This article was originally published by Forbes.
Recently, my friend (we’ll call her Mari), came to me debating about whether or not to take a new position.
An educator, writer and new mom, Mari found herself stuck with a repetitive inner monologue that fluctuated between, “If I take this job, I’m prioritizing my career over my child,” or, “If I don’t take this job, I’m a better mom, but my career will suffer.” Every time she thought she’d arrived at a decision, she’d second guess herself moments or days later.
Mari was in what I like to call “a tangle”. Hearing her conflict, I suggested she try an abbreviated version of “parts work”, a tool that my life and business coach Rebecca Aced-Molina uses with me, to “untangle” her thinking.
“Parts work” is a way to get to know, accept, listen to and fully integrate all the different parts of you. Psychologist Richard Schwartz, who’s the author and founder of this process, describes them, subselves. It provides a framework to understand and accept seemingly contradictory emotions or identities and allows us to reduce the frustration and confusion that experiencing these emotions concurrently can evoke.
Below is a very simplified version of the process that you can use to apply parts work to your own life, followed by the story of how Mari used it in hers.
Step 1. Identify the “parts” that are coming up for you.
Whenever you could use the expression, “Part of me feels this way, but part of me feels this entirely different way,” that’s a great way to recognize your different parts. If you feel like you’re contradicting yourself or your perspectives seem unrelated, that’s another way to identify separate parts.
As you work through them, give each of them a name and make a quick note about what they were saying to you, almost personifying these different voices.
Mari recognized nearly a half dozen parts – different identities, perspectives, or voices in her head. (No wonder she was struggling to discern her priorities!)
There was the “Just Make a F***ing Decision Part, who felt urgency and was frustrated with Mari’s indecision.
Mari characterized her mom identity as the Best Caretaker Part, who believed “I’m the best one to take care of my baby (and dogs).”
There were also two distinct voices in her professional sphere. One she called Career Fulfillment Part, who said that not only could Mari do this job, but she could do it really well and it would provide her professional satisfaction. Another was the Professor Mom Part, who felt protective over her students and recognized the ways this job would best allow her to serve them.
Finally, there was a Writer Part who felt frustrated, squished into the leftover minutes. This part believed that it never got her best mind and simply wanted more of her time.
Step 2. Focus on one part at a time – give it the floor without interruption.
Rather than letting the parts continue to duke it out, talking over each other in a grumpy family feud, allow one part at a time communicate directly with you in a free-flow stream of consciousness. Cultivating a sense of non-judgment, get to know each part and their goals for you individually.
There can be a temptation to censor yourself or ensure all the thoughts perfectly clear, but do your best to allow the raw emotion come out. If you’re writing it out – great option if you’re not in a coaching session – turn off grammar and spell check, and let it flow.
If other parts try to step in and refute some of the things a part is saying, kindly asked it to step back, promising to return to it with your full attention. Keep speaking or writing from the perspective of one part at a time.
Mari got started with the Professor Mom Part. This part felt very protective of her students. She wanted to ensure they were challenged and cared for, encouraged to follow their own curious paths. Professor Mom felt clear that Mari was the best person to take on this role. Celebrating the ways she’d grown in her own leadership already, Professor Mom recognized the ways this new job would allow her to better serve students.
Her Best Caretaker Part, alternatively, was having a hard time letting go. Mari said aloud, “[The baby] is already in daycare so many hours, and maybe that’s bad for her.” Mari paused and then pivoted, “Actually, I’m pretty sure she’s fine with it. She loves her daycare teacher, and I’m so happy when she comes home.” Tapping into her Best Caretaker Part allowed Mari to voice her fears, sit with the discomfort, and then see those fears in a new light.
Step 3. Recognize the part’s positive intent
We’re often taught to “banish the inner critic” or imagine that we’re slaying a dragon when it comes to negative self talk. By instead thinking of these voices as protectors, we may be able to see beyond their occasional cruelty to identify what the “negative” voice is trying to protect you from.
When Mari gave the Writer Part the floor, she heard anger.
On the one hand, the Writer Part feared that if Mari didn’t give the Writer the space she needed to work, her writing would never take off. “Make f***ing time for me,” it shouted. On the other hand, if she dedicated time to her writing and it didn’t work out, the Writer Part feared going from a confident artist to a “narcissistic hobbyist”. (Remember, these narratives won’t always be linear, and one part can have multiple perspectives. That’s ok.)
The Writer also genuinely felt both that focusing on writing could backfire and that not focusing on the writing would cause stagnation.
As author Tara Mohr writes, “Where we think we need more self-discipline, we usually need more self-love.” Rather than berating herself to make time to write or forcing herself to drive intensely toward publishing success, Mari was able to see that her Writer Part needed some attention, not just for writing, but to feel like a valued identity.
Step 4. Summon an inner mentor.
After you give each part the floor, take a break and then envision yourself 30 years from now looking back at the situation. Treat this future you as an Inner Mentor who can provide guidance and wisdom to look objectively at what each of these parts are saying.
In some ways, the Inner Mentor allows you to comfort the parts of you that are hurting, letting them to be heard. It's not trying to silence or punish a part who’s misbehaving. As my coach, Aced-Molina, tells me, “All parts are welcome.” It's a way of recognizing that each part has resources to offer. Just because one part is loudest doesn't mean that it's right.
When we called on Mari’s Inner Mentor, it helped further demonstrate that this job offer wasn’t the make or break decision Mari felt it was when we sat down. She was no longer desperately searching for a right answer. Instead, she was able to separate one decision – about this job – from the larger landscape. She said that seeing it from the Inner Mentor’s perspective, “Took that identity stress and conflict away.”
Mari explained, “Parts work was a chance to step away from the question that brought me here and realize that this question was a microcosm of numerous conflicts that I feel in my life.” The abbreviated parts work exercise allowed her to identify and analyze those conflicts.
As she reflected more about the experience, Mari said, “If I acknowledge my complexity, each part is there to help me. I’m not sacrificing being a good mom, being a good teacher, or being a good writer. They’re all just part of me that have voice.”
Parts work encourages us to recognize that we’re all multifaceted. It allows us to hear each part and gives us permission to reflect about and reconcile where those parts fit into our life in this moment.