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When Different Parts of You Want Different Things

Chaos Inside

“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” ~Buddha

I’d like you to meet someone. He’s me and he’s not me. What I mean is, he’s inside me—a part of me.

His story goes something like this: “I need to be the best at whatever I do, but no matter how hard I work, I will never be the best because the world is unfair.”

For most of my life he’s been carrying around this impossible task, and it has really weighed me down. He’s caused me a lot of pain and anxiety, and sometimes I’d like to get rid of him.

Rather, some other part of me wants to get rid of him.

Now I’d like you to meet that other part. He’s me and he’s not me.

His story goes like this: “Ambition causes us nothing but pain. We need to stop striving and devote ourselves entirely to a more spiritual path, even if it means giving up some of the things we’re passionate about.”

These two parts, both inside me, have had some knock-down, drag-out fights, let me tell you. It can get so heated that sometimes I decide it’s best to stay out of it.

And that’s part of the problem.

You see, we all have many parts inside us, and some have been with us most of our lives. There are two things we don’t want to do in our relationship with our parts, but which we tend to do: (1) let them take over; (2) exile them.

Our parts mean well—they believe that they’re helping us—but often they operate out of shame and fear. And so when we allow them to take over, they do more damage than good—despite their best intentions.

The part of me that operates through extreme ambition and competition really does believe that he’s trying to protect me from experiencing failure, disappointment, and shame. The part of me that operates through extreme spirituality—almost competitively so—is trying to protect me from the same things.

The spiritual part wants to get rid of the ambitious part, calling him an ego-driven narcissist. The ambitious part wants to get rid of the spiritual part, calling him an overbearing idealist. And neither wants me to write about this—they’re much too invested in how others see me.

They shout at each other and make their cases, asking me to choose one of them to be in charge of my life. When I become exhausted with their fighting and choose one over the other, the exiled part only gets louder and louder. Try to imagine them as two children having a battle of wills, asking their parent to choose between them.

What these parts don’t know is that they’re not protecting me—my true self, who doesn’t know shame—but other parts of me, who have their own stories.

As you can see, it can get pretty crowded inside you. But over time, you can get to know—and love—your most prominent parts. Here’s how.

1. Learn to recognize when your parts are trying to take over.

The warning signs are fear, anxiety, shame, extreme anger, and other strong feelings of unease. Rather than allowing these feelings to overwhelm you, or running away from them, try to see them as messages from one or more of your parts that are asking for your attention.

2. Listen to your parts.

What they want before all else is to have their stories heard by someone who will listen and understand. They may want to tell you—or they may be afraid to tell you—when they first showed up in your life and why. Your true self, who is compassionate, calm, and curious, is the ideal listener.

3. Mirror your parts and validate that their stories make perfect sense given their life experiences.

I might say to one of my parts, “I understand why you see life as a competition,” or I might say to another part, “It makes sense that you want to go live in a monastery and meditate all day.” There should be no buts, no reasons why the parts shouldn’t feel the way they do.

4. Show them compassion.

It’s almost always the case that our parts are suffering, and have been for a very long time. They’re often frustrated and exhausted and afraid. It goes a long way to say to them, “Wow, that must be hard to carry around that burden all the time.”

5. Thank them for trying to help you—even if their methods haven’t always been the best ones.

The last thing you want to do is scold a part for messing up. When we shame or exile our parts, especially our darker parts, they have a better chance of taking over our lives when we least expect them to.

6. Reassure them that you’re in charge and that you don’t need them to do their jobs anymore.

Try to remember that their impossible jobs—to be the best, to be spiritually perfect, to avoid pain—have become burdensome, and they are exhausted. They really do want to give up these jobs and turn things over to you.

7. But our parts want to know that they’re still needed, and so you don’t want to fire them but give them new jobs. 

For example, my ambitious part really is good at working hard, and he can keep doing that, as long as he knows that his job isn’t to be the best. And my spiritual part really is good at connecting with a higher purpose, and he can keep doing that, as long as he knows that it isn’t his job to be perfect or to banish any other parts.

