Working with Multiple Parts of Self
One aim in CFT is how we can learn to become more compassionate with ourselves. But when we talk about ‘ourselves’, we’re not just focusing on a single, coherent self. Instead, we’re referring to multiple self – that we all formed of multiple selves, and it can be helpful to find ways to explore these different parts of selves
One way that we do this in Compassion Focused Therapy is through a guided exercise called multiple selves, in which we support people to look at the same situation through the lens of different emotional aspects of themselves.
Adapted from the Compassionate Mind Workbook (Co-authored by one of Balanced Minds founders, Dr Chris Irons), this guide will help you to start practicing the multiple self exercise
Multiple Self - A Guide
The starting part of this multiple self exercise is to guide someone in bringing to mind an argument or disagreement they’ve had with someone (preferably recently) – someone who matters to them, and who is still in their life. After taking some time for this (maybe guiding the person to have their eyes closed and trying to connect to the memory visually and emotionally), you can then let the person know that this is going to be the situation that we’ll shape the whole exercise around.
From here, there are a number of steps to follow. Here, we’ll guide you on the classic version (i.e. three key initial parts – anger, anxious and sad), but you can add different emotions and/or motive/behavioural parts to this if you’d like.
With the following guidance (taken from The Compassionate Mind Workbook), adapt this to guide the person that you’re working with to engage in the multiple self exercise.
Step 1 - Connecting with three core parts (anger, anxious, sad)
Angry Part: Take some time to bring to mind the part of you that felt angry about what happening in this this argument, and how the person treated you. If it helps, close your eyes. Allow yourself to feel in to this part of yourself, letting go, if you can, of any other emotions or feelings you might have about what happened. When you feel connected to your angry part, go through the following steps, making a quick note at each step.
Thoughts: what thoughts does your angry part have about the argument (what words or phrases come to mind? If it could speak, what would your angry part say to the other person?)
Body: try to notice where in your body you can feel your angry part. Where do you notice it most strongly? If this feeling in the body were to grow, get more energised and expand, where would it move in to the body?
Behaviour: if this angry part was in complete control, what would it want to do, given the situation? (for example, shout, complain, hit or smash something)
Memories: holding in mind your angry part, what memories come to mind? Is there one that stands out most strongly? How old is this memory, this feeling?
Outcome: What would be a good outcome to this argument for this part of you? What would help it to settle, and feel less angry?
Once you’ve got ‘into the skin’ of your angry part, see if you can gently let it go, slowly allowing this part of you to ease away. Take a few slower breaths, feeling your way back in to a grounded, calm position. If it helps, get out of your chair and move around, taking a gentle stretch.
Step 2 – Anxious Part: This time, we’re going to spend some time connecting with a part of you that was anxious about this argument. Allow yourself to feel in to this part of yourself, taking your time. When you feel connected to your anxious part, take some time to think about the following questions, making a few notes at each step.
Thoughts: what thoughts does your anxious part have about the argument (what words or phrases come to mind? If it could speak, what would your anxious part say?)
Body: try to notice where in your body you can feel your anxious part (what physical sensations you experience). Where do you notice it most strongly? If this feeling in the body were to grow, get more energised and expand, where would it move in to the body?
Behaviour: if your anxious part was in complete control, what would it want to do, given the situation? (for example, run away, avoid the person, disappear or hide)
Memories: holding in mind your anxious part, what memories come to mind? Is there one that stands out most strongly? How old is this memory, this feeling?
Outcome: What would be a good outcome to this argument for this part of you? What would help it to settle, and feel less anxious?
Once you completed the above, see if you can gently come out of the ‘skin’ of your anxious part, and let that ease away. Take a few, slower breaths, allowing your body to slow down. If it helps, get out of your chair and move around, taking a gentle stretch.
Step 3 – Sad Part: Take a moment to bring to mind the part of you that felt sad about this argument. Allow yourself to step into the shoes of this part of yourself. When you feel connected to your sad part, go through the following questions, making a quick note after each one.
Thoughts: what thoughts does your sad part have about the argument (what words or phrases come to mind? If it could speak, what would your sad part say?)
Body: try to notice where in your body can you feel your sad part? Where do you notice it most strongly? If this feeling in the body were to grow, get more energised and expand, where would it move in to the body?
Behaviour: if your sad part was in control, what it want to do, given the situation? (for example, to give up, cry or seek reassurance?)
Memories: holding in mind your sad part, what memories come to mind? Is there one that stands out most strongly? How old is this memory, this feeling?
Outcome: what would help your sad part settle? What would be a good outcome to this argument for this part of you? What would help it to settle, and feel less sad?
