The Challenge of Change: Working With Our Parts

By 
Dr. Sara Glazer

Understanding the Challenge of Change 

I remember feeling homesick as a child while away for the summer. I would wake up early and fantasize about finding a boat and traveling back to my house. This took place up until the last few days of the stay, at which point I became distraught about returning home. Even now, as an adult, when I am the one orchestrating a change, I struggle. This internal battle still emerges even when I believe the change will be positive. 

It is often the feeling of being stuck that draws individuals to seek support, such as therapy. Sometimes there are clear challenges associated with change. In other instances, the practical tools needed to shift might be both clear and manageable, but there are other, less visible, factors that seem to be contributing to ambivalence about transition. 

In 1968, psychologist Robert Zajonc published a paper on the mere exposure effect. Zajonc found that repeated exposure to stimuli, even when unconscious, was sufficient in producing feelings of fondness, regardless of whether there was a reward associated with the stimulus. Indeed, we tend to feel safe with the familiar. We know what to anticipate, which allows us to interpret and understand incoming information, a concept known as perceptual fluency.

The Significance of Defenses  

We also accumulate defenses over time to adapt to situations. Originally introduced by Sigmund Freud, theorists have offered different frameworks to account for our psychological defense mechanisms. Freud posited that we have competing internal forces with unique goals, these differences producing tension. Our id seeks to avoid pain and pursue pleasure; our superego wants to adopt morally acceptable behaviors; and our ego tries to manage both the id and superego, while also accounting for the realistic constraints of a situation. Given these conflicts, Freud identified different structures that aim to reduce this tension. For example, a woman who is having a hard time giving up a maladaptive habit, such as drinking, might engage in denial, refusing to accept that she has an issue. Since Freud, multiple theorists, including Alfred Adler, Karen Horney and Leon Festinger, have established their own views on defenses.

More recently, defense mechanisms have been understood as coping or emotion regulation strategies, developed to contend with trauma, threats to self-worth and life stressors. This reframe highlights the underlying goal of defenses to protect the self.  George Vaillant, a contemporary defense researcher, notes that symptoms, such as pus and fever, were initially understood as indicators of illness, yet medical experts ultimately viewed them as healthy attempts to respond to infection. Vaillant likens this idea to psychological defenses, describing them as the brain’s efforts to manage sudden internal and external changes in order to maintain homeostasis. Describing these defenses as automatic and unconscious, he notes that even maladaptive defenses produce some soothing effect. 

 Given our proclivity toward the familiar in combination with our built-in psychological defense system, it is no wonder that change, both internally and externally, can be quite complex. How then do we facilitate change and healing?

Working with Parts

Parts Work Therapy acknowledges that we possess different sub-personalities or parts, each part with its own motivation. Resembling Freud’s view on competing tensions, it is these unique goals that often underlie emotional impasses. The aim then is to provide the opportunity for all of one’s parts to emerge, especially those that seem to be posing barriers to change. A variety of therapeutic approaches include parts work, such as Internal Family Systems, Ego State Work and Gestalt Therapy.

An evidenced based approach, Internal Family Systems (IFS) was developed in the 1990’s by Richard Schwartz and has been linked with the improvement of overall functioning and well-being. Schwartz, a therapist with training in systems and family therapy, recognized that in order to support one member of the family, it is essential to understand that individual within the broader relationship context. As an example, it might not be effective to treat a child’s anxiety alone if his anxiety is linked to his mother’s unexpressed hostility toward his father. It is only in understanding and addressing the needs of the whole system that each individual family member might respond to intervention. 

Schwartz began to conceptualize the human mind as paralleling a family system, applying family therapy techniques in his work with individual clients. According to IFS, each part functions to avoid tension and dysfunction, and at times will prevent other parts from emerging to accomplish this aim. There are three types of parts: exiles, managers and firefighters. Exiles contain pain and include memories and feelings associated with trauma. Managers attempt to regulate the exile’s pain and might present as one’s inner-critic. Firefighters also respond to exiles. They do this by offering distraction, often in the form of self-destructive behaviors, such as addictions and self-harming behavior. Parts can be understood as either healthy or extreme: the extreme parts often benefiting from intervention. 

A fundamental goal of IFS is to foster a relationship with the “self.” The self is the observing part of the individual that has the capacity to notice the other parts and react in a compassionate and wise manner.

For example, the woman who struggles with drinking might want to end this pattern, yet fears change. This conflict might cause the fearful part to act out even more. One’s typical tendency might be to punish and marginalize the part that is acting out. However, within IFS, the goal would be for the self to try to understand what the acting out part is feeling and needs. This functions as a way to encourage conscious decision making by attuning to and integrating the various needs that are present. 

Acceptance

Parts work therapy reminds me that clients present to therapy with diverse needs: those being expressed on an overt level and those that might be functioning outside of one’s awareness. It is important to be mindful of and honor those needs, even those that appear to show up in an unhelpful form. I remind myself of this idea when a client seems stuck in session and use this as an opportunity to attune to the client’s different parts. It also provides a framework for my own reactions. When I notice the part of me that wants a client to change or heal becoming louder or more frantic, I make efforts to welcome my need to be effective as well as my own ambivalence about change; offering the part of me that imagined returning home each morning as a child more space and validation.

Dr. Sara Glazer is a Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness and hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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