Self-Like Parts! Maybe you’ve heard the term, and are scratching your head: What is a Self-Like Part?
So let’s start here. A Self-Like Part is a Part that that resembles Self, but is not able to bring healing like Self does.
How can these parts fool us? As you’d guess from the name, Self-Like Parts displays qualities we normally associate with Self (like compassion, curiosity, etc). And if we’re not on the lookout they can easily fly under the radar – and block us from meaningful healing.
In this article, I’ll share with you my groundbreaking model of the six most common Self-Like Parts that show up when practicing IFS on yourself.
Whether you’re doing IFS on yourself or in being guided by an IFS therapist or IFS coach, you’re about to learn:
- Why your IFS therapy or solo IFS might feel like it’s not working or stalled—One of these Self-Like Parts might be masquerading as Self and derailing the process!
- When it’s critical to learn what a Self-Like part is—Learn about which Self-Like Part in you (or even in your therapist!) might be keeping things on the surface
- How get back on-track to healing your Parts—Intuit whateach of these Self-Like Parts needs most urgently to hear
Plus, read to the end of the article to discover my sequence for working with any Self-Like Part – so that you can unblend from that Part and get back into Self on your own. Let’s go!
Table of Contents:
To begin with, learn How Self-Like Parts undermine IFS healing
Then, START HERE: Imagine you find an Exile
- The Helper (aka Fixer, Rescuer, Parent)
- The Therapist
- The Good Student
- The IFS Enthusiast
- The Wise Part
- The Mystic
Finally, your CHEAT SHEET – What to Do When You Spot a Self-Like Part
First, Here’s why you can trust this framework
I’m delighted to officially present the Common Self-Like Parts Framework publicly today.
The model you’re about to learn emerged over a decade-plus of working with IFS.
In my work with clients – and in my own inner system – year after year, without even looking for it, I witnessed Protector Parts play-acting as Self again and again … in distinctive ways.
These Protectors popped up in similar “costumes” across the diverse array of clients I had the privilege to work with. I noodled away, tested my hypothesis over the years, and – Voilà, the framework was born.
As sure as I felt, the real test was how useful this framework would be for others. When I shared an overview of my model a podcast episode, I was blown away by the enthusiastic response from IFS-ers – enthusiasts, clients, and therapists alike. Hundreds of people reached out with positive feedback!
You’re welcome to adopt the Common Self-Like Parts Framework for your own IFS journey. (I’m even developing a helpful cheat sheet you can download to print out and reference at your own pace – join my email list to stay tuned and be the first to get access!)
Quick Review: Self
Let’s rewind. Remember what Self is? Self is the deepest us, the way we feel when we’re at our wisest, most compassionate core.
Okay, now remember those fun holidays when you get to dress up. Halloween, Purim, Carnival, you know. When you were a kid, did you really get into character? (As a child, I’d plan out my costumes for weeks, usually as a person from an historical novel. You bet I went full-on in character!)
Embodying a character gives us a fun charge. And blending with a part can feel really satisfying in a similar way. (FYI: When a Part takes over our consciousness, we say it’s “blended” with us.)
Of course on Halloween it’s .. uh, obvious that at your core you’re not really the Tin Man, Daenerys Targaryen, or a bowl of ravioli. (Are you one of those people who dresses up as an object? I always admire those ingenious costumes!)
But when a Part blends with us we often don’t realize we’re in a part. When a Self-Like Part blends with us, we usually miss the fact we’re not in Self.
Why? Well, Parts often believe they are you – and Self-Like Parts especially think this. (Or, they want you to think that because they don’t completely trust Self yet.) When a Protector shows up and blends with you, it’s dutifully doing their assigned job because it’s convinced this will keep us safe.
If this is new info, you can learn more about Protectors and why they do this here.
When we’re blended with a Part (or super caught up in our Game of Thrones costume, ahem) we see through that Part’s eyes. We truly feel we are that part.
Parts can resist or even get angry by the idea of checking to see if they’re a Part.