Once you completed the above, see if you can gently come out of the ‘skin’ of your sad part, and let that ease away. Take a few, slower breaths, allowing your body to slow down. If it helps, get out of your chair and move around, taking a gentle stretch.
Reflections: It can be helpful to reflect on what you’ve learnt so far about the different parts of you. What did you learn about the different parts of you in response to the same situation (the argument)?
Did you find one ‘part’ easier to get in to or think about than another? What do you make of that? Is that something that you recognise in other aspects of your life?
Was there a part that was more difficult to connect with? What do you make of that? Is that something you recognise in other areas of your life?
A common response is to recognise that these three different parts (anger, anxiety, sadness) have very different ways of looking at, thinking and feeling about the same situation, and differ with regards to what they want and need. They also tend to connect to separate memories. Moreover, the way the different parts feel, and respond (and what they want) can conflict, and drive you in opposite directions (e.g. to angrily lash out and anxiously run away, at the same time). This is an important reflection, as it can help us appreciate what our minds are up against, and the distress this can cause. And whilst this is not our fault, having this insight can motivate us to learn how to be with all these different selves, and respond in ways that are helpful
It’s also common that people find one of the ‘selves’ ‘easier’ to connect with and think from, and (at least) one that is more difficult to connect with. If this was the case for you, this in is an important insight in itself, as it may help you to understand why you tend to struggle to cope in certain situations, where you might get pulled into more readily, and where you might be blocked. This can also give us a clue as to what you might need your compassionate to help you with. For example, your compassionate self might help you moderate or keep in balance the part of you that you readily get drawn into, and give space/allow, support and strengthen the parts of you that you find difficult to connect with.
– Allow yourself time to move in to each ‘part’ – it sometimes takes a little while to find our way ‘in’ to each of these emotions, and is often difficult if we feel rushed.
– Keep an eye on ‘leakage’. This is when we are with one part of us (e.g. anxious) and another part of us (e.g. angry) ‘spills in’, making us feel and think differently So for example, whilst describing what the anxious self would like to do in an argument, (writing down ‘punch the idiot in the face’). It’s unlikely that an anxious part of us would respond in this aggressive and violent way, and more indicative that we are connected with our angry self instead. If this is the case, spend some time to slow yourself down with your breathing rhythm, and then a little longer to connect with an anxious part of you). This leakage is understandable if some emotional selves are easier to connect with than others, as we suggested above.
– Try not to worry if you find one or more of these parts difficult to connect with. Most people find one part (if not more than one) more difficult than others to connect with or express. If this happens, take a little longer to try and shift in to that self. Try to think about what that part (angry, anxious or sad) would say, or want to do given the argument. Try not to get caught up in ‘but I didn’t feel like that during the argument’. This exercise is about exploring ‘as if’ scenarios, helping you to learn about your emotions (what each one thinks, wants to do and so forth), and recognising how these different parts of us can get caught up in conflicts that add to our struggles. So even if you weren’t angry/anxious/sad in the argument, imagine how this part would have reacted/would like to react.
– Don’t feel restricted to just these parts. You may want to do this exercise but have other parts present, such as shamed, guilty, proud, jealous, competitive, caring and so forth.
Step 2: What are the relationships between these parts?
To deepen your understanding of our different ‘selves’, it can be helpful to consider what they think and feel about each other, and how they relate to each other. This step might feel a little strange, but in our experience, it adds to a deeper understanding of why we can struggle, or feel blocked to, in experiencing and expressing certain emotions. Take a look back on what you’ve written for your angry, anxious and sad part above. Familiarise yourself again with how they see and feel about the argument, and their general outlook. Then see if you can answer the following questions:
How does the angry part think and feel about the anxious part?
- How does the anxious part think and feel about the angry part?
- How does the angry part think and feel about the sad part?
- How does the sad part think and feel about the angry part?
- How does the anxious part think and feel about the sad part?
- How does the sad part think and feel about the anxious part?
Reflections: So, what was that like? What have you learnt about the interrelations between these different parts of you?
One common reflection at this stage is that these parts of us don’t necessarily get on very well, or sit alongside each other comfortably. This is partly because they think, feel and want to do different, often competing things – for example, whilst anger often wants us to challenge or approach someone, anxiety is urging us to move away or avoid. Whilst this is understandable, it might become tricky for us if one particular part is more easily triggered, or experienced than another, and it keeps running the show! We can also consider why or how some emotional reactions (or selves) are blocked, inhibited or absent. But, what can we do when we are pushed and pulled in different directions, really? Well, it might not surprise you that it can be helpful to connect with a part of us that can allow, listened to and help all different selves, and mediate between them. This, of course, would be our compassionate self.
