Identity and the Division of Labor

You scratch my parts, I'll scratch yours

Amethysta Herrick
Amethysta Herrick
Patchwork identity - image by the author via Midjourney

In my introduction to Internal Family Systems (IFS), I closed with Richard Schwartz's statement that there are no bad parts. That statement is at the heart of healing through IFS, but may appear cryptic at first.

A part is what IFS names the beliefs we hold, the thoughts we observe, and the actions we perform in particular situations. A part is considered similar to a personality as expressed in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). But unlike dissociated identities, parts exist as a critical component of a whole. That is, a part may hold its own motivations and needs, but it still integrates with a group.

IFS views the group of conflicting motivations in a human mind as a family. We do not choose our families - they are given to us and we must learn to get along with them. If we work together as a group of people, we form more than just a set of individuals - we form a system of existence more capable than any one family member.

Hence the name of the technique: IFS views the human mind as a group of related identities who - when oriented toward a common purpose - has the potential to become more than the sum of its parts. The group could become a system - a family system.

My dissociated identities

When I first read about IFS, the technique made sense immediately. Since I was a child, I could sense the presence of at least two separate entities inside me. One was a protector - a woman or girl named Rebecca. One was a punisher - a man named Frank.

I lived with both separate entities in what appeared to be harmony until my first girlfriend demanded I see a psychologist. She and I were about the same size, and frankly, I coveted her clothes. Because she did not want me wearing her clothes any longer (and allegedly stretching them out), I was to seek professional help.

The psychologist assigned to me by university health services surprised me. He claimed experiencing separate voices in my head was not "normal."

Before that day, I had never thought to speak of the voices because I assumed they were normal - that all people were composed of at least two or three voices. The idea advanced by IFS - identifying a voice, naming it, asking its purpose directly, and listening for an answer - seems obvious.

Until recently, however, I never attempted to ask any voice why it might exist. I suspect there are very good answers seated in childhood trauma, and I probably don't want to hear them - there was a reason I dissociated them. Therapists assured me success in therapy implied "total integration" of the voices, and I feared it.

In light of IFS, however, I claim total integration is a myth. Humans will never have only a single part that does everything and agrees with itself consistently. Life itself is conflicting; each situation requires a unique perspective - a part.

Splitting our perception of identity

For practical reasons - whether to discuss IFS or as part of my theory of gender as a mediator between an origin of identity and the social environment, the nature of the origin of identity is irrelevant. Whether biological, social, or spiritual, it suffices that the origin of identity exists, as proved by our self-perception. That is, we know we have an identity because we perceive it.

An important question is: what do we perceive and how do we perceive it?

My personal experience with dissociated identities allows me to accept IFS's theory of identity as parts implicitly. Our inability to know ourselves without some kind of work appears to demonstrate we should not be able to perceive it all at once. The human experience is not to control our perception of identity.

In fact, it appears we do not control our origin of identity, either. If we did, dieting would likely not be so dang hard! Willpower alone clearly cannot change the origin of identity.

We do not develop identity so much as experience an interface with the origin of identity. But we must engage with the origin, learn from it, and find a way to express what we discover within our social environment. To know the identity completely would be to achieve what is called samadhi or nirvana - an enlightened state of oneness with the Universe.

Identity is a campground

The interface we experience is by definition imperfect - it is an interface, after all, not direct experience. I suspect our experience of identity is akin to sitting in a dark tent with holes in the fabric of the walls.

Humans live inside the dark tent, and the origin of identity exists outside. What we perceive are glimpses of identity through holes in our dark tent. But the holes are not large enough to allow free flow of the identity outside to the human inside.

Instead, we perceive identity sequentially, as different aspects of our thoughts, beliefs, and actions, which change as circumstances change. That is, we perceive identity in parts. As we explore our origin of identity, we can learn about it only one part at a time. We must converse with it, learn from it - negotiate with it - and listen to what it tells us very carefully.

My opinion is dissociated identities are no different from parts. Where it differs is the level of integration. A person who has not dissociated identities views the origin of identity only through one wall - the holes in the fabric are relatively close together.

My experience with the origin of identity requires turning toward new walls - the holes in the fabric are far apart. One identity may be capable of interfacing with the origin to the complete exclusion of the others. They are less integrated - less leakage occurs between dissociated identities than parts.

Receiving knowledge from the unknown

A key component of a meditative practice is the ability to stop the flow of information - both outgoing and incoming. We attempt to still our thoughts and do what comes very hard to humans - certainly those in Western society: we listen to the background noise.

By opening up, peering inside, and allowing ourselves simply to hear, we can learn fantastic things. Techniques such as Gestalt Therapy and Jungian Dream Analysis demonstrate clearly that we possess knowledge we didn't know we possess. With that knowledge, we can understand ourselves far better than we ever could by assuming what's in our heads is all there is.

And so we converse with our parts in IFS. We stop and listen instead of attempting to direct. We receive information instead of attempting to define it. We nurture a connection with ourselves and complete a purpose we didn't realize could even exist.

What we cannot understand framed as a single purpose becomes clear when framed as many related purposes. The idea of a human mind composed of only one part with a single direction gives way to the idea that we have multiple methods of understanding our social environment - and the prominent method depends on circumstances.

Parts as human experience

Empirical evidence indicates broad commonality of parts. There are common threads of knowledge in humans and common purposes for our parts. This commonality makes sense - each of us is a member of a society, each of us must integrate into it, and each of us faces similar challenges doing so.

Where dissociative disorders push problems and their associated knowledge and solutions off to the side to prevent continuing damage from an initial trauma, they are still a part of the whole, albeit loosely. We began with the statement no experience of a part is bad: every experience is only a lesson, each part only a teacher. Our individual, subjective experience of identity is derived from how difficult each lesson is to learn.

This is not to dismiss the trauma each of us experiences. It is to honor it - without a part to own each trauma, process it, and protect the family against the fallout, we would likely not survive long as humans.

Parts exist both as defense mechanism and worker unions. An analogy from computer science is to view parts as just another thread spun up to perform the background tasks each of us must perform.

To our benefit, parts do the grunt work of living and learning. Parts divide the labor of life and love. By embracing them, we enable ourselves to live longer, learn more, and experience existence more fully.


Amethysta Herrick

Ami is a transgender woman dedicated to exploring identity and gender. She is Editor-in-Chief of Purplepaw Publications, LLC.

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