I had a fight with my horse today. Well, it was more like I finally lost my cool and got angry with him because he was being so difficult about letting me dress the abscess on his sore foot. I was not physically harsh with him, careful not to scare him any more than my anger would surprise and scare him already, but I let him have it verbally.
Jo is a mustang who was gathered from the wild and ended up in a kill pen. He has been through a lot. I had been working hard to build his trust, and it had been going well. Until today. I lost my cool. I told him he was being a jerk and that I was really angry. I let him see me be angry. I stared right at his eyes and let him see how angry I was.
Right away I heard a Part of myself saying, "Get rid of him. We don't want him anymore. Make sure he gets put on the adoption site immediately. Who needs somebody with an attitude like that? The trust is broken. He'll never trust you now. The relationship is broken."
I notice a second Part come up as I feel the hurt in my heart and the tears coming up in my throat. The fear that I've broken it. Broken the relationship. That he cannot forgive me. That we are done. That he is done caring about me.
We all have Parts
Most of us are at least somewhat aware that we have parts. We may say things like, "Part of me wants to go to Sunday dinner with the family, but part of me doesn't want to deal with my sister." It turns out that we do, indeed have quite a few inner parts that do different things for us as they try to keep us on track and moving forward in life. They make up a kind of internal family system. Richard Schwartz created a model of therapy around this concept called Internal Family Systems (IFS) that is enables us to heal those parts that carry our wounds and the parts that cause suffering.
What kind of Parts do we have?
While we have a number of parts, they basically fall into two categories.
Exiles - the parts of us that carry our emotional wounds
Protectors - the parts that do their best to protect the Exiles from pain
The Part that showed up for me first with Jo was a Protector Part. I call this particular part, The Chopper. The Chopper shows up when the best defense is a good offense. It tells me we are done caring about Jo. It wants to shield me from the hurt and fear of Jo rejecting me, by saying we don't want him, first. The Chopper protects a young Exile part of me that had a lot of losses and fears rejection. This Part fears the relationship cannot be repaired - that Jo will never love me fully because I have gotten angry.
Getting to know your Parts
Interestingly, The Chopper is my first Part that I noticed and got to know. I had just started learning about IFS and Parts when I had the smallest of scuffles with my significant other. He didn't want the coffee I had made for him that morning, and I quickly heard in my head, "It's time for him to go," and "Probably best not to talk to him again." As I was making my to-do list for the day, this Part repeatedly suggested that I add, "Break up with Rick," to the list.
Another thought then popped up to say, "Wow, that's a little extreme over a cup of coffee, don't you think?" Noticing this back and forth of inner dialog, I thought, "Aaaahhhh, this is a Part!" So I went out to the pasture, plopped down on the ground with a journal and a pen, and started to listen in more intently on what this Part had to say. The suggestions were similar to the ones for my horse. The Chopper gave me a bunch of ways and reasons we should get rid of Rick. And right away that scared (Exile) Part popped in and said I wasn't loveable anyway because I got mad about stupid stuff like coffee.
I noticed that as each of the Parts was "talking" I felt very different emotions and feelings in my body. I wrote those down in the journal too. It was really interesting, and pretty quickly I began to be able to tell them apart. If you'd like to start noticing and getting to know some of your parts, I have created a Parts Tracker to help you.
Why does knowing our Parts help us?
Weirdly, becoming aware of all these parts was comforting. Usually in a moment of this kind of emotional turmoil, I would have just felt overwhelmed by all the conflicting emotions. Now it all made sense. Part of me felt hurt (a little bit rejected) and another Part was stepping in to try to protect me.
Learning about my parts through Internal Family Systems (IFS) has been a game changer for me personally as well professionally. Before learning about IFS and parts work, I might have started a fight with Rick when he got home in an effort to sort out my feelings. With this new insight however, I was able to see that my inner turmoil had nothing to do with Rick and was mine to sort out. I was able to see that The Chopper is often the first part to show up when I feel afraid, which allows me to take a pause and sort out my feelings before reacting too quickly. So Rick is still here years later, and today, instead of getting rid of Jo, I will begin again.
In a nutshell, we all carry wounds from the past that are carried by different parts of us, Exiles. And subsequently, we develop another group of parts that try to protect these parts and keep us from feeling those old hurts, Protectors. Sometimes these Protector Parts have great ideas about how to accomplish this. Often, not so much. (Like putting a breakup over unwanted coffee on the To-Do list or breaking up with your horse because he won't let you take care of him.) LOL
Some of the work I still need to do to heal my exile parts, I can do by myself. For the harder stuff, I will work with another IFS therapist, because sometimes that's just plain easier. Either way, Internal Family Systems therapy has been incredible for me, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to heal the past so they can live more fully in the present.