Strangely ironic therapy.
I used to be plural. I'm not anymore, clearly- my entire system fused together to create me in 2021 and the start of 2022. That's probably no surprise if you've wound up at this article. There are a few articles on plurality on my site, and I'd hazard a guess that you poked around a little before clicking on this one.
In a strange twist of fate, my therapist has been using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy with me since then. I'd used techniques from it on my own to work through issues before I fused, but it's been a very different experience using that toolset the second time around. It's put the idea of "ordinary parts" into perspective for me.
Ordinary parts: AKA the title of this article.
Everyone has parts (at least according to IFS). All of a person's parts make up their personality. It's why people can disagree with themselves and hold contradictory opinions. When someone says "well, part of me wants to do this, but part of me doesn't", it's for a reason. There are parts of them that really do disagree.
Internal Family Systems therapy relies on the existence of these parts. It suggests that as we grow up, we're taught to hide some parts of ourselves and emphasize others. When we survive a traumatic event or events, our parts are forced to adapt. They may take on extreme roles in order to protect the personality they're a part of. IFS's goal is to help these parts move into less extreme roles and resolve the pain they're holding from the past.
But wait, that sounds like plurality.
It does, doesn't it? There are a lot of similarities on the surface. Parts exist with their own beliefs and opinions, and they have different attitudes towards one another. They can take control of behavior when triggered. They can be spoken to and worked with. That sounds a hell of a lot like plurality, and I used to think that it was just therapy for closeted systems. I know I'm not the only one who's wondered whether more people are plural than statistics would let on.
It turns out that I was completely wrong about IFS being an obviously plural thing. There's a pretty major difference between when I started using IFS techniques pre-fusion and when I returned to them post-fusion. For one, I was given a new definition of parts by my therapist, and it was a little different than I expected. Parts are memories, emotions, physical sensations, patterns, thoughts, and all sorts of other little tidbits rattling around your brain that you regard as unpleasant. They're a personification of where your symptoms and traits come from. Do you have the recurring thought of "I'm worthless?" IFS says that's a part. Do you feel irrationally angry when you see a trigger? That anger is a part too. Feel compelled to help everyone? You know the drill.
The book I was given on IFS is "We All Have Parts!" by Colleen West, and it describes this well (emphasis mine):
Sometimes on our own and sometimes with the help of a therapist, we can learn to turn towards our autonomic defenses, old memories, and painful experiences- but this time, because there are now resources for healing those exiled hurting places in us, they can come forward without overwhelming our whole being.
How? We do this by naming and coming to know our symptoms as communications from 'parts' of ourselves, which they are! We learn to be curious about them because, believe it or not, all 'parts' have been trying to help us the only way they know how.
On the next page, it refers to parts like this again:
We get to know our symptoms- the 'parts' of ourselves we have turned away from- in a new way. [...] The goal is not to get rid of symptoms, but to understand what they have been trying to do for us. Nor do we want to get rid of parts. Bear in mind, even though every single human alive has parts, those of us with histories of trauma, abuse, and neglect have parts that carry heavy burdens of hurt and shame. They took on those burdens and extreme roles at a time when there was nobody there to help.
Internal Family Systems' idea of parts is noticeably different from plural parts. An IFS part might be as simple as lower back tension and the feeling of anxiety. It might be the urge to binge-eat when upset. It's more accurate to call them states of a person than their own entities.
But Owl, that still sounds sort of plural.
Maybe it does on paper. In practice, it feels totally different to me.
When I used IFS techniques pre-fusion, I was working with my selves in the most literal sense possible. These selves had their own names, opinions, ages, genders, internal appearances, the whole identity smorgasbord. Even the less elaborated selves acted in ways that a non-plural person's parts don't. They swapped control of my body. They chattered in the background 24/7. They distinctly felt like not-me. There was no question about their existence being a plural experience- it went far beyond the idea of "ordinary parts". As a result, it was easy to work with them. I could identify a part with little effort and target them, and they had the agency and independence to make it a complete dialogue.
"Hey," I might say to one of them who was screaming at me, "you've been telling me that I'm a worthless bitch all day today. I hear you and I know you mean well by it. You must have a good reason to call me that. What do you need from me right now?"
And then Mr. Worthless Bitch-Caller, who was a bespectacled gangle of a metalhead, would peer down at me in my head and sneer. "You don't understand at all. You deserve this, you piece of shit. No one likes you and they're right not to. You muck everything up."
