As one of my teachers Janina Fisher writes about in her groundbreaking book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, many of us have had to “fragment” in order to get by in our daily lives. As in, we compartmentalize parts of us that have experienced trauma, so we can carry on with what Fisher calls our “normal life selves” driving the bus of our actions and consciousness. However, when a trigger comes up, it can feel as though we are taken over by a traumatized part. This can look like a typical survival response, fight flight freeze fawn attach etc. Or, we can feel a different age, like a younger version of ourselves.
Internal Family Systems, developed by Richard Swartz, teaches that most of us, trauma survivors or not, actually contain these multitudes like a family contains different systems. We have different parts to our personalities (who interact like members of a family or group.) We can have parts like our perfectionist part, our wounded kid part (or inner child, IFS is a more complex version of inner child work) and more. No matter what, at the center of everything, this core self, that we can learn to connect with in order to center back to who we truly are, what our real desires and motives are at their truest form (I call my core self my Andrea-ness.) There are things in my life I know I would have loved without trauma (cooking, animals, nature, reading, writing, my queerness, the love I have for my body) and when I am connected to that part of myself I feel the most centered & embodied.
What typically ends up happening, is that we learn to reject certain parts of us. Either because they weren’t embraced or accepted (I banished my queer part after my first attempt at coming out failed, and she was locked away for 10 years, the longest period of time where I felt the least like myself, like my life was not mine) or because we don’t want to see the trauma they went through because it is painful & overwhelming. Oftentimes, we develop protector parts. These parts step in front of wounded, kid parts to keep them safe. We can find ourselves living life in these protector modes, whether it be through codependency, perfectionism and overworking, or drinking, drug use, gambling, overspending, and dissociating. These protector parts learn survival coping responses to minimize pain, to distract us from our past or present trauma. The most dear, needing of love and care parts of us get shoved somewhere that our protectors believe they will be safe. However, this cuts us off from ourselves and makes those hurt parts feel even more unloveable.
Getting to know our parts means learning who these protectors are and who these wounded, banished parts are, and sending both parts love and compassion. They have truly stepped up (protectors, going on with life selves) to keep us safe, or they have retreated (wounded parts) to avoid further harm and to try and find safety. Getting to know these parts also means finding a language for how to best understand them for ourselves, cognitively. This is different for everyone. For me, I have my kid part, my teen part, my young 20’s part, and then my Andrea-ness. I also have some protectors in there like overworking & over scheduling, or my dear fight response. For others, they think about it purely as their survival parts (fight, flight, freeze, fawn, attach), and for some, they have their protectors and their wounded parts, each one with a different archetype (the lost child, the firefighter, the productive worker etc.)
Part of cultivating a relationship with these parts is also locating where they live in the body. For example, I know my kid part lives in my chest, and when my chest gets tight and I feel like I’m going to cry, she needs some love and attention. I know my protector part of overworking is in my sympathetic nervous system, and when I get too keyed up around planning and productivity, I need to ask her to take a step back.
We can get a little more control over these parts (instead of having them running the show) by locating them, finding out what they need, and asking them (or showing them with some somatic movement) to take a step back, so what Susan McConnell calls in her incredible text Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy calls our “embodied self”, can take the driver's seat of our emotions and actions.
Utilizing our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that goes offline during trauma or a trigger, we can remind ourselves we have been hijacked by a part, and this consciousness brings our PFC back online, helping us get out of our emotion and survival brain (limbic system & brain stem.)
More than anything, we want to build a loving relationship with these parts, with so much understanding for what they have been through, why they are here, and find ways to give them what they didn't get. Love, compassion, a break, safety, awareness, a hug, creative time, time in nature, space to cry, space to be heard.
You can learn more on parts work in the books mentioned above and here (and stay tuned for an upcoming workshop!):