In the world of mental health and psychotherapy -- as well as many other places -- we often talk about ourselves as if we're made up of a bunch of different parts. We have mature parts and immature parts, wounded parts and angry parts, embarrassed parts and scared parts. It's remarkably common to hear people in everyday conversations referring to parts of themselves.
In the world of psychotherapy it's actually an intentional strategy we use to help people acknowledge some of their negative behaviors without labeling the entire person in a negative way. In essence, we excuse or justify many negative behaviors by ascribing them to a part of the person, while reassuring the person that we still think that they're a good human being.
Therapists do this for many reasons.
1) They don't even think about it. They simply grew up within this worldview that I'm calling the "parts model," and they never even question it. They think it's real.
2) They use the parts model to help clients face aspects of themselves that the clients are critical of. The therapist might say, "Well, part of you was nasty, but another part of you feels guilty about it, which goes to show that you're not just a nasty person."
3) Some therapists use the parts model as a developmental tool, as a way to help people begin to take more responsibility for themselves. It's kind of like the answer to the question, "How do you eat an elephant," which is, "One bite at a time."
When clients deny responsibility for their actions, using the parts model is a way to slowly get them to take more personal responsibility. When speaking to a client who denies he's angry, the therapist says, "But isn't it true that part of you is angry?" The client then may be able to ease into acknowledging his or her feelings with this kind of help from the parts model.
There are entire therapies built on the foundation of the parts model. Clients will sometimes be asked to move from chair A to chair B to chair C. In each chair they are supposed to give voice to some different part of themselves. There have been some very impressive case studies of the effectiveness in using the parts model to cure bulimia, to release traumatic memories, and to help clients access powerful resources.
The parts model is one way to help clients develop understanding, empathy, and compassion for themselves and others. When people feel bad about themselves, it can be helpful to separate, or distance themselves, from the part that they feel bad about so that they can see "this is not all of who I am."
Although I can make an argument that the parts model is appropriate at certain stages of development, like when working with people who simply aren't yet ready to take full responsibility for themselves, I can also make the argument that the parts model is what keeps people from fully growing up and being able to take responsibility for themselves.
When people refer to parts of themselves, they are distancing themselves from themselves.They say things like:
There is part of me that feels unworthy of love.
I have a very young and wounded part of me that has a hard time making commitments.
There is a part of me that doesn't fully trust you.
I'm sorry I said what I did, but I have an immature part that occasionally acts out.
What if it's all made up -- the entire idea that we have parts? What if we are 100% whole?
We are an accumulation of all of our life experiences and we are the age we are today. So when we behave immaturely, we don't get to point to the "immature part" of ourselves. Instead, we step up and acknowledge, "I was immature." What if instead of promoting the idea that I have a "scared five-year-old part of me," I just say, "I'm scared," or even more accurately, "I'm scaring myself."
Is this notion of parts helping us, or are we holding ourselves back with this idea?
What I believe is that if we demand more of ourselves, if we demand we behave maturely, we don't need to rely on the parts model. If instead of relying on the parts model to explain behavior, we just ask people to behave in responsible and mature ways, what would happen?
I can tell you that at this point in my life the parts model does not seem useful. It's seems like a veil to hide behind. It distracts me from what's happening in the moment because I start looking to explain myself based on my parts. So I've stopped doing that. Instead, I just ask myself, "How would I like to behave in this situation?" And then, for the most part, that's what I do.
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