I picture her sitting cross legged on a big blue wingback chair. An oversized sweater is wrapped around her body, though she will loosen it soon as the fire next to her is quickly warming the cottage. Her silvery hair hangs loosely around her face, thin streaks of white framing the edges. Her eyes are deep and warm. Fine ridges criss cross her hands as they sit gently in her lap. She’s waiting for me, and when I walk over and lean down to embrace her, I can feel her delight in my presence.
There’s nothing I could tell her that would make her think less of me. There’s nothing that would scare her off. Nothing that she hasn’t heard before in her century of living.
I explain to her the dilemma I face today, and she looks at me with those concerned and loving eyes. She worries about me, but not in an anxious way. She trusts me to navigate even the trickiest situations. She knows that nothing is unsolvable, and her belief in me starts to fill my own store of confidence.
I don’t know this woman, not exactly. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I know her as well as I possibly could know someone, given that she’s a construction of mind’s own inner workings. In her, I can see qualities of so many women I do know. She has my late grandmother’s hands, my other grandmother’s warm eyes. She has the irreverent wisdom of a colleague that I admired early in my career. She has the easy going laugh of my dear friend down the street.
I first welcomed her into my mind – and perhaps my life – several years ago when I read Tara Mohr’s Playing Big book. It was just before I opened my practice and I was digging in to her work as I contemplated what it might mean to make a major career shift. In a particularly moving exercise, she asked her reader to construct the Inner Mentor.
Almost all of us are familiar with the voice, or voices, of our Inner Critics. We tend to give those folks a lot of air time. But had we ever considered what our Inner Mentor might sound like? What he/she/they might look like? Feel like?
I was intrigued by this idea and gave myself permission to imagine what or who mine might be. I first let myself explore the images that came most naturally to my mind, and then I gave thought to what I most needed from this mentor. Fortunate to have had a couple of IRL mentors – but whom I sadly no longer had much contact – I thought about what they had provided to me and where I most treasured insight and support.
My own Inner Mentor started to take shape in my mind, this cozy silver-haired woman who offered unconditional positive regard but also took none of my shit. In many ways, she reflected the person I hoped to be as I aged. In the meantime, she was a place I could go to access the best of the person I already was.
There is an increasingly popular theory in psychology that suggests that far from being a singular, one-minded individual, it’s more accurate to think of ourselves as a culmination of many parts of self. If that sounds a little bit like having multiple personalities, well… in a way it is. But not necessarily in the you should probably seek professional help immediately kind of way.
What parts theory would explain is that we develop different parts of ourselves or aspects of our identities through various experiences and relationships. And those parts each then develop certain feeling states, beliefs, and ways of engaging with people.
Think about the “you” when you walk into your childhood bedroom or sit down with your parents for dinner. Now think about the “you” when you are catching up with the neighbor you love down the street. What about the “you” when you are deep into your professional work, flowing in your expertise or skill? It’s likely that these parts are pretty different, perhaps almost unrecognizable.
Maybe you don’t shed all of your core values from one part to another, but it’s likely that the way you feel in your body shifts. You have different emotional states and probably different ways of seeing yourself. Some feel more comfortable than others because some of our parts are young and vulnerable, while others have developed to take more charge and protect us.
Using parts work to better our lives means getting to know the parts that comprise us, and helping the parts that might still be stuck in, say, old story tracks to get released to grow and evolve.
Let’s say I find myself getting really emotionally activated after I interact with someone who seems to not really listen to or see me. If I have to keep interacting with them, I’m going to have to find ways to get through these interactions, even if they never change. I might notice that what’s happening is that a young, vulnerable part of me is getting stirred up when I feel so invisible to this person. And that invisible inner child wants to react to that by tantruming, which in this case might look like getting more aggressive or otherwise demanding to be heard. But what that inner child needs is actually to be reassured that she is worthy of being heard, even if this other person can’t provide that. She needs nurturance, not revenge. By doing parts work, I can have a more adult, nurturing part of myself soothe the inner child who’s raging, and I can help her figure out a more adaptive way of dealing with the situation.
Inner Mentors. Parts. Inner Child States. We might start to wonder how many damn people really exist within us. And do we really want to give them so much real estate?
I’ll be honest that it took me a while as a psychologist to get on board with some of these ideas. I didn’t particularly like thinking that we were all this hodge podge of personalities, and it all felt a little… unprovable… to me.
