The Psychology of Parts: Dissociation, IFS, and the Multiple Yous Inside Your Head

We’ve all grown up in the mono-mind paradigm.

This assumes that each of us has one unitary mind, out of which our thoughts and feelings emerge. 

Recent developments in neuroscience, as well as the growing evidence base for “parts-based” psychotherapies such as Internal Family Systems (IFS), schema therapy, and transactional analysis are showing that not only is the mono-mind paradigm scientifically inaccurate, it’s also harmful to our mental health. 

It leads to the sensation of feeling like we are the “controller” of our experiences, often causing internal conflict, as well as guilt, shame, and self-criticism when we are unable to live up to the demands of our inner drill sergeant.

In actuality, the brain isn’t one thing. 

Rather, it’s made up of many structures that communicate with each other through neural networks.   

What we commonly think of personality “disorders” then, are not a result of a unitary mind “shattering” into multiple fragments as is commonly assumed. Instead, individuals with diagnoses such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) are very much like the rest of us, with the only difference being that they’ve experienced such significant trauma, that their “parts” get dissociated and disconnected from the rest of the system.

Therefore, a key ingredient in psychological health is being able to lead and manage the many different parts that exist within us, so that we can create a state of internal harmony and coherence between them. In short, we need to learn how to treat our many different selves in just the same way that a loving parent would treat their children. 

Part one of this post will explore the scientific basis for the parts-paradigm. 

The second part will provide an accessible introduction to the Internal Family Systems model; an approach which is rapidly being adopted by mental health professionals all over the world to help clients work with, heal, and reintegrate their parts. 

But before moving forward, let’s look at why this is important. 

The Benefits of the Parts Paradigm

There are three main benefits of a “parts” view of the psyche.

Firstly, it makes it possible to develop a secure attachment style later in life.

I recently interviewed Dr Janina Fisher for our upcoming Holistic Psychotherapy Summit.

Dr Fisher is a world renowned trauma expert, clinical psychologist, and a former instructor at Harvard Medical School. 

In the interview, Janina shared that secure attachment is the foundational element in emotional wellbeing and resilience: 

When it’s there, it has a “buffering” effect against stress, helping us to recover from traumas, and increases our sense of safety in the world. 

However, when it’s missing, it leads to a whole host of issues. 

Our attachment style is usually determined by our relationship with our primary caregiver in early life, meaning the style we end up with is largely outside of our control. 

As a result, many of us grow up insecurely attached, which affects our quality of life and relationships well into adulthood. 

Interestingly, in another interview for the summit, IFS Founder Dr Richard Schwartz explained that IFS is “attachment theory taken inside”. 

Sort of like a “technology” for creating internal secure attachment between the different parts of your personality. 

It’s an effective way to “re-parent” and give our “inner children” the love, compassion, and care we might not have received in our most vulnerable developing years. 

And this gradually helps us to move from an insecure to a secure attachment style, creating harmony on the inside, and a basic sense of safety in the world.

Secondly, when you realise the multiple nature of your mind, it enables you to take a holistic approach to the key decisions in your life.

You no longer attempt to force yourself into things and shame yourself when you fall short. 

Instead you aim to understand the different points of view that each of your parts have, and then make a decision that would be best for the whole system. 

It’s like having your own internal committee.

As the leader, you take all points of view on board, ensure each member feels understood, and then make a decision that would be best for your whole being. 

Thirdly, the parts-paradigm enables peak performance. 

Many of the world’s top performers have embraced it to achieve extraordinary results in their chosen fields. In the “Alter Ego Effect”, author Todd Herman tells the story of Bo Jackson – the only athlete to ever achieve All Star status in both American Football and Baseball. 

Bo struggled to control his anger early on in his career, often giving away unnecessary penalties and costing his team games. Then, after watching the cold, unemotional killer “Jason” in the Friday the 13th movies, he had an insight that changed everything.

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He decided to adopt the “identity” of Jason while on the sports field, meaning he could disentangle from his emotions while playing, which enabled him to focus all of his energy on the game. 

Beyonce credits her alter ego “Sasha Fierce” with giving her the unshakeable confidence she demonstrates on stage. 

Actor Rowan Atkinson (most famously known as “Mr Bean”) struggled with a stutter for most of his life, but found that it would miraculously disappear when he was playing the role of another character.

These examples show that there are many potential “parts” within us and that by embracing this and working with it, we can improve both our quality of life and our effectiveness in the world. 

