We all have aspects of ourselves that help us to live in a changing and often unpredictable world. These parts of us manifest differently in each individual, but we all have them. They typically are represented by certain emotions, such as fear, anger, joy, strength, shame, etc. You might have a “fearful” part of you that comes out when you think of test-taking, public speaking, or other arena where you might be judged. Alternatively, you might have a “fun-loving” part that comes out when you are with loved ones or playing with a child. These parts are always inside you, but you are connected with different parts depending on the context you are in.
During stressful times, you might be connected with only your negative parts, and your positive ones lie dormant. It is easy for these negative parts to feel like they are taking over, causing a barrage of negative thoughts such as: “I am a failure,” “Why do I keep doing this?,” “What an idiot!” and feelings of dread, confusion, anger or nervousness. These feelings can be obvious or they can present themselves covertly through pain, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, etc. Individuals go to great lengths to “get rid” of these symptoms from over-expression of the negative parts.
Unlike negative parts, positive ones (represented by curiosity, joy, happiness, peace, fun, courage, assertiveness, generosity, forgiveness, etc.) fill us up and give energy, vitality, closer relationships, trust, balance, etc. These parts are healing psychologically and physically. When connected to these positive parts, they tend to feed into more and more positive experiences and opportunities.
Frequently, when individuals are distressed, I will ask help them to identify their parts. The parts become clear through the types of thoughts that are happening. In fact, the theme of the thoughts is what “feeds” the part. For example, if a client tells me that their internal dialogue includes, “You are so stupid!”, “You don’t know anything”, and “You can’t even remember where your keys are, you are such an idiot!” This might be an expression of an angry or self-doubting part. If this part is fed (by allowing more thoughts with this doubting/angry theme), it is likely to cause anger, sadness, low self-esteem, amongst other problems.
Alternatively, if someone is stress-free, they might tell me that their internal dialogue includes, “You did such a good job!,” “You tried your best and it paid off,” and “You can’t remember where your keys are, silly you!” This might be an expression of an encouraging or light-hearted part. These thoughts are likely to at best, increase self-esteem, happiness, and energy. At worst, they might cause a smile or laughter at losing one’s keys.
So, cognitively, this is easy to understand. Feed the positive parts! In practice however, it is much harder and less compelling to feed the positive parts. It’s similar to creating and sticking to a healthy goal of quitting smoking. Like smoking, we get addicted to our negative parts and we forget how to think in positive ways. Quitting smoking and negative thinking takes mindfulness, discipline and some work. It takes the choice to do something differently, such as choosing to not listen to those negative thoughts or challenging them. Afterwards, it takes the choice to insert positive thoughts (or exceptions to the negatives) to feed the positive parts.
In order to have happiness in our lives, we need not eradicate the negative emotions (that go along with the negative parts), but allow them to work in harmony with our positive ones. Concern and anger can be appropriate and helpful in some contexts, and devastating in others. If we are mindful of what’s going on with our emotions and thoughts, we can choose which part will be most helpful to feed.