“I AM Daenerys Targaryen, DAMMIT!!”
As I mentioned: When Self-Like Parts blend with us, it gets even trickier. It becomes harder to recognize we’re not in Self. That’s because Self-Like Parts, by definition, resemble Self in some ways. Since they have curiosity or other C-qualities we associate with Self, their behavior won’t trigger any of those red flags that’d normally clue us in we’re blended with a Part. And if we’re not aware we’re blended, it’s unlikely we’ll unblend.
Fortunately, becoming aware of which Self-Like Part(s) are active in you (with the help of this article!) will make it much easier to see them, unblend – and return to Self so your healing can proceed.
Why It’s So Important to Detect Self-Like Parts
…aka pull back the curtain!
To put it simply, Self-Like Parts can impede your growth by standing in the place of Self.
And that’s a problem because as nice as they might appear on the surface, they lack the lasting healing capacity of Self.
When Self-Like Parts try to lead healing, it can lead to all kinds of struggles, like:
- Suspecting something is wrong with your Self-energy since healing doesn’t seem to work when you’re in “Self” (which is really a Self-Like part)
- Feeling unpleasantly flooded with “I don’t know what to do” when you encounter another Part, making you want to avoid trying IFS in the future
- Having other Parts sneak in, blend with you and derail healing in an obvious way like starting to berate yourself (other Parts slip in more easily when you’re in a Self-Like part than when you’re in Self)
- Making you feel IFS therapy is no longer working!
How to distinguish Self from a Self-Like Part—and encourage your system to make space for Self? Read on!
Start Here: You Encounter an Exile
To begin with, I want to invite you to consider a particular scenario. I encourage each of you to pause and really imagine this, if it feels comfortable to do so. (You’ll get much more out of this article if you do—but, of course, always follow your own inner compass about what’s right and safe for you!)
Imagine what it might be like for you to encounter something wounded within yourself—an Exile, a wounded Part that sits like a forlorn child. What impulse do you feel when confronted with this image?
Self-Like Part #1: The Helper (aka The Fixer / Rescuer / Parent)
This image of an Exile has the potential to provoke all kinds of responses within us. If we saw a real child like this, in real life, there’s a good probability most of us would dive in to try to make things better. We might be inspired to:
- Remove the child right away from that situation
- Rush to comfort the child
- Meet their tangible needs (such as a blanket, if they look cold.)
That’s the Helper talking. The Helper might also be called the fixer, the parent, the savior, or the rescuer, and its core drive is to take action to make things better.
The impulse to take that Part out of its distressing environment and bring it somewhere safe? It’s a powerful, wonderful instinct, one that I have experienced both within myself and when interacting with others.
That feeling of wanting to take action before connecting tells us this is not Self, but a Self-Like Part.
I vividly recall a time when I experienced this impulse during my first IFS level 1 training. My “client,” another therapist, had a Part that was in deep distress. I felt compelled to help, to get that Part to safety, to remove it from imminent danger.
(As a sidenote: Self can take action, too—something I experienced with this same “client” in my training at another point. But it’s qualitatively different. I know it’s a fine line to understand the difference, so let’s explore more.)
The beauty and numinosity of Self means we can’t pin down what Self would do in a given situation. A good general guide is that instead of stepping in and trying to impose its (genuinely well-intentioned) will upon this other, wounded Part, Self doesn’t feel the fear or time pressure that motivates Helper Parts. Remember the 6 C’s of Self! When meeting an Exile, Connection is often the leading quality, closely followed by Curiosity.
Put simply: Self would first seek to connect.
If we want to truly help the Exile, we need this Self-Like Helper Part to give up its lead-the-cavalry charge and allow Self to lead. So let’s take a look at who’s trying to lead here, who’s temporarily put us in that Daenerys Targaryen costume and check who’s acting like Self here.
When you encounter an Exile, you can identify a Helper Part by noticing: Is there a gentle feeling of curiosity and connection, or are you driven by the profound drive to make things better?
