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How to Do Parts Work: Working with Difficult Parts of Yourself

Do you feel like you’re sometimes battling against parts of your personality? Maybe you have some people-pleasing tendencies that you know don’t serve you, or you hate how emotional you get when you need to assert a boundary. You might know that your inner child is really struggling but you’re not sure how support them, or perhaps a raging inner critic undermines everything you do.

You might feel frustrated at how easily you cry when you get upset, or wish the anxious voices asking all the ‘what ifs’ would just go away for good.

Many people are left feeling as though they simply want parts of themselves that they don’t like to just go away. It can feel as though they’re sabotaging efforts to have healthy relationships, causing all kinds of behaviour that feels unhelpful. Here, I’m going to talk a little bit about why difficult parts of your personality might show up, and outline a process you can use to begin to work with them, rather than against them.

What are parts?

The idea of the personality being made up of different parts feels intuitive to most people. You might notice, for example, the different sides of yourself which come out depending on whether you’re at work, with family, with friends, or at home alone. You might find yourself playing the part of the jokey friend, the loving mother, the annoying younger sister, or the reliable colleague, depending on the context you’re in.

Different therapeutic approaches have different names for these parts of ourselves. Internal Family Systems (IFS) refers to them simply as ‘parts.’ In Psychosynthesis and Gestalt therapy (along with some others) they are known as subpersonalities. Whatever they are called, they are generally understood as discrete parts of your personality complete with their own desires, attitudes, fears, and behaviours. Your jokey friend part likely has quite different priorities to your reliable colleague part.

We tend to slide in and out of different parts unconsciously, usually with very little choice in allowing them to take over our thoughts and behaviour. One of the goals of parts work is to get to know them better, so that we can recognise when a part is showing up and create some choice as to whether we let them take full control or not.

Where do parts come from?

Usually, parts form in our personality in response to the relationships we had in our earliest years. If you were praised by your parents for being quiet, obedient, and polite, then you may well have developed a ‘good girl’ part who tends to avoid conflict and disagreement. If you had quite a chaotic and unpredictable home life, you may have developed an ‘anxious pleaser’ who learned that keeping everyone happy as much as possible was the best way to create some stability.

And then in your teens, you might have learned that to fit in among peers and create your own identity involved developing an inner rebel!

Crucially, these parts represent strategies we’ve learned to keep ourselves as safe as possible, and as connected as possible to the people we’ve been dependent on.

That’s worth remembering – especially when you’re feeling troubled by parts which seem to be causing you problems. Ultimately, they are simply doing the best they can with the tools they had at the time they developed, which means that often they are stuck in experiences you had when you are much younger.

So how do you handle difficult parts?

Parts are usually acting out in ways that don’t serve us because they don’t have better tools available to them. They have been forced into a role that they would prefer not to have. While this can be frustrating, it also opens up a possibility for you to help them feel safer with the more appropriate tools you have developed now. For example, an anxious pleaser part might be trying to create safety and belonging by trying to keep everyone happy, at your own expense. Pleasing others is the only way that part knows how to create that feeling of safety. But you might have some better alternatives available to you now – such as finding supportive friendships with people who welcome you however you are, or learning ways of dealing with conflict so that it doesn’t feel so overwhelming.

Crucially, this involves listening to what this anxious pleaser is needing first of all, so that we can find ways of reassuring them and getting the need met in a healthier way. In this way, often parts simply need to be heard and felt, rather than suppressed and fought against. They are acting in our best interest, even if their methods don’t serve us. The challenging behaviour they cause happens when they act out because they are needing some attention and care.

Then we can find integration. This happens when we can welcome these parts of ourselves, give them permission to be here, and listen to what they need. This doesn’t mean that we’re indulging them, or allowing ourselves to get lost in them – it means that we’re giving them space to express what they need to express. We can acknowledge them as being important parts of ourselves, and we can choose whether to allow them to influence our behaviour or not.

Caring for difficult parts in this way usually allows them to find a better balance, where they act out less to get our attention in challenging ways.

Here is a process for bringing all of these parts back into balance, and finding integration.

