How to change stuck feelings and situations using 'parts'
We tend to talk about ourselves using 'I' statements: 'I just feel hopeless', 'I’m so indecisive', 'I feel so terrible'. We also often diagnose ourselves, e.g. 'I must be self-sabotaging here...', or 'I'm procrastinating, I must push myself to do it...'.
But what if we had a different inner conversation?
There is a lot of self-help information out there about being kinder to ourselves, but it’s not easy to do, is it? It’s particularly hard when you have a critical inner voice berating you for everything (as can be the case with depression), when you feel hopeless (and blame yourself), or when you’re so caught up in an anxious spiral that it’s almost impossible to do anything differently.
Counselling can support people to bring a kind approach to themselves in a different way, and listen to 'parts' of themselves. Instead of "I feel hopeless", we can say "a part of me feels hopeless", or "a part of me feels like it can’t do anything about this…".
It is much easier to listen to 'a part of me' or 'something in me' because we can then start to have a relationship with that part. And that really changes things.
Say you are troubled after a recent conversation. Something in the exchange between you and a friend or colleague has left you unsettled, upset, annoyed with yourself or with them, or both. It won’t rest.
You find yourself thinking "well, they were talking about their new job (or relationship, or holiday…), and I know that's a sore spot for me" (being kind to yourself). However, we are often stuck here, going round and round, and the upset feeling can nag away at us, unchanged by trying to talk ourselves into feeling better or letting it go.
So, if we apply our kind and curious attitude to a part of us, we can try saying, "Something in me feels upset about this...". At this point, we bring in another crucial step - we pause... and wait... as we might listen to a friend having a hard time, except the 'friend' here is a part of us.
It might go like this...
I’m recalling a conversation where someone said to me "ooh, so it’s all good then isn’t it, that’s great!" (about some recent changes in my life), and I agreed with them, but I knew this wasn’t really how I was feeling.
So I say to myself, inwardly, "something in me feels annoyed and upset about this".
I pause - I wait to see how this whole situation feels now.
Yes, there is that sense of annoyance (actually I notice that I make a fist with my hand, a bit clenched), and something else - I notice that there is a bit of an 'uncomfortable-unsettled' feeling below my chest.
I give my attention to this 'uncomfortable-unsettled' sensation, and as I wait, what starts to come is 'feeling misunderstood', and, ah, the bodily feeling of 'unsettled' has now changed - it feels more like 'something held in, prevented, held back' (I try out some words to match the vague, hard-to-describe body feeling in my middle). Yes, the body feeling is clearer, and now there is this sense, this understanding of an 'inability to convey' that 'no, not everything is all good and great'. It is this 'inability to convey' that is the real trouble here, and I feel some relief in just knowing this. Yes, this is the problem, this is the crux of it.
Knowing it is 'a part of me' is helpful because it would be easy to feel a bit embarrassed or even ashamed of not being able to stand up for myself with a friend. So with a kind, friendly, welcoming stance, I say "ok, 'something' here feels unable to convey what it really feels". Notice the language of 'something feels' rather than 'I feel'. Now I can hear how hard it is, for this part of me to speak up in this kind of situation.
I don’t push for this part to be any different than how it actually feels. Then a memory comes, of how, as a child, I lived in two places at the same time - in fact, as I do now (I now notice this striking similarity). As a child, there was no way to convey to anyone how painful that was for me, and how lonely it was. Ah, it makes sense now why this part can’t convey, can’t express how it really feels - because it felt it wasn’t really allowed to feel the pain and loneliness, but in fact had to feel happy about it. Again I’m struck by the similarity in the two different situations - no wonder I couldn’t say - and all at once I have compassion for the child, I see how hard it was then, and at the same time, I realise that the situation is different now.
There is a feeling of relief within me. It’s an "ah, so that's what it's about!". I feel a new sense of possibility. I know I can now act differently in this kind of situation as an adult, whereas a child I couldn't, and the nagging-away-at-me feeling completely disappears. It’s been resolved, and the situation is no longer stuck.
Although this might seem like a small step, in fact, being with our experience, in this way of relating to ourselves, brings big change over time, and too difficult experiences such as depression and anxious states. It is also a healing practice for trauma and difficult life experiences that we’ve had.
In short, it often happens that parts of us get split off from us - usually because some experience has been overwhelming and we were unable to cope with it at the time. This can especially be things we experienced as children, because we have less coping strategies than when we’re adults, and because we are so dependent. What tends to happen when something is overwhelming is that we are unable to use active strategies like 'fight or flight' (fighting could mean defending ourselves in some way, or stopping what is happening, and 'flight' could be getting ourselves away to a safer place). When neither of these is possible, we go into a 'freeze' reaction, where we are unable to do anything and can feel helpless. This is a deep survival mode that is a kind of safety valve, but it has consequences in that we get stuck in not being able to change situations or act differently in our current life when it is similar to the past. At this point, 'then' feels like 'now'.
When we listen to how it was for these parts of us, and we learn what got stuck or stopped or was not possible in the past, these parts heal and we change, and our life changes.
We can even listen to inner critical voices in this way. In both anxiety and depression, it can be very difficult, because something in us gives us such a hard time, berating us or conjuring up terrible future scenarios. It might seem counter-intuitive, but if we listen without judgement to this critical voice (we don’t have to agree with it), it usually turns out that it is scared, and is trying to stop us doing something which it fears will be bad or unsafe for us - e.g. it is worried that we will fail, or people will laugh at us, or harm us, or it fears for other people in our lives. These fears often turn out to be similar to situations in the past which parts of us try to stop happening again because they were so overwhelming then.
Often, we are advised to ignore this critic or tell it to go away, but transformative things can happen when we learn how it sees things, and what it is trying to do for us. This is a new way of seeing 'self-sabotage' - for example part of us might be bringing up a lot of anxiety so we don’t change our job, speak assertively to our boss, or make a decision that feels risky yet important. This part tries to keep us safe, but if, instead of pushing it away, we listen to that part and what it is about, we experience new freedom in the present.
If you’d like to know more about this way of working, I work with people face-to-face and online. I work as a counsellor and also as a 'focusing practitioner'. In the example above, I referred to sensations in the body, as well as feelings about our situations. 'Focusing' is about turning to our inner experience and noticing how that is, with a friendly, welcoming curiosity, and out of this, a lot of change happens, including resolving trauma.
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About Alison Thorpe
I support people as a counsellor and as a 'focusing practitioner'. In this article I refer to sensations in the body and feelings about our situations. 'Focusing' is about turning to your inner experience and noticing how that is, with a friendly, welcoming curiosity. You can experience focusing both within counselling sessions or by itself.… Read more
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