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Parts-working approaches

Parts-working is a term that encompasses various therapeutic practices that aim to help clients access, understand, and integrate the different parts of their minds and psyches. In this article, we will review the origins and development of the various parts-working models in psychology.

The plural self

The concept of the plural self, which is central to parts-working, has a long history in psychology, dating back to the work of Freud and Jung, who proposed different models of the self, such as the ego, superego, id, and archetypes.

Freud (1923/1961) divided the self into three psychic structures: the ego, which is the conscious and rational part that mediates between reality and desire; the superego, which is the internalized moral authority that judges and punishes the ego; and the id, which is the unconscious and instinctual part that seeks pleasure and avoids pain. Freud argued that these parts often conflict with each other, resulting in anxiety and neurosis.

Jung (1953/1971), on the other hand, distinguished between the personal unconscious, which contains repressed or forgotten memories and emotions, and the collective unconscious, which contains universal symbols and patterns of human experience, or archetypes. Jung argued that these archetypes manifest themselves in dreams, myths, art, and religion, and that they influence the development of the self. He also introduced the concept of individuation, which is the process of integrating the conscious and unconscious aspects of the self into a harmonious whole.

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These models of the self have influenced many subsequent theories and practices in psychology that acknowledge the plurality of the self. For example, cognitive psychology has shown that people have multiple cognitive systems or modules that operate independently and sometimes inconsistently (Stanovich & West, 2000). Social psychology has shown that people have multiple social identities that depend on the context and situation (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Personality psychology has shown that people have multiple traits or dimensions that vary across time and circumstances (Mischel & Shoda, 1995). And clinical psychology has shown that people have multiple voices or narratives that reflect their diverse experiences and perspectives (Hermans & Kempen, 1993).

The plural self is not only a theoretical concept, but also a practical one. It has implications for how people understand themselves and others, how they cope with challenges and opportunities, how they relate to their environment and culture, and how they seek help and healing. By recognizing the plural self, people can appreciate their own complexity and diversity, as well as those of others. They can also explore their different parts or selves in a respectful and compassionate way, and integrate them into a more coherent and authentic whole.

Parts-working models

Parts-working is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients explore and integrate the different aspects of their personality, or “parts”, that may be in conflict or harmony with each other (Rowan & Cooper, 1999). The plural self is the idea that the person is not a unified, singular entity, but rather a multiplicity of subpersonalities, existential possibilities, or dialogical relations with others (Rowan & Cooper, 1999). This idea challenges the modernist assumption of a stable and coherent selfhood, and embraces the postmodernist perspective of fluidity and diversity.

Parts-working as a distinct therapeutic approach emerged in the late 20th century, influenced by several schools of thought, such as Gestalt Therapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS), Voice Dialogue, and Jungian Archetypal work (Wright, 2022). These schools share the assumption that each person has multiple subpersonalities or parts that have unique needs, wants, beliefs, and roles in the person’s life.

Gestalt therapy is a humanistic approach that focuses on the present moment and the person’s experience of their whole self. It uses techniques such as dialogue, role-playing, and experiments to help the person become aware of and integrate their different parts, such as the child, the parent, and the adult (Perls et al., 1951).

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a model that views the self as composed of three types of parts: managers, firefighters, and exiles. Managers are parts that try to protect the person from pain by controlling their behavior and emotions. Firefighters are parts that act impulsively to distract or soothe the person from their distress. Exiles are parts that carry the burden of trauma, shame, or fear and are often suppressed or rejected by other parts. IFS helps the person access their true Self, which is the core of compassion, curiosity, and clarity, and heal their wounded parts through understanding, acceptance, and connection (Schwartz, 1995).

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Voice Dialogue is a method that helps the person explore and communicate with their different parts or selves, such as the critic, the pleaser, the rebel, or the perfectionist. It aims to create a balance between these parts and develop an aware ego that can choose which part to express in different situations. Voice Dialogue also considers how these parts are influenced by external factors such as culture, family, or society (Stone & Stone, 1989).

Jungian Archetypal work is based on the theory of Carl Jung, who proposed that the human psyche consists of various archetypes or universal patterns of behaviour and meaning. These archetypes can manifest as different parts of the self, such as the hero, the shadow, the anima/animus, or the wise old man/woman. Jungian Archetypal work helps the person discover and integrate these parts through methods such as dream analysis, active imagination, or art therapy (Jung & Hull, 1968).

These schools of thought have contributed to the development of parts work therapy by providing different frameworks and techniques to understand and work with the multiplicity of the self. Parts work therapy can help people resolve inner conflicts, heal from trauma, increase self-awareness, and enhance personal growth.

How parts work

Parts-working assumes that each person has multiple parts or sub-personalities that have different needs, wants, beliefs, and behaviours. These parts may be influenced by various factors such as trauma, family, culture, or spirituality. Some parts may be conscious and helpful, meaning that they are aware of their role and function in the person’s life, and they contribute to their well-being and growth. For example, a part that is compassionate, curious, or motivated may be considered conscious and helpful. Other parts may be unconscious and harmful, meaning that they are hidden or suppressed from the person’s awareness, and they cause distress or dysfunction in their life. For example, a part that is fearful, angry, or ashamed may be considered unconscious and harmful.

Parts-working helps clients identify, communicate with, and harmonize their parts, leading to more choice, creativity, wholeness, and aliveness. This means that through various techniques such as dialogue, imagery, or embodiment, clients can access and explore their different parts, understand their origins and motivations, and develop a compassionate relationship with them. By doing so, clients can reduce internal conflicts, increase self-awareness and self-acceptance, and integrate their parts into a coherent sense of self. This leads to more choice, as clients can act from a place of freedom rather than compulsion; more creativity, as clients can tap into their diverse resources and potentials; more wholeness, as clients can embrace their complexity and diversity; and more aliveness, as clients can experience more joy and vitality.

