It’s natural to see things as either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. It’s the way we’ve been taught to think, in “either or” language. We’re either sick or healthy, weak or strong, broken or whole etc. All of us, at some point, have been labeled and name-called, judged and criticized. We’ve often been told who we are and/or who we should be, neatly categorized into a particular state or boxed into a specific identity.
It’s impossible not to internalize external messages that get repeated over and over again. The more you hear people say that you’re too anxious, too needy, too different, or “too” whatever else they are commenting on, the more you can come to dislike those “parts” or aspects of yourself. So it, too, is natural to see yourself and your parts as good or bad. It’s also natural to have some parts of you that you wish would go away—forever!
No Bad Parts
This past month I read a life-altering book by Richard Schwartz, PhD. entitled No Bad Parts, Healing Trauma & Restoring Wholeness with The Internal Family Systems Model. What was most fascinating about it was his description of the paradigm shift from the “mono-mind” belief system to that of a “multifaceted mind,” consisting of many sub-minds, subpersonalities, or “parts” that are constantly interacting inside of us. More importantly, he postulates the belief system that every part that lives within us is sacred and deserves to be seen, heard, and valued.
At the beginning of reading the book, I was highly skeptical of this model. That’s because throughout most of COVID, I was wrestling with my anxiety, as I was with many other intensely uncomfortable emotions including sadness, anger, and loneliness. The thought of regularly honoring all these internal parts—of treating them as messengers and dialoguing with them to gain insight as Schwartz suggests—seemed, at first, a bit ludicrous to me.
This was my line of thinking: the more space I give my anxious, angry, and sad parts—the more I “hear” them—the more they will seek to control my mind and body and overtake my life. I had difficulty accepting the core principle that every part has a positive intent, even if its actions cause dysfunction, and that there is no need to fight with or resist them. You see, I was a fighter.
“Think again,” the author whispered in my ear as I continued to read through my skepticism. Page after page I welcomed new evidence and, gradually, I found myself endorsing the entire model. By the end of the book, I was both convinced and converted, fully accepting this idea that “Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a loving way of relating internally (to your parts) and externally (to the people in your life) …”
Amazing things can happen when you subscribe to a new belief system. The concept of no bad parts has shifted my inner landscape and my relationship with myself as well as my external interactions and how I relate to others.
This concept has changed thousands of lives since it was developed by Dr Schwartz himself in the 1980’s. In the foreword to the book, singer, songwriter Alanis Morissette writes of its profound impact on her life:
“When I started to work with IFS, I was buoyed by the idea of returning to our birthright of wholeness through offering attention and care to each “part” of myself as it adorably, horrifyingly, ceaselessly, and sometimes painfully presented itself. It was encouraging that my angry part and my mother part and my artist part… and my free spirit part could somehow bring wisdom to me if I but opened my heart and my curiosity to them.”
For this reason, I strongly urge you to entertain this concept that no part of you is bad and that every part needs attention and a voice.
Beneath the veneer that we present to the world, we all struggle with and are oftentimes ashamed of different aspects of ourselves. Whether the addictive part, the neurotic part, the angry, or even the unworthy part, the dislike of these aspects of our personality can be so intense that it can result in self-dislike and even self-loathing which can ultimately lead to self-harm and even violence.
The Need to Feel Seen and Heard
As human beings, one of our primary universal needs is to feel seen, heard, understood, and emotionally safe. Schwartz so beautifully carries this concept one step further and argues that our parts also have needs. Like us, their greatest need is to feel seen, heard, understood and safe.
According to Schwartz, many of our parts evolved over time to protect us and keep us safe, but because they were considered bad, these aspects of ourselves were buried and locked up. They became “exiled parts” that carry “burdens.” His model teaches that it is these hurting parts which are our messengers and that they need to be listened to and loved rather than fought, feared, controlled, and eliminated.
Let Them Know They’re Not Alone
With respect to parts, Schwartz writes, “The simple act of turning your focus inside and beginning to listen and talk to them and let them know they aren’t alone—because you are there to care for them—is quite radical…”
However you choose to describe it, radical or spiritual, IFS has proven to be a highly effective, evidence-based, therapeutic model that is truly healing. It makes a big difference in how you feel and live your life.
I have a specific time in my day dedicated to giving a voice to whatever predominant emotion is begging for my attention. I have a journal where we converse. I speak and listen to my anger, to my sadness, to my fears and anxiety. I allow them to express themselves, unedited. I have also created inner boundaries for them, so they know when they are over-stepping or screaming too loudly and perhaps expressing themselves in unacceptable ways throughout my day.
I, too, have regular informal conversations with whatever parts seem to be hurting. These interactions are more casual and brief. For example, if anxiety joins me as I re-enter society and try something new, I may tell her that she can trust me to protect her and that she is not alone. I reassure her so she can relax. The overall intention is to relate to all of me in a more kind and gentle manner.
A Revolutionary Paradigm Worth Testing
We must never subscribe to a new belief system before testing it out in the real world. So, why not test a “revolutionary paradigm of understanding and relating with ourselves—a method that brings us into inner harmony, enhances self-compassion, and opens the doors to spiritual awakening” such as this one?
These are messy times. This “Lingering COVID” chapter still affects us daily. Our emotions have never felt more intense and confusing. If we leave them alone, numb or repress them, they will wreak havoc. If we give them attention and become mindful of all that is arising within us, we will give them air and room to breathe so they can learn how to trust us over time.
Everything—every part—deserves love.