When I first started learning about parts work, I read that it worked very quickly. And the demos seemed to back this up: IFS founder Dick Schwartz can go from meeting a person, to working with their protectors (defense mechanisms) to unburdening an exile (healing and transformation) in the middle of a podcast, and still have time to chitchat before the episode is over.
But as I read more first-person accounts and started doing my own work, I realized it’s not always like that. People with highly traumatizing childhoods still spend years in IFS therapy. It might be more like three years instead of the ten or twenty years they’d spent in talk therapy, but it’s years.
What about people who aren’t focused on healing intense trauma, but soothing the bumps and bruises of life so they can accomplish their goals—people in coaching rather than therapy? Sometimes people have a breakthrough in one session, but often it takes months to get to know a person’s protectors, gain their trust enough to go deeper, and reconsolidate a key memory, ushering in tangible change in the person’s life. And they may want to keep doing the work for longer than that, because we humans tend to have more than just one bruise!
At first, I was a little bit disappointed. It’s common in the helping professions for people to tout their best-case outcomes instead of their average outcomes, which can be misleading. At the same time, I’ve realized that speed is not the goal. Instead of trying to maximize speed, I focus on efficiency—going no faster than your system wants to go, but also not wasting time.
The Downsides of Shortcuts
If I wanted to promise you that I could get you to a goal in a certain number of weeks, I wouldn’t do parts work. I would focus on getting you to take steps towards your goal or craft a healthy habit. When you felt resistance, I would use soothing or motivating techniques to move you through that resistance. So why don’t I do that?
Shortcuts may not last
The thing is, any soothing and motivation I give you will eventually fade. When they’re gone, you might not be able to keep up the steps towards your goal, or the habit we crafted. You might start feeling dependent on me, like you can’t be your best self without me helping you calm down or holding you accountable.
And if your real issue is an emotional blocker (for example, fear of failure blocking you from productivity), then even the most well-crafted habit probably won’t last. If you’re free of emotional blockers and just need more and better skills, that’s wonderful, and I encourage you to find a skills-oriented coach. But if your issue is an emotional blocker, then I think working on skills is most effective after you address that blocker.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought “I found it. The perfect way to ____.” The perfect way to get things done, the perfect way to exercise, the perfect way to eat, the perfect way to schedule my day. I have found some really clever life hacks, and reached a lot of goals.
But none of those habits have stuck!
For instance, I worked out very regularly when I spent a summer working in a building with its own gym, but when I went back to grad school, my workout habit evaporated instantly.
So I don’t focus on crafting the perfect habit. I focus on releasing the fear and shame that make habits hard to keep.
Shortcuts may lead to the wrong goal
There’s actually an even more important reason why I use parts work instead of quick fixes. In order to understand this reason, you have to understand something about parts. If a client, call her Liz, comes to me and says “I want to be more productive,” I bear in mind that this is one part of her, what we call a manager part, saying “I think what’s best for Liz is to work more.” Great! That part has a good reason for believing that. But parts tend to only have one side of the story, a very limited perspective. And so there’s probably a part of Liz that thinks Liz already works too much.
Which one is right? I believe it would be arrogant and reckless of me to think I could tell. Many coaches agree, and conclude that we must let Liz decide. But as a parts work coach, I think don’t even think that asking Liz is a guarantee of getting the right answer, because a single part of her may be answering from its limited perspective. So I help people share information among all the relevant parts, and get an answer that comes from that bigger, holistic perspective.
That takes time, and it also makes a mockery of the idea of delivering people a specific outcome in a specific timeframe. We don’t even know which outcome is ideal when we first start!
Not only do I want to make sure we work towards the best goal for you, but I also want to avoid steamrolling any of your parts along the way. Even if Liz’s manager part is right that Liz needs to work more, I wouldn’t feel good coaching her to suppress and overpower the part of her that wants a break. This is what the “painless” in Painless Productivity is really about: improving productivity without hurting parts of you along the way.
