What are parts of self? Do I have parts? Does everyone have parts?
We all have different parts of ourselves. You likely have a part when you talk to your kitty: and another part when you talk to your boss, partner or friend. These parts are not rigid – they are flexible and malleable. You can move in and out of these parts with ease, usually in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, you can properly switch from talking to your cat to your partner. When you use the appropriate part at the right time and in the right situation, we call these parts integrated. Parts are also sometimes called ego states. However, if a person has experienced extensive childhood trauma, they will be vulnerable to dissociation and in these dissociated states, move into parts that are trapped in a time when a traumatic event took place in their childhood. Sometimes a person will move into the child state. Other times, a protective part such as an angry teen part will move into the person’s consciousness to try to protect the child part. When a part shows up at an inappropriate time or place, we sometimes call this a dissociated state.
Parts are ego states split off at the time of a childhood traumatic event or events. For example, a child experiences feeling intense pain and vulnerability after being physically abused repeatedly at six years old. The six-year-old doesn’t grow up. Instead this six-year-old stays six even though real-time child continues to grow up. Once an adult, she finds herself triggered, or distressed when the threat of feeling the same way she did at six presents itself in a present day event. She may then move into this child part, or more likely, move into a protective and angry part that reacts in a defensive, dismissing way to protect the vulnerable child part. For this person, interpersonal relationships are challenging because every time in the present that this person is reminded of the past, they will act from another part – a vulnerable six-year-old part, an enraged “monster” part (in the worst case), or some less intimidating but still challenging angry part. They may continue to feel triggered in the present over and over again until the trauma of the past has been processed.
These parts or ego states don’t integrate. Put simply, these parts are trapped in trauma time. They are child parts, teen parts, or infant parts. The older parts (such as teen parts) typically try to protect the child or infant parts. This process has been carefully outlined in two important theories: Structural Dissociation Theory and Internal Family Systems Theory. Sometimes a part can appear as a monster, or demon part, however, this part isn’t really a monster, or demon but rather a part doing its best to protect a vulnerable child part. A monster will almost always dissipate, or disappear from a person’s system once it believes that the adult (Functional Adult State) can take control of their internal system, and the trauma that drives the monster to activate is processed.
For more information on dissociation read blog posts at this site on dissociation.
Ways to integrate parts include group processing therapy and E.M.D.R. In group you talk about your trauma and process it with a trained facilitator. This therapist creates a safe place for you to re-experience some of the feelings that created the need for protective parts in the first place. With E.M.D.R. you process the original traumatic events in a controlled safe way once you master skills to control dissociation.
Crystal Arber MSW RSW