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Is naming your Parts undermining your healing? (IFS Myth #2)

Aug 9, 2023 | Myths of IFS Therapy

12 minute read

I hope this blog post helps your healing.

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

In this second installment of the 7 Most Common Myths, we’ll look at what trips us up right from the start. It’s as simple as our Parts’ names.

When you meet a real person, what’s the first thing you do? 

You say your name and ask for theirs, of course. 

In IFS, we approach our Parts as if they were real people. Like they’re full individuals … who happen to be living inside of us. This idea can be really helpful (even if it sounds weird). But like any metaphor, it has some limits. Because:

Exchanging names isn’t important to Parts in the same way it is to you and me. 

In this article, you will see how it undermines inner trust to pressure Parts to match our expectations – even if those expectations are based on IFS conventions of “fleshing out” a Part. You will learn how to correct this mistake and reorient to support your Parts in healing and growing in their own unique ways. A promising stance, indeed.

Key Points:

  • It’s a myth that all Parts have names
  • If you’re insisting on names, you’re likely in a Manager Part (not Self)
  • Parts change their identities over time and that’s a healthy sign of healing
  • You can informally name Parts in many ways, such as via emotions, roles, age, etc. 

Learn straight from me here in this video:

Click for Video Transcript.

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Myth: Parts must have names

A common myth of IFS is the idea that all of our Parts have names. We’ll get into why this is not true, but first: 

Let’s look at what happens when we believe this myth.

If you have made a list of all of your Parts, or simply encountered a Part, you might have wanted to know everything about this magnificent Part. 

It’s always magical when a part takes form and emerges from the unconscious

In your excitement, maybe you asked the Part for its name. And if it didn’t tell you what to call it, you might have been tempted to ask again. 

Maybe you’ll recognize what I did many years ago …

My Personal Experience With Over-Naming My Parts

Come back with me to a crisp autumn day in 2011, to the very first few hours of my IFS Institute training. The morning lesson was on how to “Flesh Out” a Part. We learned that Parts are three-dimensional, and we can get to know them in all sorts of ways.

Paper in hand, we students went off on our own, hoping to get to know one Part in depth. I sat on the floor (my favorite place to sit and ground). I skimmed the list of classic IFS questions.  There was a simple opener: “What’s your name?”

Turning inward, I soon encountered a little girl part. She had pigtails and was playing in my childhood garden, climbing on the jungle gym. 

My Part was interested in playing and having me be with her – not in having a name tag!

In my inner world, I moved close and tried to connect with her. I asked the Part what her name was. 

That question didn’t engage her. 

At the time, I didn’t know how important it was to follow my Part’s lead. So after another exchange, I dutifully circled back and again asked what I should call her.

Finally, similar to how a kid might respond, she shrugged and answered. 

I wrote down her reply and I still remember her name today: Lizzie. 

The interesting thing? I’ve never encountered the Lizzie Part of me again since that very first day of IFS training. 

The reason for that is: 

If our Parts are healthy, they are free to change.

When Parts are stuck in trauma, they are frozen in the past. They stay stuck in a certain configuration of emotions and identity – until we help them unburden and reconnect to the present.

But when our Parts are relatively healed from trauma, they rejoin life. They become free to develop and change.

They can flow in and out of our awareness, emerging from and fading back into the unconscious as they please. 

Life is dynamic. Just like everything in nature, when Parts can grow and live … they change!

Parts that have begun a healing process might take different forms than when we first met them. 

Or they might not. It really depends on the Part’s needs and preferences. 

When a Part has had some significant healing, it might have a different name from before – or no name at all. 

Same goes for age, location, persona, and so on. 

In fact, a Part that’s at least partially unburdened might never appear again in exactly the same configuration. 

Want to understand why? We can think about healing Parts as similar to rewiring neural networks.

Labeling Parts can backfire

Whatever the reason a Part might not lead with its name, insisting our Parts tell us their names undermines our healing in three main ways:

#1 Danger: Lowering trust

Whenever we get into insisting, it can be a sign we’re in a Self-Like Part or other Manager. 

