I invite you to imagine that you are a great big bus driving through life and that all the passengers are different parts of yourself—the part who wants everyone else to like you, the part who just wants to be left alone, the part who is excited about your big goals, the part who just wants to do nothing, and so many other subpersonalities with their own desires and beliefs about the world.

Sometimes, you’re driving along the path through life, aligning with your values, reaching your goals, navigating the twists and turns smoothly.

And, other times, you arrive at a crossroads and the passengers on your bus argue about how to proceed. Do you go left? Right? Turn around? Take a sideroad?

Maybe the parts mediate their disagreement well and choose their next move easily. Or, maybe they start battling it out, trying to yank the steering wheel in different directions, going back and forth about what to do next rather than making forward movement.

Or perhaps, you decide to move forward, but then a part of you slams on the brakes, drains all your gas, hijacks the bus, or careens off the road. As one client wrote: “I kept making promises to myself that tomorrow, I’d do things differently. But then I broke those promises and let myself down again. I didn’t understand why I was acting like my own worst enemy.”

So why such stuckness?

Why such simultaneously conflicting feelings?

Because stuckness is an attempt to meet a need. Because different parts of us have different opinions about which needs we should prioritize and which strategies best meet your needs.

I’ll explain:

Needs are the universal motivating qualities behind everything we do; needs are why we do what we do.

In contrast, strategies are the actions we take to meet our needs; strategies are what we do. Everything that you and I do, from waking to sleeping—even the most harmful actions—is a strategy, an attempt to meet a need.

To understand this better, it can help to go back to the beginning, to the day we were born.

We Come to Identify with Our Strategies

You and I came into this world with lots of needs but no strategies to meet them on our own. And so, from the moment we were born, we started learning all sorts of strategies to meet our needs.

We quickly learned that some strategies earned us frowns and rejection, while others strategies earned us smiles and praise.

We practiced some strategies over and over until they became habits, and over time, we started identifying with some habits, saying things like: I’m the type of person who… or This is just how I am or I always… or It’s just in my nature to… or I was born this way…

To be able to compassionately witness our habitual strategies and cultivate a choiceful relationship with them, it can help to imagine that they are subpersonalities or distinct parts of ourselves. I first learned to call these parts strategy children.[1] Here are some examples of parts that I see often in clients and fellow changemakers:

  1. The Achiever: A part that learned to meet our needs by accomplishing big goals and derives its sense of self-worth from our accomplishments.
  2. The People Pleaser: A part that learned to meet our needs for safety and stability by prioritizing others’ needs over our own.
  3. The Rebel: A part that learned to meet our need for self-respect by going against authority figures and disagreeing with everything they say.
  4. The Judge: The part who judges or criticizes ourselves. In the The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz calls this part the Judge. RuPaul calls this part her Inner Saboteur. Anne Lamott calls hers the itty-bitty-shitty committee. My son, Kai, calls his the Troll.
  5. The Victim: The part that blames others for why things are the way they are and abdicates responsibility for choosing a response that honors their needs. In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz calls this part the Victim. Other names my clients have used include Griper, Slider, and the Voice of Blame.
  6. The Parentified One: This part often develops in people who had to parent ourselves, our sibling(s) or our parent(s) or who find ourselves taking on the responsibilities of our boss or even our boss’s boss.

Stuckness is an attempt to meet a need.

When a part of ourselves grabs the wheel, steers in a direction that the rest of us would rather not go, or tries to slam on the brakes, that’s because it’s doing its best to meet a need. It fears that, if it relinquishes its strategy, your needs won’t be met and you would be hurt. It’s trying to keep you safe.

For example, the strategy of ignoring our bodies might be an attempt to meet needs of ease, relief, or safety. The strategy of focusing on everyone else’s needs but our own might be an attempt to meet needs of belonging, protection, or purpose.

Likewise, if you feel conflicted about which way to turn in your life—like if you’re trying to decide whether or not to leave a workplace or relationship, two or more parts are probably prioritizing different needs and are disagreeing about which strategy to use to meet them.

For instance, one part may decide to apply to graduate school but another part fears what you’ll have to sacrifice to go back to school and tries to slow down the process. Or you may decide to set a boundary with someone who hasn’t treated you well but another part fears losing a sense of belonging and says you’re being selfish. The more high stakes the situation, the louder the parts will clamor for their preferred strategies.

