Communicating with parts

I know from years of experience with both children and adults that people who don’t feel they are being heard are not very good listeners. Whenever it seems you are caught in pointless exchange with someone—where you are both just restating the same arguments—it’s time to stop and just listen and make sure you really understand what is being said to you.

Today, I just listened. When dealing with parts, listening many times involves feeling. That is the self’s way of listening. So, for several hours, I listened to Ghost tell me how it felt not to matter to anyone. And then for a few more hours, I listened to Katie tell me how ashamed she felt. And I listened to Vivianne tell me how much she wished she could die or at least hurt herself.

After that, I put some dal in the rice cooker for dinner. (Yes, you can do that. It takes a long time. But apparently electricity is easier to come by than a new gas cylinder, so I use electricity when I can.) While doing that, I felt like a failure because in terms of visible accomplishments, I hadn’t done very much today—actually, nothing much all weekend. However, I told myself, “Well, that’s one way of looking at it. You could also say I sat with my feelings for most of the day and that was very difficult to do.”

And this little voice answered back, “Oh, you can look at things differently?”

This was evidently news to some part of me, despite years of trying to do this.

I’ve been thinking a lot again about intellectual freedom, that I am entitled to think how and what I choose. That is my right. It seems to be difficult for me to quite grasp. I know it, and yet I don’t know it. I keep backsliding about it, which means the idea has not taken hold firmly.

Perhaps that’s why: I wasn’t listening. I silenced those parts of myself, and so they didn’t listen to me. Today, I did some listening. And someone finally heard. Yes, there are multiple ways of evaluating situations. Some ways of perceiving them make you feel more positively about that situation than others.

This is one kind of freedom to think your own thoughts. There are others.

Setting my own goals is another. I frequently let other responsibilities slide when I can in the interest of spending more time on integration, because integration is my highest priority. For example, today I did not clean the house, although that was the original plan for the day until feelings began to assert themselves.

I don’t exactly know how this will pan out, but my instinct about it is that this will be worth it in the long run—in fact, that it has been worth it. Sometimes I feel guilty about how I choose to spend my time, however, as if I am being lazy even though sitting and thinking about what I think I need to think about is never easy and usually not pleasant: in other words, it sounds a lot like work. That is because it is work.

I am fairly certain that my doubts about this are related: some part of me still believes there are rules about what goals you can set for yourself, just as it thought there was only one way to view situations—in that case, in a way that made me feel disappointed in myself.

The implications of feeling free to think my own thoughts and set my own goals are enormous. Suddenly, I can judge myself according to my own standards and consider my success according to the accomplishments I value. It makes me feel differently about myself. I have, I suppose, a decent career and a lot of education. I’m not terribly impressed with that–studies are not a particular challenge for me—although being able to keep it together well enough to hold down a job is a bit more of an achievement in my view.

But getting my head to this place—although it is by no means the place I want to be in the future—now that is something. That is really something. When I can look at myself through my own eyes instead of the eyes I think I should have, I can see that.

Communication is bi-directional. As I should know by now, you can’t just keep lecturing people (or your parts).


The right to feel fear (and other unpleasant emotions)

I felt like killing myself last night.

I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t felt that way since I’d arrived in Country X. I’ve been here a month now.

So, I went to bed thinking, “Now what set that off?”

I don’t know what did even now. I had some strange dreams, but nothing answered the question. I’m not even sure that trying to sort through my day and my thoughts for what set off my reaction is an effective approach. I have started to think it just keeps my focus on everything that might be wrong, including problems I hadn’t noticed before, and I end up with much more to be anxious about.

But I do feel anxious today. Almost debilitatingly so. I mean, I got through the day, but I didn’t buy cilantro today at the vegetable market because I’d never done that before, and each new thing I need to do makes me even more anxious.

I have spent a lot of years trying to find ways to soothe anxiety. Most of them have not made any noticeable difference. But I realized this afternoon that that is definitely the wrong approach. Trying to conquer anxiety is like trying not to think about white bears. The harder you try, the worse it gets. Anxiety is something else just to roll with. Now, maybe that isn’t the answer for everyone. But I think it’s the answer for me.

