Internal Family Systems Parts Theory looks at different parts of ourselves that have been nurtured by our attachment bonds and life experiences. Based upon what is happening with us at any given moment, a specific part might show up to respond to help us make sense of, and cope. I don’t know a lot about this theory, aside from watching videos of Virginia Satir and reading her book a friend had given me while in graduate school. My therapist recently pointed out these different parts of myself in session. He seemed adamant that my parts need to meet one another and establish working relationships. If they can become aware of each other, they can perhaps allow one another to step in and fill roles that seem more appropriate. So far we have identified three parts, with hopes of exploring more in future sessions.
Core Self Part: This is my authentic self who is well-differentiated. She is able to be non-reactive, emotionally regulated, and articulate wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings clearly and succinctly. She is direct and relatively at peace in the world. She maneuvers through emotions consistently and is aware of her separateness from others, thus able to enjoy relationships in ways that don’t become overly enmeshed.
Reclaimed Part: Reclaimed Part is a badass. She has been showing up a lot lately and I’m thoroughly enjoying her company. She isn’t afraid to take risks, she is highly confident with a steady hand in contentment. She finds pleasure in daily activities and interactions. She loves being in nature and the authentic presence of others. She dances and sings along with The Japanese House or The Innocence Mission. She likes to chat with strangers at grocery stores or while hiking in the woods. She feels fulfilled by human interactions or simply just being. She walks around with bubbles in her veins and smiling eyes. People are energized by her joy of life in a way that feels contagious.
Chaotic Part: This is a panicked little girl who lives in terror, fear, and genuine mistrust. She is timid, hesitant, hypersensitive, and reactionary. Her ability to self-regulate is underdeveloped. Her prefrontal cortex seems often inaccessible. Chaotic Part has a tendency to highjack Core Self, making it nearly impossible for Reclaimed Part to show up. There is blurriness between cognitive understanding and sensory attunement. She can often see where Core Self wants to step in, yet lacks the ability to trust. Her intent is to protect. She tends to show up as default, often when her presence is unwanted. People may find Chaotic Part to be unattractive.
My therapist asks, “Can you introduce Reclaimed Part to Chaotic Part? Can you retire Chaotic Part? Can you thank Chaotic Part for all it has done to protect you, but tell her you no longer need the protection? Can Reclaimed Part come in and take over when the job feels more appropriate?” These are all leading questions, requiring a yes or no response. I don’t know how to answer them. “I want to,” I think to myself, “but I struggle to know how.” I feel stuck. I wish he would ask me, “How might you introduce Reclaimed Part and Chaotic Part? What would they say if they met? How long has Chaotic Part known Core Self? How old is this Part? How did Chaotic Part obtain the role of stepping in to protect? What would it look like if Chaotic Part were to retire? What would it be like for Chaotic Part to step back and allow Reclaimed Part to step in during moments of activation? If they moved in together, how might they distribute labor?”
I imagine I’m at a house party. It is some type of celebration where mutual friends happen to come together. I go out to the parking area to meet Reclaimed Part and suddenly realize Chaotic Part and Reclaimed Part have never met one another. I make a beeline with Reclaimed Part, practically dragging her inside to hurry this long-awaited introduction. “I’ll meet you two over there after I grab some water,” she tells me. I am drinking kombucha from a snifter with a lime wedge. Chaotic Part has a glass of wine and Reclaimed Part heads in our direction with bottled water. I’m so excited for them to finally meet! “After all these years I still cannot believe you two haven’t met. Chaotic Part, this is Reclaimed Part,” as I grab her shoulder and squeeze with genuineness. This is how I interact with the people closest to me. I touch them when I can’t contain a moment of excitement. Perhaps it’s the wine or the end of a demanding week, but Chaotic Part seems more open tonight than usual. She seems optimistic about establishing a new relationship with someone so different from herself. I can see the obsessive wheels starting to turn, but her body language appears to be open. Reclaimed Part is a natural flirt with genuine curiosity. Any opportunity to connect with another person is welcomed. They immediately find an understanding, spending the next hour moving in and out of laughter and meaningful conversation. I am just beaming with elation that the people I love the most and who know me most intimately finally get to meet one another; that we have all come together in a shared experience of interaction and awareness. I am feeling hopeful about this new relationship.
While feeling satisfied by the moment, there is one thing I wanted to address with Reclaimed Part before leaving the party. I notice her making her way toward a table covered in tapas. I approach, grabbing something to snack on. “Hey, can we have a quick chat? I’ve been meaning to talk with you about what happened last Sunday,” shoving a cracker smeared with tart cherry-covered cheese into my mouth. “Sure. What happened on Sunday?” she asks with genuine concern. I begin a lengthy monologue.