As previously stated, parts-working has its roots in many schools of thought, such as Gestalt Therapy (Perls et al., 1951), Internal Family Systems (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019), Voice Dialogue (Stone & Stone, 1989), and Jungian Archetypal work (Jung & Hull, 1968). Each of these approaches has its own methodology and terminology for working with parts, but they share some common principles, such as:

  • The human psyche is not a monolithic entity, but a dynamic system of interacting parts.
  • Each part has a positive intention or function for the person’s survival or adaptation.
  • Each part can be accessed through various modes of expression such as voice, gesture, emotion, or sensation.
  • Each part can be engaged in a respectful and empathic dialogue to elicit its perspective and needs.
  • Each part can be transformed or integrated through the development of a compassionate self or centre that can coordinate and balance the parts.

Some examples of how these approaches work with parts are:

Gestalt Therapy uses the technique of the empty chair to help clients enact a dialogue between two conflicting parts or between a part and an external figure (such as a parent or a partner). The goal is to increase awareness of the parts’ feelings and needs and to facilitate resolution or integration (Perls et al., 1951).

Gestalt therapy is based on the idea that the self is a dynamic process of relating to the environment, rather than a fixed entity. Gestalt therapists use various techniques to help clients become aware of their different parts or subpersonalities, such as the top dog, the underdog, the critic, the child, etc. These parts often represent internalized messages from parents, society, or culture that conflict with each other or with the authentic self. Gestalt therapy helps clients integrate their parts into a coherent whole by facilitating dialogue, expression, and experimentation (Perls et al., 1951).

Internal Family Systems uses the metaphor of a family system to describe the different parts within a person. It distinguishes between three types of parts: managers (who try to control or protect the person from pain), firefighters (who try to distract or soothe the person from pain), and exiles (who carry the pain or trauma). It also identifies a core self that has qualities such as calmness, clarity, compassion, and confidence. The goal is to help clients unburden their exiled parts from their pain and restore trust and harmony among all parts (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019).

Voice Dialogue uses the term selves to refer to the different parts within a person. It recognizes that each self has a polar opposite (such as the pusher and the relaxer) and that these polarities create tension or imbalance in the person’s life. It also acknowledges that each self has a vulnerability or fear that drives its behaviour. The goal is to help clients become aware of their different selves, appreciate their gifts and limitations, and develop an aware ego that can choose which self to express in different situations (Stone & Stone, 1989).

Applications of parts-working

Parts-working is a therapeutic approach that can be applied to various issues, such as trauma, anxiety, depression, relationship problems, self-esteem, and personal growth. By working with their parts, clients can gain insight into their patterns of behaviour and emotion, heal their wounds and conflicts, express their needs and desires, and access their resources and potentials. Parts-working can also help clients develop a more compassionate and holistic view of themselves and others.

Parts-working assumes that each person has multiple parts or subpersonalities that have different needs, wants, beliefs, and roles in their lives. These parts may be conscious or unconscious, helpful or harmful, dominant or suppressed. Some parts may be in harmony with each other, while others may be in conflict or opposition. Parts-working aims to help clients identify, understand, and communicate with their parts, and to foster a healthy integration of them.

There are several different approaches to parts-working, each of these approaches has its own methodology and terminology, but they share some common principles and goals. Some of the benefits of parts-working are:

  • It helps clients access their inner wisdom and creativity by exploring different aspects of themselves.
  • It helps clients heal from trauma and attachment wounds by addressing the parts that hold pain, fear, shame, or anger.
  • It helps clients resolve inner conflicts and dilemmas by facilitating dialogue and negotiation between opposing parts.
  • It helps clients express their authentic selves by honouring the parts that have been neglected, rejected, or suppressed.
  • It helps clients enhance their relationships by increasing empathy and understanding for themselves and others.

Parts-working can be illustrated by some examples from different approaches:

In IFS, clients are guided to identify their core Self, which is the essence of who they are, and their parts, which are categorized into exiles (wounded parts that carry pain and trauma), managers (protective parts that try to control situations and avoid pain), and firefighters (reactive parts that try to extinguish pain through impulsive or addictive behaviours). Clients are encouraged to develop a trusting relationship with their Self, which can then compassionately listen to and heal their parts (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019).

In Gestalt therapy, clients are invited to enact different parts of themselves through role-playing or dialogue with empty chairs. This allows them to experience different perspectives and emotions, and to integrate them into a coherent whole. Clients are also helped to become aware of how they contact or avoid contact with themselves and others, and how they can improve their communication skills (Perls et al., 1951).

In Voice Dialogue, clients are introduced to their primary selves (parts that are dominant or familiar in their personality) and their disowned selves (parts that are opposite or unfamiliar to their primary selves). Clients are then facilitated to speak from different selves in turn, and to discover how they affect their lives. Clients are also taught to access an Aware ego Process, which is a state of consciousness that can balance and harmonize the different selves (Stone & Stone, 1989).

In Jungian archetypal work, clients are exposed to the concept of archetypes (universal patterns or symbols that represent different aspects of human experience). Clients are then helped to identify which archetypes are active or dormant in their psyche, and how they can activate or integrate them. Clients are also encouraged to explore their personal unconscious (the repository of their individual memories and experiences) and the collective unconscious (the source of shared cultural and spiritual wisdom) through dreams, myths, art, or rituals (Jung et al., 1964).

These examples show how parts-working can help clients expand their self-awareness, heal their inner wounds, resolve their inner conflicts, express their true selves, and access their inner resources. Parts-working can be a powerful tool for personal growth and transformation.


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