On the one hand, integration is about acceptance. Acceptance involves feeling what is there to feel—whether the feeling is pleasant or unpleasant.

And on the other, fear is something I could not afford to feel as a child. If I felt it, I might show it, and you can’t let a sociopath see your fear. Then he knows all the more clearly how to torture you. So fear is something that was taken away from me as a child: it is a part of the human experience I lost. Of course, I did feel fear, but that needed to be carefully shuttered off from my awareness. Part of being a person is being afraid sometimes, so today I feel afraid. It isn’t such a great feeling, but it’s mine.

Addendum: I wrote this the day before yesterday, and I do know now what set of my suicidal thoughts Fatigue, it turns out, is an important trigger for this kind of thinking for me. There are other triggers, but fatigue is a big one. It’s essentially a flashback to moments in my childhood when I just wanted to give up and let my father’s torture kill me.

Deconstructing the parts

We left school yesterday at 10:30 am. Someone looked around, said, “We don’t have any work to do. Better we go home.” And off we went.

I don’t really understand the Country X start to school. What seems to be happening these days is that the children are arranging desks in their classrooms and cleaning the school after a two month-long break. This is interspersed with games of tag and general mucking about.

Most of the children were also home by noon. So, none of this takes the whole day and unlike schools in the West, where we decide up-front how long something should take and then declare half-days and minimum days and other special days as needed, here people go when it makes sense to go. They do come at a certain time—everyone is supposed to report to assembly—but they go whenever they feel like it.

At some point, I presume this will change. Probably around March 4, when we are supposed to actually start teaching the curriculum. Instead of, you know, moving desks and playing tag.

Roll with it. That’s my plan.

So, this is what I did instead. I probably should have cleaned more windows, but my head has been an extraordinarily busy place the last week and it seemed high time for a bit of internal tidying up. I deconstructed the parts.

In the interest of integration, which is my personal focus at the moment, I went through my mental catalogue of important parts are decided what they are most essentially about. There aren’t so many of these left, so it wasn’t difficult.


I have already worked out this one a few times in various other posts. Ghost is the sense of not really counting, of not being seen, of being ignored in some instances and of being kept secret in others, and it also has to do with just not being possible—as if it’s not possible that I feel the way I do or perceive the world in the way that I do.

It’s also a lonely state to be in, and involves a large degree of isolation and disconnection. Because, if no one realizes you are there, you also can’t connect to anyone either.

Lana (The boring self)

I have been working at understanding this one also, so this one is nothing new either. I used to call this part Lana, but over time the personality has become more diffuse and less singular—as other bits of parts have been absorbed in it.

Nonetheless, Lana is how I feel when I’m anxious. Don’t get confused about this. Lana is not a fearful part. Lana is practical, goal-oriented, no-nonsense, purposeful and determined. Because that’s how I feel internally when I’m afraid. I split off the fear, but still think the way you think when you’re fearful.

And it’s a boring way to feel, so attached to this personality are other things that seem boring to me: such as the color brown and a rigid adherence to time and schedules.

Katie (The girl)

At its core, the female gender role in Western societies is about being social, wanting to have good relationships and please others. So that is what Katie does. And because this part is about gender, everything else associated with being female is thrown in for good measure (at least what was associated with being female in the mind of the little girl who first thought all of this up).

So, when I went shopping for household items in the Capital City, I ended up with all pink and purple belongings. I am not in love with pink and purple, but shopping for bedding and laundry clips is a bit of a “girl thing”—thus, I bought “girl colours.” Fortunately, the pink buckets do look rather smashing in the bathroom and I’ve got nothing against having two sets of purple sheets plus a red and pink blanket.

But there is some humour here, I believe. Because my bedroom does look a little like that of a seven-year-old girl.

The point of all of this is that the core elements of the parts are me, or at least have something to do with how I feel on a regular basis. I do feel sometimes that I don’t count—I used to feel this way much more of the time, because my experience of life was so invisible to others.

