If you’ve ever pondered, “Why, is this happening to me?” you may notice how different voices in your head start to speak up. One voice says, “It’s your fault.” Another blames your spouse, friend, or boss. Another tries to avoid the debate by suggesting ways to escape—”Watch Netflix. Get a drink. Stay late at work!” The voices don’t mean you’re crazy, it means, like everyone else, you’re made up of “parts” that each have needs, fears, and something they want you to know. Psychologist Jay Earley says, “The human mind isn’t a unitary thing that sometimes has irrational feelings. It is a complex system of interacting parts, each with a mind of its own. It’s like an internal family—with wounded children, impulsive teenagers, rigid adults, hypercritical parents, caring friends, nurturing relatives, and so on… The human psyche is just naturally a family of subpersonalities.” This is why Richard Schwartz developed the “Internal Family Systems” approach to therapy, to help clients identify and understand their feelings. And it’s one of the approaches I use to help my clients when they are struggling to know their feelings. (Self-Therapy, A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS).
Take *Clair, for example, a middle-aged woman who doesn’t know why her heart races every time she’s late for an appointment. She ponders, “Why, is this happening?” and part of her blames her husband because it infuriates her that he’s never on time. Another part thinks it’s because she worked in a demanding career for most of her life and was expected to be on time. Still, another part wants her to avoid making plans altogether, the very thought of booking a hair appointment is anxiety provoking.
When I ask Clair if she’d be willing to explore the feelings and sensations in her body, she tenses. “I’d rather not,” she says, “I’d prefer if they’d just go away.” I point out the fact that this is yet another “part” showing up and explain that ignoring her feelings or logicking them away has not worked yet, so maybe she’d be open to trying a new approach. She’s willing.
Using Internal Family Systems, I ask Clair to notice where she feels the anxiety in her body. She points to the center of her chest. I guide her, asking questions, as she searches inside. She’s curious now. After some moments Clair describes the feeling in her chest as hot and muggy, like thick fog. The more Clair tunes into the sensation, the more she recognizes it as something familiar.
Eventually, a memory emerges. Clair is able to recall being 10 years old walking home from school on a muggy Georgia afternoon. She stayed late after school to play on the monkey bars and now none of her friends are walking with her. Nearing her home, she hears some older boys approach from behind. They’re laughing loudly, calling her names. One of them with acne-covered cheeks jumps close in front of her, pushing her backward as he grabs her book bag. They jeer and taunt her as she lies frozen on the ground. Through tear-filled eyes, Clair looks at me and whispers, “After that… I was never late from school again.”
Clair had forgotten this memory, but her body did not. Renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk says, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions.” (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.)
Unprocessed trauma memories stay active in the body. “Parts” of our psyche evolve to protect us and help us cope. In Clair’s case, she had no way of understanding as a small child that this event was not her fault. She felt shame and that made her feel vulnerable. As a result, a part of her became like a vigilant parent, reminding her to “Always be on time so she would not get hurt.”
Like a bookmark, trauma holds space in the story of one’s life, reminding the person to come back to the pages whenever they feel similarly threatened. Each of us has a resource library from which our past becomes our reference guide. When the mind and body want to understand a feeling, they search these bookmarked pages for answers. This is, of course, how we’ve survived as a species, remembering the things that harmed us so we don’t get hurt again.
Eventually, through a process, Richard Schwartz calls “Unburdening the parts,” I was able to help Clair remove the bookmarks that kept her system returning to these well-worn pages. She still had the events in her library, but Clair was able to create new associations with her experiences and change the default programming. Eventually, Clair was able to schedule appointments again and feel calm even when she was running late.
Dr. Bruce Perry, Ph.D. writes in What Happened to You?, “It takes courage to confront our actions, peel back the layers of trauma in our lives, and expose the raw truth of our past. But this is where healing begins.” As humans, parts protect us, but nature has designed us to heal and flourish. Everyone is capable of reorganizing their internal selves to create a life of vitality and meaning.