"Ah, you're worried that people will reject me if I keep doing what I am now," I'd say, and he'd give me a snobby nod, adjusting his spectacles. "That's a totally understandable fear. We've been hurt before when people rejected us, haven't we? I don't want to be rejected either. Could we take a moment to see if this is actually a threat right now, though?" Another nod, a bit softer this time. "No one's hurt us today for it, but let's check our memory and see. If it's not as dangerous as you thought, then would you be okay stepping back and watching? I promise you can step in and stop me if you see any actual danger of rejection."
Once it was established that it was very unlikely we'd be hurt for that behavior, he'd back off and allow me to continue on with the day (or, alternatively, he'd boot the rest of us out of the body and force the matter; he was fully capable of doing so against everyone's will if he felt like it). Easy-peasy, repeat a thousand times over until we got somewhere, dealing with Mr. Worthless Bitch-Caller's idiosyncrasies and opinions the whole time. There's no question in my mind that I was using IFS in a distinctly plural way, and that my selves didn't fit into the usual idea of parts held by non-plural patients and therapists the world over.
"It's spiky, I guess?"
It's very different now. Finding a part to work with is much harder, let alone zeroing in on them and working with them. It feels like I'm coaxing myself into various self-states in order to find the emotion or thought that needs to be worked with. Take, for example, last week's therapy session. I'd been talking about fears related to emotional vulnerability, and my therapist decided it was a good time to target the part of me associated with that fear. It went something like this.
Therapist: "Do you feel anything in your body when you think about that part of yourself?"
Me, digging into my emotional state: "...I guess my upper back hurts? It feels... I don't know, kind of spiky, or like a- shield isn't the right word, maybe a wall?"
Therapist, writing something down: "Spiky... what does this part look like?"
Me: "I don't know, like... a porcupine, I guess? You know, with all those spines, curled up so you don't want to touch it? It's spiky like that."
Therapist: "Could you ask this part what it needs from you right now?"
Me: "I have the strong thought of 'stay away'."
Therapist: "That's probably another part, not the spiky one." (She was right, but I wouldn't have noticed that on my own. No clue what tipped her off about it.)
And on it went. After a half hour, I'd been run through three indistinct parts of myself and ridden an emotional rollercoaster. I'd felt like I was emotionally ripped open upon being asked what one part had to tell me, then felt that grief drain away when the "stay away" part of me interfered, then almost cried again, then returned to neutral. The wild thing was that it all felt like me. Not once did I feel like a part was foreign to myself or outside of my control. Rather than being their own individuals inside me, my parts felt like a convenient way to describe my emotional states and thought patterns.
It was a polar contrast to when I'd used the same techniques on myself pre-fusion. Parts had been literal entities before. They were individuals that I could work with as peers inside my head, peers that had their own worldviews and self-concepts. Even the ones that were me had some degree of separate identity and agency. After fusing, I wasn't working with peers. I was engaging with my own body sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and it took effort. Personifying them felt foreign. It was one of those moments of "huh, that's different" where you realize that things won't be the same going forward.
A whole new world (cue Aladdin kareoke).
Plural parts and non-plural parts are different. I'd known it before fusing, sure, but it's another thing to feel it for yourself. They function differently. One is "parts of me", the other is "parts with me". One emphasizes unity, the other emphasizes separation. One is you, and the other one isn't. I could go on about that all day, but the long and short of it is that plural parts and non-plural parts are wildly different experiences despite their apparent similarities.
My parts are a lot more nebulous now. They flow together like water in a river, all the streams rushing into each other and fully sharing the space. It's not that the streams coexist perfectly alongside each other; it's that everything is so shared between them that there's no streams at all. There are no boxes. There are no walls. It's all just water flowing in various directions.
I'm learning that this is how most of the world experiences their parts. The parts are there, and they play their roles in the overall personality, but they're all the same person in a way that even medians don't match. They flow together so smoothly that "parts" more closely refers to a personification of self-states rather than a literal entity. Half the work of IFS is identifying parts at all. It's a new world for me.
I suppose the point of this whole ramble is to say that the a non-plural experience of parts isn't quite what I expected, and that the "everyone has parts" argument against plurality is bullshit. Yeah, everyone has parts. Not everyone has parts that have their own identities, and certainly not parts that hijack the body and steal your lunch. Most people's parts are their fluid self-states, not their own individuals. Don't be the jerk who thinks they know better than a stack of academic literature and a whole community's lived experiences. Yaddah yaddah, so on and so forth. Good night, eat your vegetables, and get a waterpick if flossing is hard for you. Seriously, it saved me so much pain. My dentist is proud.