Life is inherently painful. How’s that for your daily dose of positivity?
No one gets through life untouched by the realities of loss, disappointment, fear, isolation and failure. To know joy, bliss, peace and love, we must also know suffering, despair and longing.
Trauma is a term that has been thrown around in the field of psychology for decades. Although it was originally reserved to describe the devastating impact of warfare on the human psyche, trauma is now understood in a much broader sense. Like most human experiences, trauma exists on a continuum. Events such as being bullied, sexualized in the workplace, witnessing a friend overdose, and catastrophic illness may lead someone to have similar struggles as those who have encountered a single life altering event. Likewise, trauma carries with it an intergenerational effect. Growing up with a parent who struggled with suicidal tendencies, addiction, or fits of rage, may produce a trickle down effect, altering one’s sense of safety in the world.
My treatment approach to trauma perhaps operates in reverse from the very concept of trauma itself. Because not all trauma is obvious or easy to name, in my work with clients we may dance around the word trauma for quite some time, instead giving voice to the ripples left behind in its wake. One way to listen for the aftermath of trauma is through the use of “parts work.”
Parts work you say? What is this parts work you speak of?
Have you ever felt uncertain about a decision? Maybe you can’t quite commit to what you want for dinner, thinking, “a part of me is in the mood for Thai but another part of me is jonesen pizza.” We use parts work in our everyday lives without even thinking twice. “Great, but how does ordering takeout have anything to do with trauma?” you’re wondering…
When someone survives an experience or lives in an environment that profoundly disrupts their feeling of safety in attachment figures, their surroundings, or themselves, they will do whatever it takes to remain emotionally intact.
For example, a child who has grown up with an abusive parent cannot survive this environment with the awareness that, “the person who is meant to protect me and keep me safe wants to hurt me or possible destroy me.” Instead, they will split their schema into parts. One part may hold the belief, “my parent is the person who will protect me and keep me safe.” The other part may hold the feeling, “I am at serious risk of being hurt or killed.” The latter, we refer to as annihilation anxiety or simply anxiety, the body’s fight, flight or freeze response to something potentially threatening. The child splits off the part of herself that fears being destroyed by her parent in order to continue surviving in these conditions! It’s brilliant, adaptive and protective!
When the child grows up; however, these parts often remain dis-integrated, separated or kept out of conscious awareness. This makes sense because these emotions are painful, they are old, and they are scary. Nonetheless, the harder one tries to keep these “child parts” from interfering with her high-functioning “adult parts” the more likely the child parts are to make a surprise appearance, perhaps in the form of spontaneous panic attacks, crippling stomach pains, or recurrent nightmares. Other characters in the story of one’s life get introduced in order to keep these child parts or “exiles” as Richard Schwartz (founder of IFS) would call them, from getting too much stage time. Nearly any part, whether it be a feeling, behavior, or belief can be grouped into one of these three categories:
The hurt parts of self, the child parts, the parts that are often sent away, repressed or metaphorically shipped out to sea because they cannot be tolerated or comprehended. Examples of exiles include shame, fear, grief, hopeless, helpless, needy, abandoned and unlovable.
Unable to accept the vulnerability of the exiled parts of self, managers step in to keep the exiles from washing onto shore. Always with good intention, one's managers work hard to maintain a perceived sense of safety in the system. This may take the form of productivity such as being dedicated, adaptive, multi-tasking, or optimistic. Additionally, managers can take on more extreme roles by becoming highly controlling, perfectionistic, judgmental, or people pleasing.
These characters show up when, despite the managers best efforts, they are unsuccessful at keeping the exiles out of awareness. Firefighters show up to take drastic and immediate action. This may take the form of binge eating, self-harm, substance abuse, or fits of rage.
The goal of parts work is thus to help clients understand their symptoms (such as anxiety, sexual addiction, or disordered eating to name a few) as an expression of a specific part of themselves. By giving light and air to these parts, one can call upon other “adult parts” to sooth, nourish and protect the frightened, angry shameful parts. The work is not about casting away the already dejected and unpleasant parts of self, but rather inviting them in, giving them a warm blanket and a place to sleep peacefully so that they may quietly go on their way the next morning.