberty. So what do you know about this Inner Child Part (or Parts) in you?
- How old is the inner child in you? What are they wearing? Are they holding anything?
- What does your inner child look and feel like? Are they happy? Sad? Scared?
- When do you notice your Inner Child Part the most often? What situations really seem to trigger your inner child?
- What is this Inner Child afraid of? What does this part of you most need?
- How can you take loving, gentle care of this Inner Child in a way that would feel good and safe to them?
The Inner Champion:
The Inner Champion, I believe, is the wise, grounded, expansive aspect of us that believes in our inherent worthiness, potential, and reconnects us to our true nature. How well do you know your Inner Champion(s)?
- What messages do you tell yourself that makes you feel good? What voice do you speak kindly to yourself with? Does this voice feel familiar? Whose voice does it remind you of?
- What does your Inner Champion look like? A human? An animal? Something else? How do you feel coming into contact with your Inner Champion?
- What is your Inner Champion passionate about? What do they believe is possible for you? What situations, events, books, music, and experiences nourish your Inner Champion?
- What does your Inner Champion like to do for you? What are they just brilliant at providing/creating/doing for you?
Two Tools & Exercises To Use With Parts Work:
After bringing awareness to and giving voice to your inner Parts, we could then imagine utilizing this self-awareness to help you problem solve and work through issues you face in your daily life.
You can begin to work with parts that you identify alone or with a therapist through the following exercises:
Once we’ve identified some part in you (whether that’s one of the three above parts or not), we can begin to make greater contact with this part by externalizing it and literally or metaphorically “putting it on the pillow.”
Let’s go back to the example I mentioned earlier in the post about the young woman who can’t decide about whether to stay with or breakup with her boyfriend.
In her example, we would use pillow work by either having her sit on a pillow on the floor and speaking to me from this place as the part of her that believes “time is running out” and/or (if she doesn’t want to sit on the pillow herself), we’d put a pillow down on the floor and have this represent that aspect of her and have her speak from this place.
It’s amazing what can happen when we externalize our parts and give them space to speak from the pillow.
Sometimes that’s really all our parts want: room to speak. We can continue giving them this space in the next exercise, too.
Conference Table Dialogue:
Using this same example of the young woman, let’s imagine that we’ve gotten further in our work and have identified several other parts of this young woman – maybe her Inner Champion, etc.
We use the tool of Conference Table Dialogue to imagine her various parts sitting around a conference table (or kitchen table or picnic table – pick whichever feels best – I personally love conference tables) and then we facilitate a meeting and dialogue between these parts where they can each share their perspective on the issue at hand – whatever it is you want to work through.
We would pay attention to who’s piping up most at the meeting, welcome all perspectives, and invite the different parts to speak to each other to create a rich, expansive conversation where more creative, previously inaccessible solutions might be found.
My Invitation To You.
Inside Out was a terrific example of parts work when it comes to identifying and giving perspective feelings. I definitely recommend seeing it this summer.
AND… I definitely want to invite you to consider exploring Parts Work not only with your feelings but with different aspects of your psyche to help you gain deeper, wiser insight into your behaviors, choices, and life patterns.
With greater awareness comes greater choice, and with greater choice comes a greater sense of empowerment in our everyday lives.
Parts Work is a useful tool I would recommend exploring to help you experience that sense of empowerment.
Leave me a message in the comments below about what this post brought up for you — I’d love to hear your thoughts!
AND … if you’re interested in exploring Parts Work and possibly working through a challenge or decision you’re facing, please feel free to reach out here.
Until next time, I wish you all the very best.
- For more information on Voice Dialogue work: Embracing Ourselves: The Voice Dialogue Manual by Drs Hal and Sidra Stone.*
*This is an affiliate link and any purchases made through this link will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you).