But the more I started connecting the dots, the more compelling the ideas became. I could see these concepts playing out so clearly in front of me in the therapy room. They became so visible to me in my own world, too, and using these ideas was helping me regulate my own nervous system and respond so much more effectively even in really tough situations. It was also giving me tools to heal parts of myself that I had figured before I’d just always have to struggle with. My self-compassion grew, and so did that of my clients.
I certainly am not alone in finding this framework helpful. The popularity of approaches like Internal Family Systems has exploded in recent years, particularly as mental health influencers have gained traction and celebrities have been talking about using it to change their lives. But we all know that just because a concept gets attention doesn’t mean it’s actually worth our attention.
The reason that this type of inner work has gotten so much more widespread, I believe, is because it rests on a core principle that we’ve needed to acknowledge all along. These approaches are wholly different from previous perspectives because they start from a fundamental assumption that the capacity for healing is within us from the very beginning.
The old paradigms of mental health framed our struggles as a function of things outside of our control, and thus the treatments and answers for them were to be found there as well. We needed the experts, the prescriptions, the institutions to heal. We’d gotten into this mess – whether through our experiences or our biology – and we needed to turn over the reins to someone who knew better to get us out.
What parts work and similar approaches offered was a paradigm-shifting idea that just like the human body is wired to initiate healing and growth when it is injured, the human mind is as well. For people who have faced years of feeling at the mercy of external sources of wellness, seeing healing as not just possible, but in fact a core drive, has been empowering.
It has been something that the field of Positive Psychology, which emphasizes understanding what’s going right over what’s going wrong, has been trying to foster for decades. But Positive Psychology never secured the influencer backing to make a big enough dent.
Now, with a growing movement behind it, the art and science of using our inner worlds to promote our own growth has taken off.
Ever the pragmatist (and maybe the skeptic?), there are aspects of this movement that concern me. While we’ve long needed to more fully embrace the mind-body connection, I don’t buy into the idea that we can cure every auto-immune disorder with a couple sessions of psychotherapy, for example. Can those sessions reduce suffering? Absolutely. Can they give strategies for living well and more aligned with our values? For sure. Can they reduce the symptoms by decreasing stress, inflammation, and quality of life interfering behaviors? Totally.
But while there are plenty of therapists out there who will excitedly offer their case example of the client they had with terminal cancer who was save realized through unblocking limiting beliefs that they were causing their own deterioration, I think it’s irresponsible of us to suggest that there are any panaceas for human suffering.
There’s this delicate balance of re-empowering ourselves with the awareness of how powerful our minds are while also recognizing that we are bits of dust in a complicated and unpredictable universe. There is a risk that exists in reducing complicated medical and psychiatric diagnoses to one etiology.
And yet, on the whole, the potential that exists in recognizing how many healing and growth-oriented parts live inside is truly amazing.
Starting in this work can feel confusing, so I offer you some questions to start reflecting on as you explore these ideas:
- What would your Inner Mentor looks, smell, sound, and feel like? What would your Inner Mentor want to remind you of about yourself?
- What are the environments in which you feel your most adult, capable parts of self are present?
- When you are at your most overwhelmed or dysregulated, what age do you feel? What is that part of you doing, feeling, sensing? What might that part feel the need to protect itself from?
- Think about aspects of yourself that seem to create the most frustration or pain for you. Could those thoughts or behaviors be trying to protect other parts of you from something?
- As you continue to build your awareness of different parts of yourself, what resources do you have to do this work? Do you have the physical space, the time, a therapist, a notebook, a friend to discuss? What would help?
At my lowest, I’m fragmented, the parts of me working against each other and keeping me locked in spirals of habit and unawareness. I blindly listen to my Inner Critics (the whole crew of them), allowing their chorus of critique to define me.
At my very best, I’m in tune with all of the parts that make me whole and I offer them all the curiosity and compassion I can muster. I turn to my Inner Mentor for guidance, trusting that I won’t be led astray.
The gulf between my best and worst days is wide, and I have plenty of work to do. I don’t ever expect that the parts of me will ever be perfectly aligned. But when I start to feel frustrated at myself for being as imperfect as I am, I realize it’s a sign that a part of me needs some reassurance. It might be time to visit the cottage once again.