Ever been in a situation where you had to make a choice between one thing or another, but for the life of you, you couldn’t decide – one part of you wanted to go one way and the other the opposite way? (And for the sake of argument: no, you can’t choose both). Our language expresses this dilemma. We may say, “Part of me wants to stay, the other wants to go”, or, “My mind says no but my heart says yes”, or, “I have half a mind to accept the offer, but…”, or, “I’m torn between this and that”. Or, or, or.
A non-pathological approach
Psychologist Richard Schwartz, founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS), says we all have multiple personalities, which he simply calls “parts”. Different parts, such as managers and firefighters (protector parts), and exiles (wounded and vulnerable parts), have different interests, agendas, and motives, and devise clever methods of achieving their goals. It may be a simple (but sometimes agonizing) case of deciding between eating pizza or a healthy salad; between working out or skipping it and feeling awful all day. Or it can be more ominous: a harsh inner critic part may be abusive, exacting, and judgmental, constantly putting you down and fighting with the part of you that feels vulnerable and scared. Finally, there is the part known as the Self, which Schwartz describes as the “compassionate leader”, the “seat of consciousness”, “the ‘I’ in the storm”, which balances and connects all parts to form a whole.
Many of us can recognize these parts in ourselves. But parts are not always what they appear to be. For instance, we may get to know a persecutory part (through journaling, therapy, meditation, reflection), and discover to our surprise that it actually wants to protect us from being ridiculed or attacked by others, a strategy that it may have developed when, for example, a person got abused, molested, or traumatized as a child. If we do not acknowledge and negotiate with this part, it may fight with other parts and blend with the Self, resulting in a crisis: having failed to consciously undertake the task of engaging and negotiating with all the parts, this rogue part simply goes ahead and acts through subterfuge in a way that alienates the other parts and hijacks the Self. In extreme cases, a persecutory part can cause a person to take their own life.
Although our various parts can wreak havoc in our lives, they can also be a source of deep insight into ourselves, our patterns of behavior, our relationships, and our psyche, which can lead to creativity and psychological healing from trauma and emotional wounds. Rather than pathologizing these different parts, Schwartz emphasizes the need for all parts to be valued, acknowledged, and allowed to play their “natural” roles in service to the whole or Self. For instance, Schwartz states that the goal isn’t to go to war with or get rid of a harsh inner critic part; it is to dialogue with it and eventually transform it by “unburdening” it from its extreme beliefs and emotions that got attached to it through some traumatic experience or emotional injury. Having done that, this part can play a more supportive role, e.g. it can allow a person to access courage and confidence.
Collective and individual parts
Writers and poets have captured this human condition, both on a collective and individual level. In works like Goethe’s Faust and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the characters fought it out between their moral and virtuous parts (Carl Jung would call this their persona) and their more impulsive, selfish, and insatiable parts (their shadow). On a collective level, in Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, the inhabitants of an African precolonial community have to decide who they are as a people by either continuing their traditional way of life, or accepting the religion, education, and culture of the white man, with dire consequences either way.
Most recently, Amanda Gorman’s heart wrenching description of the challenges America faces in her stirring inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb, depicts the struggle between the part of America that strives towards lofty democratic human ideals on the one hand, and on the other “a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it/ Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.” We have witnessed America’s ugly parts, parts that every now and then get exposed when they erupt from their hiding place in the collective unconscious, take possession of people, and take root in our communities. Can we as a nation bring together our warring parts to become a coherent whole? We must actively engage this question as we usher in a new year and a new administration.
Psychologically, we bear the responsibility to become aware of opposing personalities within ourselves and learn how to manage and balance all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly, or else suffer the consequences of having them knock us about or worse, annihilate us. We could ask ourselves: when and where do our parts come out to play or to wreak havoc: in relationships, at work, in the way we sabotage our health, or avoid making decisions?
If you feel ready to explore and dialogue with your parts, it is a good idea to have a guide and witness to accompany you through these inner realms of your psyche. It may be helpful to seek out a therapist, particularly one trained in Schwartz’s IFS model.
But for now, I’ll just go for the pizza.