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You’ll never identify all your Parts, and science says this is why (IFS Myth #1)

Aug 2, 2023 | Myths of IFS Therapy

12 minute read

You’ll never identify all your Parts IFS Myth #1

I hope this blog post helps your healing.

Leave me a comment if you like – I reply in-depth to the first few!

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.

Key Points:

  • 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:

Click for Video Transcript.

Love video explanations? You can subscribe to my YouTube channel to hear of new videos!

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! 

Our hearts sink and we wonder: What’s wrong with my system that I have 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.

Woah – there are so many Parts doing all this complicated stuff in our inner worlds! 

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. 

How will I remember all these IFS Parts?
How will I remember all these Parts? Is there enough time to individually heal every single one of them?

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
To truly heal with IFS, we've got to find the reverse of a Parts-Counting attitude
To truly heal with IFS, we’ve got to find the reverse of a Parts-Counting attitude

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.

Shocker, right?

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.

Neural networks are like Parts: Whether we’re asleep or awake, they’re constantly working to keep us safe and balanced.
Neural networks are like Parts: Whether we’re asleep or awake, they’re constantly working to keep us safe and balanced.

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.

ice cream neural networks as woman eats ice cream cone
Ever get that Pavlovian reaction of salivating at the ice cream counter when it’s finally your turn to pick a flavor? You might recognize the Ice Cream Neural Network that creates this response as your Ice Cream -loving Part. (Confession: I can’t say from personal experience, because I don’t like ice cream 😝)

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.

man in front with little portraits of him behind
A neural network (Part) feels like a cohesive unit even though it’s actually made up of countless individual neurons

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.)

colorful brain illustrating Parts in IFS
Altering one neural network affects others. It’s the same with Parts.

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:

  1. It’s not possible to count all your Parts because new Parts (neural networks) are constantly appearing
  2. 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.
Lucille stretches up
You can let your IFS healing unfold naturally. You don’t have to dig out your clipboard and check how part number 52 is doing!

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?: 

  1. There are an unlimited number of Parts
  2. When one Part heals, it changes related Parts (neural networks)
  3. 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!

  1. Pamela Olson

    Wonderful post. I was starting to suspect some of this, and it’s nice to see it written out by someone who studies this stuff more seriously than I am able to. (Another mother with two small kids. And a novel I’m writing. And generational cycles to break. And so on.)

    It’s been so gratifying to reach what looks like a really tough protector and see him give a resigned sigh and say, “I’ve seen the work you’ve been doing. I know how this is going to go. It’s all right. Go ahead.”

    Or to see a part chill out and immediately see another part spontaneously appear and chill out, too.

    I’ve been calling parts “avatars for psychological subroutines” to explain it to my computer-programmer husband (it helps my analytical mind understand, too), so it makes total sense to me that they are neural networks, and now that you explain it that way, it makes total sense that there can be an infinite number of them. And that healing and updating any amalgamation of neural networks would have spillover effects.

    Truly fantastic stuff, and I wish more beginners were aware of this so that they didn’t get so overwhelmed. Although I suppose we all have to go through our own process! And doing the beginner stuff as a beginner was just right. (I have a list of at least a hundred parts, and they are quite a fun cast of characters!) Until I had Questions, some of which are answered here.

    Thanks for the work you do.

  2. Timothy

    Hey Lucille, thanks for posting this—it’s thought provoking!
    I mostly agreed with your Truths (or at least what I believe is the general meaning of your truths, even if not their precise wording). I especially like your reminder that “when one Part heals, it changes related Parts.” One example of this is how some protectors may spontaneously change when all its exiles have been unburdened.

    Moreover, I fully agree that some people have a fixed-part mindset, and some people do become overwhelmed with tracking their many parts. Early in my IFS journey I found myself overwhelmed with tracking as well.