8. Maintain a close connection with your parts.

Try to recognize them as soon as possible when they show up—and they will, believe me. Our parts need their stories to be heard again and again, maybe for the rest of our lives.

I realize that all of this might sound a little strange to you—talking about parts as if they’re separate from us. In truth, they’re not separate, but sometimes we need more separation from them.

The best way for your true self to be in charge is to separate from your parts while letting them know that you’re still there, close by.

Because I’m a writer and have had a lot of practice using my imagination, it’s been natural for me to visualize my parts. They tend to look like me at the age I was when they first showed up—usually when I was a child. Seeing them as separate from me, especially as children, allows me to access genuine compassion for them.

The work I’ve done with my “internal family” has been some of the most important, rewarding, and spiritual work I’ve ever done. I encourage you to be open-minded and give it a try. It may turn out to be one of the best things you ever do.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

Avatar of Nicholas Montemarano

About Nicholas Montemarano

Nicholas Montemarano is the author of two novels, "The Book of Why" (2013) and "A Fine Place" (2002), and a short story collection, "If the Sky Falls" (2005). Visit him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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  • friend forever

    Wow! Nicholas…. it’s a fascinating article. I just loved it! I think it clearly shows that we, as humans, are all multi-faceted and no one part- one aspect of ourselves- can have the upper hand over others or dominate them. All these parts constitute us and they are there to teach us something.

    After reading your article, I am very excited about finding out my parts and what stories they hold. I am very excited to discover and embrace the multi-faceted me!

    Peace and wishes :)

  • David

    Nicholas I really connected with your trail of thought here and I appreciate the imaginative way you’ve outlined the struggle some of us face. Once you commit to exploring the spiritual path it truly does make you question the life you’ve led before and your motivations. In fact its made me question a great deal about the person i have been and i’ve already embarked upon the process of reconciling my daily life with a deeper understanding of myself. This is really challenging at times but having space to accept the different sides of our nature is crucial and great advice. Thank you for this timely contribution.

  • lv2terp

    I LOVE this post!!! Fantastic writing, great analogy, visualization, tips, and wisdom! This is great Nicholas! :) I just discovered the concept of my thoughts being my roommate, and this takes it to the next level. You are so clear and concise in your description, thank you for sharing this!

  • Michelle

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve identified, labelled, named, categorized, and analysed different parts of myself for a long time, but have never found a way to reconcile the different voices. Your approach sounds interesting and valuable. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/GoalsHappenHere Goals Happen Here

    Holding two (or more!) conflicting thoughts and feelings at the same time is a challenge….

  • fellow parts worker :)

    http://www.amazon.com/Parts-Work-Illustrated-Guide-Inner/dp/0979889707 A great book for delving into your parts – although, I would recommend working with someone in terms of very pained parts… it’s a great system that I value & cherish as well!

  • simplysarah

    It’s amazing how this site always seems to post what I need to read right when I need to read it. Thank you.

  • Dianna

    Dearest Nicholas…thank you so much for this post! You are spot on with this….our inner children (parts) are so fragile and need so much attention. Excellent job!

  • Amna

    Uncanny timing :) Great post!

  • Elora Nelson

    Wow, its like you’ve taken the confusion and mess of feelings that I have been experiencing and put them into a beutifully crafted story. Than you for this post

  • http://twitter.com/nesoxochi nesoxochi

    I am having an intense battle of my parts and it helps so much to know that I’m not the only one that experiences this. :)

  • KB
  • KB
  • Incandescent

    This is the best post I’ve read on this site.

