Parts Work

What is Parts Work for Trauma?

Have you ever used the phrase “well, a part of me feels ____” ? If so, parts work may be a good therapeutic fit for you. Parts work refers to a collection of therapeutic models that believe individuals are made up of distinct parts in addition to a core self. Each model differs slightly in terminology and conceptualization of the types of parts. Typically, the goal of parts work is to bring conflicting parts into harmony and to live from a greater sense of “self.” 

In parts work, clients work with a therapist to identify protective parts. These parts can show up in ways that hurt such as a harsh inner critic part, a perfectionist part, or a shameful and guilty part.  Though these parts don't always make us feel good, they are often trying to help meet a need. Other parts feel good and helpful such as a creative part, a rational part, or a humorous part. In Internal family systems (IFS), one model of parts work, there is the motto - “there are no bad parts” -  meaning all parts have a job to do and while they may not make us feel good they are trying to help us in one way or another. 

The extremity of parts exists on a spectrum. Often when introduced to parts work, dissociative identity disorder (DID) comes to mind. From a parts work lens, DID is an example of greater dissociation of parts from the self.

How Does Parts Work Help?

Parts work has been found to increase self compassion, normalize reactions to stressors and trauma rather than pathologizing with a diagnosis, and create greater awareness and understanding of self. 

Parts work can be helpful in treating:

  • Trauma and complex trauma 
  • Healing negative core beliefs 
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Substance use disorders 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Somatic symptoms 
  • Working through internal conflict 

Types of Parts Work Therapies

Parts work can be done using any of the below therapeutic models and is often a complementary therapy interwoven with other therapeutic modalities such as somatic experiencing, EMDR, or EFIT.



Internal family systems (IFS)  therapy approaches therapy through the assumption the mind is subdivided into subpersonalities or “parts”. Additionally, everyone has a Self, which should and can lead a person’s individual system. As individuals experience life, parts continue to develop and sometimes move into extreme roles in an attempt to protect the person. The various parts of someone interact with one another similar to a family system, leading to complex relationships between conflicting parts of self. 

There are 3 groups of parts in IFS: 

  1. Exiles: Exiles tend to be young parts that have experienced traumas. The vulnerabilities of these young parts are protected by other parts. 
  2. Managers: Parts that attempt to keep a person in control and run the day-to-day life of the person. Examples of manager parts include: controlling, evaluating, caretaking, etc.  
  3. Firefighters: Firefighters react to activated exile parts in an attempt to rid the exile parts of negative emotions. Examples of firefighter parts include substance abuse, binge-eating, numbing, etc.

Ego State

Rooted in psychodynamic theory, ego state therapy approaches therapy through the lens that a person’s being is made up of various distinct “egos.” It is believed these egos exist as adaptations for certain circumstances rather than an innate part of someone’s being. Ego state therapy aims to identify and integrate the different ego states to achieve normal ego states. 

There are 4 types of egos in ego state therapy: 

  1. Vaded ego state: An ego that has experienced an unprocessed traumatic event. These parts tend to be emotionally reactive. 
  2. Conflicted ego state: An ego that conflicts with another ego state. This leads to internal tension that needs to be resolved to alleviate symptoms. 
  3. Retro ego state: An ego that was once needed and helpful but not harmful. These states are active only when needed.
  4. Normal ego state: A healthy ego state, not in conflict, and is adaptive.

Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy

The developmental needs meeting strategy (DNMS) theorizes that people who grow up not getting their needs met consistently in childhood leave parts of themselves behind in childhood. DNMS aims to separate and reframe maladaptive negative messages from childhood resulting in a reduction in symptoms. To aid in reframing maladaptive negative messages, DNMS relies on parts of self called Resources. Resourcing parts include: a core self, a nurturing adult self, and a protective adult self. 

Structural Dissociation Model

The structural dissociation model assumes people are not born with an integrated personality, but rather different ego states that naturally integrate over time. However, trauma along the lifespan can disrupt the natural process of integration and leads to distressing symptoms. From the lens of this model, dissociative identity disorder (DID), is thought to be an extreme disruption of ego states. The structural dissociation model breaks down parts into the following categories:

  1. Emotional parts: These are the parts that have endured a trauma and remains separate from the main personality 
  2. Apparently normal part: Parts that integrate to make up the main personality


The model organizes a hierarchy of structural dissociation by the following: 

  1. Primary structural dissociation: Occurs when only one emotional part is separate from the apparently normal part. 
  2. Secondary structural dissociation: Occurs when multiple emotional parts are separated from the apparently normal part. 
  3. Tertiary structural dissociation: Occurs when there are multiple emotional parts and multiple apparently normal parts. This is the case of DID, from the lens of the structural dissociation model.
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“There is no better compass than compassion.”

Amanda Gorman

Parts Work is Beneficial for Complex Trauma

In parts work, it is theorized trauma and stressful experiences can lead to parts taking on extreme roles to help protect our system and keep us safe. After the trauma or stress is over, these protective parts do not realize they no longer need to do their job to the same extent as they have in the past. 

Let’s consider the example of Mr. Doe. Mr. Doe was raised by two very successful parents. While Mr. Doe and his siblings were provided for in a basic needs sense, Mr. Doe was often left alone or with babysitters due to his parents’ long work hours. Naturally gifted at school, Mr. Doe noticed he received praise and more of his parents’ attention when he was achieving. As the years went on, Mr. Doe entered therapy at the request of his partner due to his workaholic tendencies affecting their relationship. In therapy, Mr. Doe explores his “workaholic part” and learns this part is trying to prove his worth to others in order to connect and gain acceptance in his social circles, similar to when this part first showed up trying to gain approval and connection with his parents in childhood. This part was hesitant to shift its role as Mr. Doe learned his self of value and self-worth was reliant on his productivity and performance.  After learning more about this part Mr. Doe started shifting the beliefs held by this part learned in childhood, recognizing that while the goal of this part is compassionate in nature and has afforded him a successful career, this part has also interfered with his ability to be present and connected in his marriage. 

Begin Therapy in the Nashville area

If you live in the Nashville area and are ready to explore therapy options for healing trauma, we are here to help. To begin individual counseling, follow these three steps:

1. Contact our counseling office or call 615-235-3508 to schedule a free 30 minute consultation

2. Begin therapy and move forward with your life!

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Willow Counseling offers a variety of therapeutic services to help you on your road to healing & better mental health. Some of our other counseling services include counseling for trauma and EMDR therapy, therapy for compassion fatigue, and group counseling services for anxiety and compassion fatigue.  If you are ready to find healing and live in the Nashville area, our therapists are here to help!