Taking Inventory - Meet the Pieces of You

I drove to the SFO airport on a very busy travel day to pick up my sister. If you have been to that, or any other airport, to pick somebody up, you know that pulling over to the curb is a challenge– partly because it is gridlock, and partly because the security officers will wave you along quickly if your passenger hasn't arrived yet. I had been texting with my sister, so I knew that she was there, curbside, waiting for me. I saw an opening where I could pull over just before where she was, thinking I might not find another opening. Just as I pulled over, I was able to see that there was, in fact, another place to pull over just where she said she was waiting. 

I pulled back out into traffic and pulled over again on the next block. As soon as I got out of the car to help my sister with her luggage, the security guard started yelling at me that I “can't do that”. At first I couldn't understand why he was yelling at me. I immediately felt super self- righteous because my passenger was actually there! I wasn't just pulling over to wait like everybody else was; she was there and we were actively loading her stuff into the car! That's how you're supposed to do it, right? The self-righteousness was so loud in my head that I didn't hear what he actually said - that I can't pull in and out of traffic like that. Instead of listening to what the actual accusation was, I immediately started yelling back - that I didn't do whatever he said I did, and that I was following the rules, and who knows what else I said. At this point we were just yelling back and forth at each other.

It was a complete knee-jerk reaction. He yelled at me, and I yelled back–immediately, declaring my innocence and telling him that he was crazy. I was totally triggered by his yelling, and I allowed it to trigger an irrational emotional response, which was to yell back. The truth is, that's not me. I'm not an angry person, and I'm not a yeller. So what happened? I didn't listen, and I didn't think. I just acted.

I sat back in the car once we got my sister settled in, and I started to rant about what had just happened. In telling her the story, I somehow was able to hear more clearly what he had said to me in the first place. I remembered that I had, indeed, pulled over, pulled back out into traffic, and then pulled over again. I was guilty. Truthfully, I never allowed the information in far enough to process it when the security guard was yelling at me. The way the information was being delivered provoked that knee-jerk response. I simply matched his energy. 

I was a little disappointed in myself, and I decided to take it as a lesson. This is exactly what happens when we don't take a moment to process the information–however it is delivered. Yes, it could have been delivered in a more effective way, but it won't always be. I can't control that. I can only control how I react. I could have turned that situation around. I could have received the information, processed it, and responded in a way that diffused the situation. I thought about how much nicer it would have been to end that conversation differently, so that I left it more peacefully and wasn't so upset as I drove away. My bad–next time will be different. 

What happened was that I never allowed the information to get through my guards to my inner warrior. So, who are my guards? We all have them–multiple parts of ourselves. I'm not talking about multiple personality disorder. This is not a disorder; it is the human condition. 

There are many ways of explaining this. You may have seen the Pixar movie Inside Out, where each emotion literally has its own persona inside of the main character. I think at one point they are all actually seated at a conference table where they are chiming in about how to handle a certain situation. The idea here is similar: there are multiple parts of you, and if you imagine them to be sitting at a table, then your warrior self, your essence, is at the head of the table. The others just chime in, trying to keep you safe. They are not actually all different emotions, like they are in the movie, but instead different coping methods that you have picked up along the way in order to protect yourself. Getting to know the pieces of you is our second tool in the Warrior Ways Blog Series - Ten Tools to Help You Transform Your Life

I participated in a wonderful program called Positive Intelligence, and they referred to these pieces of you as saboteurs, with the loudest of those being your inner critic, or judge. Some others were the people pleaser, the avoider, and the controller. Here you can see the full list of saboteurs and identify which ones live within you. In their model, you have the saboteurs, and then you have your sage–that wise essence at your core which I am calling your inner warrior.

Another extremely helpful model that supports the idea of having multiple voices within us is the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy founded by Dick Schwartz. As a practicing family therapist, Dr. Schwartz started to notice a pattern of his patients referring to multiple parts within themselves. Much like the saboteurs in Positive Intelligence, the subpersonalities in IFS are oftentimes coping methods that were created somewhere along the way in order to protect ourselves. Most often, these coping methods are no longer needed, but they don’t know that yet so they continue doing their jobs until we release them from their service. Identifying these voices, or subpersonalities within us, will help us release the patterns and allow our inner warrior, or Self as they refer to it, to take their rightful place at the head of the table. In the Internal Family Systems model, you have:

  • Protectors or Managers–Managers are the ones running the show, keeping things safe and organized.
  • Exiles–These parts are exiled by the Managers; they are the parts of us that experienced hurt or trauma, and they experience strong emotions such as fear, and shame.
  • The firefighters–these are the unhealthy and often harmful coping methods such as drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and self-harming. They will do anything to “put out the fire”, often causing destruction in their path.
  • Self–that inner warrior. The core self operates with the 8 “c”s :  Calmness, clarity, curiosity, confidence, compassion, courage, creativity, and connectedness. If you lead with those qualities, you know you are accessing your Self with a capital S, or your inner warrior. 