How to do parts work

Step 1: Recognising

The first step to integrating a part is saying hello to it. We first need to notice that it’s there!

Which parts of your character do you find most frustrating or difficult?

(It’s important to recognise that parts can feel positive and welcome too – which parts of your character do you enjoy and feel proud of? For this process I’d recommend focusing on something you’re feeling challenged by.)

Pick something specific that feels easy to access – perhaps a people-pleasing part, an anxious part, a controlling part, or something else that you can easily identify and name.

Take a moment to flesh out this part in your mind: when do they show up? How does it feel to act as this part? What are their go-to behaviours? What are they most likely to say when they feel challenged?

Give this part a name that feels accurate and right to you. This might simply be “people-pleaser” or it might be something more personal to you. This part’s name might change over time, as your relationship to it does.

Step 2: Noticing

Once you have a good idea of this part, the next step is to take this knowledge out into the wild and see how often they become activated. 

The aim isn’t to try and change anything here; it’s simply to become more aware of when a part shows up. The practice is to become able to notice in the moment – or as soon afterwards as possible – when a part has become activated. 

When you do recognise that a part has appeared, all I recommend doing is noting it to yourself: “My people-pleaser has become activated,” or, “My anxious part has shown up.”

If you have someone in your life who you trust enough to talk about this with, it can be helpful to be able to say this out loud too. You can explain that you’re wanting to become more aware of this particular part of your personality, and let them know that you’d like to name it out loud with them when it shows up. Make sure they understand that you’re not needing them to do anything or change anything – only witness you noticing.

Every time you do this you take a step back from identifying as the part, which is a vital step in introducing more choice in how you then behave. A part can be present without being “I” or “me.” When we can notice parts showing up without identifying with them completely, we can choose how much energy and attention to give them.

Step 3: Accepting

By already recognising and noticing, you’ve done an awful lot of work towards integrating. Accepting happens when we can also find love and compassion for these parts of ourselves.

My favourite way to find acceptance is to open a dialogue with the part and ask it questions: what does it need? What is it afraid of? This is a process I go through often in my one-to-one work, where we interview the part and find out its qualities and gifts.

Ultimately, these are important parts of ourselves that we simply wouldn’t be the same without. They bring challenges, but they also bring benefits. 

A process you could try yourself is to open a dialogue with the part you’ve identified by journaling. 

Let’s use the example of a people-pleasing part: 

Find a quiet place where you can take some time to yourself, and bring to mind a moment when your people-pleaser becomes activated. Allow yourself to pick up a flavour of this part so that you can access it easily, without becoming overwhelmed by it. Give yourself time to feel what it’s like to act as this part, knowing you can step back out again when you need to.

Then, speaking as this part, take some time to journal in response to these questions. Don’t worry if not all of them have answers straight away.

How old do you feel?

What environment are you in?

What do you really want?

If you got that desire, what deeper need would be met?

What are you most afraid of?

How do you limit [your real name]?

What gift do you bring?

What do you need most right now?

Once you’re feeling that this process is complete, take a moment to thank this part for sharing their insights, and do whatever feels most helpful to say goodbye to them for the moment. Perhaps having a shake, taking a shower, or something else that feels nourishing to you. 

Reflect back on the answers you wrote down: are there are needs this part has that your whole, adult self can provide? Can you meet these needs yourself? Often there’s a need for reassurance, for a cuddle, to be kept safe. Perhaps you identify something different. Whatever comes up, see if there’s a way that adult you can provide this for the younger part.

This is a process, and you may like to revisit this exercise multiple times. Don’t worry if you weren’t able to answer all the questions this time around; allow more insights to come later, or the next time you decide to give this part some space.

You can use these three steps of recognising, noticing, and accepting any time you find there’s a part of yourself that you feel resistance to, that you simply don’t like, or that you feel you’d be better off without. It may feel counterintuitive to learn to love and accept a part of you that feels difficult or challenging, but it can be an incredibly powerful way to connect more deeply with yourself and bring all the parts of your character back into balance.

Finally, if you feel that this is too big a process to go through alone and you’d like some support, you can read more about how I work here.

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