The Problems with Speed
So, we don’t want to take shortcuts. But why can’t we just go really fast down the main path?
The subconscious mind is cautious
Updating your conscious mind can happen very quickly. Like, here’s a fact you might not know: snails have tongues with teeth on them. There, I updated your conscious beliefs. You know a new thing now. You can apply it right away, by telling a friend that snails have teeth or seeing a snail and imagining its little toothy tongue.
But updating your subconscious mind tends to be slower. That’s how you can “know” you shouldn’t procrastinate, but you still do.
First of all, you usually don’t have direct access to your subconscious beliefs. If you had a fear of snails and I told you that snails are harmless in ordinary conversation, your subconscious probably wouldn’t receive that message. In fact, it’s completely normal for some subconscious parts of your mind to miss all kinds of news—some of them may even think you’re still a kid! Fortunately, parts work is a way to gain access to these subconscious parts and make these updates.
Secondly, your subconscious protector parts are working very hard to keep you safe, so they’re not going to just update their beliefs willy-nilly. What if I told you snails were harmless, but I was wrong, and then you went around hanging out with snails in the tropics and got stung by a venomous cone snail? Until your subconscious parts can feel that snails are safe or at least that you’ll be kept safe from them, they’re not going to want to drop the fear.
So you can only move through the work as quickly as you can get your protectors’ permission to go forward. It’s possible to sneak past those cautious protectors, but it’s not worth it. If they think the change is against your best interests, they’ll resist or protest that change. After all, they exist to keep you safe. People who try to change too quickly might suddenly be struck with imposter syndrome, or start subconsciously avoiding their goal, or just get cranky. Don’t mess with the parts of your psyche that control your energy levels and mood!
Building trust slowly pays off in the long-term
But more to the point, bypassing protectors is not a good long-term strategy. The speed limit on safe and lasting change is set by the amount of trust in your system. Just like any person, parts won’t believe you when you give them new information if they don’t trust you. The more you respect their boundaries and take the time to understand their motivations, the more they trust you. The more they trust you, the faster they take in new information, and the more willing they are to try new things with you.
So I don’t recommend sacrificing your inner trust for a short-term win. You’re probably going to want to reach more than one goal in your life, right? Lay a good foundation now to make more self-development possible in the future.
How We Can Be Efficient
So it’s important to sense your internal speed limit and abide by it. But that doesn’t mean that we have to have the slow and unclear kind of progress that we sometimes associate with inner work, lampooned in one of my favorite Simpsons quotes:
Homer: The therapy was too effective.
Dr. Zander: Ah, yes. One of the most common complaints about therapy.The Simpsons S22 E17: Love is a Many-Strangled Thing
Clarify the way forward
Parts work elicits subconscious beliefs, so that we know what the problem really is and what stands in the way of solving it. Amazingly, when you talk to parts of yourself one at a time and from a place of total compassion, they can often tell you exactly what they believe and why they’re afraid of updating their beliefs. This gives us a sort of roadmap that comes into view as we go, which helps us avoid wandering around aimlessly.
Stay on one path
As a coach, I’m able to consistently work with you on one goal. A therapist doesn’t always have this luxury, and for good reason; their mandate is to improve or maintain your overall well-being, not to help you achieve a specific goal. But as a coach, I can keep our focus moving down one path, instead of getting side-tracked with every other issue that comes up in your life. For instance, we could work towards releasing your fear of failure so that you can tackle challenging tasks, without going down the side road of processing a fight you just had with your partner. Both issues are important and deserving of support, but I believe that by sticking with one, I help you make the most of your time with me.
Going the right speed on the right path
When you work with a coach on a specific issue, you put yourself on a path towards a goal. A good parts work coach can help you go down that path as quickly as you safely can, not by bypassing the real issue or violating your inner speed limit, but by helping you navigate the issue in a clear and consistent way.
Photo by Justin Lawrence