The image shows a happy mother with her child after parts work therapy.

Parts work therapy: How it can help you heal trauma

This episode explores the powerful realm of parts-work therapy and its essential role in trauma recovery. Join us for an insightful discussion on how embracing and healing our inner parts can lead to profound transformation. Learn about the empowering theory of structural dissociation and discover the first steps toward achieving holistic healing.

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If you prefer to read the transcript, you can find it here:

Welcome to today’s episode of Trauma Demystified! It’s all about parts-work therapy and how it can help you heal from trauma.

Before I get into the content, I apologize for this episode coming out very late. I was invited as a guest to some other trauma-related podcasts and needed more time to finish it. I’ve attached the links to these podcasts below if you want to explore them further.

I am very excited to share more about parts work therapy. Parts work has been an essential part of my healing from childhood abuse and systemic violence. I am passionate about parts work and practice the inner dialogue with my parts nearly daily. Additionally, I’ve seen a profound transformation in working with my clients when we apply parts work in therapy. This episode gives you an overview of parts-work, why it matters for trauma recovery and how it can be used in treatment or self-healing.

Introduction to Parts Work Therapy

What is parts work therapy? First, different therapeutic approaches work with parts. The most popular one right now is Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), which Dr. Richard Schwartz developed. However, parts work therapy isn’t uniquely associated with IFS. Furthermore, Dr. Janina Fisher has developed a specific methodology for working with parts. Other concepts include inner child work and inner bonding.

In my healing journey, I started with parts work quite early in my healing journey, and it was far more effective than psychotherapy.

Later, I went through 2.5 years of systemic constellation training and different coaching courses, which included part-work in their curriculum. Since they were experiential professional development courses, they also gave me the space to connect more deeply with my inner parts.

Later, when I trained as a counsellor, Gestalt therapy resonated with me since its concepts resonate with healing your inner parts.

Many therapeutic approaches involve the concept that humans have different parts. While I find Freud’s perspective pathologizing and deterministic, he had an idea about various parts and labelled them ego, superego, and it.

Carl Jung had a different take on parts and saw them as parts of the collective unconscious. He referred to parts as archetypal personalities seen in myths and legends. He developed 12 different archetypes – the innocent, the orphan, the hero, the caregiver, the explorer, the rebel, the lover, the creator, the jester, the sage, the magician and the ruler. Furthermore, many attribute the origin of inner child work to Carl Jung since he created the child archetype.

Overall, parts work is part of many therapeutic approaches and has evolved over the last decades. It can help us connect with ourselves more deeply and embrace ourselves fully.

What Are Parts in Parts Work Therapy

Before I look more deeply into trauma recovery, I want to emphasize that everyone has different parts. Parts can consist of many aspects:

For integrative parts-work, emotions are seen as parts. I don’t know about you, but my emotional landscape is often more diverse than just one feeling. One part of me can feel sad, while another part feels frustrated or annoyed. In this approach, we see our emotions as parts of us, not all of us. This shift in language allows us to express the complexity and diversity in our inner world.

Furthermore, there can also be specific roles that we have taken on in our lives—there can be parts that are caregivers, peacemakers, and fierce warriors to protect us. Sometimes, these parts stem from the roles we have taken on due to the family dynamics in our childhood; sometimes, they can be influenced by social roles.

Some people experience parts depending on their ages. For example, I worked very intensely with my three-year-old part that carried the wounds of sexual abuse. Parts can have different ages; some refer to them as adult me and little me. Please note that some people don’t resonate with the concept of ages in their recovery, and that’s ok. There is no right or wrong way to get started with parts work.

Parts can also have other descriptives, like our creative part, which is essential for trauma recovery, and the wise part, which holds the wisdom and lessons learned from what has happened to us. Additionally, there can be a strong part or a procrastinating part.

For some people, finding different animals to describe their parts can be helpful. Others find it beneficial to use colours to represent their parts. For others, using objects like a cloud or a dark hole part can be helpful.

The Significance of Parts Work Therapy in Trauma Recovery

While parts work therapy can be beneficial for everyone, I find it incredibly impactful for people who have experienced category two or three trauma. So here are some brief indicators on how to identify it: if people have experienced category 2 and 3 trauma, it is more likely that the individual has experienced several traumatic experiences due to enduring conditions. Additionally, they may have experienced development or relational trauma. This type of trauma can be related to adverse childhood experiences, abusive relationships, situations with domestic violence or systemic violence. Additionally, their nervous system has various degrees of dysregulation. If you want to learn more about it, please listen to the episode “Smart Goals for Trauma Recovery.”

