In this age where there is such an emphasis on oneness, it’s important, perhaps ironically, that we become aware of the various parts of our personality that comprise the landscape of our inner diversity. Some psychologists refer to these “parts” as “sub-selves” or even “inner family members.” They are comprised of dream figures, points of view, dispositions, voices, preferences, and aversions.
In Process Work (or process-oriented psychology) we refer to them as “roles,” as in, for example, the role of the “reasonable, logical, linear thinker” or the “shy, sensitive feeler.” Roles are not pre-defined. They are infinite in their characteristics. However, there are some roles that many people tend to experience inside themselves and in the people and world around them, such as “the responsible, hard-working, disciplined one,” “the lazy one,” “the pleaser/accommodator,” “the rebellious one,” “the confident one,” “the insecure one,” “the generous one,” “the greedy one” and so forth. Some roles are more prominent in one person and less in another; however, these are all parts of our personalities or inner lives. They have relationships with each other just like two people with different personalities have a relationship. When one part is more “liked” than another, it gains more power and dominance at the expense of other parts of ourselves. As you can see by the list above, many parts are in direct opposition to another part, and this opposition forms a polarity, tension, or conflict inside the person.
The Value of Becoming Aware of Our Inner Parts
It’s important to become conscious of the various roles at play within our psyches because when we talk about ourselves and what we’re feeling, it’s important that we know it isn’t all of us who is feeling that way. In other words, part of us is feeling one way while other parts of us are not—and the parts that are not may not be conscious or expressed.
For example, when we say, “I’m scared…” or overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or any another difficult emotional state, it is important to know which part of us is experiencing that emotion. Although that emotional state may feel all-consuming—meaning we are identifying with feeling that experience in our totality—typically it is a specific part of us that is feeling that emotion, while other parts of us are having marginalized and temporarily unconscious experiences.
Let’s take, for example, a woman who decides to go skydiving for the first time. She may consciously identify with feeling really scared about the fact that she’s about to jump out of a plane into mid-air, fearful that her parachute might not employ. Who wouldn’t be at least a little bit anxious? However, another part of her isn’t scared at all. That’s the part of her that signed up and paid for the experience and is determined to push herself to her limits. Yet another part of her may feel neither scared nor determined but rather calmly proud of overcoming her fear and for achieving a life goal. If the woman were only scared, she would not be able to skydive because she needs her determined part that is motivated by pursuing the next challenge, and she needs the part of her that will feel proud of achieving this goal so that the experience completes itself and ultimately feels satisfying.
Must she be afraid in order to jump out of the plane? No, however, it might not feel as thrilling without some fear involved. Therefore, it also might not be an experience she feels particularly proud of accomplishing because it didn’t really require feeling uncomfortable to do it. Must she feel proud of doing this? No, however, she might simply vacillate between feeling scared and bypassing that fear while never feeling that she’s satisfied with what she was able to accomplish, and thus walk away feeling discontented.
I use the above example of skydiving because it’s relatively easy to imagine a person feeling scared, determined, and proud at various moments in the experience—all parts of the person’s inner life, in relationship with one another. In this case, their relationship sounds fluid and harmonious. It’s considerably more difficult to notice our various internal psychic parts in our day-to-day lives, and it’s more challenging to appreciate our various parts when we are in our most troublesome emotional, psychological, physical, or relationship experiences.
Why, though, is it beneficial to know that different parts of us have different experiences, feelings, and points of view? Here in Part 1, we’ll explore the first reason: because identifying with only one part will be cause for great suffering.
Identifying with Only One Part Causes Suffering
To illustrate the first reason—that identifying with only one part will be cause for great suffering—let’s consider something most everyone has been through: the dreaded job interview. When we are scared to go to a job interview, which nearly everyone is, it’s important to have compassion for the part of us that is scared; however, it’s also helpful to know that another part of us feels confident in our skills and abilities. Or perhaps a part of us wants to check the interviewer/organization out and see if we think they are the right fit for us rather than the other way around. Or perhaps another part of us feels guided by God, the universe, the Tao, or some other benevolent force that allows us to rest in whatever the outcome is, secure in our faith that we are on the right path. Thus, we are not only the frightened, insecure job applicant but also the confident, talented one, the discerning evaluator, and the one who surrenders to the universe.
If we are aware of more than our central experience (fear) but also other parts (e.g., confidence), then we have what’s called “one foot out” of the difficulty—in other words, detachment. Having one foot out allows us to be more fluid as we move through our various emotional states, and ultimately this means less suffering. Conversely, if we psychically latch on to the most difficult state, unaware of any of our other parts that are not feeling that way, we will feel victimized by the difficult state (fear, anger, insecurity, resentment, etc.). We will have little to no room to experience anything else and will suffer…a lot.
Easier said than done! We all get consumed by one inner part or another on a regular basis, especially if that part is emotionally gripping. Here’s something to try when you get stuck in one part that is difficult: Consciously slow down in those moments. Get up out of your chair and walk around the room. Feel into the difficult emotional state (or part) and say some words out loud that are from that inner figure (“I am so afraid! I just want to run and hide” or “I’m so angry at that person! I want to hurt them back.”). Use your body and hands to physically express the energy of that inner part. Then, move to another location in the room and feel, as best as you can, for any other part that might be present. It could be a response to that part (“I’m not scared; I’m excited!” or “I just want to cry; I really got my feelings hurt.”). See if you can move your body and hands like this new part. Becoming fluid, moving from one part to another, allows for some detachment from the painful feeling of the problem.
Notice if any other parts want to appear. Perhaps there is a part that doesn’t care at all about the problem or would just walk away and sit on the beach looking at the sunset if it had its way. These parts are especially important to notice since they are not involved in the difficulty and may be more related to a deeper, more spiritual part of you.