“Partswork” (usually “parts work” but it’s on its way to being one word like “cupboard”) is sort of a catch-all term for therapeutic or introspection approaches that involve orienting to yourself as having different parts, that have different desires, wants, needs, beliefs, experiences, perspectives, etc.
Speaking in terms of “part of me” is very common. I would be surprised to find a reader of this post who has never used a phrase like “part of me wants to go out tonight, but part of me wants to stay in” or “part of me distrusts him” or “part of me really just wants to finish this right now” or “part of me wants to do nothing but eat chocolate all day” or “part of me thinks nobody will ever love me”.
And this was the origin of Internal Family Systems therapy, the most famous form of partswork. When Dick Schwartz was working with his clients, he noticed them saying phrases like that, and started developing a theory of these “parts”. The term “parts” came from the common language of his clients. He then developed a powerful taxonomy of different types of parts (exiles & protectors (subtypes: managers & firefighters)) which relate in particular ways and have specific types of relationships with each other. In IFS sessions, it’s common for the parts to be given names (perhaps by asking the part what to call it) and to have fairly stable identities across different sessions over weeks or months.
People have different models of what’s going on there, and whether these parts truly “exist” or whether they’re just a useful interface or metaphor for relating with oneself. I don’t have a particular take on that—in fact, I’m not even entirely certain that those two views refer to a different world (Don Hoffman posits that all perception is interface). The parts obviously aren’t discrete in the way car parts are; they’re much more organic and intertwingled.
What I do have a take on is that you don’t need to reify or name parts in order to do partswork. You can—for big issues this can be really helpful. The IFS model is good and seems to track for a lot of people.
But it can also add unnecessary overhead, and make it hard to notice that the same principles of internal conflict apply on other scales as well.
This is particularly salient to me since my introduction to the importance of inner conflict wasn’t IFS, it was Perceptual Control Theory, whose parts are very tiny and in some ways ephemeral.
I suspect the difference is in part because PCT was developed to model not just what’s going on when things break down due to trauma or unmet developmental needs, but also how things work when they work. And then we can look at breakdowns so tiny that they never schedule a therapy appointment, and see how the principles apply to more extreme situations.
Perceptual Control Theory is a psychological model of perception, cognition & behavior that sees it all as being composed of a hierarchical network of control systems. Or as my friend Romeo once put it, “a flock of thermostats.” A control system, of which a thermostat+furnace is a familiar example, is a system that perceived something (“it’s 18°C”), compares it to a reference level (“it’s supposed to be 20°C”), and then if there’s a gap, does something to close that gap (“run the furnace”).
The perceptual levels go from single activations of sensory neurons such as rod or cone cells in the eye, up to things like colors, then shapes, then objects, then movement and events, then up to concepts & categories, then procedures and so on. And then I perceive the world, and when it’s not how I want it to be on one of those levels, that level tells the levels below “make it like this” and they act to do so. So “I’m thirsty” generates a lower level program of the action “drink from my water glass” which generates an intended sequence of movements to reach out and grab the glass and bring it to my lips, then as those movements are being conducted, the reference level for the movements generates some amount of actuation of particular muscles and muscle cells—an amount that I don’t plan in advance or even have to be aware of! In fact, I couldn’t plan it in advance, since that would require knowing how much water is in my glass, which changes each time I drink it. But it’s fine—that detail is left to the lower level systems. They have no idea about the project of “drink water”, but they know how to fulfill their instruction, which is “flex exactly hard enough to move the arm to here, given however heavy it is”.
Suppose my glass is empty. Then I have to engage in a slightly larger program to resolve my thirst, such as going to the kitchen to refill my glass. Maybe I also end up realizing I need to order more electrolyte powder on amazon. Those same arm muscles and low-level systems organize to create whatever motions are required, without knowing anything about the higher-level goal. These same arm muscles are typing right now. The process of learning how to touch-type is a great example of shifting a task from a process that has to involve searching behavior (still sort of a control system, but higher level) to a very low level: push the “a” key. These newly-learned lower level behaviors are then composable into higher level behaviors, such as typing this whole blog post.
So what is a “part” in the context of PCT?
It seems to me that in some sense, every control system at every level is a part.
And most of the time, these parts are working in incredible magnificent symphony. Literally everything you DO requires a ton of coordination up and down the levels, in real-time, with remarkably little error. Ha—”error” is the term used to refer to the gap being closed between the perceived state and the intended state, so of course there’s remarkably little error, because the point of the whole system is to minimize error!