Step 3: Bringing Compassion to the Situation
It is important at this stage to try and engage with our compassionate self in order to bring a different, more helpful, perspective to this situation. In these next sections, we are going to see how your compassionate self may help with bringing a perspective to the situation as a whole, but also in working with the different ‘parts’ (anger, anxiety, sadness) we looked at earlier.
As we have seen, depending on which part of us is viewing a situation, we are likely to think, feel and want to behave in quite different ways. Knowing this, if we engage our compassionate self, we are likely to approach the same situation with qualities of caring motivation, wisdom, and strength, and a more balanced perspective, and respond to this in a way that is kinder, wiser and more courageous. To help you see this, have a go at the following exercise.
Exercise: Bringing compassion to the situation.
Engage in your soothing rhythm breathing and friendly facial expression. Allow your breathing to slow a little, and gently rest your attention in the flow of breathing in, and breathing out. Bring to mind the qualities of your compassionate self – caring-commitment, wisdom and strength. When you feel ready, go through the following steps, answering from the perspective of your compassionate self.
Thoughts: What thoughts does your compassionate self have about the argument? What understanding or wisdom does it have about what happened?
Body: Where in your body do you feel the strength, caring commitment and wisdom of your compassionate self
Behaviour: if your compassionate self was in control, what would it want to do, given the situation (e.g. find a way to discuss the issue, rather than argue; help repair any damage caused; find a way to be assertive)?
Memories: holding in mind your compassionate self, what memories come to mind?
Outcome: for your compassionate self, what would it see as a good outcome of this argument?
Reflection: What was seeing the argument from the compassionate self’s perspective like? Did you notice any differences in comparison to the other parts?
Step 4: Compassion for your different ‘selves’.
In this next stage, we are going to look at how our compassionate self can work in more detail with the individual parts – the angry, anxious and sad self. This is to help each part to feel heard and understood, whilst lessening the grip that a part self might have on us, and bringing more balance and harmony between our different selves. For example, if our angry self takes over completely, this might result in a big fight, horrible things being said, and a further unintended, but negative, consequences in the future. By using our compassionate self, we may find a way to tolerate and guide our angry part (or any other ‘part’ for that matter) so that it can play a useful role for us, but not at the expense of us, and our relationships.
We will go through this exercise in steps, taking each ‘self’ one at a time.
Compassion for your angry self
Anger can be a protective feeling which often masks feelings of sadness or loneliness. We all experience moments of anger but it can be helpful if we can find a way to understand and guide this part of us.
Exercise: Compassion for your angry self
Spend some time connecting with the soothing rhythm of your breathing. When you feel ready, bring to mind some of the qualities of compassion (caring-motivation, strength, wisdom). When you feel connected with your compassionate self, bring to mind the angry part of you in the argument above:
What does your compassionate self want to say to the angry part of you? What does it understand about your angry part’s reaction? What would your compassionate self suggest as helpful for the angry part? Is there something that it would like to do to help the angry self?
Compassion for the anxious part of me
In this next exercise we want to turn the focus of your compassionate mind to the anxious self in the argument. Just as with anger, anxiety evolved to help us pay attention to potential threats, and motivate us to move away, or flee as a way of keeping us safe. Let’s see if we can use our compassionate self to understand and guide your anxious self in this situation.
Exercise: Compassion for our anxious self
Engage in your soothing breathing rhythm, and slowly connect with the qualities of your compassionate self – caring-commitment, wisdom and strength. When you feel connected to this part of you, read through the below questions, making a few notes as you go.
What does your compassionate self want to say to the anxious part of you? What does it understand about the reactions of the anxious part, given the argument? Given its wisdom and caring-commitment, what would the compassionate self want to do for your anxious part? How would it like to help or support it?
Compassion for the sad part of me
Sadness can play an important role in signalling distress, often related to the experience of loss, and need for connection and support. However, for some of us, our sadness may not have been met with care or support from others, and feeling sad can be very difficult. Let’s see what your compassionate self can do to understand and support your sad part.
Exercise: Compassion for our sad self
Engage in your soothing breathing rhythm, and begin to connect with the attributes of your ideal compassionate self – caring-commitment, wisdom and strength. When you feel ready, from the perspective of your compassionate self, consider the following questions:
What does your compassionate self want to say to your sad self? What does your compassionate self understand about the reactions of your sad self, given the situation? What would your compassionate self like to do to support and help the sad part of you?
Reflection: What was this final part of the exercise like? What was it like to bring your compassionate self to relate to your angry, anxious and sad parts?