As a psychotherapist in private practice, I know it’s wrong to try to fix or change my friends. But after the pandemic, my friendships were in flux. Many friends left the city where I lived — so when I met someone new, I’d feel excited about the potential. Maybe we’d be hiking buddies and walk the Camino in Spain? Or introduce each other to new health podcasts?

“As a psychotherapist in private practice, I know it’s wrong to try to fix or change my friends.”

Invariably, I’d discover places where we were not exactly compatible. She wasn’t interested in Peter Attia’s podcast, much less exercise. My non-therapist self would start to nudge this new friend towards my interests with a “You might like this” podcast share (she didn’t even have a podcast app) and then judge her for not commenting or listening. As much as my therapist self knew this wasn’t right, I couldn’t seem to help myself. It became evident I wanted things for her that she didn’t want for herself.

It was only after working with a parts work therapist that I learned why I acted this way and how to heal it. 💛

An introduction to parts work

Have you ever had an emotional reaction that later puzzled you? Or maybe you’ve had a part of you that wanted to eat cake and another that didn’t? According to parts work, you were experiencing some of your many subpersonalities (also known as autonomous parts) that together create your complete self. Working with our parts goes back as far as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, working in the early 20th century. Freud believed we are composed of three parts called the ego, superego, and id. And Jung felt we are driven by a connection to the collective unconscious, informed by archetypal parts from myths. 

In modern day parts work, the thought is that all of our parts assist us in functioning, but some get wounded and stuck along the way. In our journey to adulthood, some parts take on roles to protect us. Parts work is a type of psychotherapy where our competing behaviors are seen as well-intentioned aspects of ourselves that need to be compassionately redirected. Many of these parts are performing out-of-date roles to help us contend with the present.

“Parts work is a type of psychotherapy where our competing behaviors are seen as well-intentioned aspects of ourselves that need to be compassionately redirected.”

Through my own parts work therapy, I learned I had a lonely part that craved deep connection with like-minded people. This part of me thought that if I could convince a new friend to be interested in the same podcasts I liked, then we would go deeper in our friendship and I would have the closeness I craved. Parts work helped me see that this aspect came into existence when I was seven years old and had trouble making friends in school, an experience marked by being made fun of by kids in my class. This part of myself decided to protect me from ever feeling that alone again by trying to change others into being more compatible, so I wouldn’t be lonely.

Once I was able to show compassion to this aspect of myself for what happened earlier in life, it softened and “we” agreed I wouldn’t put so much effort into finding like-minded friends and start to accept others as they are. Now, I no longer have the urge to turn others on to my interests.

What is Internal Family Systems (IFS)?

There are a few different psychotherapeutic modalities that help resolve the inner conflicts between our parts so we are more at peace. One modality is called Internal Family Systems (IFS). Although it was developed forty years ago by psychotherapist Dr. Richard Schwartz, it has caught fire recently due to its effective and intuitive ease of use. You may have heard of it since it is a favorite of some noteworthy celebrities and thought leaders like Alanis Morrisette, Tim Ferris, Glennon Doyle, and Abby Wambach.

“Fundamental to the IFS therapeutic model are a set of assumptions — most important is the belief that we all have an essentially good core self.”

Fundamental to the IFS therapeutic model is a set of assumptions — most important is the belief that we all have an essentially good core self.

When we have access to it, we connect to what IFS founder Dr. Richard Schwartz calls the 8 C’s: Creativity, courage, curiosity, a sense of connection, compassion, clarity, calm, and confidence. He feels our parts all have a secret history involving hurt and pain about how they got in the roles they are in that block access to more of our core self.

These parts actually don’t even like their roles. They often think we are younger than we are and still need protection from a bad situation experienced earlier in life. The parts developed extreme beliefs and emotions (called burdens in IFS) that come into us during a trauma and adhere to the part almost like a virus and drive the way it operates. As a result, these parts unintentionally sabotage our growth.

“When my clients are in the grip of those particular parts, they have little regard for the damage they are doing to their health and relationships,” Dr. Schwartz shared in his book, “No Bad Parts. “In our attempts to control what we consider to be disturbing thoughts and emotions, we just end up fighting, ignoring, disciplining, hiding, or feeling ashamed of those impulses that keep us from doing what we want to do in our lives. And then we shame ourselves for not being able to control them.”

“No one wants to hurt those they care about intentionally and later suffer when those relationships break down.”

No one wants to hurt those they care about intentionally and later suffer when those relationships break down. With this type of healing work, we can make unconscious behaviors conscious and be less reactive, resulting in more harmony amongst our parts.

How does IFS help us grow and heal?