The benefit of identifying your parts is that you can then start to release patterns that no longer serve you. As an example, let’s use somebody who grew up in an abusive home. In order to stay safe, they may have used the coping method of staying small, quiet, and even sometimes physically hidden. Their exiled parts may experience extreme shame or guilt. Their managers will work overtime continuing to help them feel safe, small, and even hidden, and their firefighters may also step in, resulting in drug or alcohol abuse, or an eating disorder. The truth is, as an adult, there is no longer a physical threat in your everyday world, but your parts are still acting as if there is. They live within you and don’t understand the changes that have happened in the external world. As an adult, staying small and silent will have a number of negative effects on your life. What kept you safe as a child is now sabotaging your ability to live a happy, peaceful, successful life. 

In his therapy sessions, Dr. Schwarz helps his patients identify their parts, and then talk to them in order to let them know that their service is no longer needed. He helps you identify where they live in your body, and then you simply talk to them, asking questions such as, “What is your job?” or “What do you think would happen if you stopped doing your job?” or “How old do you think I am?”. They don’t realize that you have grown up, are an adult now, and no longer need their help. You can thank them, and allow them to live carefree, knowing that the Self can take over now. 

(If you have suffered serious trauma in your life, or your firefighters have taken over, please reach out to a licensed therapist, either IFS or otherwise, to help you work through your trauma and find healthy coping methods that support you.)

As I mentioned previously, identifying your patterns is the start of healing. Let's continue to take inventory of our own patterns, as we started doing in the introduction post in this series. This is an exercise that I did early on in my personal development work. It was an exercise that Jay Shetty shared in the early days of his Genius Community, and I have passed it along to many clients who have found it helpful since then. 

Suggested Exercise:

  • Make a list of all of the negative experiences in your life. Fun, right? Stick with me, it gets better. Most likely, the list starts populating in your mind immediately. These would be past traumas, regrets, and anything else that pops in your mind and is connected to negative emotions such as shame, embarrassment, fear, or pain. This list could contain small things such as conversations you had that hurt your feelings or something big like an abusive relationship. 
  • Once you have the list, you journal about each item on the list. If there is a trauma on your list that you are not safe to work through on your own, please do not attempt to journal about it until you have worked through it with a therapist. Otherwise, you take each event and:
  1. Write about it in detail. What happened, how did it make you feel at the time, and how has it continued to affect you until today?
  2. Cry about it–allow yourself to feel the emotions that it brings up.
  3. Forgive yourself or others. Whoever needs to be forgiven, especially if it’s you, do that. If there is another party involved who you do not feel deserves to be forgiven, that is fine, but you need to find a way to not carry that burden yourself. Allow them to carry the burden. 
  4. Find a new perspective. One of my favorite all time quotes is “Laugh in the places you once cried”. I sat through a group coaching call where the coach literally told somebody who is recounting a traumatic scenario, to picture that in the middle of the scene, a clown appears - or something ridiculous that makes her laugh. That way, each time you recall the event after that, you will laugh instead of experiencing whatever the other negative emotions were. This is kind of a ridiculous example, but the idea is that you have allowed that event to negatively affect you and your emotions your entire life. From this day on, it is time to experience it in a different way. This exercise challenges you to find what that will be. You don’t have to have a clown jump out, although feel free to use that, but you might ask yourself questions like, “What did I learn from that?”, or “How has that experience changed me?”, or “What gifts do I have because that happened to me?”. You might even find a way to feel grateful for something that previously had you feeling bitter or angry. Imagine how that could change you, replacing bitterness for gratitude in one of the deepest parts of you. Not to quote the movie, but real change happens from the inside out, and this is where it starts. 

Additional Reading: 

Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Charmine

No Bad Parts by Richard C. Schwarz PhD


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