    In case I can provide additional overwhelm reduction beyond your post, the solution that helped me was not to abandon remembering the parts I discovered but rather to use tools to help with my parts-listing/tracking. I moved from a sheet of paper that wasn’t easy to work with to making a database. This allowed me to easily search, filter, and have my parts-list on multiple devices. It also scales to many hundreds of thousands of records if needed.

    I’ve never heard of anyone forming a deep relationship with that many of their parts. And personally, I haven’t met nor do I expect to meet anywhere near that many parts. I haven’t even met a hundred of my parts yet. Because of this excess capacity, I believe my approach can work for me as long as I can operate a computer of some kind.

    While reading and agreeing with a lot of your points, my parts that benefit from parts-listing and parts-mapping believed that your post argued against straw man myths. For instance, “When we start meeting our Parts, many of us plan to pin them *all* down” -> “Myth: You Can Count Your Parts”.

    The straw man seemed to be the position that one must count/track *ALL of your parts*. Your post does a great job of outlining why this extreme position (emphasis on “all”) can cause problems in one’s IFS practice. However it’s not clear more moderate positions would cause the same problems you argued against (i.e. disappointment, overwhelm, etc.). For example, I wondered what benefits / wisdom / qualities-of-Self / capacities you found in the intention of your managerial parts to track your parts *at all*?

    Here I’m referring to tracking non-exhaustive subsets of your parts. I.e., not all parts, but some parts. Such subsets might be the parts that show up around a particularly big trailhead in your current life, the parts you’ve worked with in the past, or just the parts that you’re conscious of so far (e.g. no need to go “parts-hunting”).

    I wonder if we can avoid polarization around “parts-listing and parts-mapping = bad/harmful.” To that end, I’m curious if there’s any nuance, clarity, and perspective that you or parts of you want to add? What ways have you found parts-listing/mapping/tracking to be beneficial? And in what circumstances (if any) have you found or do you imagine such efforts to be helpful?

    Thanks again for opening a discussion about this,

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Timothy, it’s all about balance. The litmus test is how it’s working for you. Do you feel it’s working to track your parts in the ways you’re doing? If so, that’s what matters. I do have several articles about parts mapping coming up. Join my email list if you like and stay tuned!

      • Timothy

        Thanks for highlighting the litmus test and for your reply. I’m signed up and looking forward to those upcoming articles. Take care,

  3. Anthony

    Hi Lucile, thanks for the post. I have found that my early IFS work was very much “by the book” – as I was learning how to go inside and developing the courage to look into my past and actually stay present with my emotions my parts maps and the painstakingly discovered profiles of each of my parts were very useful. Once I was able to unburden the very discrete parts that I was working with at first more parts came to my attention but again, each had a distinct “history” and “role” in my system that it was very important for me to discover as that allowed them to release their burdens. Over time the parts became slowly less distinct and had less “biographical material” they were holding onto and they were much less “fleshed out”.

    At this point, my system and parts trust me enough that I don’t actually need to go through the full process, and in fact parts will sometimes come to my attention for the first time and be ready to release their burdens immediately without needing all the preamble. I think there can come a point when IFS work can take a back seat to more “energetic” or “spiritual” ways of engaging with the inner world, though even then the “in sight” and tools of IFS can be valuable, just in a different way. Thanks for starting the conversation!

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Anthony, thank you for sharing this nuanced reflection on your IFS journey with everyone.

      You’re making me think about different phases of IFS … perhaps a topic for a fresh article on the blog 🤗

      1) First came the classic IFS steps of the F’s and unburdening process. This freed your parts to re-integrate. Makes me think of the neural networks rewiring

      2) Now there’s so much trust in your system that when parts attract your attention a less formal process unfolds. Love when spontaneous unburdenings happen!

      I hear that starting IFS “by the book” was important for your system.
      For many of us, this is a necessary early stage on the way to using IFS seamlessly. IFS-by-the-book is only a problem if it takes us away from self-trust and/or away from IFS. (And of course, it depends on how accurately we’re understanding the “book.”)

