Pumpkin Spice and Parts Work
My friend *Shani shows up at my door with a bowl of piping hot chicken soup. I have not been feeling well lately and she knows that a fragrant and nutrient rich bowl of her famous liquid gold will help me feel better. It’s incredible when a friend gets you that intimately. She knows just what I need.
I realize immediately that something is not ok with her. Perhaps in the back of her mind she needs something from me more than I need that warm bowl of delicious soup (in my mind it’s an even trade).
“Esther, I think I have that thing... what’s it called again?”
Um…give me a second, I say as I put the last batch of my heavenly pumpkin spice muffins in the oven and take off my baking mitts. I adore not just the taste of pumpkin but the sweet and savory smell that envelops my senses and warms my soul (yes I am one of those people who loves the Thanksgiving vibes unique to October and November all the way through to December’s twinkling Christmas lights, homemade Chanukah decorations and snow angels).
Shani has already plopped herself onto the sofa and from the look on her face, she seems distressed. I lick the batter off the rim of the bowl and sit down on the chair across from her.
“That thing… Oh I know what it is! Multiple personalities. I think I have that.”
She looks up nervously and then goes on...
“I looked it up on a google search and I’m telling you it has to be multiple personality disorder. Just tell me the quickest way to fix this because it's causing me problems.”
When you self diagnose from google, please pause
I look at her and it takes everything in my power to control my smirk. I love when people self diagnose; doctors and therapists overtaken by search engines, celebrities and broken telephone. The term “quick fix'' is also smirk provoking. I get it though. Nobody likes uncomfy feelings. Everyone is looking for a magic bullet fix, a way to wave a magic wand and… poof… all your problems are gone. I’ve been there too.
I put aside my gut reaction in favor of giving her some loving and helpful clarity;
“Shani, first of all… I love you, but please do me a favor, deary. Stop googling these kinds of things, okay?
It can be hard to tell what sources are reliable and every time you google search your problems I see you get even more anxious. To address your second point, it’s not called Multiple personality disorder anymore. It’s called Dissociative disorder. And even if you did have some hints of dissociation, you are still normal and okay. Everyone has moments of dissociation. It’s not helpful to jump to using diagnostic terms.”
Before I can even explain more about what dissociation is (simply put, the brain creates some kind of fuzziness or disconnect from reality as a defense mechanism or protection to help you when life gets stressful or if situations subconsciously remind you of stressful situations in childhood) she goes on to explain more about what is going on with her.
“I legit just had a full spazz out with my dad.
I know that he doesn't hear me.
He never did.
And he never will.
He's just emotionally stunted.
But once in a while I forget and try to explain what I’m going through and It’s like I'm beating my head against a wall.
Why do I never learn? I end up getting so mad, raising my voice and acting out. Even though I know I have something important to say, I end up looking like the lunatic who lost her mind. It feels like I might be possessed or something. Even my mom looks at me like I fell off the moon. I like to think I am a level headed person but when this happens I truly question my sanity.”
Shani goes on to explain the whole saga of what happened that morning with her parents and when she finishes her story, she seems to look a bit less desperate. Just a bit.
I know what she's talking about. She's not possessed. She is clearly describing one of her “parts” in action.
We all have multiple “parts” of ourselves.
I realize that a bit of psychological education could do wonders for her and just might help her understand better what is going on inside. She is not nuts.
“Shani, my love... you, like every other human on this earth, have multiple parts that make up who you are. One of those parts gets kicked up (triggered) whenever you chat with your dad who doesn’t understand you.”
Now she's the one who looks at me like I have a horn growing on my head.
“Yes, parts..., I say
Imagine you have an upstairs (like a main-floor) and a downstairs inside. The upstairs is a cozy living room. This is where you live, you hang out and you interact with others in a safe and friendly environment. This is where you feel at your best. You feel most like your “self” there...
Downstairs is where all the parts of you live. They each have different moods, characteristics and even their own triggers - sort of like a real family. If you were to imagine what they look like, they will all look a little different. One may look beefed up, over-confident and strong. One may look insecure and small - almost child-like. One may look annoyed and critical like that teacher who was mean to you when you were young. One may look dazed and confused. One may be sad and lonely curled up in a little ball...