“Making things better,” in this case, might not be the best choice for this specific Exile. That rush to console might get too close for comfort; that warm blanket over their shoulders might be smothering, and the specific wounded Part / Exile might not like the suggestion of going somewhere else. That wounded Part might move away, and create distance. It might feel threatened, or unsafe. “Who is reaching towards me, and what do they want? Do I want to go with them? Do they even know me yet?”
If this were my Exile, it might even conclude: “Lucille doesn’t seem safe. I don’t trust Lucille.” … thus entrenching mistrust that piles on one more layer you’ll then have to work through to bring relief to this Exile.
Let’s free ourselves of any shame spiral right now: An Exile that seems to mistrust you does not in any way indicate something is wrong with you or your Self energy. The good news is, if this happens or has happened in therapy, or in doing IFS on your own, know that your Exile is not pulling away from Self. The Exile is pulling away from this helpful, well-meaning, Self-Like Part.
If this MAKE-THINGS-BETTER-STAT! feeling resonates with you, it could be the Helper Part. It’s good to file this info away for next time you’re doing IFS so you are aware that you may have this Part, and that it might well mobilize around Exiles. If you have the helping impulse when you’re in a session, invite yourself to pause and check in with yourself:
- Is there a Helper Part here?
- If yes, notice what that Helper energy feels like (aka Flesh Out the Part)
- Ask the part: Would it be willing to make some space, so that you can be here with the Exile?
- If it says no, then ask the part: Do you know I have Self? What are you afraid will happen if you don’t come in and help right now?
If the part still won’t soften, then notice what the Helper Part’s energy feels like. What physical sensations are in your body? How do you feel towards the Part? If there is not enough space, respect, or openness to the part (aka Self-energy), the Helper Part will have a hard time softening and stepping aside.
Self-Like Part #2: The Therapist
In a similar vein, upon seeing an Exile or wounded Part, the Therapist Part feels the instinct to validate and comfort it. (This is the Therapist Part’s own therapized version of “helping”) The Therapist Part knows all the psychological terms and concepts, and sounds very mature as it offers great advice on what to do. When it speaks, it sounds like something a therapist might say… which makes it hard to argue with.
It might say something like:
- “It’s not because of who you are that your big sister rejected you. She was feeling abandoned by your parents because she had to share their attention with you. Her rejection was because of the family structure. It had nothing to do with your innate value!”
- “Of course you’re afraid I’ll abandon you… you have an insecure attachment with your father!”
- “Right now you’re having a trauma reaction and once you come back into your zone of tolerance you’ll feel much better.”
Instead of seeing the Exile that is hunting and letting it know that you’re here, and forming a connection—like Self would do—the Therapist Part jumps ahead into counseling and advising it.
The Therapist Part might be totally accurate in its assessment of the situation! It may be correct about what underlying dynamics are harming the Exile, and how the Exile will ultimately head towards healing. But being correct isn’t the first layer of healing.
Even though the Therapist Part will instinctively reach out with The Answer—because it wants to help—this answer will always be based on an assumption.
In reality, we don’t know what that wounded Part is feeling—even if it seems clear and obvious—until the Part tells us. There are always multiple layers of truth at the same time inside of us. So there may be a psychological explanation for that Exile’s behavior that is perfectly valid. But whatever that explanation is, it must come from the Exile, not an assumption made by any other Part… including the Therapist Part.
Now that we see what this Therapist Part is trying to do, let’s take a step back and see the other options. What would Self do?
Self would seek to create space, safety, and connection, so that the Exile can share its own point of view.
While the Therapist might feel that it is reaching out to help, in reality it often reaches down, as if from above, with just the right therapy-speak for the moment. It feels that it knows better, and ultimately (so hidden it might not realize it’s even doing this) it’s likely assuaging its own fears and view of the world, not centering the Exile.
I recently heard a great story about this from Tammy Sollenberger (of the popular IFS podcast The One Inside.)