  • eloi

    hahha this is to funny. just last night i was sitting in a practical philosophy class talking about human essence and that we all have a voice inside us that is wise. I asked the question as to which voice is the wise one since i seem to have 3 voices in my head. The ego, the spiritual and then the mediator. Now i wake up this morning and i find this article on facebook speaking exactly about this topic. hahahahaha gotta love how life works sometimes. I guess this is what the biddha meant by the truth is about balance in life and in head.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    So glad it resonated with you. This kind of work with our parts makes so much sense to me.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    It’s staggering and funny sometimes how many parts there are inside us…

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    Thanks so much—I’m really glad it spoke to you. It can feel vulnerable to reveal this kind of truth about ourselves, so I’m glad you connected with it.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    They can really get activated, huh. And cause turmoil. They’re really looking for attention—like kids.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    I’m so glad this spoke to you. And good luck with what you’re working through. Maybe start by listening to the feelings and letting them have their say.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    I’m glad this might be as useful to you as it has been to me. I’ve had a great teacher in this regard.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    Thank you so much for your response. I’m so glad it spoke to you!

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    I’m glad you connected with it. And yes, yes, it’s challenging. These parts keep coming around…

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    Thanks, and best of luck!

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    Thanks—I’m glad you liked it!

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    I’ve heard of this book, yes, thanks for the reminder.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    Glad for the nice connection at the right time…

  • Vicky

    Thank you Nicholas – this was really timely for me too…and so true! It prompted me to write down all my conflicting versions of myself and can easily find 3 that are having a bit of a fight just now! :)

  • Korvin

    Just what I needed to read today. Thank you.

  • justme

    There’s the part of me that wants to tell you how much I connected with this and then there’s a part of me that’s telling me to just keep it simple and write “thanks”. Since it’s bedtime, I think I’ll stick with the latter. The part of me that wants to go to sleep is very persuasive. Thanks :)

  • Vijayalakshmi04

    Wonderfully written! I can relate to this inner struggle and to the tips you have given :)

  • nemo

    I was so tired addressing so many different parts of me today morning that it frustrated me not knowing how to take care of myself. I ended up crying. It made me feel better. Sometimes I wish the “so many me’s” just shut up for a while but I never thought of patiently listening to them, counseling them and detaching myself. Funny…one really doesn’t need a therapist if we just are patient enough to listen to ourselves.

  • Guest t

    Thank you for this post. Often I forget that I am not the only one with different voices in my head that compels me to act in such opposite directions to who I think I truly am. And the part about who I truly am gets a bit convoluted almost to a point at times there is a complete loss of identity.

    Your post is a reminder not to judge those conflicting parts of us so harshly and showing some compassion and patience towards ourselves as we would to someone else. It’s strangely much harder to be understanding and considerate towards our own inner struggles, and hush that self-criticising part out for a few moments.

    Practice makes perfect I guess. Shall certainly take on board your insights about dealing with conflicting inner parts; after all they make me who I am.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    So true—much harder not to judge ourselves in these struggles. Good luck and keep practicing. It’s all practice, you never fully arrive.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    You’re right—in the end it’s a kind of self-therapy, or really self-acceptance, self-understanding, self-soothing, self-love. But a very good therapist trained in this can help you practice it.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    Thank you—so glad you connect with it.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    Thank you for your response. I’m so glad you connected with this.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    I’m so glad—thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    You know, being lighthearted about it, as you are, is also really helpful, I’ve found. You come to know your parts so well with practice that when one shows up you almost laugh and say, “Oh, there you are again. Now, didn’t we already have a talk about this?” It can be funny!

  • Richard Schwartz

    Nicholas, I loved your message, in part because it’s beautifully written, but also because it squares so well with a model of psychotherapy I developed called Internal Family Systems (IFS) and I wondered if you were aware of IFS.

  • http://twitter.com/bookofwhy Nicholas Montemarano

    I’m so happy that you wrote. I’ve been practicing IFS for several years now with the guidance of an amazing therapist who trains in IFS. Years ago he recommended your terrific book “You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For.” Recently this practice has really been kicking in for me. IFS makes so much sense it’s hard for me to believe that more people don’t know about it. Thanks for pioneering this approach. I’m a huge advocate for it.