Theory of structural dissociations

In a professional development course, Dr. Janina Fisher introduced me to the theory of structural dissociations. She offers fantastic workshops on working with trauma, which I highly recommend.

The theory of structural dissociation gives the context of how being exposed to chronic traumatizing environments can lead to fragmented parts. Thus, it also explains why parts work is beneficial. Just so you know, I only talk about parts that carry traumatic wounds in this context. Generally, we have different parts; some don’t carry traumatic wounds.

Structural dissociations explain how our brain uses the split between the right and left parts to survive chronic trauma. While we are born with the right and left parts of our brain, the right brain is more dominant for most of our childhood. The left part matures only slowly when we grow older. Initially, there is no communication between the two parts of our brain. The connection between our brain’s parts – the corpus callosum – develops slowly throughout childhood. It reaches its final maturation when we are in our early 20’s. As a result,  our brain uses the natural split to allow us to survive.

To explain it in a simplified way: If we go through a traumatic experience, our brain splits into two parts – the carry-on part connected with the left brain and the emotional parts that hold the traumatic wounds associated with the right brain. Just so you know, these parts have different labels depending on the literature.

Let’s look a little bit more closely at the different parts:

Carry-on parts

The Carry-on part intends to go on with our daily lives, whether functioning in our jobs or relationships. It usually tries to minimize what happened to us. It may tell us that it was not so bad. Its motivation is to protect us from overwhelming emotions. Since these parts are well-adapted, they are usually seen as more positive than the emotional part that carries the wounds of past trauma.

Emotional parts that carry traumatic wounds

However, the carry-on parts are interrupted when the emotional parts are activated. The emotional parts carry the memories of the traumatic experience and the associated emotions. These parts hold the traumatic experience and may result in hypervigilance, mistrust, overwhelming emotions, debilitating anxiety or depression, or self-destructive behaviours. We usually hide them behind an invisible wall to protect ourselves. We experience these parts as emotions and not parts.

Important to know about structural dissociation

As with any traumatic experience, each individual has a unique inner response system when it comes to structural dissociations. Therefore, some fragmented parts will resonate with you while others will not.

Structural dissociations are an adaptive coping response and a brilliant protective mechanism that helps us survive traumatic situations.

Structural dissociations range from very subtle to more rigid and dramatic.

Additionally, the concept of structural dissociation matches the symptoms of Borderline personality disorder, complex PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Since these mental health diagnoses are often stigmatized, it is usually a validating experience for some of my clients that they can connect their diagnosis with past trauma that happened to them.

As a young adult, I read the memoir “First Person Plural – My Life as a Multiple” by Cameron West. He described his journey to get to know his different alters and living with Dissociative Identity disorder. While I don’t have DID, his way of explaining his different alters and their behaviours resonated with my inner experience of fragmentation. It was the first time that I read about somebody who used self-injury. While our experiences differ, his memoir helped me understand myself better and not feel alone. His story gave me hope that recovery was possible.

Common parts that are related to past trauma

Let’s look at the different parts associated with structural dissociations. These parts are often disliked, stigmatized, or pathologized. Therefore, it can be challenging to look at them, and some parts may want to avoid looking at them. However, these parts usually have a protective function that helps us survive an incredibly difficult situation. They may feel stuck in this experience and have behaviours in the current moment that aren’t helpful.

For example, during my childhood trauma, I developed a strong fawn part that let go of all of my boundaries. It protected me from physical violence during my childhood and de-escalated emotional abuse. However, it wasn’t helpful anymore in my adult relationships.

Therefore, it is essential to separate the part’s motivation from its behaviour. Additionally, the parts are not the wounds they carry. Furthermore, parts that hold the trauma wounds can become beneficial and supportive once the traumatic wound is healed.

Fight part

The first part associated with structural dissociation is the fight part. It can be seen as a fierce protector, emerging to defend the individual against perceived threats. It can be hyper-vigilant and ready to respond aggressively to danger to ensure safety. An unhealed fight part is often impulsive and tends to be aggressive.

Flight part

The flight part wants to ensure safety through escape or avoidance. Therefore, it can show up as being distant or being strongly ambivalent. Sometimes, it may want to protect us from our overwhelming trauma-related emotions by addictive behaviours or disordered eating. Sometimes, it can manifest as escape fantasies where people try to daydream from a safe and idealized place.

Freeze part

An immobilization response to a perceived threat characterizes the freeze part. It is related to the Dorsal Vagus response of our autonomic nervous system. Freeze can often feel contradictory: We may experience a high level of inner anxiety, and we are unable to move or speak. We may experience a sense of feeling terrified or have panic attacks. Freezing is often the first step into dorsal vagal activation, while fawn is the full dorsal vagal shutting down.

