Self Parts: Making Peace with OurSelves

Like most people, I spent a good deal of my life generally viewing myself as a singular personality or self. I believed that, generally, my “self” was one united thing, and for the most part this one self was in charge, was the main me, and that there were just these slips of personality that showed up as lack of control, that were somehow aberrations of my one master self.

Then I learned that there existed a different way to see and understand a “self” as a collection/group of parts. Suddenly, the inner tensions and contradictions made perfect sense.

Various theoretical and clinical approaches invite us to see, understand and work with ourselves in terms of self parts. Freud named the id, ego and superego, Jung named the anima, animus and shadow. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic modality centered around identifying and addressing an inner family of subpersonalities. Gestalt psychology recognizes and works with parts including top-dog and underdog. Some people experience and embrace distinctly male, female or other gendered parts of themselves co-existing simultaneously. Some people embody and act from different inner identities in kink and power exchange play (and even lifestyle) roles including princess, daddy, baby girl, little etc. Often in therapy for traumas experienced in early life, people identify their inner child (or children), inner teenager and/or inner parent. Sometimes people can even identify aspects of themselves that are magical characters, archetypes or animals. Working with a parts-work oriented therapist can help us get clarity about these different facets of ourselves and engage with ourselves in new ways where there is more room for exploration and acceptance.

Sometimes when I find myself fighting with myself, it is helpful to look at what I am experiencing as a conflict between self parts. For example, one part of me may have wanted to be a responsible, mature adult, while my inner teenager had different priorities and needs that sabotaged my adult plans. Sometimes if I’m aware of the needs of a part, I can plan better for myself so that I can proactively provide attention and care for all of my parts rather than, for example, being surprise ambushed by an angry inner child who got overlooked while my inner executive completed her list of things to do. Just like people who want to be seen, heard, understood and provided for, our self parts want this too.

Understanding my own various self parts helps me to not over-identify with any particular one part. Imagine my relief in understanding that Netflix bingeing did not identify me as a person but was more accurately understood as a part of me that seeks and finds self-soothing, decompression and respite from my hyperactive inner-critic part. Rather than moving to a place of frustration or self-hatred about habits that don’t seem to serve my highest aspirations (often determined by a part I refer to as my “inner executive”, also known as the “top dog” in gestalt psychology), I now can understand that different self parts seek to take care of me in different ways. Without time and energy wasted on disapproval (or even self-loathing), I can look and see what my different parts are showing me and even appreciate how they show up to take care of me without fail.

I have learned that even the parts of me who provide negative self-talk are, in their own distorted ways, looking out for my well-being and survival albeit not in the best, “healthiest” or most loving way. For example: A part of me sometime pops up when I’m putting on an article of clothing and says “You can’t wear that– it makes you look fat.” What this tells me is the following: a- there is a part of me that has internalized cultural/commercial messages about what size and shape my body should be; b- this messaging says “you will not be accepted/admired/loved and you will not have social/sexual power unless you fit in with certain cultural body norms”; c- I may have had one or more negative and/or traumatic experiences in my life which tied in with and solidified these internalized beliefs and this part of me wants to protect me from having more negative and/or traumatic experiences like I’ve had before; and d- this part of me is looking out for my needs and desires to be accepted, admired and loved and to have social and sexual power (real, normal and critical human needs). It is advising me from its own understanding, albeit a narrow and limited one, of how I can get these things which allow me to survive and thrive as a human being. Although other parts of me do not understand this issue or subscribe to this belief system in this way, this part does. Although I may transcend these kinds of beliefs in my life, and live more from my other parts that do not hold these beliefs, this part – as do other parts which may have arisen in response to traumatic experiences or wounding– does not transcend this kind of belief and tends to emerge with the same old take on things.

Knowing that parts like this exist, why they exist and what purpose they have allows me to have more equanimity when they emerge and to be able to gently and lovingly attend to the feelings that fuel them such as, in the above example, fear of being unloved, fear of abandonment, fear of aloneness, or fear of lacking social or sexual power. What I, at first glance, experience simply as a self/body-shaming message, I can move towards understanding as a vulnerable, perhaps young and likely wounded self part that is afraid she won’t be accepted/admired/loved.

Understanding that I am made up of parts that can co-exist and that do not cancel each other out relieved me of needing to deny any particular thing about myself for fear that a “bad” thing would cancel out a “good” thing. I no longer have to fear that if part of me is a certain way or did certain things, that means that this is all that I am. No, I can be this and also be this other thing. Best of all, recognizing my self parts and giving them all a seat at my inner round table means that I can stop fighting with myself and maybe even work towards cooperation and collaboration amongst my self parts. Understanding each part, how it came to be the way it is, and what deep needs/desires its seeking to fulfill allows me new opportunities at deeper self-understanding, self-compassion, self-love and self-care. And paradoxically, as I see, allow and own my different parts, I end up with a sense of wholeness, self-cohesion and oneness.


Lauren Schneider, AMFTLauren Schneider is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco. She practices a non-hierarchical and non-pathologizing approach to psychotherapy, rooted in and guided by a spirit of loving curiosity, compassion, and camaraderie.
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Lauren Schneider AMFT 117381
Center for Mindful Psychotherapy Supervised by David Akullian, LMFT #13690