How we think about ourselves and our experiences impacts on our personal growth. It needs some thinking about. Thinking about thinking…yes it’s a bit circular, but we can’t really get out of this catch-22, so let’s have a go.
In Part Two of my blog series on inner criticism, I wrote about a particular type of critic. I have a few more of these to write about, but first I wanted to back-track and mention the pro’s and con’s of thinking about our psyche in terms of types, or parts, and how that impacts on personal growth.
The Upsides of Parts Based Personal Growth
All of us have incredibly diverse inner worlds, full of different perspectives, opinions, values etc. We don’t always experience this diversity, but it’s there, ready (and often impatient) to be known. Thinking about this diversity in terms of parts, or types of inner selves is helpful to our personal growth in several ways.
It makes it easier to get to know yourself.
Firstly, it provides a framework from which heaps of easy and accessible tools can be created that help you get to know these parts better. This is useful because when you know yourself well you have more options about how to respond to issues in your life. You become less defensive in interpersonal conflict and have greater empathy for others. You can more easily set and maintain healthy boundaries. You’re better at learning new things…the benefits of personal growth and knowing thy self, knows no bounds, I’ll stop there, you get the point.
It makes it easier to build better inner relationships.
Secondly, a parts-based approach lends itself to helping us build better relationships to, and between these parts. This matters because…bold statement coming…the majority of our problems come from stifled inner conflicts.
I know, I know, it sounds like victim blaming territory, but hear me out (because I hate victim blaming too). We are not solely responsible for these inner conflicts, in fact I think we are significantly not responsible for creating them. Upbringing, culture, traumatic experiences etc mostly creates these inner conflicts, but it’s unlikely anyone else is going to solve them for us (others can help, like therapists, but they can’t actually do the work for us).
And inner conflicts are are not really solvable, but they are transformable.
When you’re not aware of both parts, the conflict is hidden, but will manifest in all kinds of symbolic ways in your life. If we are aware of them, we usually don’t allow the conflict enough space to unfold fully; we don’t let these parts really get into relationship with each other, to fight, understand, connect, negotiate – this is the stifled inner conflict.
The Downsides of Part Based Thinking
Much of our unhappiness comes invalidating, rejecting and judging our own experiences, and trying to be things we are not; using a types-based approach can risk feeding into this.There are three main issues I see with thinking about ourselves in terms of type or parts: over-simplification, expert issues, and stunting our own growth.
Thinking in terms of types or parts are a bit like taking a photo of something – it captures the subject in one particular moment, in one particular context, but doesn’t capture the subject’s history or future. The moment we label an experience we are having as a type or a part, we are essentially collapsing a dynamic, life-long, psychological process into something akin to a theatre production, where there are fixed roles and fixed scripts that basically play out the same drama time and time again.
The label we give these parts comes partly from our experiences of the part, but will also have cultural overlays that we can accept with out examining if they actually fit our experience.
Experts By Experience Versus Experts By Education
When we read or hear about types from therapists like myself, or anyone else who might seem to know what they are talking about, we can unconsciously try to fit our experience into those types, and not notice the ways our experience might not fit with that type, essentially blinkered to the uniqueness of our own experience.
It’s easy (and happens unconsciously all the time) to give Experts By Education too much influence over how we make sense of our own experience. This is due to a complex and long history of humans and relationship to power and diversity, but put simply we do it because our culture overtly preferences Social Ranks like education (see my quick one-pager on power to understand a bit more about ranks) and the majority of our mental health, self-help, new age etc approaches are not diversity friendly or liberation oriented (check out my article on Liberation Psychologies).
Suffice to say, learning to stand for your own Expert by Experience status is a revolutionary act, and therefore not an easy one. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater though. Experts by Education have a lot to offer, we just have to mindful that we don’t throw our own expertise under a bus.
Stunting Our Growth
When use part-based language we risk assigning fixed identities, positions and behaviours to these parts, which can prevent or slow them from evolving over time, and thereby impede our personal growth.
This doesn’t have to be the case, but we have to be aware and open to the idea that as we work on ourselves, all of our parts will presumably grow and change (some a little, some a lot). We need to make sure we allow them the space and opportunities for this, and not just pigeon-hole them for life.
It’s not that an Inner Child, for example, will eventually become an Inner Adult, but the qualities, skills and relatedness of that Inner Child part can develop over time. You might start therapy with the idea that you have a broken Inner Child, but thinking that it will always be like this can make you feel hopeless. Our inner parts can heal, grow, evolve, but not if we pigeon-hole them too much.
Like poor Bernice here: the assumptions that a pigeon can’t play checkers could have lasting damage…
An Alternative Approach to Personal Growth
So is there an alternative to parts or types based thinking? Yes and no.
There’s No Alternative
I say no because we have to somehow communicate and think about our experiences. Experiences are often non-dualistic in nature, but the nature of language is inherently dualistic. And because we often think and communicate via language, we are stuck with having to translate non-dualistic experiences into dualistic language.
It’s what is meant by that confusing phrase “the map is not the territory”.
So no, we have to engage with concepts of parts and types as they are language constructs and language is how we think and communicate.
Of Course There’s An Alternative
One is a process-oriented and experience-oriented approach. This kind of approach, refined by Process-Oriented Psychology founder Dr Arnold Mindell (and practiced by yours truly) engages directly with experiences, as well as the labels and stories we attach to them.
In this approach, the way we experience something (through one of several channels: visually, in sound, movement or a body feeling) is directly engaged with and unfolded through that channel (instead of describing the experience). Through this unfolding, the experience explains itself, which we can then use language to describe to others and think about further. So language is used, but after the experience is fully unfolded, not before.
This kind of approach also adds parameters like when does a particular experience (like inner criticism) happen; under what conditions in the psyche, and why; what is the purpose of this experience or the meaning underlying it, where is this experience trying to grow you? It looks at the where, when and why, not just the what and how.
Pigeons and Personal Growth
So the take-home is be careful with pigeon-holing your experiences too quickly, or with someone else’s pigeon-hole system. If you like pigeons, get your own flock, or at least scrutinise the pigeons others are offering to make sure they are the right pigeons for you. And remember to let them out to fly, often.
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