  • Quandra

    This is really insightful and compassionate…one of the best posts I’ve read on this site in a long time. It reminds me of what Zen has taught me: the importance of being present with my self (or selves:-) ) with compassion. Sometimes, my difficult emotional states are like petulant children that only keep screaming until I finally pay gentle attention to them…that’s when they quiet down and teach me something:-)

  • Richard Schwartz

    I’m very honored to learn this and hope our paths cross sometime. In the meantime, I just ordered The Book of Why.

  • Brianna

    Awesome article! Loved the photo! I wonder if crows wage battle with their inner parts? What would that sound like? May the dark black crow lead us into the light of new mornings.

    I agree we all have parts that can wage war with one another at times. Parts that we don’t want to see because its too painful.

    I have an inner critic, his imaginary name is Seymour Shite and he writes imaginary reviews in the New York Times. He often has a blank expression and his head is hollow like a balloon. Sometimes he writes positive reviews. Sometimes they are scathing but his head sooner or later pops with a loud bang. Or it drifts away into sky blue afternoons when his red latex mind is accidentally released from a long white string that is being held by an innocent child.

    I have an inner dreamer who can be selfish at times. I call him the “selfish dreamer” after the character, Tom, in “The Glass Menagerie.”

    I have an inner detective part and an inner therapist part who find it safe to understand, dissect, and diagnose. These parts use Intensive Brianna Systems or (I.B.S.) to try to figure it all out.

    I have an inner guru part who rises above it all. She relies on the Divine Source Manual ∞.

    I have an inner entertainer part and a lonely actor part.

    I have no parts…. there is only the performance of the present moment crumbling before my eyes, heart, ears, hands and mind.

    I wrote this poem about all this. I hope you enjoy my novice poetry.

    -signed,

    all of me

    PS: With regard to the Irritable Bowel Syndrome joke, there is no disrespect meant to Richard Schwartz and his extended frontier family. It’s just a play on acronyms used by modern psychology ex: Seasonal Affective Disorder spells S.A.D. ….too damned funny! My humor has been parttttttttttttially influenced by Daniel Siegel’s work The Mindful Therapist. So a sincere thanks and a hearty laugh to Richard Schwartz, Daniel Siegel, and Nicholas Montemarano.

    And in the words of Vince Offer, who eventually got slapped back by karma, “Life’s hard enough as it is, you don’t want to cry anymore.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUbWjIKxrrs (Slap Chop Commercial)

    The Selfish Dreamer

    The selfish dreamer spirals further and further
    away from his apartment.
    Never noticing how the glass unicorn
    propels prisms of light about the room.
    He seduces himself with stories of windmills, tricksters, and serpents
    and he receives a standing ovation
    at the sold out show.

    The tried and true blue detective
    gathers evidence from the crime scene.
    She tries to profile the criminal
    with bubble gummed wads of hair
    found sticking under the couch.

    Meanwhile,
    the lady with the funny white hat
    beckons from outside the yellow tape.
    She breathes into one nostril and rises over the crime scene
    like David Copperfield over the Grand Canyon.

    The tired, drunk actor returns home
    from his after party
    and stumbles into a cold, dark apartment.
    He kicks off heavy black boots and falls down on the couch.

    Turning on the t.v. ,
    he flips through the channels
    looking for a decent show at 3:00 in the morning.

    Instead, he gets drawn into the Slap Chop infomercial.

    With torn jeans and black leather jacket still on
    his head falls backwards onto the kelly green velvet pillow
    of his pink vintage stained couch.
    He snores loudly
    breathing in and out of constricted airways
    and is awoken
    by the sound of Vince and the Slap Chop commercial.

    Slap Slap Slap Slap Slap

  • Jay

    Hi Nicholas,
    What if you can recognise that there are different and opposing parts within yourself but cannot tell which is the ‘true’ you? E.g. two separate parts want different things for the future such as career, how do you know which is the one YOU really want and which will be genuinely beneficial?