One day when I came to my physical therapy appointment, I overheard a physical therapist telling her patient to do an exercise one way instead of another way “so it’ll hit the right muscles instead of the wrong ones.” I noticed that all she meant by “the right muscles” was “the muscles you need to strengthen,” and all she meant by “the wrong muscles” was “the muscles that have been compensating for the weak ones.” It wasn’t a judgment about the muscles themselves being good or bad. That’s so obvious when it comes to muscles, but so hard to grasp when it comes to parts of our personality.
In parts work, we often want to isolate one part of ourselves at a time so we can understand it more deeply than we usually do. Everyday life is sort of like asking a classroom of kids what they did over summer break: the extroverted kids all talk at once, the introverted kids don’t even try, and all you hear are little snippets of “ice cream” and “summer camp.” But if you ask each child individually about their summer, you can learn their whole story. Similarly, if you ask a person how they feel about a big decision, their head will spin with snippets of their louder parts’ opinions: “it’ll be great!” “but I’m scared!” But if you can isolate each part and listen to it fully, you can find out the reasons behind the different stances, and discover latent opinions too.
That means it’s important in parts work to ask parts to wait their turn. And certain “thinking” parts are so used to doing the talking that we have to ask them to wait a lot. It can start to feel like we don’t value those parts, like they’re just in the way. So I was looking for a way to communicate to my own loud parts that I need them to step back, without sounding unappreciative. Comparing parts to muscles really helped me internalize the fact that just because a part isn’t needed right now doesn’t mean anything negative about it.
Difference does not have to invite competition
In Western society, we have a tendency to jump seamlessly from noticing that two things are different to deciding which one is better. We can’t just have apples and oranges; we want a ranking of the ten healthiest or most delicious fruits. But if I think about the muscular system from a medical perspective, I find I can get around that mindset. Some muscles are large and some are small. Some are voluntarily controlled and others are involuntary. Some move huge weights and others stabilize. But I have done too much physical therapy to think any of them are unnecessary! I once tried to practice handstands while working consistently on my deltoids—those strong, visible shoulder muscles—without exercising my little rotator cuff muscles, which are so small that you can train them with 1 pound weights. That mistake put me out of the handstand business for years! All muscles bring value to the table, and that gives me a framework for understanding how the same can be true of parts.
Pain signals need, not badness
When a muscle is causing me pain, I never think “what a bad muscle. I wish I didn’t have it. Maybe a doctor will cut it out of me!” But how many times have we thought similar things about our inner critics, or our fearful parts, or our parts with unhealthy habits?
Instead, when a muscle is hurting me, I understand that it has a knot, or a strain—some kind of injury that I can help it recover from. Similarly, parts that cause me pain have burdens, and I can help them recover from those, too.
Everything in its place
When one muscle is too weak to do its job, another muscle compensates for it. This causes problems—the compensating muscle gets too tight, or it pulls your bones out of alignment. The overactive muscle isn’t bad, it’s just out of its element.
Similarly, when the Self is unavailable, parts step in and take on more responsibility than they deserve or can handle. Setting that right doesn’t mean looking down on those parts or putting them in time-out—it means restoring balance and healthy boundaries to the interdependent system.
Release constraints before asking for big change
I’ve been through enough physical therapy now to know that before we work on strength, I must achieve a certain amount of mobility. Otherwise, two opposing muscles would both be tight and I would put even more tension on my aching tendons.
By the same token, it’s important to release constraints on our parts rather than using one to overpower another with brute force. By showing parts that you have an adult Self that can handle a lot more than they realized, you make them feel safer relaxing. Unburdening releases even more constraints. This gives them the flexibility to show up differently in your life.
Unblending as non-activation, not dismissal
Some people use the word “relax” to ask parts to unblend so that Self-energy can become available. I used to avoid asking my parts to “relax,” though, because it reminded me of asking someone to “calm down,” a phrase I’ve often seen used to dismiss or suppress emotions. But with the muscle analogy in mind, I started to ask parts to “relax like a muscle.” There is no judgment involved in cuing a particular muscle not to activate during an exercise; a relaxed muscle doesn’t go away or stop being an important part of the muscular system. It simply gives other muscles a turn, and rests up so it can work again later.
A systems view
The name of Internal Family Systems stresses how important it is that our parts live within an interdependent system, just as family members do. I found it difficult to truly grasp the implications of that until I realized that the muscular system has already taught me how interdependent systems work. I hope this analogy will be as helpful to you as it was to me.