The “Parts” of Trauma

Making Peace with Psychological Injury

According to the Oxford English dictionary, one of the definitions of the word trauma is “personal injury”. Defining, describing and sharing our individual experiences of trauma has become part of the collective consciousness of humanity, paving the way for healing to occur.

One innovative approach to working with and healing trauma developed over the past forty years is what its creator, Dr. Richard Schwartz, has termed Internal Family Systems therapy.

Schwartz began his professional work as a family therapist and stumbled into the discovery that our minds are made up of “parts” that each have a voice in our heads that comprise subpersonalities. He views the human mind as representing a multiplicity of the psyche. How often do we talk about an internal conflict and say something like “Well part of me wants to go, but another part of me wants to avoid it?”

When Schwartz’s evidence-based “parts” approach is applied to a post-traumatic experience, its potential power for healing becomes clear. In particular, when traumatized as children by sexual or physical abuse, or caregiver abandonment, parts of our mind can be exiled from their orbit around the Self with a capital “S”. Schwartz describes the parts of our minds as being like the planets of the solar system circling around the Sun. The Sun represents the True Self, the Core Self, or the Soul. When a part is ejected from its natural orbit due to overwhelming trauma-related emotions and thoughts, the entire solar system of our minds becomes out of balance, like some Planet X exerting a hidden gravitational pull.

Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS, has been shown to be effective for treating depression, anxiety disorders and conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. In a recent study by Haddock et al, they found some preliminary evidence for the efficacy of IFS in treating depression in a small group of college women. Much more empirical data on the effectiveness of IFS is needed. It would be interesting to hear Schwartz’s thoughts on the subject of mind-body healing in relation to his theory on various parts of the psyche.

To understand all of the “parts” of our mind, trauma therapy must approach each part with compassionate inquiry (to borrow a term used by Gabor Mate). It must be underscored that all trauma work, including addictions, must be approached with a great deal of compassion and curiosity in order for healing to occur. The skilled therapist working from an intrapsychic model like Schwartz’s, helps the traumatized patient to reunite the injured, wounded and exiled parts that became frozen in time at the moment of emotional or soul injury.

When trauma dwelling in the exiled parts re-surfaces to conscious awareness, we need to acknowledge and attend to it in order to heal. The re-surfacing can take the form of trauma-related recurrent nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. Given that flashbacks are so frequently a feature of anxiety disorders like PTSD, it can be helpful to apply Schwartz’s understanding of flashbacks being akin to mental hand grenades lobed by an exiled part of our minds to remind us that we need to do the work of integrating a traumatic experience. The expression “pay now or pay later” leaps to mind, which magnifies what we in the mental health profession know all too well. We must process and find a way to integrate the trauma or the trauma will process us. Essentially, we must find a way to make peace with psychological injury which can often be best achieved by utilizing a multi-modality treatment approach.

Suggested Reading and Resources

Gabor Mate (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.

Haddock et al., “The Efficacy of Internal Family Systems Therapy in the Treatment of Depression Among Female College Students: A Pilot Study.” (2016). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jmft.12184

James F. Zender, PhD (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident: The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Psychology Today. “Internal Family Systems Therapy.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/internal-family-systems-therapy

Richard C. Schwartz, PhD (2001). Introduction to Internal Family Systems Model.

Richard C. Schwartz, PhD (2008). You are the One You’ve Been Waiting For.

Richard C. Schwartz, PhD (2008). No Bad Parts.

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Dr. James Zender

Dr. James Zender is the author of “Recovering From Your Car Accident” now available on Amazon.