In our podcast episode about solo IFS, Tammy told me about realizing she’d been in a Therapist Part when trading IFS sessions with a friend. The friend—who was in the “client” role—had an Exile emerge. Well-meaning Tammy immediately shifted to what she later identified as a Therapist Part. She started analyzing and explaining to the Exile why it felt as it did. But her friend had to pause the session:
“That felt terrible!” her friend said, and both of them had to work to get their session back on track.
Tammy said she was left suspecting she goes into that Therapist Self-Like Part more than she knew… and she’s not the only one!
Any of us who are educated on IFS, have a background in psychology, or even have lots of self-help books under our belts can be prone to go into the Therapist Part sometimes. (It’s only a matter of years until my offspring gets old enough to tell my Therapist Part to buzz off!)
The good news is that if you do have this Therapist Self-Like Part, its presence can show that you have a tendency to caringly hone in on the patterns underlying pain—and that’s not a bad thing at all! (Welcome to the club!)
The Therapist Part can be a big contributor to our inner world, giving us insight, flagging something for consideration. This Part can give you the motivation to sit down and do a solo session. It knows all the words, because you know all the words. So it’s an encouraging sign when we have this part. Now it needs to become comfortable stepping back and letting Self take the lead—and that can happen through consciously connecting with the part.
Typically, Self-Like Parts come in thinking that they are the ones responsible for our healing.
If you recognize this Therapist Part within you, consider setting aside some time with it to get to know it, specifically paying attention to whether it is aware that you exist! (It might not know!) That simple fact of your existence, that you have Self, might bring huge relief to The Therapist and even spontaneously unleash some changes.
Is this Part quite active inside you? As long as you remember the Part’s good intentions at the core, what happens will be towards growth.
You can also check out the classic sequence for relating to a Self-Like Part (or any Protector that tries to do the work of Self) at the bottom of this article.
Self-Like Part #3: The IFS Enthusiast
A Self-Like Part that is quite common in both IFS clients and therapists is what I like to call the IFS Enthusiast. This Part sees the Exile in distress and wants to roll up its sleeves and get in there. It’s going to grab ahold of the transformational power that IFS offers in order to unburden that Part—RIGHT AWAY! It knows how powerful IFS can be, and it wants that healing for that wounded Part… right now!
LET’S GO! LET’S GET INTO THIS!
Hold on, Enthusiast. I see you.
This particular Self-Like Part is similar to the Therapist, but it is more specific to IFS. (And it’s still not Self!) The IFS Enthusiast Part may add pressure because of their assumption and enthusiastic support of what IFS can do. It would assume that a wounded Part is an Exile, step right in and get ready to unburden it.
But we don’t truly know if a Part is an Exile until we make that connection, and allow it to speak for itself. It could be a young Protector, pointing us towards another Part… the one that really is the Exile. The point is, we simply don’t know until that connection is made, and the Part tells us.
Just as with the Therapist, this IFS Enthusiast may be correct about this wounded Part; they may really be an Exile, but they might not be. Asking this wounded Part “Would you like to have this feeling or belief taken away” before they are ready can make the Part withdraw… or say yes before they are truly ready.
If you recognize this IFS Enthusiast part, my biggest tip is to do a session with them. Really get to know them and feel how excited it is. Have it tell you how it felt when it found IFS, and witness that. Check with it. You can ask it, “Do you think your approach is working well? What are you afraid will happen if you make space, and allow Self to do the work right now? What is your fear?”
Self-Like Part #4: The Good Student
So, you’ve spied this wounded Part and you know exactly what to do now, right? It’s written down on your notes somewhere… The Good Student comes in with her color-coded notes and binders full of processes and procedures.
Above all else she is going to do this right. She is going to be the very best at IFS therapy.
This Self-Like Part is so busy wondering, “Am I feeling compassionate? Am I feeling one of the C qualities? Am I open right now? Do I feel the way I’m supposed to feel? Am I doing this right?” that she misses the actual feeling.
