DRMacIver's Notebook

My conception of parts work

My conception of parts work

I was recently talking to Kaj Sotala on discord about what I mean when I say “Self is a part”, and I ended up writing the following set of theses about what I actually believe by tabooing the words “Self” and “part”. I thought I’d capture that here rather than having to search discord for it in future. The following is a lightly edited version of my explanation on Discord.

Your emotional state can exhibit stuck modes, which are essentially a coherent bundle of emotional reactions that it is useful to conceptualise as person-like due to feeling like a discrete entity. The ideal is to have no stuck modes, but this ideal is probably only theoretically achievable.

Most of your broader mental and emotional capabilities do not neatly fit into a discrete set of such stuck modes, but are a more flexibly adoptable and combineable set of underlying mental/emotional resources that you can use to construct attitudes that are appropriate to the present context.

Many emotional problems correspond to stuck modes that are in some way unhappy, and that arose by essentially ossifying a particular set of responses from a past situation and being unable to grow past that point.

A useful set of mental motions is to essentially identify a stuck mode corresponding to a problem and adopt the attitude that that you would have needed from someone else at the time to not get stuck in that mode.

For many stuck modes this attitude corresponds to a sort of boundless love and acceptance. This is particularly likely to be the case for stuck modes that arose in childhood or romantic relationships, because there the problem arose from a lack of love from an external source.

This does not exhaust the possibilities of things that a stuck mode might need. Additionally, due to the way we treat some of our stuck modes, a stuck mode may experience sufficient animosity to the broader self (lower case s - I mean “you overall”, not anything corresponding to the IFS Self) that makes it unacceptable to it that you are the one providing the support it needs.

Untabooing now to explain the relationship: in this terminology, an exile is a “stuck mode”, and “Self” is an attitude (or more likely a range of broadly similar attitudes), which aligns with “Self is not a part” if we want to consider “part” and “stuck mode” synonymous, but I often find it useful to construct temporary unstuck parts, which are essentially attitudes and not stuck modes.

Examples of attitudes that I don’t think are particularly Self-like and help sometimes: Something closer to a mediator part that’s mostly just there to help integrate two stuck modes by acting as an inbetween and asking good questions until they realise that they feel in opposition and are basically on the same side. Something that is more like a mentor than a parent who basically goes “Oh yeah that sucks, shall we figure out what to do about it?” at the part until it’s able to treat its state as a practical problem to be resolved rather than an existential crisis. And all of these have certain Self-like qualities to them (they require kindness, acceptance, etc) but the love is not the primary function.

Constructing a temporary part that is coherent enough to have a conversation with feels like roughly the same skill as coming up with a fictional character for your writing (at least the way I do it), by essentially coalescing an attitude and adding details that feel right until it feels relatively coherent. This is more work than accessing a stuck mode, but it’s not necessarily a lot of work.

Conversely, I think stuck modes are often a bit fuzzy around the edges, and can essentially be dissolved (and indeed IFS often ends up resulting in a process of dissolving them - a healed exile has essentially been dissolved).

The result is that it’s not so much that “Self” and “parts” in the IFS ontology are the same thing as that there is not a clean division between the two things, and there is not a single special state called Self that is fundamentally unlike the parts it’s used to heal.