Building healthy relationships by getting to know our different parts
I have spent many years in and out of long-term relationships, hemming and hawing about whether this one or that one was “the one.” This ruminative part of me made it hard to be present in the relationship fully, which was necessary to find out whether my partner and I were actually compatible.
Instead, I was often triggered and reactive. My most common reaction was to want to leave, assuming we were incompatible or that I was not good enough—I never would be, and I would eventually be left, so I might as well do the leaving first.
Or, I would try to be better. I would obsessively try to be perfect, have the perfect body, look beautiful all the time. I would consume myself with making my partner happy, and inevitably I would feel exhausted, burnt out, and deeply unhappy. Even when I got what I wanted (i.e., a man’s love, attention, or approval), I could never take it in because I had to work so hard to get it. I would believe he only loved the outer shell he believed was me. It was a losing game that left me stuck in patterns of hopelessness.
The book You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For by Richard Schwartz changed my life. It made it so much more fun to be in a relationship, to date, and ultimately to create a healthy and deeply satisfying connection. Richard Schwartz created the therapy model called Internal Family Systems, which has been the most helpful modality in healing both my own and my clients’ childhood trauma. It is based on the theory that we all have multiple “subpersonalities,” or “parts.” All our parts have our best interests in mind; they are all trying to help us in some way. If we can learn how to change the way we relate to our parts, we can heal our deepest wounds from the past and create lasting change.
There are three main kinds of parts: managers, firefighters, and exiles.
I had a manager part that tried extremely hard to have a perfect body to feel attractive to men. That part would engage in extreme methods to try to achieve that perfect body. I also had a firefighter part that would manage stress by impulsively overeating. These two parts were at war with each other. The more extreme the diets were that the manager put me on, the more extreme the binges were that the firefighter would initiate.
Both parts, however, were protecting me from deeper childhood wounds, known by Richard Schwartz as “exiles.” These parts are also known as “basement children”—pained and vulnerable, they are locked away when we are young and unable to process or feel the pain they hold.
The manager parts are proactive in their quest to help you avoid pain. They say, “Never again am I going to feel inadequate or ugly,” for example, “so I am going to have that perfect body and look pretty all the time, so I never have to feel that pain again.” The firefighter parts are reactive, they take over when the exile gets triggered to escape or distract from the overwhelming feelings. They say, “I can’t feel this right now,” and engage in impulsive and often destructive behavior like binge eating, getting into a fight with a partner, or threatening to leave as a way to avoid the pain.
When we can get enough distance from these parts, learn about the important roles they are serving for us in our systems, and give them the validation and appreciation they deserve, we can use what is known as our “self” to heal the exiled parts. Self exists in everyone. It is a state that is characterized by the 8 Cs: Connectedness, Courage, Calmness, Curiosity, Confidence, Creativity, Compassion, and Clarity. It can be felt as pure consciousness, essence, soul, or wise mind, and it has the qualities of a natural leader. Following the lead of our self, we can begin to move back home toward our true nature and begin to share ourselves authentically with others in relationship.
Stay tuned for more techniques that use relationships as a means of healing.