A System of Inner People

Parts have a full range of personality

The term parts sells the phenomenon short. That word was chosen because it’s more user-friendly than subpersonality and everyone would already say things like, “A part of me wants to go to work today, but another part would rather stay in bed.” But I am talking about full-range inner personalities, not unlike “alters” found in multiple personality disorder. Because of the severity of abuse they endured as children, people given that diagnosis have parts that are so isolated from and polarized with one another that when one takes over, a dramatic shift in demeanor occurs, sometimes as well as a loss of memory of what happened when other parts were there. Such clients needed extreme inner compartmentalization to survive.

Those of us whose childhoods weren’t filled with horrible experiences have parts that relate more harmoniously, so we feel and look more integrated. In this context, having an integrated personality does not signify an absence of parts. It means that they get along and work together better, but they don’t disappear. Parts surface and withdraw, and we sense their presence, but our identity doesn’t shift as dramatically because the rest of us is present while that happens.

As my view of parts shifted from unidimensional (such as the angry one) to multidimensional (a hurt adolescent personality forced into the role of the angry one), I was able to use my training in family therapy to further understand their predicaments. For example, I had a client, Billy, a fifteen-year-old with multicolor hair and many body piercings, who was getting into trouble at school and whose parents said he always seemed angry at home.

As a family therapist, I was taught to inquire about his family history and his relationships with other family members and peers in order to understand his behavior in context. In doing that, I learned that Billy felt protective of his mother and younger sister because his father had been abusive to them in the past. In light of that history, it makes sense that Billy would have been forced into the role of the angry protector.

In general, we are not socialized to think in terms of interconnected systems. Ours is an individualistic culture in which people are assumed to be responsible for their behavior. Pregnant teenagers are judged to be immoral; unemployed people, lazy; drug addicts, hedonistic. We rarely look for connections and often consider any that are suggested to be excuses for irresponsible behavior. Billy was seen as one of the bad kids at school and diagnosed as having a conduct disorder. Everyone was judging his book by its cover.

This process of trying to understand how a person’s behavior is connected to relationships with other people or to past events, rather than judging the person solely on the way he or she looks or acts, is called systems thinking. Family therapy brought systems thinking into a mental health field that had previously been dominated by the Freudian and medical models, which diagnosed and treated people with little consideration for the social contexts of their problems.

With my background in systems thinking, I began trying to understand how the role of a client’s part was connected to its relationships with other parts, just as I had connected Billy’s anger to his position in his family. As mentioned earlier, asking Diane’s critic about what it was afraid would happen if it didn’t make her feel so bad revealed that two sets of inner relationships were keeping it in the critic role. The critic feared that if it didn’t constantly push Diane, indulgent parts of her would take over and make her fat and lazy. The critic also feared that the vulnerable, childlike parts it protected would be hurt because she’d be rejected. Just as Billy felt forced to remain in his angry role because he was in conflict with his father and protecting his mother and sister, so Diane’s critic was constrained from changing by being conflicted with some parts while protecting others.

What does all this mean for you and your internal relationships? First, it underscores the fact that the way you understand your parts will determine how you relate to them. If you see them merely as internalized beliefs or unidimensional emotional states, you have little reason to listen to or open your heart to them. If, on the other hand, you believe they are multidimensional, autonomous personalities, you’ll be much more likely to approach them with curiosity and compassion.

Second, it means that your mind is an intricate system. Your parts have relationships with one another that resemble the relationships between people in families. Many of your parts can’t change until the parts they protect or are embattled with have changed first. If you stay curious with a part, you will learn about the reasons it’s afraid to change and that sometimes those reasons are realistic. I have worked, for example, with many inner-city kids who couldn’t afford to drop their protective wall of diffidence and bravado in their neighborhoods because others would attack them if they were ever vulnerable. We could, however, negotiate with those protectors so the kids could be more selective regarding when their walls were really needed after the kids began demonstrating that they could care for their vulnerable parts.