And then sometimes your parts get into conflict. For instance, right now, I slightly have to pee, but I also want to keep writing. I know how to do both of these things, and I’m not conflicted about doing them ever, and… I can’t do both at once. So for now, I’m inhibiting the part of me that says “I want the bladder to feel empty & relaxed” from enacting an intention to go to the bathroom. If I didn’t do this, it would be sort of tugging at my attention and possibly even making my body tense slightly with a partial intention to walk out of the room right now. Maybe you’ve felt this before—you’re doing something at your computer, but you’re about to get up, and you’re like, on the edge of your seat, because you’re about to go, any moment now, but wait you want to send one more message first, oh and you want to close that tab out since you’re done with it, oh and reply to that next message. This is a state of conflict, where two parts are enacting incompatible aims (“do stuff at computer” & “walk away”).
These parts don’t necessarily have any longstanding tension or conflict, but in that moment, they’re at odds. The low-level parts that handle muscle actuation are doing their jobs fine—they’re getting two conflicting sets of instructions and doing some sort of average of or oscillation between those instructions, which is the best they can do.
At this point I’m feeling like this case study has gone on a bit long and I’ll have more attention to be able to write once I’ve resolved this conflict. So I’m going to temporarily let go of the intention to “be writing this moment”, without letting go of the overall intention to finish writing this post in the next hour or two. And then having done that, I allow the part of me that wants to empty the bladder to enact its intention. And ultimately in some sense going to the bathroom is also in service of the blog post, like both the writing and peeing are part of an overall intention to create this piece of writing, in service of which I’m choosing between courses of action much like I’m choosing which word to write next out of various possibilities.
The part of me that tracks bladder pressure and suggests going to the bathroom is now relieved, and so it has faded into the background. It has one job, that job is done, and so it is just waiting & watching until the job needs doing again. Hmm… this is hard to name this precisely & accurately, actually. I think “waiting” & “watching”, as verbs usually applied to a whole human, imply a kind of “inhibiting doing other things” but this part has no other things to do. But it is still receiving perceptual input (and still holding a reference level, that for now is satisfied) otherwise it couldn’t notice when it needs to do something again. It’s still alive, and “sleeping” isn’t quite apt either. Perhaps “resting”?
The “faded into the background” has me thinking about my Dream Mashups post:
Everyone is basically living in a dream mashup of their current external situation and whatever old emotional meanings are getting activated by the current situation. Like dreaming you’re at your high school but it’s also on a boat somehow.
These activations aren’t arbitrary. On the contrary, they’re entirely made of relevance. If you knew of a more relevant perception/meaning/intention to be experiencing in a given moment, you’d be experiencing that instead, by definition.
However—I am doing a lot of handwaving here. In saying what I just did, I’m reifying “you” as a single entity with singular sanity. And I’m not here to tell you you’re crazy, but you are many different kinds of sane that aren’t necessarily talking to each other.
So it might be more accurate to say that, especially in an emotionally charged situation, part of you has gotten activated which has some emotional meanings that feel particularly relevant to that part, and that part is making some sort of bid for control of your bodymind in order to respond in the way that it feels it needs to. And all of that makes total sense from that part’s perspective, even though it might not make sense to other parts.
And it might be that that part is a part that stored a memory from when you were bullied in grade school, which is now getting activated when a friend playfully teases you, causing a big anger response. This is kind of similar to the bladder monitor part getting activated when the bladder is too full. One difference of course is that the bladder thing happens many times a day. Another is that the bladder thing tends to resolve itself just fine each time. A third is that the bladder thing often barely makes its way into awareness—it takes care of things on autopilot.
By contrast, maybe this bullying-teasing part hasn’t been activated in years or decades. And maybe each time it has, the situation didn’t really feel resolved at all. And maybe when it arises in this situation, it immediately gets into conflict with some other part that is like “whoa whoa whoa it’s not okay to get angry“.
This conflict is unlike a simple temporal conflict of which order to do things in (eg “do I pee first or keep writing?”) conflict because with this conflict, one part is basically rejecting the other part’s entire strategy altogether. “I will never allow you do to what you’re trying to do, because that would cause problems for my careabouts.”
And in PCT terms, what happens at that point is that you can no longer satisfy the part, so it doesn’t get the chance to relieve itself on its terms. Maybe you manage to stop having errors by ceasing to hang out with that friend… and in some sense this allows it to rest like an empty bladder, but on some other level there might still be a kind of background error that’s like “I can’t stand up for myself” which is in conflict with the part whose job is to keep you from getting angry…
…and my sense is that when you have this sort of conflict dynamic between parts over time, they start to form clusters and allegiances and familiar patterns, at which point they start looking a lot more like IFS parts. And you can kind of see the exile, firefighter, and manager structure in what I described above, even though I didn’t plan it that way and I’m not experienced enough with IFS that it’s likely I would have unconsciously chosen and framed a case study to match the model.