Most of the time we are able to interact with people on the outside from that cozy upstairs space. That mode is often referred to as “self”. We are clear headed, calm, caring, compassionate and kind. This is you at your best. But nobody is made up of just the happy, content and confident parts.
Your Internal Family and the “upstairs-downstairs” analogy
We all have different parts of ourselves that keep things spicy and interesting. We don’t always love all of those parts at first, but like a family, we learn to see each part for its strengths and honor its contributions to our life. We can also teach parts to be less rowdy, to learn to get along with other parts better, and to react in more appropriate ways when situations trigger them. It really is like a family. Each of the parts want what is best for you and might choose to come upstairs to defend your honor or protect you when they suspect you are being threatened or stressed in your safe space...
Connecting parts language and her interaction with dad
So if you think about what happened with your dad, it seems that some part from “downstairs” came up and started talking to dad on your behalf.
I’ve known you for a long time. Perhaps it’s your angry teenage part that never felt validated or understood by your parents?” (I would normally never tell a client details about their parts. That is something they would be encouraged to discover for themselves. But she’s my friend, so I am not in my natural objective role here)
She looks at me a bit less confused.
“So you think that my angry teenage part that used to fight with him all the time came up and got into this convo?
Ohh that's so weird but it also makes sense. I never felt understood or validated by him...
But I mean, I'm 43 years old now. You would think that I would be smarter than that by now. When I’m in my game I would never react like that. I wish there was a way to just get rid of that part! I’m a grownup now.”
I giggle inside.
“Yes and no” I say to her.
“Well, you're smart and 43 and that's why you are able to recognize that part now. That part actually protected you when you needed it. It’s important to show gratitude to it and appreciate it - not try to get rid of it. That will have the opposite effect.
It can be hard for that teen part to step aside in the heat of the moment with your dad when it knows how much you relied on it for survival in the past. Now that you have identified and met that part, you can get to know it better and give it the validation and understanding it never got before. Now that you are maturing emotionally, you can learn new responses and you can assure this part that you can take care of things with your dad on your own without backup. It can actually be very liberating for that teen part to finally be seen and heard. Sometimes that alone will do the trick to regulate your emotions.”
I ask her to take a moment and check with that part that stirred and came “upstairs” when she spoke to her dad that morning.
“Well honestly, before the call I told myself to just let it go when he would inevitably ask me why I still haven't finished my PhD. I can’t take his nagging! I don’t want his criticism. I know he doesn't see the value of me focusing on mothering when I could just get a nanny. He can’t understand why I would choose to raise a loving family when I could be a world-renowned researcher. Maybe one day i'll do the big fancy stuff, but right now, it’s far from a priority. I just wish he would see me and my choices in the same way as I do. We value different things and he judges me for that.”
When you’re a grown up, but you still have a young child part that desperately seeks your parent’s approval or love
As Shani shares, I can see that she desperately wants to feel accepted and maybe even impress her dad. She wants him to approve of her and it seems he has never been able to give her that. He seems to be harsh on her and has unrealistic expectations.
As much as Shani is at ease with her life in general, it seems when she interacts with her dad, a part of her is still desperate for his approval. That's why she got into this spazz with him. She is subconsciously begging him to see her and how amazing she is. But he still doesn't have that ability to be what she always needed him to be.
I ask her if she can bring that teenage part into the “living room” with her and invite her to sit with us.
She looks at me funny.
She giggles and says sarcastically “Yes, Esther, she's right here. Sitting on that pink sofa with the fluffy white pillow. She's like oh you're cool and your friend Esther is cool too. hahaha.”
At first she thinks we are kidding around.
I explain to Shani how her imagination is a powerful and transformative tool, and that by visualizing that part and all of its characteristics she can help it heal.
Shani is able to see how that “teen part” felt chronically misunderstood.
She remembers a few specific times in her teen years that she felt similar and she describes those scenes in detail.Her shoulders soften and she says out loud, talking to her teen part
“Oh hun I'm so sorry daddy doesn't get it. It's rough, but for what it's worth, I, the adult Shani, get it and I think you rock. Esther thinks you rock too. You have really strong values and I can see that you live with intention. You have really built a meaningful life for yourself.
She starts to tear up a bit.