If your mind is a system of parts, how do systems operate? One principle of human systems is that differences tend to escalate into polarizations. Have you ever been in an argument in which you found yourself taking a position that you didn’t really believe in just to counter your partner’s extreme position? Maybe you defended Bill Clinton’s affairs just because your father-in-law hated him so much, even though you really thought Clinton was wrong.

You thought that if you backed down at all, your father in-law’s wrong-headed politics would prevail. You refused to give in until he did! This is called polarization: each partner takes a position that is the polar opposite to, or competitive with, the other out of fear that something terrible will happen if they don’t. It happens in human systems at all levels. Parents become enemies, siblings become rivals, inner parts become antagonists.

Psychiatrist Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues (1974) used a nautical metaphor (which I will embellish) to illustrate polarization in systems. They conjured an image of “. . . two sailors hanging out of either side of a sailboat in order to steady it: the more the one leans overboard, the more the other has to compensate for the instability created by the other’s attempts at stabilizing the boat, while the boat itself would be quite steady if not for their acrobatic efforts at steadying it” (p. 36).

Both sailors have left their preferred, valuable roles and are in positions that are destructive to the boat, making it susceptible to capsizing. Both are also rigidly limited in their positions. Each has to remain extreme in proportion to the extremity of the other. Each can move only in relation to the moves of the other. The irony is that neither likes the role he or she is in and both wish to return to harmony, yet each has valid reason to fear the consequences of unilaterally leaving his or her position. The ship would tip over if he or she moved in. Each sailor is correct in believing that if he or she moves in, the boat will topple because the other will still be leaning out. The only solution is for both of them to move in at the same time.

Since they don’t trust each other, the only way for that to happen is for a third party they both trust to assure each that if one moves in, the other will as well. If they have a trusted captain, he or she can coax both sailors to come down off the railing simultaneously. Once released from the strain and constraint of the polarization, each sailor can then move about the boat freely and can return to a valuable and enjoyable role, trusting the captain to steer a safe and mutually beneficial course.

To pursue our version of this analogy, let us return to Diane. Many of Diane’s parts were polarized in this way. As I described earlier, she constantly heard from a critical voice that pushed her to work hard and be perfect. If she sat still for any time, this striving part would criticize her for being lazy and remind her of all the things that needed to be done. I had Diane ask this critical striver what it was afraid would happen if it did not keep her in constant motion, running her to the point of exhaustion. It said she would sit around all day and binge on food until she became fat. Diane reported that she had been a chubby child and adolescent, and had suffered for it. She acknowledged having a part that wanted to binge eat, and she had been fighting it constantly since having lost weight in college.

In its own defense, Diane’s binge part told her that because the striver was so dominating, it had to seize any moment when she was exhausted to bring Diane to a grinding halt, and it binged to deal with the tension from the critic’s pressure around food. Then, as soon as her binge was over, the critic would start attacking her for being such a pig and would prod her back into a frantic treadmill state. Thus, each of Diane’s polarized parts believed that if it became less extreme, the other would totally take over and, in effect, sink her boat. These parts were deadlocked.

Neither could become less extreme without the assurance that the other would follow suit, and each would resist such a suggestion until it received that assurance. The two parts were in a battle over her safety, both thinking that the other was bringing her down.

Lacking this understanding of her inner system, many people around Diane, including another therapist, had given her the common-sense prescription, “Why don’t you slow down and stop running yourself ragged?” They didn’t know that they were inadvertently siding with her binge part and, consequently, making her striving critic all the more extreme. Until you understand the nature of polarization, you will continue to make such mistakes. Just like people in a family or countries in international politics, polarized parts cannot and will not change unilaterally.

