If you’ve started meeting your Parts, this article is for you.
Especially if you do Parts Mapping, or have begun a list of Protectors and Exiles.
In this first post of my IFS Myths Series, you’ll discover why your list of Parts keeps growing and growing – and what attitude will protect you from Parts List overwhelm.
- There’s not a fixed number of Parts inside you
- Over-tracking Parts gets us disappointed (and overly controlling)
- Neuroscience explains why we have an unlimited number of Parts
- Parts connect to each other in countless ways. This interconnection helps healing!
- As you do more IFS, you’ll meet more and more Parts
Bottom line: You are a beautiful human full of so many Parts, and your complexity supports your healing – so let’s affirm it.
Watch me explain in this video:
Our first myth is: There are a set number of parts inside of us.
This is not true, but let’s start with how we get this idea.
When we first learn that we have different parts and that that’s normal, many of us are so excited that we scurry to write down all of our parts.
So maybe it’s, this part is my little girl inside that loves singing, and this part is the part of me that likes to plan ahead and makes a schedule for the whole day.
And this part is the one who wants to scare people off if I feel threatened and acts really angry.
It’s quite gratifying to identify these different parts of ourselves, their feelings, their memories, their jobs inside of us, their motivation.
And over time the number of parts tend to mushroom.
So it might start out with this many, and then the list gets longer and longer until maybe it fills a binder or even maybe this big.
I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but I – what I find is people tend to get discouraged as they discover more and more parts, and there can be a feeling of, “Oh my God, I have so many parts.
What’s going on here?
It seems like there’s more and more and more every time I work with my system.”
The reason it can be harmful to believe that we have a set number of parts is it sets us up for disappointment and worrying that maybe something’s wrong with us.
It can make us feel like we’re never gonna heal because there are 300 parts inside of us!
In addition, if we think that we just need this list and need to go down it, it gives us a sense of bravado and a real directing and controlling attitude towards our healing.
It can give us the impression that if we simply make a list of all of our parts – like this one – then that is our blueprint for healing.
We simply need to work with these parts, and then once we’re done, we are fully healed and self-actualized and that’s that.
So let me tell you how it really is.
We actually have an unlimited number of parts, and the way I like to think about this is neural networks.
Research has been validating the natural multiplicity of the mind that IFS has known about for decades.
If we think of parts as different neural networks that get activated, then I’m sure you can imagine how there are an unlimited number of combinations of neurons that can fire together, of memories and feelings that can come up.
And just as there is an innumerable number of combinations of neural networks, there are an innumerable number of potential parts.
But the good news is we don’t have to heal the parts one by one by one.
As we heal one that healing does sink into the other parts.
It takes off this responsibility of having to track, remember, and individually heal every single part.
The healing that we do with one part is going to affect the others.
And any parts that are ready for healing and want our attention right now are going to appear in the phase of life when they need you.
It’s not something that you have to dig and get out that list and check: “How is part number 52 doing?”
I hope this brings relaxation to you and now you know that as you discover more and more parts when you do IFS, that is completely normal and it doesn’t create a longer to-do list for you.
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Myth: You can count your Parts
One of the most common IFS myths is that there are a set number of Parts inside of us.
When we start meeting our Parts, many of us plan to pin them all down. As in, put them on a list. A clean, ordered list. A list that acts like a roadmap for therapy.
We’ll go down the list Part by Part and resolve our inner turmoil. Right?
This idea fills us with self-healing confidence. Our hopes rise like a balloon in the sky.
But at some point, that Parts List doesn’t unfold as expected.
It unfolds much more than expected, in fact. There are so many Parts!
The good news: It is possible for your self-healing confidence to rise again – as long as you’re still grounded. And this blog post will help you do that.
Let’s start with a grounding fact: Most of us believe the Parts-Counting myth when we find IFS
Here’s how we get this idea in the first place
I don’t know about you, but when I learned I had different Parts and that that’s normal, I was stoked.
I got out a piece of paper to track my Parts.
For example, my system showed me a:
- Little Girl Part that loves singing – regardless of whether I’m good at it or not!
- Part that likes to plan ahead and make a schedule for the entire day
- When there’s fear, another Part which performs loud anger to scare people off
They all went on the list.
Maybe you can relate to my inner family, or are tuning into yours already.
It’s incredibly satisfying to identify the different Parts of ourselves.
And on their side, Parts love having their feelings, memories, and motivations understood by us. They bask in our attention.
The more Parts found the merrier, right? So we keep going. We honor each Part’s unique identity.
We revel in the intricacy of our inner world.
