“Let no one keep you
from your journey.” – Mark Nepo
We hope, so far, we have explained clearly how the development of parts, or self-states, is a natural, automatic process. Whether you had the perfect childhood or a traumatic one, you have a variety of self-states that reflect your upbringing. Whether or not the self-state is helpful or damaging will depend on your perception of your childhood experiences.
When a Part Has Developed to Protect You:
The most important thing to remember about self-states is that they exist for the primary purpose of helping us adapt. In the case of a generally supportive upbringing with typical developmental challenges, self-states are fluid and the individual moves through them moment to moment with relative ease (Bromberg, 1991). This means that your silly, goofy self that likes to imitate cartoon characters, does not show up to entertain your co-workers in the middle of a board meeting when your boss is present.
When one has experienced a challenging or even traumatic childhood, the development of Parts takes on a very different function. In this case, one or more parts form to protect the individual, help them to cope with and/or survive the adversity. Let’s look at another example. Joe was a bright child who excelled in many different areas. He enjoyed and was good at math, and science, but truly LOVED creative arts. He grew up with two very strict, and structured parents.
Because Joe “threw away” his natural creative Part, he was experiencing inner conflict.
His parents tolerated his love of the arts when he was a young child, labeling these interests as “childish.” However, as Joe grew up his parents often criticized shows of creativity and valued only his progress in “serious subjects.” His father once threw away years of collected artwork as a punishment for getting a C on a test. Joe constantly heard messages such as, “That’s no way to make a living,” and, “You won’t get anywhere drawing pictures.” Joe learned over time to stop drawing and put his energy into excelling at Math and Science. As a teen he showed his potential for entrepreneurship – creating a business. He spent hours in his room learning Excel and mastering spreadsheets.
By the time Joe was ready for college, he majored in finance, just like his father, and ultimately landed a high-paying finance job right after graduation. Joe worked in this position for several years, following the rules set by his mentors and bosses, but over time he began to develop feelings of apathy and overall dissatisfaction at work. He could not make sense of these feelings because by societal standards, he had real success.
When Joe sought therapy to understand what he was feeling, he was able to gain insight that rejecting his love for the arts and grinding away at “real subjects,” was how he learned to cope with criticism from his parents and gain their approval. He successfully mimicked his father and introjected his ability to master the financial world, but because Joe “threw away” his natural creative Part, he was experiencing inner conflict. Introjecting his parents allowed Joe to adapt and protect himself from their criticism, but this way of coping left him greatly unhappy in his present life.
Are you connecting to Joe’s experience or wondering how things turn out for him? Well rest assured, after identifying the Part that was cast aside, Joe worked in therapy to reconnect with his creative Part. He began drawing again and exploring other expressive arts in his spare time. He began to develop the inner resources to nurture his creative Part the way he needed as a child and this allowed him to integrate this self-state in a way that brought him joy.
Our upcoming article explains how parts function when something dangerous or scary happens that threatens your mental and/or physical safety.
Bromberg, P. M. (1996). Standing in the spaces: The multiplicity of self and the psychoanalytic relationship. Contemporary psychoanalysis, 32(4), 509-535.