As is made clear by the boat example, however, achieving harmony and balance between crew members is not possible without effective leadership. Fortunately, everyone already has a capable internal leader. When Diane was able to interact with each part from her Self, each came to trust her, and her Self was able to help her striver and her binge part meet together and end their battle for her soul. Ultimately, the striving part shifted into the role of advisor, setting reasonable goals and strategizing their achievement. As the binge part realized it no longer had to save Diane from the striving critic, it became a calm voice reminding her to relax.

The end of this polarization and the striving and bingeing that came with it gave Diane access to the vulnerable, childlike parts and their burdens of sadness that all the activity distracted her from. Since the two protectors didn’t resume their battling, she was able to stay present with the sadness long enough to learn of its origin and heal the part that carried it.

I found that parts that had plagued other clients for years were trapped in similar predicaments involving polarization and protection. Just as for Billy, something would have to be done about his father for him to soften, polarized parts of other clients couldn’t change until other things changed first. I had been getting my clients into power struggles with these parts that they were doomed to lose because the parts couldn’t back down. Each of these polarized parts believed the safety of the internal system depended on it staying in its role. Before Diane’s critic could totally lighten up, she had to show it that she could protect the vulnerable parts herself and that she would not allow the indulgent ones to take over.

Stuck in the past

The experience with Diane’s critic produced a shift in my approach. Rather than trying to forcefully reorganize clients’ inner systems, I became increasingly curious about them. To really understand parts, I made an effort to drop all my presumptions about the nature of thought and emotion, and allow myself to be educated by my clients. I interviewed hundreds of clients’ parts, trying to remain open and curious even with the ones that wanted to harm my client or others. It became clear that the roles of many of these parts were directed not only by their protective or polarized positions in the system, but also by beliefs and emotions that seemed irrational. One client’s angry part sensed danger all around him, even though he lived in as safe an environment as anyone I knew. Another client’s suicidal part was convinced that she had to die because she was evil. Still another client had a part that believed he was unlovable despite having many people in his life who clearly loved him.

Instead of challenging such beliefs, I began asking where the parts got those ideas. Immediately following that question, many clients would begin seeing images from their pasts. For some, it was as if they were watching specific scenes from a movie of their own childhood. The scenes were often of traumas — rejections, humiliations, physical or sexual abuse, and frightening or shameful events. Usually these were not forgotten memories but rather events that had been minimized, trivialized, or obscured in these clients’ life narratives. Several clients became upset as they watched, weeping and cowering as if they had been pulled into the scenes and were reliving them. I wasn’t sure what to do as this was happening. In those early days, I was not totally comfortable in the presence of intense emotion, whether my own or that of clients or family members. As clients approached my threshold of emotional comfort, I was afraid they would be overwhelmed with feelings to the point of no return and that they would enter some kind of no-exit state of despair.

It’s no coincidence that I had been afraid of the same thing happening to me if I got too close to my own exiled feelings. Then, in the mid-1990s, a crisis in my life wrenched forth some of those hurt and lonely parts of me, and I was forced to get to know and value them. After that, I was much better able to stay with my clients while they experienced intense emotion. Before that personal work, however, when clients were becoming agitated or tearful, I would ask them to step out of their trauma scenes and would have them watch from a more detached state. Clients were often able to do that, but some shut down entirely and had trouble returning to the scenes to complete the work.

Once a part was able to show when in a client’s past it picked up an irrational belief or emotion, the belief or emotion suddenly seemed far less irrational. Given what had happened to the client, it made perfect sense that he or she would have thought or felt that way during that time. Somehow a part of my client continued to carry the ideas, emotions, and sensations from those earlier episodes, even though many years had elapsed and the person was no longer in the situation.

It was as if these parts of my clients were stuck in the past, frozen in a dreadful time—as if what had happened back then was, for those parts, still happening or likely to happen. It also seemed as if those parts still carried old messages they received about themselves and the world. Many clients felt relief after witnessing their parts’ stories. They had been confused for years by what seemed to their rational minds to be crazy compulsions, fears, yearnings, or world views. Now they understood the reasons for those feelings, beliefs, and behaviors.