Quick review of Self-Like Parts: (also called SLPs)

  • Approximate how Self would act: These Parts resemble some of the characteristics of Self, our wisest core. Sometimes they even believe they are Self. 
  • Devoted to a narrow agenda: Under the veneer of their Self-like qualities, SLPs are ultimately fear-driven and avoid what they perceive as risks – even when that’s necessary for healing. 
  • Might be able to soothe but are not equipped to heal: While Self intuitively draws on all the talents in our system, SLPs (like all Parts) can only access a limited range of inner resources. We need the whole range for deep healing!

One way to think about how SLPs seek surface vs. real healing is the difference between caring more about being a “good student” in history class than actually internalizing the ancient stories.

When we do IFS from a Self-Like Part, the Part we’re meeting might believe that Self-Like Part is our core. (This is especially common if we have a very active main Self-Like part.) 

This misunderstanding can lead that Part to vastly underestimate Self.

“So you’re … uh … the core of Lucille?”

Anytime we approach a Part from a Self-Like Part it can reduce trust.

Our Part senses we’re focused on our own agenda rather than on the Part’s concerns.  

This Part might feel:

I don’t trust you. You’re not capable of healing us heal. You’re ineffective and [insert other negative adjective!]

… and this might be an accurate observation of a Self-Like Part. 

But of course, it’s not an assessment of Self, the place from which we do lasting healing.

We can rebuild trust with our Parts

The good news is: We don’t have to do things perfectly with our Parts. 

Just like in a real relationship, we won’t be perfect. We will sometimes let our Parts down. 

There are times we might apologize from Self for not having helped a Part before or having let the Part down in some other way.

And as we’d do with another person, we can repair trust between Parts and Self. 

If you’ve insisted a Part tell you its name – and if that’s lowered a Part’s trust in you, then you can:

  • Acknowledge that you were blended
  • See how this made the Part feel
  • Apologize (if the Part wants you to)

In my personal example shared before, this could have looked like me saying to the Lizzie Part:

You know when we met earlier? I was blended with a Part that really wanted to do this IFS thing “right.” How was that for you?

Maybe she would respond:

Uh, yeah. You were. It was so annoying!

And the dialogue could naturally unfold.

#2 Danger: Forcing Parts into boxes

There are some cultures where people get new names in different life stages. But for most Westerners, we have one name for life. 

We humans use names – especially proper names (like Lizzie) – as a pretty fundamental characteristic of a person. Names come loaded with their own qualities and connotations that can tie us to certain expectations. Just think of the name “Barbie.” 

One of the beautiful things that occurs as we heal is our Parts can return to – or discover for the first time! – who they’re meant to be, what their inner qualities truly are.

For example, when an Exile has been unburdened:

  • The relevant Protector Parts get to create new jobs for themselves inside of us
  • Our Exile can let its natural essence expand and call into itself any qualities it would enjoy having

But when Parts are no longer trapped in rigid roles, it’s natural for them to develop and change. And sometimes, the old name doesn’t fit anymore.

If we push our Parts to have a name, we may be discouraging them from their natural, healthy dynamism and life-affirming ability to change. 
By insisting on a static label like a name, we can unintentionally squish our Part back into the box – the box of who the part was when we first met them. 

Story from my teenage years

I want to share an anecdote with you. When I was 16 years old, a senior at my high school was dating a freshman.

With his poor posture and unkempt hair, Marcus was not stacking up points on the high school attractiveness scorecard.

Melody, meanwhile, was a graceful beauty.

Marcus’s adoration of Melody oozed out of every pore. He dedicated part of his senior yearbook page to “affirming” declarations:

Melody, you are perfect. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t change one little thing about yourself. Stay exactly as you are. Never, ever change. 

How did Melody feel about the “loving” insistence she not change one bit?

But the inherent contradiction was plain to me, and probably to my classmates, too:

If things went right, if development occurs as designed, then Melody would remain at high school after Marcus left for university.

Melody would mature – and, yes, change! 

Sticking an official name label on a Part can be like writing that yearbook demand.

Don’t be like Marcus. Don’t build an altar to your Parts’ identities. 

Let the melody of your Parts’ names change. 