Fawn part

This leads me to the fawn part: the fawn part carries shame and can have strong feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. It can be filled with self-hatred. The fawn response is the opposite of the fight response: passive. The fawn part – sometimes called the “Please and appease” part – often lets go of all the boundaries to survive. Fawn parts can have people-pleasing behaviours and lead to co-dependency in relationships. The fawn part tends to self-sacrifice.

Attach part

The attach part sends out a cry for help. It often feels lonely and abandoned. Furthermore, the attach part can experience an intense need for connection, mirroring the despair of a small child. It may beg not to be abandoned. It often intensely longs for connection and rescue, is sweet and innocent and desires to depend on others.

While these are the wounded aspects of the parts, here are some ideas on how they can support us if these parts can help us when they are healed. Since everyone is different, the positive aspects will look different for each of us. To give you some ideas:

A healed flight part can become a vital resource to assert our boundaries and build confidence. A healed flight part is grounded and can assess risks realistically. It can support us in proactively taking care of our safety and creating balance in our lives. A healed freeze part can motivate us to be flexible in our responses and mindful of our limits when engaging with life. A healed fawn part can balance self-compassion and compassion for others. It understands our needs and knows its limits. It cares for others while it respects one’s boundaries. A healed attached part understands the balance between autonomy and independence. Furthermore, it helps us create mutually beneficial relationships. A healed attach part relies less on external validation but can internally validate us and increase our self-esteem and self-worth. It can help balance healthy boundaries in relationships with the fight or flight part.

Just so you know, parts can activate each other and create emotional turmoil. Sometimes, it can feel as if we are spiralling.

Take away

The fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and attach parts develop through structural dissociations. We may experience all of them or only some of them. The first step of trauma recovery is to create awareness when these parts are activated and find strategies to manage the activation.

Understanding Parts Work therapy for trauma recovery

Parts work therapy can be used in many different ways for trauma recovery. I find it useful throughout all three stages of trauma recovery, whether it’s stabilization and safety, memory integration and mourning or re-connection. In general, I think the concept of parts work allows us to create more fulfillment and well-being at any stage of trauma recovery.

Using integrative parts work for trauma recovery

In the first phase of trauma recovery, the main focus is stabilization and safety. Parts work usually focuses on creating awareness about parts and finding strategies to soothe activated parts. Here are some examples of how I use parts work in trauma recovery with my clients

Activation of the pre-frontal cortex

In my collaboration with clients, I usually provide psychoeducation about the theory of structural dissociations and how we develop parts early on. This supports clients in normalizing their experience and reconnecting with their adult selves.

Learning how to discern between the adult self and the different parts

To effectively apply parts work, we must learn to separate parts from the adult self. Sometimes, we can be fused with our parts, and it takes time to separate them from the adult self. Mindful awareness is an essential skill that supports this process.

Learning to speak “parts language”

In this process, an individual learns to use parts language to express complex inner dynamics. It means to use “a part of me feels angry” instead of saying I feel angry. Or a part of me feels ashamed. I usually facilitate a conversation between the client and their parts. In this process, the client asks different questions about the part. Parts language also gives us more compassion and empathy towards our parts.

Identifying activated parts, learning to discern between dangers in the present and triggers by the past.

Furthermore, clients learn to identify their activated parts, and we find strategies to navigate them to get back into the window of tolerance. Additionally, there’s an exploration of whether the danger is present in the present moment or triggered by past experiences (or both). Additionally, we work with the parts to find safe places for them.

Creating relationships with the parts

Another vital step is to create a healthy relationship with the part, understand their needs and boundaries, and validate the experience with the part. This process depends on the client’s context. Furthermore, this perspective helps the client externalize inner processes and resolve inner conflicts.

Application of parts work therapy in trauma recovery

After this brief overview about how to start with healing your inner parts, here are some applications where I – as a trauma counsellor and trauma recovery coach – often use parts work therapy with my clients:

I find parts-work valuable if an individual has experienced trauma due to enduring conditions. Additionally, it is helpful if we work with other trauma-related symptoms like anxiety or depression.  It can help us work through insecure or disorganized attachment styles. Furthermore, it allows us to regulate our autonomic nervous system. Additionally, parts of work therapy are essential in working towards healthy boundaries in relationships.

