The first step to doing parts work such as Internal Family Systems is to connect with a part of yourself. For those of you who are familiar with the “6 F’s” process for getting to know a part, this post corresponds to the first 3 F’s, but I break things down a little differently based on the kinds of questions I’ve seen people run into.
Many people like to do parts work sitting with their eyes closed. Closing your eyes helps you focus on your internal experience. But it’s also possible to do this other ways. I often connect with my parts while taking a walk. I find that looking at the sky and the trees brings out my Self, and then it’s easier for me to connect with my parts as a result.
Find evidence of a part
A common misconception about parts is that, just like in the movie Inside Out, you have one part per emotion, and the emotion IS the part. But in fact, parts are not thoughts and feelings; parts have thoughts and feelings. So you can use thoughts, sensations, emotions, and impulses to tip you off that a part is present, and then follow the evidence to the part itself.
Option 1: See who’s there
If you want to connect with whatever part is most active right now, tune into your inner experience.
- What physical sensations are you feeling right now?
- What emotions?
- What thoughts are present?
- What impulses do you have to move or make sound?
If none are apparent at first, you can do a body scan, where you focus on one part of your body at a time until you’ve brought your awareness to all of it.
Then ask yourself: which of these experiences “needs my attention” the most right now?
This is the first of many times in this process when your thinking/rational/analytical parts may protest “I don’t know how to do that” or “that question doesn’t make sense.” And they have a good point! Many parts work questions can’t be explained rationally. But that’s also perfectly fine, because our thinking parts don’t have to answer these questions. We want to answer them with our intuition. That’s how we tap into knowledge that is normally subconscious, and learn new things about ourselves.
If you really can’t figure out which part needs your attention the most, though, don’t worry—just pick one. If you pick the wrong one, the part that actually does need your attention the most will be sure to let you know!
Option 2: Call up a memory
You can only connect with a part when it’s currently active in your consciousness, at least a little bit. If there’s a specific part you know you want to work with, you can try to call it up by remembering a time when it was active.
Say you want to work with the part of you that says yes to people when you really feel like saying no—your people pleaser. Think of a specific time when you felt like saying yes against your better judgment. Try to remember:
- where you were
- what you saw
- what you heard
- what you felt in your body
- what thoughts and emotions you were having
See if the desire to say yes comes up inside you again. If it does, you can connect with that part. If not, don’t worry about making it happen. Your system might not want you to connect with that part right now. Even if this does work, a different part might insist on getting the spotlight. Our parts know things about our subconscious that we don’t know yet; they’re “on the front lines.” So when they don’t cooperate, we trust that it’s for a good reason, even when we can’t see the reason yet.
When you’ve activated a part, see if you can find it in or around your body. In your body would mean a physical sensation that feels related to the part, or just an intuition that it’s in that area. Some people feel or visualize a presence near them, and that works too. When things get confusing, refocusing on this place in or around your body can keep you on track.
Find the part itself
Sometimes, as soon as you’ve found the evidence of a part, you’re in connection with the part, too. But other times, all you have is physical sensation that doesn’t seem to mean anything or be anyone. So then you can try any of these techniques to connect on a deeper level.
In this process, I’ll often ask you to say things to your parts. You can do this out loud, but many people do it in their minds and find that works just fine. You can say hello to a part, or welcome it into the space with you. I also like to say hello to parts that are showing up in my body by taking a deep breath and “sending” the breath to that part of my body. Even though it’s not literally true, I find it easy to feel as though as I’m sending the breath to any body part I focus on.
Flesh it out
Some people do this by trying to describe the part, and some ask the part to show itself in more ways. Regardless, be open to all forms of information:
- what does the part look like, or show you, in your mind’s eye?
- what does it sound like or say?
- does it have a shape, a color, a texture, a density?
- does it make you want to move in some way?
Any form of information is valid here. Some people see their parts in their mind’s eye, other people don’t. Some parts communicate verbally through thoughts, other parts don’t. Some parts only communicate through the body. Other parts have a “feeling” in your imagination, such as sticky, or sharp. It doesn’t matter what information you get; it’s the process of getting a little bit more information that connects you to the part.
Find the reaction
Not every physical sensation is coming from a part, so what do you do if connecting doesn’t work? Just notice any reaction you’re having to the physical sensation or this process. If you’re having a thought or emotion, there’s a part behind it. Now you have something to try to connect to.
Parts come as they are
Parts that present visually may look like you, or a younger version of you, or a totally different person. Parts can also present as animals, objects, or impressions like “a spiky purple blob.”
Parts’ presentations, visual or otherwise, often change over time as you get to know them better.
Parts can also have a different gender than you. It’s not uncommon to have parts with a variety of genders, and doesn’t necessarily mean anything about your gender or sexuality.
So accept your parts however they present, and stay tuned for the next post in the Practice 101 series, where we find your core Self.