I was sitting outside of that café on Waterloo reading the last few pages of Chanel Miller’s memoir (which, is amazing by the way! I went from holding my breath through more than half the book to goosebumps, to tears, and back to goosebumps. I want you and everyone I know to read it). While intently engaged with my head in her book, I was interrupted by the changing pace of a blue shadow only about two steps away from my right side. A man interrupted my reading with his hovering over me, “You don’t see that anymore.” I looked up slowly, confused and also hoping to God this voice was not directed at me. How could it be? I was so deeply engaged in a private activity with body language clearly stating unapproachable. “No one reads books anymore. Everyone has their head down scrolling their phones and tablets.” He must have been blind to the woman a stone’s throw in front of his direction who was sitting with food in her right hand while reading a publication held in her left. Please go and harass her, I thought to myself. But she looked about 25 years my senior. He wasn’t interested in chatting to commiserate about reading books. He was targeting me. A young woman sitting alone.
I immediately started looking for you. I panicked, noting the absence of patrons around me. No one was there to witness this man hovering over me, intruding on my personal space. “What is that book about?” he asked as he took a few steps back, seating himself at my small table, only a few feet in front of me. I wanted to say, “It’s about a woman being sexually assaulted and then victim-blamed. It is about her experiences being harassed by men on the street who solicit her unwanting attention and time; how she is exploited and objectified by men who pass her by on the streets of Rhode Island.” I wanted to hold up the book and say, “It’s called FUCK OFF.” But the only thing I could extract from my mouth was “It’s about sexual abuse.”
I kept looking for you, but you were nowhere to be seen. My interaction with him ended up being highjacked by Chaotic Part, who offered less support than the moment called for. I said a few words and became paralyzed with shock at the audacity while being hyperaware of the violation to my personal space. Instead of being direct and telling him to leave me alone, I set the book on top of my thigh with firmness. My face felt shocked and confused as I thought Are you still talking? Is this really happening? No words could leave my tongue. They seemed collapsed by my throat waiting for a rescue squad to come and dig them out. He seemed a bit uncomfortable that I just broached the topic of sexual abuse. Like the time I was in college and presented statistics on sexual abuse against women in my Persuasion Class. One of my classmates had a blank look on his face at the end of my presentation, to which I later learned he had been drugging and sexually assaulting women all over the community, including a few of my college friends. The intrusive stranger started fumbling over his words trying to act like he had any clue how to address the issue, saying things like, “oh, that seems depressing” and “I would get really mad if I was reading that. Does-does it make you wanna just throw things?” I’m hoping my face says “I wanna throw you the fuck off my chair.” But there are absolutely no words coming out. Chaotic Part was dumbfounded that someone even has the audacity to come and sit in my personal space at my tiny café table. Like, is this really happening? During a pandemic and in broad daylight on a Sunday morning?! I kept wondering where all the patrons were. That place is usually busy on a Sunday morning. Eventually, he must have gotten that my silence was an invitation for him to leave. “Oh, I’ll stop bothering you” he fumbles to get up, and I nod with an affirmative confident Yes. Wow. Yes. Finally! You got it. He gets up and leaves saying things I don’t hear because I’m just overwhelmed with a sense of relief. I go back and try to re-orient myself to the emotional space I was at with this book. I felt unnerved, only to be interrupted again in about 7 minutes when he comes out of the coffee shop, stepping back as though he were taking a photo of the front of the entire building. He practically shouts, “I just have to say you look absolutely ravishing” waving his empty hand in the air charismatically. Making comments about how I look like a librarian sitting there and blah blah blah. I wanted so badly to I-Dream-of-Jeannie-myself out of this entire frame. I fantasized he turned around to cross the street, imagining a Meet Joe Black moment where a fast pace vehicle removes his words by hitting him while he rambles his confidence off into the sound of a honking horn, leaving only the dead silence, with me to finishing these last few pages of my book in uninterruptable Sunday morning sunshine. But instead, when he says, “I just couldn’t leave here and not say anything” Chaotic Part steps in to speak on my behalf. She raises her head numbly, “thanks” and then lowers it back into the book. Like a robot. Like a good girl who doesn’t make the wrong move of insulting the ego of a man who needs to spew his unwanted presence onto my small personal space in this world.
All that to say it is imperative you and Chaotic Part meet and really get to know one another. Exchange numbers. Start a book club. Meet for Sunday brunch. Have babies together and go on family vacations. Put each other on speed-dial. I need for us all to spend more time together so we can allow opportunity to play into each other’s strengths. I need for us to work together. In order for us to thrive, we must become more accessible to one another.