Working Towards an Integrated, Empowered Self: How EMDR can pair with parts work therapy

When a person has unresolved pain, trauma or loss, they are often left feeling fragmented.  One part of them might long for connection, the other part keeps people at a safe distance and pushes loved ones away.  One part of the person might be very professional and “put together” at work, but then may come home and be very emotionally dysregulated in their intimate relationships. Even their memories are fragmented and disjointed.  This is all a very natural response to unresolved trauma and we now know more about the brain and recovery from pain than ever before.  My two favorite approaches to trauma recovery are EMDR therapy and parts work.  Therapies that help work with different parts recognize that we all have different parts of ourselves that might show up at different times or under different types of stress.  When a person has unresolved trauma or internal conflict, these parts of ourselves might get bigger and more at odds with one another. Doing parts work can help us resolve internal conflict and restore a sense of an empowered self.  EMDR therapy helps to reprocess and integrate memories that have not yet been resolved.  When something disturbing happens and does not get fully processed, that memory is stored in isolation.  In addition, all the aspects of that memory are also stored in isolation, the beliefs we hold about ourselves as a result, the emotions, the body sensations, our five sense perception, all of that is also fragmented.  EMDR can help these memories and the aspects of those memories to become integrated and to be stored in the frontal lobes (our thinking brain) rather than our limbic system (the animal or flight or fight response brain).

EMDR can pair extremely well with parts work therapies as both work towards integration and a feeling of being whole.  One of my favorite therapies that works with different parts is Internal Family Systems which categorizes the parts of ourselves into Exiles, Managers and Firefighters.  The exiled parts of us are often younger parts of ourselves, or what other therapies have called “the inner child.” We all have one.  When there is unresolved conflict, often times our exiled parts hold pain, shame, rage, or unprocessed grief.  These parts can become bigger when we feel that our needs are not being met or we are trying to get care.  These are the parts of us that make us feel the most isolated from ourselves and feel that we do not belong with others. Although we often are frustrated with these parts of ourselves, they are important as they hold our desire for connection and vulnerability, but at times, these parts can be extremely dysregulated and they can push people away.

If we have exiled parts of us, we usually will develop managers.  These are the parts of ourselves that internalized a critical parent or caregiver. Although their intention is often to protect us from more vulnerable emotions and parts, they can be the critical, pessimistic, judgmental and harsh.  These parts are important because they generally help us function and stay on task, but when they are out of balance, perfectionism and judgment take over the system and we are left with a feeling of never being good enough (which contributes to the exiled parts getting bigger as well).

Inevitably, no matter how good we are at managing our exiles, if they are not properly attended to, those emotions that we have been suppressing will eventually flare up. Picture those old school cartoons where the water is starting to leak through the walls and the character (let’s say it’s Daffy Duck) plugs it up with a finger and then the water begins to come out another leak. Eventually, all ten fingers and toes are trying to stop the water from coming, but it is coming.  Our managers are like Daffy Duck and our Exiles are like the water.  Our emotions WILL come up and when they do, it feels as if we are being flooded.  That’s when we bring in the firefighters.  These are also protectors in the system, but when exiles flare up, they come in to distract or soothe them.  This is where things like fantasy, addictions, self-harm, violence, compulsions, suicidality and dissociations come in.  The emotions held within the exiled parts of ourselves are so overwhelming and the firefighters come in to put those emotions out.  These behaviors often create more internal conflict, more feelings of shame and rejection and so the cycle continues.  These parts are also important to integrate into the system.  They are protectors and they have probably kept the system surviving the unresolved issue or trauma.

Finally, we have the SELF.  The qualities of self are calmness, curiosity, compassion, clarity, courage, creativity, confidence and connection.  Sounds pretty great-right?! Although, the goal is to be in “self” as much as we can, we cannot kick any of our other parts off the island.  This isn’t survivor.  If we try to kick them off, they will only get bigger.  A skilled therapist can help to create a healthy relationship between the various parts of ourselves.  I like the metaphor of all of the parts of ourselves sitting around the campfire while the self (which is like a healthy mix of a protective, nurturing and wise caregiver) mediates, validates, supports and also sets boundaries with the other parts.  It may take some time to develop the qualities of self and that is okay, but the more the different parts can begin to work together and the more we can begin to resolve unresolved memories with a therapy like EMDR, the more we begin to feel empowered and whole and that is truly an amazing transformation to experience.

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