IFS helps to bring our conflicting subpersonalities into harmony with our whole using an inward-focused structured process to identify stuck parts, see them as separate from ourselves, learn the story of how they came to be, and show compassion for the pain these wounded parts endured. 

Dr. Angela Huebner, IFS psychotherapist and author of “Jailbreak, The Making and Breaking of Our Invisible Prisons, An IFS Informed Escape” explains that one way to think of IFS is that your parts are all members of your personal board of directors. They all are heavily invested in the direction and safety of the company (i.e. you!). They rarely agree, but all deserve to be heard. By using IFS, you learn how to allow all of your parts to have a voice while still making the final decisions from a calm place as the CEO. “The model normalizes the multiplicity of our minds and gives us language to talk about our competing thoughts,” she writes.

“One way to think of IFS is that your parts are all members of your personal board of directors.”

Dr. Huebner explains that once we see that our parts do not come from a bad place, we can appreciate and guide them. “If we have compassion for why these parts developed rather than hating what brings us into therapy, we start to understand they were adaptive strategies that helped us survive our childhood or whenever they formed. And now we can appreciate them even if their methods are wacky,” she said.

Charlotte (pseudonym) healed her fear of speaking up at work using this modality. She came into my practice because she was afraid to speak up in work meetings and was worried it was negatively impacting her career. She had an opinion but couldn’t bring herself to share it. When her boss asked her to weigh in on a new product, she overrode her concerns with, “It’s great.” In working with this part of herself, she learned its only goal was to prevent her from feeling embarrassed like she did in 4th grade when she had to take extra classes for learning disabilities. Once she was able to witness and validate how painful it was for this inner child part when other kids made fun of her, it relaxed. 

“Once we see our parts are not coming from a bad place, we can appreciate and guide them.”

Over a few sessions, she was able to guide the younger part to learn to trust that she can nurture and attend to it, so it doesn’t need to protect her the way it once did. The part was able to accept that she no longer needed to keep quiet when it would benefit her to speak up, and it backed off.

Using the language of IFS, we can explain how this developed. Charlotte unconsciously created two different parts from this experience in 4th grade of being hurt when classmates made fun of her. One part carries the hurt and shame she felt at the time and is referred to as an “exile,” a buried part that carries pain. The second part is a “protector”’ part that came into existence to guard the “exile” by having her stay small and not take risks in groups. Once this protector part shared its story, Charlotte was able to understand and take on the role of nurturing parent to the exile. Both aspects faded away.

How do I identify my “parts”?

If you feel ready and interested in parts work, it is fairly easy to get started with IFS. Below are a few questions to help identify parts that may need attention.

  1. Close your eyes and see what uncomfortable feelings are present. Sadness? Frustration? Feelings are parts and trailheads for diving deeper. 
  1. Allow one of these parts to tell you anything that would be helpful in getting to know it. Give it the floor and allow it to share its perspective.
  1. Notice how you feel towards it. Compassion, frustration, or even anger? If you are judging it, this is actually another separate part that you must ask to step aside for a moment to get deeper access to the one in question.
  1. Ask it what it’s afraid of. What would happen if it didn’t make you react or act a certain way? Now you are starting to understand its purpose and what it might be protecting you from.
  1. Can you assign an age to this part, an earlier time when you might have brought it into being? Does it make sense you might have brought it into existence at this age? Why? Don’t worry if this isn’t immediately apparent, it can take a while to open up to your inner voice.

To go deeper with the model and do the inner work to shift these aspects and bring them into harmony, read on to the list of more resources compiled below.

Resources for learning and practicing IFS

From identifying the parts of your personality that need work, to listening and eventually easing their burdens, IFS is ongoing work. Sometimes we have been living from a part for so long that we’ve “blended” with it. This can leave us with little access to the energy that is necessary to do this type of work. If you feel stuck, this might be a sign that it’s time to work with an IFS-informed clinician who can help you go deeper to unblend and unburden these subpersonalities. If you’re looking just to find out more, get started independently, or find an expert to work with, the resources below can help.

To read

Independent work and study

Find an expert

Using IFS can help with unhealthy attachment styles, substance or other addictions, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Those using it report having more self-awareness, less reactivity, more compassion towards themselves and others, and having access to more joy.

Many of my clients have had incredible breakthroughs using IFS. In parts work, we think about healing as the application of love to the parts inside of us that hurt. IFS’s structured steps offer insights into our behavior quickly and show us a path to showering love on the parts that need it most.

Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT is a Manhattan-based licensed integrative holistic psychotherapist. She specializes in relationship issues, depression, anxiety, grief and spiritual growth. You can find her on Instagram or learn more on her website.