I do feel anxious frequently. I am interested in relationships. I do sometimes want to please others and I want to fit well into groups.

But there are bits of the parts that are arbitrary. Ghost tends to wear gray all the time. I’m not sure how I feel about gray, but I don’t think I’m terribly crazy about it. However, gray expresses that feeling of being ghost-like.

You could say the same thing about Lana. Lana is the reason I have a brown blanket—I must have been feeling stressed that day about everything I needed to buy, and I came home with a blanket in Lana’s favourite colour. Which is actually a nice relief from my little girl’s bedroom. But brown expresses that sense of being boring.

I wonder now what it is I do like. I’m not wild about brown or gray or even pink—to stick with colours, since they are easy to talk about. But the strange thing about being in parts is that integration doesn’t, as it turns out, mean a gradual blending of pieces into a whole. It doesn’t even mean peeling away layers to reveal some kind of “authentic self.” It means that a space opens up for a new self to form that was never there before.

I am also struck more than ever how our preferences arise out of a desire to express a social role—I am “this” kind of person and therefore like “this” kind of thing—as much as they are about what we really prefer. In other words, our choices often reflect who we think we are. The reverse is still true—we do get an idea of who we are from what we like. But both processes occur all the time. And I don’t really know what kind of person I think I am just yet.

Not larger than life

There’s a tendency to see people who have lived through extreme experiences as heroic. Either that, as in some way defective. So, we were courageous and beating the odds. Or we have maladaptive coping skills and have protected ourselves from the pain in a variety of harmful ways—through denial, addiction, acting out, acting in.

Take your pick: if you have lived through trauma, you can be a giant or a Lilliputian. But I looked at myself in the mirror today and saw myself as I am. It turns out, I am of fairly average height—neither giant nor Lilliputian. For a Country-Xer, I am a bit on the tall side. For a Westerner, I am somewhat short.

When it comes to the past, I did what I could do. Sometimes, I petted the cats to get through the day. Sometimes, I denied a whole range of feelings, put on a brave face, and did whatever I had to do to escape punishment.

Those things were neither good nor bad, but they were among the choices. I had cats, so I could pet them. I could believe things were other than what they were, so I did that. As a child with few resources of your own, you use whatever is there at your disposal.

I was not brave.

I was scared. I was lonely and I was sad. A lot of the time, I felt there might not be any hope at all for the future.

On the other hand, I am fortunate enough to be observant, remember a great deal, able to imagine future consequences easily and control my impulses well. God helped with those things. They made it easier.

In other words, surviving does not make me the least bit special and neither does my horrific past. And if you had lived through my childhood—and some of you have done something like that—you would have done what you could do to get through the day too.

I was not a giant. I don’t need to be a giant now. All I need to do is keep getting through the day.

Knitting the whole

things make sense now, or at least they make sense at the moment. It’s a lovely feeling, this making sense thing. It’s the reason I liked math growing up. Math makes sense. Or it doesn’t. Mostly, it’s a matter of trying hard enough or knowing enough. Because it is logical, math will inevitably make sense. You just need to know enough of the pieces.

Same phenomenon at work, it seems, with dissociated identities. The brain has its own logic. I have enough pieces now that I can understand it or at least it feels that way.

The pieces

The looking glass self

This is Cooley’s idea and it’s been built on a bit, but the basic idea is that we create our views of ourselves from several sources, one of which is other people: more specifically, how we guess other people see us based on their words and behavior towards us. Because usually other people are not radically different from ourselves, they often see us in ways that are fairly similar to how we would see ourselves if we weren’t us. Consequently, the knitting together of a self based on how you feel internally how you observe yourself behaving, and how others perceive you is fairly seamless. Unless, of course, those around you are mentally ill and see the world (and you) in highly idiosyncratic ways. Then it’s almost impossible to do that.

Empathy gaps

We find it hard to remember what it’s like to be in different states aside from the one we are in very well. When we are calm, it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be angry for example. With life experience, we start to be able to recall what we do in those states, we still usually find it hard to remember the internal experience of that state. It’s not much of a leap from that to think it is probably also hard to remember our self-views while in different states as well.