All of this occurs, it seems, because when there’s some initial conflict, a solution is found that involves rejecting some part of the response. I still don’t have perfect language for what’s going on here (I boggle at some of it in depth in Mindset choice 2: expanding awareness) but this thing I’m calling “rejecting” (probably the same as “exiling” from IFS) is somehow different from inhibiting the response while welcoming it into awareness, allowing it to be present as one relevant interpretation of what’s happening, and then doing whatever makes sense to the whole while holding all of the parts.
In my view, what makes partswork partswork (and not just arguing with yourself) is that there’s an attitude & skill of coherence empathy, ie understanding that from a given part’s perspective, what it’s doing makes sense. It’s behavior is all totally appropriate given how it’s understanding the world and what it’s trying to care for. As obviously absurd & unnecessary as it may seem from the outside, from the inside it seems just as obviously right & necessary. It must be so, otherwise it would be doing some different thing (that might also seem absurd from the outside).
Once you see this, it’s clear how often trying to get yourself to do something or not do something involves denying the sense that what you’re already doing makes. One part of us gets frustrated at another part of us for not letting go of their aim when it conflicts with the first part’s aims. And from the vantage point of a part that can’t see what the other parts are caring for, the conflict isn’t solvable.
PCT says that in order to solve conflicts, the solution is to direct attention to a level or two above the level where the conflict is showing up, to a level where something more abstract is wanted that isn’t necessarily in conflict. For instance, a person who is late driving somewhere has two high-level goals (“friends not mad at me”, “don’t get a speeding ticket”) which each create a medium-level goal (“don’t be late”, “don’t speed”) which produces two conflicting speeds (“140km/h”, “100km/h”). Unless they deal with the conflict, at the low level they’ll end up either compromising, maybe at 120km/h, or they’ll oscillate. Given that they didn’t leave themselves enough time, they can’t achieve both of “don’t be late” and “don’t speed”. But one level further, it’s possible to achieve both “friends not mad at me” and “don’t get a speeding ticket”. They could call the friends to give them a heads-up. They could buy everyone dinner as an apology. Or they could outrun any cops, or talk their way out of a speeding ticket. Maybe. Some options are better than others! But you can’t even choose while each part is trying to get its own way while disregarding the other parts.
IFS talks about this in terms of what they call “Self”. “Self” is a term that (like “part”) emerged from the common language of patients. Schwartz would ask them “which voice is speaking now?” and initially this would be a series of parts, but once the person had stepped out of identifying with each of their parts, they would just say “this is just me”, or “myself” or “my core self”. IFS says that the way to handle conflicts is to unblend from the parts until you can inhabit Self, who can then mediate between parts. In some sense, this is almost certainly the same process as PCT describes, even if the language & metaphor feel different.
I’ve had yet another approach which might yet also turn out to be the exact same process. I call it Internal Trust-Dancing, and as the name suggests it’s a partswork application of my Non-Naive Trust-Dance framework. Instead of a lens of unblending from parts, it’s oriented more towards encouraging each part to somehow recognize its part-ness. It might be that these are the same thing, but they feel different when I try them.
Here “part” means maybe yet a slightly different thing from PCT or IFS. It’s sort of tautological: a part is that which is not a whole. Of course, wholes are themselves parts, of larger wholes, but that’s precisely the point. There are some particular uniquenesses to dynamics of parts within a single animal, vs members or a family or company, but much is the same.
In some sense, here, every part can be thought of as sort of like a perspective on reality. Perspectives are necessarily partial! You can’t look at reality from everywhere at once. And yet… while your eyes have different perspectives, it’s also possible to see through both of them at once and see a deeper whole that is the 3D world. But when you don’t know how to reconcile both views, it’s very easy to just adopt one and discount the other, which leads to the kinds of messes we described above.
(This raises some questions about whether there’s a difference between a perspective on what is, and a perspective on what would be good to do… and it seems to me that they’re not as easy to separate as one might think, which perhaps makes a bit more sense after my introduction to Perceptual Control Theory.)
I have three case studies on Internal Trust Dancing if you want to see more of how I think about partswork:
Also! If you want to dive deeper into some of this stuff directly, I run online workshops where I help guide people through goal-setting, planning, system design, and resolving motivational conflicts in their motivational systems. I’ve even led some people through ITD during the workshop! And some of our coaches know IFS. There are more workshops coming up on February 18th & 19th if you’re interested.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.
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