“Esther, it sounds crazy because I’m talking to myself but I have never felt so validated, seen and understood. It’s almost like I was wearing sunglasses in a dim room for a long time and I never knew I could take them off before. It’s almost like I can finally see. This is so cool Thank you!
I tell her how excited I am for her and that it would be helpful and important for her to check in with this teen part before she interacts with her dad again. She can either place the teen part in an imaginary party room with friends to distract her or validate her feelings again before that call, assuring her that she can handle this as her adult self. I suggest that she let her teen part watch from afar, so that she can observe how you handle things. This can help her establish trust that you can manage without her stepping in. This part may need Shani to reassure her a few times, whispering inside, “darling, you're not crazy, he's just beyond emotionally limited. Remember that. It’s not you.”
I look at Shani and she looks visibly lighter. I see her eying my pumpkin muffins in the oven as the timer buzzes.
“Do you want me to share one of my precious muffins with you?”
She looks at me and her eyes sparkle.
“Yes yes please please!!”
We both relocate to the kitchen and turn the coffee pot on. I whip my oven mitts back on and poke the mounds of muffin tops in the oven... yes they're just about done.
I love feeding people and making their tummies happy.
We both sit down at the table and get comfy again. I go on to explain more about parts as she licks her lips and garnishes her steaming cup of coffee with pumpkin spice (obviously) creamer. She makes me a coffee too. I take the aromatic deliciousness out of the oven and place one muffin in front of each of us.
We are both in heaven.
Naturally, if this was a therapy session I wouldn't be feeding her muffins or any of this information. Parts or IFS (Internal Family Systems) work is really about empowering the client to embark on a self-discovery journey, getting to know all the parts that live inside. It’s not a journey that can be taken by the therapist.
I have developed some reading materials and exercises for my clients and for you. Sometimes, a conversation with a friend can help, and sometimes, getting one-on-one therapy is important to do the deeper work than a one-time conversation with a wounded or hurt younger part of self.
Sometimes, simply getting some education can help, as a commitment to gaining new coping skills and to develop more self awareness. Now, if you choose to do parts work on your own(and not with a therapist), I encourage you to be mindful of your distress levels as you move through the process. If it gets to be too much, you will likely need more support.
When a chat with a friend is not enough, a phone call to a therapist is the next best step
In a case like Shani’s, if she continued to have this experience, I would give her some suggestions of other trauma therapists in the area trained in parts work for more support.
If you have experienced emotional neglect as a child, or adult, “ parts” work can be a great start towards healing.
Often you will need to gain a new emotional vocabulary that you never learned as a child to support your inner parts in the most effective way. There are many powerful ways we work with the parts in order to reduce triggers on the daily and help clients feel more whole and successful. This technique has been really helpful to clients who have felt stuck in old patterns, experienced regular depressive feelings, have chronic anxiety, old negative beliefs or had some stuck trauma memories that weren't letting up.
Parts work takes a gentle yet powerful approach to inner healing and creating shifts.
I invite you to learn more about parts work to help deepen your awareness of self, and to help yourself in reducing anxiety and getting to better know your strengths, and triggers. Over the next few months I will be releasing free download sneak peeks of the new parts work manual I have been developing as well as other transformative content. If you'd like to get the FREE downloads, sign up for our email list here, or click www.integrativepsych.co/linktree and sign up there!
And if you're looking for a therapist who specializes in "parts work" or is trained in IFS, you can check out "Internal Family System" website for referrals. There are many wonderful therapists available to help.
Sending much warmth you way,
Esther Goldstein LCSW is psychotherapist and trauma specialist who runs a private practice called Integrative Psychotherapist in Cedarhurst, NY. At Integrative Psychotherapy we are passionate about helping adults reduce anxiety and find a richer way of living, loving and "being" that promotes joy and connection. Our therapists use science based methods and modalities such as psychodynamic psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (somatic), Expressive Arts and Parts work (Ego State Work) to help clients feel relief that last way beyond their time on the therapy couch.
Specialties include treating anxiety, trauma survivors, relationships issues, family-of-origin work, Inner-Child work, Attachment focused Therapies, Healing for Complex PTSD And Dissociative Disorder Treatment.
We also offer Trauma Informed Consultation To Therapists Committed To Improving Their Trauma-Informed Practice And Attachment Focused EMDR Consultation To Therapist Attaining Hours Towards EMDRIA Certification.