      I think there can come a point when IFS work can take a back seat to more “energetic” or “spiritual” ways of engaging with the inner world, though even then the “in sight” and tools of IFS can be valuable, just in a different way.

      Wonderfully put.

      Nice to meet you, Anthony. Your contributions are so welcome here.

      I’d love to discern more. 🧐 If any of you other readers want to share about your IFS healing phases, add your voice to this exploration with a comment!

  4. Elisabeth J Bell

    This makes total sense. I’m going to stop worrying about giving specific names to parts and relax into the quiet setting and waiting for someone to show up.

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Elisabeth, great. Seeing who shows up – you’ve named one of the three runways from my free IFS audio guide.

      Our parts appreciate when we do this so much. (It’s one of my favorite ways to meditate.)

      Thanks for writing in!

  5. Alan

    Lucille, loved this post…really a new perspective for me and a relaxing one also. Like so much in my life I realize again that I don’t need to work so hard. It will happen by its self … just do the process

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      You have a talent for poetry in simple words, Alan.

      I realize again that I don’t need to work so hard. It will happen by its self … just do the process

      Much appreciation for you.

  6. Adair

    The reminder that the parts needing attention right now will get my attention is so helpful. I worry a lot that I’m missing a part that needs something, which leads me to getting frustrated with the parts who are asking for my attention.

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Adair… “Quiet down, I need to find out who’s really in there!” – I know the feeling 😂

      And by tracking this, you’re already unblending from whatever inside (a Self-Like Part?) is trying to direct or help your IFS process.

      Yes, we can count on Parts to ask for our attention if they want it. To help us notice their bids for attention, I teach a method to create a conscious signaling process. There’s a way for parts to grab our attention when we’re going about our regular day (not just when sitting down to commune with parts). You learn this in the IFS mastermind.

      I’m making a public video on this – subscribe to my channel if you like!

  7. Kate

    Wow! What an amazing post! Thank you! I was definitely affected by this myth. I was looking to find the finite list of my parts. This just made me feel better!

    Also the last piece about tracking and the fact that parts will reach out… so freeing, I always feel bad that I have a hard time with following up with parts (limited time as a mom of 2 young kids you know).

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Hi Kate, wonderful this post speaks right to you.

      I always feel bad that I have a hard time with following up with parts (limited time as a mom of 2 young kids you know).

      Yes, of course your bandwidth is limited! And your care for your system comes through in just this little message.

      I like how as you recognize IFS brings feelings of guilt, you’re accepting the invitation to recalibrate. In our sincere desire to heal, we soul-seekers can easily get into high expectations for our conscious work outside of sessions. But of course that contradicts the real point of IFS, which is to affirm who we really are and free our inner life to flow more harmoniously.

      Thanks for sharing, Kate!

  8. Christopher

    I love the connection you made between parts and neural networks. I felt a deep neural connection reading about this. The concept helps me to have a greater understanding as to how my parts are “real” and understanding how multiplicity is real.

    I also love your touching on how Jungian work and ancient traditions have long worked with the concept of multiplicity.

    I have always limited my exploration of my parts to the 6 I have mapped. Part of this reason is the avoidance of thinking my goal should be to heal and unburden each part. What a relief to understand there are endless connections (and therefore endless parts) that exist whether I am fully aware of them or not, and that working with one part will have healing effects on many others. And I don’t have to “map” then all!

    This is so helpful. I’m very grateful!

    (Tink’s husband here ☺️)

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Christopher – hello! You really sum up the article in a graceful way.

      Part of this reason is the avoidance of thinking my goal should be to heal and unburden each part.

      I’m intrigued. Do you want to share more about this?

  9. Peter

    Lucille, wow! I had no idea parts work was connected to neural networks. It seems obvious now I just hadn’t made the neural connection before 🤓 So grateful for your blog

    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      Glad to help you plug into this, Peter 😄 Thank you for making the time to comment!

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