The goal of healing your inner parts in trauma recovery

The goal of parts work therapy is not to get rid of parts. It is about fostering a healthy connection between the adult self and the different parts. However, it’s often not as easy as it sounds:

Some parts are hidden behind the wall or are excluded from the inner system. We can reconnect with these parts and give them a voice through parts work therapy. This includes but is not limited to, re-connecting with parts hidden behind the wall or excluded from the system. This aspect of parts work therapy is a bit like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which rejoins broken pieces of pottery by mending them with gold. The new piece of pottery is more exquisite than before the break. When trauma comes into play, it may feel as if there are many fragmented pieces. Still, we can choose to rejoin them and create a beautiful, more precious piece of pottery – every piece contributes to its value, whether it’s the pieces that were broken or the often time-consuming process of putting them back together or the mending with the gold – each of it contributes to the value of the piece of art. Parts-work therapy requires patience and persistence.

Furthermore, parts of work therapy can foster inner harmony and calmness. For example, if my parts want to talk to me, I often experience inner turmoil like a stormy sea. If I check in with them and the different parts feel validated, acknowledged and understood, there is suddenly a sense of inner calm. Many of my clients have had a similar experience. Reduce inner conflict.

Another goal of parts work therapy is to help individuals achieve emotional balance. This includes working with more extreme or reactive parts, finding strategies to soothe them, and fostering a more stable and centred state of being. It also means supporting individuals in embodying a strong sense of their adult self so that they can hold their parts with curiosity and compassion.

At the second stage of trauma recovery, the wounds of traumatized parts become healed, and parts can transform their more extreme roles.

Take away integrative parts work therapy

The goals for parts work therapy in trauma recovery are aligned with the goals of trauma recovery in general. Working with our parts is an inner process that includes strengthening the adult self and reconnecting with our parts. Curiosity and compassion are vital ingredients for parts work. The more we can be in healthy connection with all of our parts, the more we can feel empowered and in charge of our lives.

Applying Parts Work Therapy in self-healing

Now, I have given you some first ideas about the importance of parts work therapy for trauma recovery.

The first step with parts work therapy is to see that emotions and body sensations are part of you.

Explore your inner system

One way to get started is with journalling and self-reflection. Reflect on a situation that happened that day and ask yourself:

What were the different sides of me that came out in that situation?

How did my different parts feel? How do they relate to each other? What are their roles?

Explore the relationship with one part

After identifying a part, connect with your adult self as well as possible and lean into curiosity. It is often helpful to start with a less emotionally intense part.

The first step is to notice the part in your body. Notice the body sensations, feelings, and thoughts. The next step is to externalize it outside of you. For example, you may visualize the part in the room. Be curious about the part: How big or small is it? What does it look like? Then, connect with your adult self. You can do this by taking some breaths and noticing your body and feet on the ground. Lean into curiosity.

Ask yourself what you are curious to learn about the part. Then, ask a question. For example, you can ask how old it is or what it wants to tell you. Then, try to listen and see what you notice. If the part answers, validate it and give it empathy.

While it can feel weird initially, treat it as a conversation with a good friend.

Navigating activated parts

There are different ways to work with them – here is one strategy I teach my clients. Usually works well with parts in hypoarousal. If you notice that a part is activated, I invite you to take a couple of breaths and then connect with your spine. Allow yourself to feel your spine. If you can, lengthen your spine from the tailbone up. It’s not about sitting straight but slowly lengthening your spine while paying mindful attention to your spine. If we connect with our spine, we connect with our dignity. So, I invite you to feel your dignity. For some people, dignity is a challenging concept; you can also leave this out. Just allow yourself to feel your spine. After you complete the practice, please check in with yourself and see if something has changed. Do you feel a bit better, a bit worse or about the same?

These are just small examples, but whenever you feel overwhelmed or notice your nervous system becoming dysregulated, take a break and ground yourself. For many reasons, connecting with parts at the beginning can be hard. Feel free to seek professional support if connecting with your parts feels challenging or the emotional intensity becomes too much. You are not alone on this journey, and trauma recovery looks different for everyone.

Conclusion

Overall, Parts work therapy helps individuals identify and understand the different parts of their personality that have emerged in response to trauma. Fostering internal communication and acceptance reduces inner conflict and promotes a cohesive sense of self. This therapeutic approach aids in integrating these parts, leading to more excellent emotional balance and harmony. Ultimately, parts work therapy strengthens the core identity, facilitating the healing of trauma and enhancing overall well-being.

Thank you for listening to me today. I hope you enjoyed this journey. Remember to subscribe to Trauma Demystified to stay updated with new episodes. I hope to see you next time. Take care and be well.

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