Our personal Parts List gets longer and longer – until a page isn’t enough to contain it all. We start to suspect that a lifetime’s worth of Parts Lists would fill a fat binder!
Which seems pretty far from IFS’s “simple” model of the psyche.
If you’re a therapist, you’re probably also juggling every Part that’s come up for a client. You’re trying to remember them all, and you’re feeling guilty when you don’t. (Been there.)
Parts-Counting thwarts healing in two ways
Let’s look at the main ways it can be harmful to look for a fixed number of Parts.
Harm #1: Disappointment with IFS
Whether we anticipate six parts or sixty, expecting a limited number of Parts sets us up for disappointment.
Because, as I said above, the sheer number of Parts can get overwhelming.
It seems like they’re multiplying like bunnies.
Here’s how we usually respond:
- We worry. Maybe something’s wrong with us. Our system is broken in some way for having so many Parts.
- Discouragement takes over. It seems we’re never going to fully heal, because … There are 300 subpersonalities inside waiting for our undivided attention!
- We might even conclude: IFS doesn’t apply to me!
So this set-number-of-Parts myth distances us from Parts Work. From what can be a healing tool if we understand it correctly.
Harm #2: The Counterproductive Attitude of Controlling Our Healing
Raise your hand if you’ve envisioned going down that satisfying Parts List, checking each one off as healed. (Pause in typing to wiggle my fingers in the air.)
The set-number-of-Parts myth convinces us we can locate a blueprint for total healing.
We simply need to work with our list of Parts – like a prescription, we think. Once we’ve unburdened each one, we will be fully healed, self-actualized. Boom ba-da-boom.
Not only is this not true, but expecting this blueprint for healing can give us:
- A managerial attitude – which means we’re definitely not centered in Self-energy for the healing. Any “healing” you do from this place is unlikely to last
- A sense of bravado and arrogance – oh no! This is the nemesis of healing in the land of psyche
You can learn more about which attitude does promote healing in my video Myths of IFS – Part 2 (coming soon – subscribe to find out when it’s out!)
Or just sit with the idea. It’s big.
What it comes down to is –
One of the most important principles for psychological growth:
Directing and controlling attitudes are counterproductive to deep healing.
Okay, you’re thinking. It’s NOT true that we have a set number of parts inside of us.
So what can I expect?
Time to rewrite this myth!
To do that, let’s explore why you’ll never discover all of your Parts. Time for neuroscience.
Neuroscience explains Parts
Neuroscience is a relatively new field, but its findings already align with IFS teachings around Parts.
You can hold this neural-networks-as-Parts idea we’re about to discuss literally: As one dimension of the truth. Or you can hold it lightly, as a useful metaphor. You get to choose. Regardless, let’s get to the point –
Here’s the IFS truth: We have an unlimited number of Parts.
It’s just like neural networks.
Neural networks? Huh??
Let’s gently de-mystify the corner of neuroscience that’s related to Parts.
No need to be intimidated by scientific language. Brain science just sounds complicated because of all the Latin.
As my physician brother once reflected about a rather dense colleague: “You don’t need to be a neurosurgeon … to be a neurosurgeon!”
The brain is complex. And interconnected.
Just like Parts.
Brain science validates that it’s natural to have diverse perspectives all together in one mind.
Aka: Parts = normal
Of course, IFS, Jungian psychotherapy, and other wisdom traditions have known about inner multiplicity for ages. Neuroscience is simply the latest field to jump on the bandwagon.
As you know (if you have a brain): We’re usually only conscious of a couple of mental process at a time.
Likewise: We’re only conscious of one or a few Parts at the same time.
And as these newfangled neuroscientists observe:
- In the brain’s regular waking state, a variety of neural networks are simultaneously active. An incredible variety of processes are all unfolding at the same time.
Similarly, if you’ve done any parts work you’ve glimpsed that:
Parts are constantly responding and experiencing our lives – whether we’re aware in the moment that it’s happening or not!
Now we’ll get a fresh view on how Parts heal by seeing how these neuronal processes unfold and change.
We can think of Parts as neural networks.
Neurons are the little cells that combine in the billions to make up the brain. They interact with each other using electrical-chemical signals, the details of which I won’t bore you with. The point is that neuronal signaling results in thinking and perceiving (and other functions).
This brings us to a catchy slogan in neuropsychology, one that a talented professor of mine at Columbia University drilled into us: Neurons that fire together wire together.
In neuroscience, each cluster of “wired-together” neurons is called a neural network.
In IFS, we identify some of these neural networks by a name you know well: Parts.
Like the tips of electrical wires that wrap around each other, actual physical connections (synapses) form between neurons in neural networks. Which means that in a way, our Parts have a physical form!
