I love my job. I honestly believe that it is the best job in the world. But on some days, I don’t want to go to work. Some days I have a bad attitude—I get stuck in anger or self-pity. Have you ever had this experience, where different parts of you emerge at different times? My kids and I have a favorite joke, “What is a momster? It is what happens to mom after she counts to three.” I find I am especially vulnerable when I am tired physically or emotionally.
Trauma work is difficult and complicated. One aspect of trauma work that is often misconstrued is the work with parts.
Parts are Normal
Having parts is not pathological. We all have parts. A “part” is one aspect of our personality or ego. Different parts serve different functions. For example, I have a professional part that is well boundaried, aware, and attuned (mostly) when I’m with my clients. I have another part that is open and silly as I play on the floor with my children. I also have the “momster” part that lacks patience and needs a nap.
Parts are further evidence of our sophistication and our brains’ innate ability to survive and adapt. Although parts are normal, certain parts may become more or less pronounced in reaction to the individual’s environment. For example, individuals who have experienced complex trauma may develop a “wounded” part that holds the trauma memory and is disconnected from other parts unless triggered. In this way, the individual can function with less intrusion of his or her trauma. In the same manner, the individual may have a “protector” part that develops defenses to keep the individual safe and a “caregiver” part that helps the individual get his or her needs met—these skills may be adaptive or maladaptive.
Parts Serve a Purpose
These specific survival skills are expressed most often to keep us safe when we face threat. The parts that we have serve to express and hold these skills. For those who suffer complex trauma, there is often a break from awareness—dissociation. This is a sophisticated survival skill. This break in awareness, however, sometimes means that parts responsible for holding the trauma memory (both somatic and cognitive) are not always in conscious awareness of the individual. To take it a step further, these parts may not age or orient to the present moment. They are in “trauma time”. Have you ever been triggered to the point that you felt you were right back in the moment that hurt you? That’s evidence of a part of you living in trauma time. This happens on a continuum. At the most extreme parts can develop into completely different selves or alters as an aspect of Dissociative Identify Disorder.
Because parts serve an essential survival function, change to parts feels very threatening. Parts work is not about ridding the individual of parts. Rather, it is about “changing the job description” as Sandra Paulsen would say. In order to do this, a few tasks must be accomplished:
First, parts must work toward awareness of one another. For example, the individual may be aware of his or her wounded part, but when triggered, the wounded part is not aware of the individual’s other parts.
Second, the parts must be oriented to present time. Meaning, before the protector part will let his or her guard down, he or she must have knowledge that the threat has passed and the individual is capable to developing new skills and resources.
Finally, the parts must agree to the same goal. It is not uncommon for different parts to believe and want different things and even see each other in negative ways. This is especially challenging. To take this further, some parts want the same thing (i.e. survival and safety of the individual) but disagree on what this requires. The wounded part may believe compliance is necessary while the protector may rely on aggression. The protector may view the wounded part as weak or in the way, even to the point of aligning with past abusers as a way to ensure safety. The high functioning part of an individual may desperately want to process and heal trauma while another part may believe that the risk is too great or the trauma plays too great of a role in the identity of the individual (i.e. what is left if I heal?). This is where ambivalence and self-sabotage comes from in therapy. It is possible to want and not want the exact same thing and be completely honest in both.
Once each part is on the same page, it is possible to change the job descriptions to include healthier belief systems and adaptive skills. For example, the wounded part learns to be seen and ask for care when needed. The protector can learn to set healthy boundaries rather than push everyone away. Most times in therapy, parts work precedes the processing of trauma. Sometimes, parts emerge after processing has started—this may be evidence that the individual is not ready for the trauma work.
If you find that this applies to you then you are in good company. And as always in my posts, this is an oversimplification of what the work is really like. What parts do you have? What function(s) do they serve? Do you find that you believe one thing in one moment and something different in another? What is it that you (all of you) want? Good luck in your journey. Take care of you!