Parts Work Therapy: What does it look like?
I have shared before some of the different ways in which I can work with clients to help them reach their goals, such as using the languages of the self, working with the person as a whole, and somatic models. Which method I use depends on what fits best with the client’s worldview and experience. One approach I like to use is commonly referred to as Parts Work Therapy.
In this post, I’ll tell you more about this great symbolic model. What is Parts Work Therapy? How does it work? What does it look like in practice? What are the different frameworks you can use? Is it the same as Dissociative Identity Disorder?
What is Parts Work Therapy?
Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, “A part of me really likes this, but another part resents it”? Many people seem to share this experience, where they perceive their self as holding multiple pieces of awareness. Sometimes these pieces even contradict each other! In a way, Parts Work helps us have a framework and vocabulary with which to explore and process inner awareness. In this sense, Parts Work is a psychotherapeutic approach in which therapist and client use a Parts framework to work toward therapeutic goals.
I first heard of Parts Work during my training in Chile, when I learned about a foundational humanistic model of therapy called Gestalt. Much of the therapeutic work I do today can be traced back to this model. Nevertheless, we have many different approaches to Parts Work that differ from each other in varying degrees. Some of the most popular frameworks for Parts Work are:
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Developed by Richard Schwartz, IFS or Internal Family Systems is one of the most popular approaches to Parts Work today. It involves understanding which parts of you serve to protects parts that are vulnerable, and reconnecting with parts that may have been rejected. Additionally, the concept of Self is important in this model.
Within IFS, the goal is to re-integrate parts that have been rejected and to strengthen the Self. The idea is that, by doing this, the person will gain harmony among the parts in the system. In turn, this will lead to a sense of balance and Self leadership.
Ego State Therapy (EST)
The EST model, or Ego State Therapy, evolved from psychodynamic approaches, which seems evident in the language it uses. In EST, the assumption is that the psyche is composed of multiple Egos, some of which may have fractured due to trauma. Additionally, other parts may have opposing goals, creating conflict for the person. When different life experiences create imbalance among the parts, one ego may take dominance.
To help the person reach a sense of harmony, an EST therapist will help the client bring cohesiveness and coherence to the parts. This is often done using family and group interventions.
Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy (EFIT)
One of the main models I use in my practice is EFIT or Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy. It incorporates both somatic and Parts interventions. Its goal is to help people re-organize and re-shape patterns of experience, in particular around the relationships people have. This includes the relationship someone has with themselves.
An important aspect of this approach is to create new experiences for the client. This can happen in imagination, in session, or in the world. Sometimes, the person’s process involves addressing issues that are represented in the form of Parts. In these cases, an EFIT therapist may use interventions to help the client re-shape their experience by interacting with their inner parts.
What Parts Work Therapy looks like
There are two main access points to working with Parts in therapy. One is when the client organically shares their experience of a part; that is, when they say things like, “My logic brain knows you’re right but my heart says no; a part of me doesn’t believe you but another wants to”. Another access point is when the client and I explore what type of interventions they may prefer, and they respond positively to the idea of having parts and an “internal board meeting” or “inner council”.
When it seems that a client “buys into” the model, we try to get to know their parts. During this process, I primarily use EFIT and IFS approaches to work with what we find. This means creating a conversation among the parts, trying to understand which protect and which are vulnerable. I try to guide and model the interaction with these parts to be compassionate, caring, and calm, creating a safer environment in which to rewrite past experiences.
When I use Parts Work with a client as the central therapeutic approach, we name their parts and seek to deeply understand their function. We do so within an accepting, patient, gentle environment. We form a team with the parts to meet the client’s needs, and look to help the client gain confidence in their capacity to manage their inner experience with the same care we use in session. This can create a reparative emotional experience for the client, which in turn can restructure the way they interact with the world.
Parts Work vs Dissociative Identity Disorder
When people hear about Parts Work, they may have questions about how it differs from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This makes sense, considering how similar some of these concepts can look like within popular knowledge.
To better answer this question, let’s talk a bit about DID. Formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, our current understanding is that dissociation is a critical aspect of DID and that, as a part of the dissociative experience, distinct inner personalities take the lead of the person’s life. These personalities, also called alters or identities, involve a change in behaviour, thought patterns, and memory for the person. Often, the person with DID may have periods of time in which they don’t recall what they were doing or where they were. The change among alters is typically involuntary and causes distress.
The above identifies significant differences with Parts Work. In Parts Work, the person experiences a continuous sense of self. They can observe interactions among the parts, but do not feel as if the part has taken over them. They don’t feel as if they have disappeared under a part’s control. Additionally, the person does not experience dissociation, derealization, or memory lapses due to what the parts do. It is possible to feel difficult feelings as a result of Parts Work, but it’s typically related to the content of what is observed rather than to the presence of alters.
Dissociative Identity Disorder and Trauma
In identifying the boundaries between DID and Parts Work, it may also help to briefly discuss trauma. While DID is usually linked to a personal history of severe trauma, not everyone who experiences trauma develops DID. This is an important note, as there may be people who have a trauma history and who identify with Part Work. Having experienced trauma does not make parts automatically into identities.
For anyone interested in learning more about DID for themselves or someone else, I recommend looking for a professional with specialized training. This hopefully includes a therapist that will be competent in differentiating cultural aspects in DID. The reason for this is that DID isn’t the appropriate diagnosis for someone who practices broadly accepted beliefs in which spiritual beings can possess a person.
I don’t have specialized training in DID and do not work with folks living with this disorder.
When Parts Work Therapy works
As is the case with most models, client buy-in is essential for therapy to work. Within a strong working relationship, Parts Work can introduce a before-and-after to counselling. As a therapist, I’ve seen psychological doors open for clients once we start using this approach.
In fact, I like this model so much that I’ve identified some of my own parts. Just like I do with my clients when I use alternative strategies, I do so with myself as well; this includes Parts Work. For example, I have a psychologist part that often has opinions about what I’m doing with my clients. It’s the part that leads the show when I’m in session, with the help of the rest of my “council”. Sometimes the council disagrees, like when the psychologist part has to keep professional boundaries while my friendly part wants to talk about personal interests for no reason. Each part has its role, and they all bring something positive to my experience when they are in balance.
If, after reading this post, you resonate with the descriptions I shared, Parts Work could be helpful to you. In that case, don’t forget to ask your (potential) therapist if they use this model in their practice!
I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let the writing on my blog reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.
The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.