There are over 80 billion neurons in the brain. That’s more than a few activation points for Parts!
This is why if you look for a Part, you will find one.
Truth #1: Unlimited Parts
Our potential neural networks (and Parts) number in the gajillions
As a fun thought experiment, we’re imagining Parts as different neural networks that get activated. Let’s see what this analogy can teach us.
We’ve established that:
- When we have a thought, a signal gets passed from one neuron to the next, to the next. All the way through a particular neural network.
- When activated, each neural network functions in a cohesive manner. A neural network behaves and feels coherent, like one package.
Like a discrete Part.
Now let’s sit with the fact that there are billions of neurons in the brain. Every one connects to many others, able to participate in multiple neural pathways. There are gajillions of possible combinations of neurons firing together and wiring together (as my prof would say).
Psychologically, this means: We have an unlimited number of clusters of feelings, memories and thoughts that can arise and feel connected to each other.
Or, in IFS language:
Just as there are an infinite number of combinations of neural networks, there are an infinite number of potential Parts.
Thank goodness that …
Truth #2: Healing spreads
When we work with one Part, many benefit.
A fantastic perk of IFS work is: Healing spreads organically between Parts.
This is backed up by neuroscience!
Remember how neural networks are made of neurons that physically connect to each other? With healing (or any change), those networks rewire. And the exciting thing is when a neuron gains a new connection to a neighboring neuron, its many proximate neurons also gain the chance for access.
It’s sort of like how gossip spreads. But in a good way.
As we heal one Part, other Parts in the same “cluster” inevitably encounter that change. They get invited to heal, too. (FYI: “Cluster” is a non-scientific word we use in IFS. It refers to Parts whose jobs and roles are related to each other.)
After all, changing one connection in a complex brain network affects other connections.
Let’s look at how this plays out on the ground for us self-healers and IFS therapy clients.
Personal story: Healing my Exile sparked this unexpected change
Unburdening a Part – a process often considered the “goal” of an IFS session – can produce spontaneous changes elsewhere in our system.
I can tell you from both personal and clinical experience that these changes can feel magical. We notice something astonishingly different in our reactions and know it was sparked by Parts Work. The unexpected change appears supernatural because it manifested without our awareness or even understanding. (One more reminder that we are not the director of our healing!)
For example, in an IFS session some years ago:
I unburdened an Exile who’d felt abandoned in the hospital. (Note: This was a Legacy Burden and not my own Part – that’s a story for another day)
A few days later, I went to get my blood drawn for a routine test, and felt unbelievably calm.
The wave of claustrophobia that normally overcame me – and had first descended during university – was simply … gone.
Maybe that doesn’t sound remarkable to you. But I know from the inside that although the Exile had been retrieved from a medical setting, her original experience had no connection to needles or blood tests. Nor did she have any conscious feelings of claustrophobia.
This change occurred because the neural network associated with that Exile grew new connections. Which enabled neighboring neurons to plug into these “newly discovered” regions, multiplying the potential for change. Healing was unleashed across many networks.
Thanks to our brain’s complex interconnectedness, when one neural network changes, so do its neighbors.
One Part healing lifts up others.
It’s a beautiful truth I dwell in each time I work with an individual therapy client. Because, of course, it’s the same for us and society as a whole: One person’s healing unlocks others’.
Regarding Parts Lists, this means:
You can trust that as you heal the Parts that are most important right now, that healing will extend to other Parts as well.
Once we know that healing can expand organically, it relieves us of the responsibility of having to track, remember, and individually heal every single Part within.
Relax into your healing – it helps!
We’ve covered two major reasons its time to set Parts Counting aside:
- It’s not possible to count all your Parts because new Parts (neural networks) are constantly appearing
- You don’t have to remember all your Parts for them to heal. Under the surface, they can help heal each other
That reduces the urgency of pinpointing all your Parts, doesn’t it?
One more piece of reassuring info:
- For the most part (ha), Parts that are ready for healing and want our attention right now will reach out. If a Part wants you to remember it, it has ways to remind you.
I hope by uncovering this myth and understanding the truth about your Parts, it brings relaxation. Core takeaway:
It is completely normal to meet more and more Parts as you do more and more IFS.
And it doesn’t create a longer to-do list for you.
Let me know in the comments:
Which truth brings you the most relief?:
- There are an unlimited number of Parts
- When one Part heals, it changes related Parts (neural networks)
- We don’t have to keep track of all our Parts
… and it’s all thanks to the wonderous complexity of our brains
Go ahead, type below about where you feel an “aha.” As always, the first few comments will get my in-depth reply!