Excerpt from The 5 Knots by Claus Springborg, PhD
5 minutes read
Our inner life is a complex tapestry of automatic thoughts, emotions and behavioiurs, all connected in intricate patterns. While many of these patterns are beneficial, we all contain some that are detrimental to our well-being. Such patterns can persist simply because their complexity obscures the full scope of their impact.
To help us gain a deeper understanding of our more complex internal dynamics, it is beneficial to envision our inner world as a community of distinct personality parts, each functioning like a mini-individual. These parts may support or conflict with each other in various ways. Aggregating thoughts, emotions, and behaviours into coherent groupings or ‘personality parts’ and examining the interactions among these enables us to discern larger patterns that would otherwise remain unnoticed. This metaphorical framework is key to many therapeutic approaches, including the chair work in Gestalt Therapy and the parts work in Internal Family Systems.
When using the framework of inner parts, we have to deal with the question of how to segment the inner world into a useful number of parts, which enhances, rather than hinders, our clarity and understanding. Using too few parts may lead to over-simplification and mask underlying conflicts, while excessive fragmentation into too many parts can lead to confusion, leaving us no more enlightened than we were when considering each thought, emotion, and behaviour separately. In the subsequent section, I will introduce a simple heuristic designed to effectively divide a client’s inner world into a useful and manageable number of parts for therapeutic exploration.
Imagine the following scenario: A client telling you that they feel sad, lonely and angry and that they sometimes withdraw from other people, while at other times they fill their diary with appointments and get very excited about this, only to later feel overwhelmed and end up cancelling many of the appointments because they want peace and space for themselves. Moreover, the client tells you that they think people are fickle and cannot be trusted, and that they, therefore, resent their own dependency on other people for emotional fulfilment and company.
When seeking to understand the client’s inner life in terms of interactions between inner parts, you will face questions such as:
- How many distinct parts are at play in the above scenario?
- How do we begin sorting the client’s multidimensional inner experience into a set of clearly defined parts?
- Do the feelings of sadness, loneliness and anger belong to three separate parts?
- Do all these emotions belong to the same part – or two parts?
- Is the part that avoids contact with other people the same as the one that cancels the appointments or are they two different parts?
To answer such questions, it is helpful to remember that parts are schemas that allow individuals to automatically make predictions based on current observations and to select a course of action based on these predictions. In other words, a part is developed for the purpose of achieving a particular outcome in a particular type of situation.
In practice, this translates into the principle of “one agenda, one part”: When mapping a client’s internal system of parts, start by identifying the various agendas in the client’s account of their situation, and then proceed to determine which emotions and thoughts align with each agenda.
In the above example, we might discern one part seeking peace and personal space and another seeking social connection. Assuming these are the primary agendas, we can start sorting the client’s thoughts and emotions accordingly. It would make sense that the part seeking peace and personal space is the part that avoids contact, cancels appointments, and feels overwhelmed by the prospect of too much human interaction. Similarly, it makes sense that the part seeking connection is the part that feels sad and lonely and fills the calendar with appointments. The belief that people are fickle and untrustworthy would match well with the agenda of seeking peace. It is also likely that it is this same part that feels anger since anger would be a natural response to fickle and untrustworthy behaviour in others. Thus, the distrust and the anger most likely belong to the part that seeks peace. Resentment about having a need for other people would also match the part that seeks peace, while the need itself matches the part that seeks social connection. Thus, starting from the distinct agendas present in the client’s account of their situation, it is possible to sort all thoughts, emotions and behaviours into two clearly defined parts. Using only two parts clarifies that the client contains a conflict between their ideas about how to create peace and their ideas about how to create connection. Knowing this, we can proceed to ask clients what peaceful connection or connected peace feels like as a way of revealing that while the methods the client uses for creating each of these inner states may conflict, the states themselves do not.
Thus, great clarity can come from dividing a client’s inner life into inner parts using the “one agenda, one part” rule of thumb.