The Good Student is such a common Self-Like Part. Like the IFS Enthusiast, the Good Student Part has learned the IFS procedure and is dutifully following it. But for the Good Student, the motivation is not just to honor the effectiveness of IFS and bring that healing to your system, but to prove something about themselves (or you). The Good Student strives to show they are following the procedure accurately, that you are good. It enters a performer role, declaring: “I learned it! My presentation is well-researched and I follow all of the steps to the letter.”
The Good Student means well. Like all the other Self-Like Parts, it believes it is Self, and this is just simply how Self is.
But Self is not like this.
Self has the confidence and sensitivity to go off-script and spontaneously respond to Parts. The Good Student’s performance and compulsion to do things correctly ends up creating distance, taking you away from being truly present.
You can probably imagine how different it is to ask yourself, “Am I feeling compassionate?” rather than simply… feeling compassionate. If you truly are feeling compassion, you would likely move towards the Exile. But stopping to check in, “Am I feeling compassionate?” creates distance from your natural Self qualities.
If you recognize this Good Student Part, spend some time getting to know them, seeing if it has witnessed your Self energy. You may even ask it how old it thinks you are, and update it if necessary. You may ask it, “Do you know I have Self? Do you trust that Self can can safely contain these feelings, and handle this without predetermined steps?”
Self-Like Part #5: The Wise Part
These two remaining Self-Like Parts are similar, almost like two different verses in the same song. I call this first part the Wise Part.
The Wise Part may see the Exile and react with some sort of overarching positive conclusion or platitude about the situation at hand. “It’s really okay,” the Wise Part might say, “because in the grand scheme of things, we’re all one.” (Implying that the Exile isn’t as alone as it feels.)
Or: “Because of this suffering, we’ve learned deep compassion for others” (Conveniently ignoring the Exile’s suffering in the current moment.)
Or: “There’s a silver lining to everything. Behind every rain cloud is a rainbow. Out of suffering is growth.” (Holding back from offering connection and compassion in order to jump to the conclusion.)
The wisdom that this Wise Self-Like Part has to share may indeed be both wise and correct, but in order to get to that wisdom, a crucial step has been skipped. They’ve reached a probable conclusion ahead of the compassion, the connection. This Wise Part may be correct, but being either wise or correct isn’t the point and it isn’t what’s truly needed in that moment of first encountering a wounded Part.
Considering this from the perspective of the Exile, how might you feel if someone found you in distress and said, “Ah, well, growth is painful. Everything happens for a reason.” Is that what you would want to hear? How would that feel, to be on the receiving end of wisdom, rather than compassion?
With the Wise Self-Like Part, there’s a bypassing and maybe even a minimizing of being with that Part that is suffering. Standing back and proclaiming wisdom covers over its experience and its unique view because the one who’s drawing conclusions from a difficult memory should, instead, step aside and let Self extend compassion.
If you identify with this Self-Like Part, I suggest working to become more attuned to those moments of wise proclamations or conclusions. Consider asking this part, “What are you afraid will happen if you step aside and wait to offer wisdom? Are you aware that there is Self?”
Self-Like Part #6: The Mystic
The Mystic is similar to the Wise Self-Like Part in that it tries to skip ahead, skipping over unconditional acceptance and connection. The Mystic’s special way of bypassing is providing a mystical, magical vision or experience. While the response of the Self would be to move towards a wounded Part and try to get to know it, the impulse of both the Wise and the Mystic is to move away. The Mystic might engage in some magical fantasy. It might produce a smoke-and-mirrors illusion of growth and change.
The Mystic can be the trickiest Part to catch if you don’t already know it can exists. That’s because much of the intense healing that takes place through IFS is mystical and shamanic at heart. It often involves spiritual awe and fantastical images. None of this is a problem. It’s often part of the medicine our inner systems often need.
But what’s different with the Mystic Part is this part’s contributions are ungrounded. It’s the vision without the emotion. It’s what looks like transformation without the Exile’s participation. It’s the “change” without the connection. (And that “change” doesn’t last.) The Mystic Part skips the depth of connection and transports us to magical sparkles.