Remember: Every single thing that every single person and part of ourselves does is an attempt to meet a need. Most of our strategies meet most of our needs most of the time, but things can go off course when parts of ourselves grab the wheel and react habitually in ways that serve our current situation less than well.

For example, the last time I took the StrengthsFinder assessment, it told me that my number one strength was Achiever. I don’t want to get rid of my inner Achiever. I couldn’t have written this if I had! But if I’m not careful, my Achiever will grab the wheel and keep working when I need to rest. It’s great for my Achiever to come out at 9am. It’s not so great at 9pm.

So what to do when a part of ourselves grabs the wheel, using a strategy that serves the moment less than well? How do we take back the wheel and choose a strategy that meets our needs better?

First, what not to do:

Do not try to silence yourself.

When most people feel stuck, they try to convince, cajole, criticize, or discipline (i.e. control through force) the part that’s acting up. Or they avoid their inner experience and passively wait to get unstuck. But neither strategy typically works well.

Of course we want to avoid pain and get unstuck, but when we try to fix or silence a struggling part of ourselves, this part can wind up feeling even more unheard, alone, and scared. Until we listen with genuine curiosity to what the struggling part needs and hear the message it is trying to convey, it’s unlikely to relinquish its effort to meet our needs. It’s apt to cry even louder to be heard.

When we refrain from striving to fix ourselves and instead turn toward our struggling parts with warmth and welcome, we are far more likely to soothe our nervous systems, choose strategies that actually meet our needs, and cultivate the resilience we need to stay engaged for the long haul.

To be whole, we need each part of ourselves, and every part of ourselves has gifts to offer, even if we don’t see them yet. Just like a tuba in a big brass band, each part has an important role to play. If it takes over, we can get a headache, and we may not want each instrument to play at the same time. But we can make space for our wholeness over the course of a week, a month, a lifetime. Our work is to learn how to consciously choose when to invite each out to play.

One practice that can help create the observational distance we need to consciously and lovingly choose our response to activated parts and challenging situations is to name the active parts of ourselves.

Practice: Naming the Active Part(s) of Yourself

If you feel emotionally activated, confused about your next steps, or stuck not taking action, I invite you to get curious about which parts of you are active and play with giving them names.

When we’re unaware that a part of us is active, it’s like looking through a mask without realizing the mask is there.

When we give our parts names, it’s like we take our masks off and can come into a choiceful conversation with them. Naming multiple parts can also help us distinguish them from each other and make it easier to mediate between them.

Here are some suggestions for trying on names:

  1. You might name the sensation or emotion you feel. For example, the emotional part or the scared part or the constriction or the sadness or the infuriated part.
  2. You may choose a name that reflects a behavior.

    Some names my clients have chosen are Idawanna (as in “I don’t want to”), the Rabbit Hole Child, the Chaotic One, and Defender.

  3. You might simply call this part your inner child or your little.
  4. You might also refer to yourself with your first name.

Make sure to choose a name the part would want to call itself, a name that is free from judgment.

To do that, warmly turn toward the struggling part(s) of yourself and ask them—What would you like me to call you?

If you don’t find names that resonate completely, go for good enough. You can choose a name now and change it later.

The point is not to classify your parts permanently; they will likely transform as you work with them.

The point is to relate to them with awareness and choice.

Once you name a part, do your best to use the part’s name. For example, rather than saying,  “I’m so hard on myself,” say My Judge is being really hard on me. Or, rather than saying, “I’m afraid to let people down,” you might say, “My People Pleaser is afraid of letting people down.” Or, when in conversation with this part, you might use second person, referring to the part as you.

Talking about our parts in the third person or to ourselves in the second person can feel awkward at first. It certainly did for me. But when we stop identifying with our struggling parts, it becomes easier to take back the steering wheel and reclaim our agency.

May you learn to love all parts of yourself and honor all your needs.


[1] I originally learned the term strategy children during my apprenticeship with Allan Hardman, alchemical hypnotherapist who studied closely with Don Miguel Ruiz—author of The Four Agreements—for over ten years. Parts work is commonly attributed to and was developed in large part by Dr. Richard Schwartz, creator of Internal Family Systems therapy.


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