Our Whole Self (the sum of our parts)

One of the most resounding takeaways from my graduate education experience was one very simple idea. A professor once told me about the profound impact of employing the word “and” in place of “but” when talking with clients (and when in self-reflection). At first, I was confused – how could such a small shift make any difference at all? Won’t we still be grappling with all the same problems, fears, and dilemmas? As I practiced it more and continued to explore this, I came to understand why this matters so much. Now, years after first considering this idea, I believe it can be life-changing.

Most of my clients initially come to me struggling with extreme internal conflict, feeling immense pressure to make a choice about what they want, feel, and think, even asking me what is or isn’t “okay,” or "normal." Somehow, many of us have come to believe that in order to get through life, we have to have rigid, singular feelings, desires, and beliefs. And they have to be “right” in order to be loved and accepted in the world. So, if we’re not careful, my clients and I can get stuck in a circular discussion, going back and forth between one side or another: “I appreciate my job, but I really hate being there lately.” “I love my partner, but I feel resentful and sometimes wonder if there’s someone better for me.” “I’m grateful for what my parents have given me, but I’m angry with them.” “I feel hurt by my best friend, but I don’t want to be ‘needy.’” “I care about school, but I’m exhausted and don’t have the energy.” And then we go back and forth trying to decide which stance to take. You get the idea.

Though over-simplified, these are some relatively light, general examples of what happens for most of us. Often our internal struggles come from much darker or more wounded, fearful places. We expect ourselves to make a choice, to identify with one belief or opinion, commit to it, and subsequently feel resolved. To “just figure it out” and “get over it.” A lot of shame and worry can come up when we have thoughts and feelings that contradict what we perceive as “right.” We are so concerned about what we “should” feel/think/want/do before allowing ourselves to be curious and accepting towards the multiplicity of our true experience. So we miss out on some important things.

The reality is, we are too beautifully complex to actually be able to choose only the assumed “correct” way to feel. This expectation often leads to tremendous anxiety, as we can become stricken with shame or confusion (“what’s wrong with me that I feel this way?”), and then attempt to neglect, deny, and bury other truths about ourselves and our experience. These truths, these feelings, are parts of us that play a role within us. They are telling us that something matters to us, are trying to accomplish something (even if it's not working well). And if they've been denied long enough, they will arise again in some form and demand to be heard, likely in more uncomfortable, dysfunctional, or harmful ways.

What might happen if we allow ourselves, at any given moment, to feel one way AND another way, and maybe even another way, too? Right now, as I write this, there’s a part of me that is deeply longing to articulate and effectively express these ideas in writing (this is the part of me that strives to achieve goals). There’s another part of me that is afraid I won’t “do it right,” and wants it to be perfect – a standard I can’t live up to (the part that wants to be proud of my work). There is another part of me that feels vulnerable and anxious about posting this, that worries that others will criticize or judge it (the part that wants to protect myself from rejection or pain). There’s another part of me that doesn’t care about this at all right now, because I’m tired, and would maybe prefer to be doing something else (the part that has other priorities or values rest/downtime). And there is a part of me that feels totally confident in the power of these concepts, and wants to share them even if it’s clunky (the part that feels deeply connected to my work). All at the same time. I welcome every single one of these parts – they are all real, valid, and true in this moment. And despite their differences, they all make sense to me and I have compassion for all of them. I don’t expect myself to “pick one and stick to it.” No single one is in the driver’s seat, and I feel pretty okay. I may have made the decision to write this post, but I'm not trying to control exactly how I feel about it in a given moment. Which actually makes writing this a lot easier.

Time and time again, when my clients grapple with conflicting feelings like this, if asked the simple question, “is there room for all of this to be true?,” they inevitably breathe a big sigh of relief. This concept has proved to be extremely helpful. I have a client who is in the midst of writing a novel. While he is deeply passionate about writing, he has historically been quite hard on himself when he lacks motivation, resents the process, feels stuck, or is distracted. He tells himself that he “should always want to write,” and starts to draw huge conclusions about his character and life’s purpose when he struggles: “I’m not a real writer. I was never meant to do this. I should just give up. Great writers don’t feel this way.” My client begins to fully subscribe to these beliefs in the moment, while simultaneously attempting to push away the feelings of distraction, stuckness, etc. This wastes so much precious energy. And it doesn’t even come close to encompassing his whole truth. Underneath it all, a few important things are clear: my client is passionate about writing, he really wants to produce something he is proud of, he would prefer to enjoy the process all the time, sometimes he struggles, and he has other things in his life that need his attention. These truths, among many others, make up his whole self. As we’ve talked more about this concept of welcoming our full experience – all of the conflicting and varying feelings – he’s noticed a shift. He said to me the other day, “I’m starting to bring my ‘full self’ to the process, and it seems to be making it easier. When I allow myself to just notice when I’m struggling, and I’m patient with myself, writing is a lot more approachable.” Lately, he’s been less anxious, and writing more often. That’s pretty cool!

The more I practice this with myself and with my clients, I have unfailingly found that welcoming all of the parts of ourselves and our experience promotes compassion, distress tolerance, resiliency, self-awareness, inner-peace, and authenticity. It opens up space for us to connect with our real selfhood and the depths of our human experience, to live a truly authentic life with a fundamental sense of stability. Acknowledging all of the truths about how we feel does not mean we are declaring something as 100% good or bad, nor does it mean we are allowing one part to run the show. (And if you really think about it, when we exert a bunch of energy trying to deny or shed an uncomfortable feeling, that feeling definitely has the control in that moment.) Rather, this act of including all of our parts is simply inviting us to be curious about ourselves, and to listen to the ways that each part reflects what matters to us. It allows us to learn about what they are attempting to do, and maybe shift them to be more helpful or successful.

The bottom line: we are complex beings with the capacity to feel multiple conflicting things at one time, and when we are able to comfortably navigate the world from this place – in which all of the parts of ourselves are recognized, understood, and in a productive ‘role,’ – we are much more balanced and healthy. We are embracing our real selfhood… our Whole Self.

Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), Internal Family Systems (IFS), and The Re-Creation of the Self (R-CS) are three therapeutic models that I have been most drawn to over the years, and I’ve come to understand why they each speak to me. They all share this same underlying assumption: that we all inherently have a Whole Self. Our Whole Self has innate wisdom and drive towards healing and growth. We are made up of many parts that manifest in a variety of ways and on a wide spectrum from “healthy” to “unhealthy.” Each of these parts is pursuing something existentially important to us, and when they are embraced and integrated (all working together productively), this cultivates the felt sense of embodying our Whole Self. It is a center of energy within us that feels truly equipped to navigate the uncertainty and wonder of life.

Stay tuned for a follow up post with a breakdown of these concepts and the three theories mentioned above in more detail!