Now that we’ve explored some of the benefits, let’s look at the science of the parts paradigm.

A Curious Case of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Image Credit – Healthy Place

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for a “Parts” view of the psyche is provided by clients with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  

DID is a psychiatric condition in which a person’s personality splits off into “sub-personalities” or “alters”, each of which has a separate identity. 

Patients with DID have multiple centres of awareness, meaning those who suffer from it have experiences while identified with one part, that are outside of the awareness (and memories) of the other part. 

Until recently, there were doubts that the condition existed, with many doctors suggesting it was merely a desperate attempt from patients to get attention.

However, new developments in brain imaging technology have made it possible to investigate what’s really going on. 

A famous example, often given by Dr Bernardo Kastrup, involves a German woman with DID who claimed to have a blind “alter” — even though her visual system was perfectly intact. 

In other words, when this alter was “online”, the woman claimed to be fully blind. 

So, in 2015, scientists monitored her brain activity while this alter was in control.  

Shockingly, they found activity in the visual cortex disappeared — even though the woman’s eyes were wide open, and her visual system was perfectly intact.  

But when other parts of her personality came back “online”, normal activity resumed in the visual cortex, and she could see again.

Clearly this can’t be faked.

This shows that dissociation is so powerful that it can literally blind someone and prevent them from seeing what is right in front of their eyes.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is a mental ability that enables us to separate from other aspects of our consciousness. 

It’s not always pathological. 

Peak performers in many domains use it to perform at their best, enabling them to fully embody one aspect of their personality (e.g., the performer or the athlete), and temporarily sever connection with others until the performance is over. 

For example, while in the cage, an MMA fighter can fully embody her inner “warrior” and temporarily dissociate from the more caring parts of her nature.

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We also dissociate under stress, with many doctors, nurses, and paramedics relying on it to get through crisis situations. This gives them access to critical information and puts them into a flow state. Despite being under immense pressure, they know exactly what to do, and appear calm in the midst of chaos.

In psychotherapy, dissociation is thought of a “cutting off” from ourselves; a fragmentation of one part, or multiple parts, from the rest of the personality, usually caused by traumatic experiences. 

If you think about it, most severe traumas are prolonged — especially in childhood. 

It’s rarely the case that a child will experience one traumatic event and then afterwards live a happy childhood. 

Rather, they are usually trapped in an indefinite unsafe situation. 

For example, ongoing childhood abuse, domestic violence, or being trapped in a warzone, as has recently happened to many in Ukraine. 

In these instances, the brain relies on dissociation to help us survive. 

Because we can’t escape physically, the brain has a mechanism that enables us to escape mentally

So it severs consciousness from the part of us receiving these deep emotional wounds, and “locks them away” from our conscious awareness, which enables us to carry on with our lives. 

Indeed, research shows a strong correlation between DID and traumatic experiences, with severe and prolonged traumas being correlated with the development of dissociative disorders later in life.

There are many instances in which individuals experience severe trauma as children which they have no recollection of until years later. 

Entrepreneur Tim Ferriss for example, recently revealed on his podcast that he experienced sexual abuse as a child but was completely unaware of it for most of his life. 

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Then, during a psychedelic experience decades later, the memory came flooding back with devastating effects.

How can we explain this? 

The Structural Dissociation Model

One of the most significant splits in the brain is between the left and the right hemispheres.

The structural dissociation model suggests that it’s this division that enables us to survive enduring traumatic experiences because it allows us to “fragment” parts of our personality and dissociate from them. 

According to this theory, when we experience complex trauma, the left and right brain become increasingly disconnected and communication between hemispheres is reduced. 

This reduction in communication enables the left brain to continue “keeping on keeping on” as normal, while the right brain “stores” the trauma outside of conscious awareness, always remaining vigilant and poised for the next source of danger. 

Image credit – wychwood

So traumatised people are often “carrying” their traumas with them (usually in the nervous system) but may not be consciously aware they are doing so. 

Old theories of dissociation were built on the premise that it was a way to avoid remembering. 

Sort of like a mechanism that created little “capsules” for storing unwanted memories. 

However, the structural dissociation model instead suggests that dissociation is an adaptive process that enables us to continue functioning, despite having experienced awful things.

Now that we have a bit more understanding about the benefits and brain basis for the parts paradigm, part two will look at a therapeutic approach that is revolutionising mental health treatment worldwide using a parts-based approach:

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Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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