Here’s an example from my own healing. In my first few years after finding IFS, I didn’t know how important ritual containment was.
Excited about healing, I tried to do IFS on myself whenever I had a few free minutes. Sometimes this meant I had to end a “session” abruptly (arriving at my subway stop, for instance).
I wanted to end with some kind of conclusion but I lacked the proper containment rituals to provide a real conclusion. So, this desire to tie things up unconsciously invited in my Mystic Part. Whichever wounded Part I had been with might suddenly enter into a vortex of fantastical change: bruises sprouting magenta flowers, riding on top of a great bull as it flew through the air, and so on. I’d feel satisfied that some “healing” had occurred, and excited for these changes to show up in my psyche in regular life.
But they never did. (In fact, the wounded Part would feel even farther away.) Because Self had been missing.
In IFS, transformation begins with Self’s ability to reach out and unconditionally love, accept, and welcome those wounded Parts, those Exiles. When that happens, we often do enter the mystical realm. And yes, visions similar to ones created by the Mystic Part can unfold. The key difference is the healing imagery sprouts from the connection between the Exile and Self. If we can’t tell for sure in the moment whether the change is grounded in authenticity, that’s okay – it will become clear in our life after the session. Because if the change was real in the inner world, it manifests in how we feel in the outer world. And it lasts.
Why can the Mystic Part be so hard to spot? There’s an aspect to this Mystic Part that feels as if it is deep wisdom from a higher, more profound source, something we couldn’t possibly think up ourselves. We’re extra vulnerable to this coming from Western culture. Because our culture emphasizes the concrete outer world and doesn’t provide us with much guidance for discerning trustworthiness in the inner world.
If you do identify this Self-Like Part next time you’re in a session and things feel like they’re going too smoothly, you can check-in: Could this be a Mystic that’s trying to do the work for me?
Consider asking it, “What are you worried might happen if Self reaches out first?”
Your Cheat Sheet: The Recap
These six Self-Like Parts are unique in their approach, but united in their common, unconscious goal of being Self. But try as they do, they still aren’t Self. Identifying them for what they are, engaging with them, appreciating them if you can, and asking them to let Self lead can be an essential part of your own journey.
We’re after lasting, foundational change—the kind that comes from Self.
So, to recap:
- A Self-Like Part makes an assumption, while Self makes a connection.
- A Self-Like Part has a goal in mind, while Self has no goal, and therefore no expectations of the interaction.
- A Self-Like Part wants to perform, to prove, while Self has nothing to prove.
- A Self-Like Part withdraws and analyzes, while Self steps in with openness.
Here’s What to Do When You Spot A Self-Like Part
First of all, by reading this article you’ve already done a significant amount of education that will make it easy to notice a Self-Like Part. If you haven’t already, identify which Self-Like Part is most active in your inner world. Now you can be on the lookout for their behaviors to appear, especially when you get close to an Exile.
TIP: Some people like to print or draw a loving cartoon of their most common Self-Like Part and put it somewhere they’re likely to see in a session. (A post-it note with the name of the Self-Like Part works, too)
(Note: To make it easier to explain, let’s can call the part you were trying to work with (often an Exile) the “target part”)
Once you’re in an IFS session, here’s what you can do:
- When things feel a little off, check inside: Is there a part trying to do the healing work on the Target Part?
- If yes, notice what that trying-to-do-the-work part’s energy feels like. (This is one of the classic steps we can do when meeting a part, it’s called Flesh Out the Part)
- Ask the part: Would it be willing to make some space so that you can connect with the target part?
- If yes: continue with the healing
- If no: let the Target Part (often the Exile) know that you need to attend to this other one first, and that you won’t forget the Target Part. (If you aren’t able to return to the Target Part in this session, it’s a wise idea to note that down so you remember to return to it in a later session. This is important for building trust with the Target Part.) Then, ask the Self-Like Part: What’s it afraid will happen if it doesn’t do this work for you right now? / What’s it afraid will happen if it lets you connect directly with the Target Part? Let that conversation unfold.
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