#3 Danger: Unnecessary worry

Finally, if we take the naming of our Parts as a mandate, we can transport ourselves into a state of worry, which is not helpful when trying to heal.

For example, I didn’t encounter Lizzie in future IFS sessions or solo parts work. I might have easily thought, “Oh no, I can’t find Lizzie. I’ve lost a Part of me! Maybe something’s wrong with my system.” 

But that wasn’t true.

That’s not how it unfolded. 

It was just natural for this “Lizzie” to recede. 

No more despairing: I’ve lost the part named “X” – something is terribly wrong! … when the part’s “disappearance” is due to healthy change.

Remember, we don’t need to automatically hold a name as something inalienable or something of a Part’s essence, like a name would be for a person on the outside. (Unless the Parts wants us to.)

Integration increases with healing

As we heal, something interesting seems to happen: 

Our Parts’ identities tend to recede more and more

The distinctions between Parts becomes less important. We become more integrated. 

Jungian Sidenote: The reverse seems to happen with Parts that resemble the Jungian figures of a Shadow or Anima/Animus, though these figures don’t match 100% with the IFS construct of Parts. As we heal, these complexes seem to become clearer and remain more consistent. Though they do change gradually, too, like everything inside.

Truth: Parts show what matters to them

Some Parts don’t particularly care for names. We can honor that. 

We can trust that when a Part feels ready and eager for us to know something, it’s going to present that and make sure we are aware of it – be it a name or some other piece of information.

The bottom line is, if Parts want a name, they’ll communicate it to us. 

We can casually refer to Parts

There are many times my clients and I refer to a part simply as “The Part.” Other times, a “name” naturally emerges, especially if many Parts appear at once and we want to tell them apart when talking with a therapist. 

Using descriptors instead of human names helps us hold Parts’ names loosely.

 We might naturally refer to the Part by naming:

  • Physical sensations, like “Stomach Knot Part”
  • Emotions, like “Scared Part”
  • Strategies, like “Part that Promotes Drinking”
  • Behavior, like “Hiding Part”
  • Age, like “7-year Old”
  • Style, like a part of mine I used to call “Cool Lucy”
  • Other observable features, like “Pigtail Part”
Instead of insisting on a proper name for my “Lizzie” Part, I could have referenced how she appeared – like “The Pigtail Part”

We don’t need to handle Parts with kid gloves unless they’ve indicated that’s needed. So if it feels fine to call the Part whatever comes to you without checking with the part first, go for it. Tune in. If, on the other hand, it feels important to ask the Part for its approval of an informal name – or to ask if it has a human name – go ahead and inquire. 

Simply be aware of how repeatedly asking a question can create pressure.

That Lucille-from-first-day-of-IFS-training me needed to know this.

I hope that by uncovering and bringing truth to this myth, it helps you feel more at ease and in flow with your Parts and this model of IFS therapy. 

The more you can attend to what your Part wants to show you (rather than any checkboxes you want to go through), the more pertinent information it will share – and the more healing can unfold. 

Tell me in the comments:

Does one of these spark a sudden realization for you?

  • There are many informal ways to refer to Parts. Official names are optional!
  • When Parts heal, they can change form – including name
  • It builds trust to acknowledge to a Part if you were previously blended

Core takeaway: Change is a healthy part of living systems!

Like usual, I’ll give a detailed reply to the first few comments. Let’s discuss!

5 Comments
  1. TREVOR H MUNRO

    Hi Lucille my friend is very educated in ifs and suggested i try this i am having a very hard time grasping this but very willing to try this thanks for this blog

    1
    Reply
  2. Jordin

    I LOVED the part about how when parts are healthy, they rejoin life and are free to develop and change. That’s something I’ve felt in my own inner world for a long time but haven’t had words to put to it. It hit me like an “aha!” moment. So thank you, Lucille!

    Reply
    • Lucille Aaron-Wayne

      I love the way you rephrased this even more clearly, Jordin. What a writer! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Reply
  3. Miłosz

    It reminds me of the nature of my garden. Just when I think everything is how I want it, the new seeds don’t sprout like they were supposed to and a wild seed grows instad. I have not made a mistake, this is what gardening is. Same with Parts.

    1
    Reply
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