Do you sometimes feel like your emotions are big waves that come crashing over you, threatening to pull you out to sea?

Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could just sit by the water, able to watch all the movement while resting on steady ground below you?

If so, this article is for you. In this article, I’ll teach you a process that I rely on to help my clients stop feeling bombarded by challenging emotions and start being able to make crucial decisions from a place of groundedness and emotional stability. 

I learned this practice eight years ago while engaged in a year-long apprenticeship in the Four Agreements in the lineage of Don Miguel Ruiz, and a very similar process is taught by Internal Family Systems and Focusing-oriented therapists throughout the world. I continue to return to this practice whenever I am triggered, and it reliably brings me back to a place of calm. 

Ready? Here we go—

Meet the Parts

Imagine for a moment that you are made up of lots of different parts. For example— The Money-Maker. The Parent. The Partner. The Sexual Being. The Judge. The Friend. Each part has its own opinions and strategies for getting through life. When you engage in any action, a part of you is taking the action. 

When you get triggered and feel bombarded with a challenging emotion, it’s as though you are blended with a part of who is scared or struggling. Rather than being overwhelmed by emotion, you need to step back from the part who is triggered and take stock of what is needed. You need to embody the compassionate witness.

Embodying the Compassionate Witness

Every single part of you— even those who seem most destructive— developed to serve a need. Every part has a positive intention. If you try to make a part go away, it will be hard for the part to trust that their needs will be met, and it will be hard for you to investigate it clearly. Besides, based on my experience, I’d say it’s impossible to get rid of any part anyhow. Because of all this, as much as you might like, it is futile to try to get rid of any part of you. Instead, your task is to learn what each part needs and meet your needs in a way that serves the whole. 

The compassionate witness is the part of you who sees each part without judgment. Rather than wanting the parts to disappear, the compassionate witness genuinely welcomes each part and seeks to understand who they are and what they need. Rather than identifying with your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, your compassionate witness sees all the parts from a neutral perspective, like watching actors on a stage. 

Embodying the compassionate witness doesn’t mean that you stop experiencing thoughts or emotions. Embodying the compassionate witness means that you experience the full range of emotion without getting wrapped up in them or needing to escape.

Conducting the Symphony Orchestra

You could say that the compassionate witness is an aspect of your essential self, the essential part of you deep down who is calm, connected, curious, and creative. In addition to being a compassionate witness, your essential self is a conductor, like in an orchestra. 

When you’re feeling grounded and at peace, all the parts of you are working together in harmony. But when you get triggered, it’s as though a part swoops in to grab the baton from the conductor and the symphony screeches into dissonance. The tuba can play beautiful music when integrated with the rest, but if it takes over, you can get a headache. 

The more you can step back and witness the parts of yourself with the skill of a conductor, the more you will be able to see your options clearly and consciously choose your response, even in the most difficult circumstances. 

Naming the Parts 

Once you embody your compassionate witness, the next step to shifting your relationship with a part of yourself is to call the part by name. Names that my clients have recently given parts include the Rabbit Hole Child, the Chaotic One, and the Star. If you don’t quite know what to call the part, go for good enough, and make sure to select the name from a place of non-judgment. 

From now on, when this part gets triggered, use its name. For example, if you’re working with your inner Judge, rather than saying, “I am beating myself up,” say, “The Judge is really loud right now.” Or, if you’re working with the Voice of Doubt, rather than saying, “I can’t stop asking myself, ‘What if something bad happens?’”, you might say, “the Voice of Doubt keeps saying, ‘Yeah, but’ and ‘What if.’” Or, if you’re working with the People Pleaser, rather than saying, “I’m so afraid that no one will like me,” you’d say, “the People Pleaser is really afraid that no one will like her.” 

Talking about your parts in the third person may feel weird at first. It certainly did for me! But this small shift in language can create significant changes. When we shift from saying, “I’m doing something” to “Part of me is doing something,” we do what developmental psychologist Robert Kegan calls a “subject-object shift.” We go from being subject to our experience to witnessing it from an objective perspective. According to Dr. Kegan, this shift is an essential step in adult development. 

Rewiring Your Brain

Becoming a skillful witness and conductor is about literally rewiring the way your brain works (more about exactly how that happens in another article). And, just like building your biceps, rewiring your brain requires consistent practice. I tell my clients that to get the most out of our work together, they need to engage in this practice (or a similar reflective practice) on a near-daily basis. When they do that, their lives are changed.

So, how to practice?

I invite you to take ten minutes now to experiment with this practice and notice what arises. Don’t try to do it perfectly (it can admittedly be a bit tricky to learn on your own). Just engage in the following steps with a sense of open curiosity and notice what arises. Here we go—

Get comfortable. Find a quiet place free from distractions. Let your mind know that it doesn’t need to figure anything out for the next few minutes. You can attend to all of your thoughts and experiences in just a moment. Right now, you’re just going to witness what’s arising in the present moment.

Slowly, notice the sensations and emotions that are present in your body. We know that a part has been triggered when we’re feeling anything but calm and connected. The doorway to witnessing a part is through noticing the sensations and emotions that arise from your body.

Say hello to what arises. We start most conversations with a greeting, and your parts deserve the same care and respect that you’d give another person. When you notice a sensation, say hello to it. Then, see how it responds. It may feel immediate relief from being noticed. Or the sensation may grow stronger as it’s given the opportunity to communicate. Gently say hello to each sensation that arises. 

If you hear yourself wishing that a sensation or a part would go away, know that you are not yet in the compassionate witness. Instead, you’re blended with your Judge or another concerned part. Just say hello to it and ask it to step aside for a moment so that you can work directly with the part that’s activated. If it won’t, you can do the following steps with the concerned part instead.

In your mind’s eye, sit down next to the feeling. Rather than diving directly into the feeling, sit down next to it in your mind’s eye. Your toes may touch the water, but besides that, you’re just watching. Gently observe the sensation without being overwhelmed by it or needing to protect yourself from it.

Give the part a name. Ask the part of you that the sensation is arising from— What would you like me to call you? Feel in your body for a name that lands for you. Go for good enough.

Listen with curiosity. Gently ask the part— What do you want me to know? What do you need? Keep asking— Is there anything else?— until the part feels complete.

Say goodbye, and thank you. When you feel ready to return to the rest of your day, thank the part for spending time with you. If you can keep the promise, tell the part that you won’t forget about it and that you will return to the conversation. Then, slowly, feel your feet and open your eyes. Allow yourself to sit quietly before bringing your attention back to your day.

If you have made it this far and gifted yourself the moment of practice, I honor your good work. Thank you for showing up for yourself. Even if you are practicing alone, please know that you have many kindred spirits out there who are on similar paths beside you. May you feel their presence beside you.

Much love,

Katherine

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