Emotion and memory

Emotional responses are procedural memories, much like remembering how to ride a bike, and they are activated associatively. Feeling states, thoughts, and behaviours are all part of this response. I suspect one’s self-view is also a part of this memory. So, when something happens that seems sort of like something that has happened before, your mind essentially takes a shortcut: rather than assessing the situation anew, you merely re-do whatever you did the last time and that might include seeing yourself in the same way you saw yourself in that situation.


In my opinion, denial, like dissociation, is a form of self-hypnosis. It’s a tribute to the power of the human imagination that you can simply say something is not so—“That didn’t just happen…”—and be able to go on as if that is really the truth. There are two reasons denial is important: events are sometimes simply unmanageable and need to be set aside in order to function in the moment; and, one’s self-views are so irreconcilable they make you feel crazy.

The whole

To put it together a little, having several distinct selves seems to me to be largely the result of close, ongoing contact with important others who see you—along with the rest of the world–in a chaotic and disorganized way whilst you are in a developmentally crucial stage for forming one’s self.

The amnesiac element of all of this comes from two sources: an empathy gap for other self-states and denial.

Where this really all came from today was simply feeling boring: there’s a sort of boring, bland self that remains a part of me, and I’ve noticed it crops up when I’m feeling anxious. And then I also have noticed recently that whenever–and then my laptop ran out of battery (note to self: always recharge when the lights are still burning, because later on they might not be)–and I totally lost my train of thought. Which I still can’t remember.

But I was going to add that the mind simply works that way when fearful: it thinks systematically and in a detail-oriented way, rather than in great, intuitive leaps or broad strokes. And, yes, that is a boring way to be if you’d rather be thinking somewhat differently.

So, there is the feeling, and there’s also the cognitive process that naturally arises from that feeling state, and then there’s the view of myself that I’ve associated with those two elements. But that view of myself is not inevitable. And that’s a start on something, I’m sure.


lakmeI have 200 rupee eye liner from India. It’s a nice brand: Lakme. But it’s different from what I’m used to in the US. It is black, for one. You can’t find brown mascara in India and so I bought black eye liner, thinking maybe they should match. The pencil is much, much softer, so that it goes on in a thick line regardless of how thinly I try to apply it. Mainly, I don’t.

I realized last night, putting it on for our farewell dinner with the Minister of Education, that it is made that way because that is how Indian women like their eye liner. When I do wear it, I need to change my paradigm for how eye liner should look. And I can do that.

Meanwhile, I felt like a whore. Specifically, I felt like a seven-year-old child being trafficked for sex. Because they did that: dressed me up in pretty dresses, applied heavy eye-make-up and let the cameras roll.

I felt that way because that happened. Internally, there’s a crush of both belief and disbelief. Because of the extent of my denial about my childhood, these kinds of experiences have felt to me like evidence that I’m over-reacting or histrionic or even crazy. But this is just how memory works.


The broach: being a person

WIN_20140202_184813I bought a broach today at what they call the weekend market because it’s only on from Friday to Sunday.

Most of the Capital City stays open late–9 pm is a typical closing time. So when I started thinking about broaches this morning, I wasn’t concerned. I went, looked around, left again, thinking I’d come back in the evening.

Except the weekend market closes at five. It was five minutes to when Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s too late.” Only he kept looking out the window. “There are people still there. Let’s go.” So we went.

The old woman had packed up her broaches, but then took them out again for us after she understood what we wanted. Which was surprisingly not very easy, although I kept pointing to where I would wear it and saying the word for the part of national dress you put it on. A young man–perhaps a grandson–had to translate. Here, the children speak English. Hardly anyone else outside the elite and privileged do.

Although you can’t really see it in the photo, the broach is red and green. It doesn’t exactly match an of my clothes, but I had to have it.

This is not a post about broaches. It is about being a person, and how we signify that. When I put my national dress on for the first time, I felt like a person. With a broach on, I felt even more so. There was a sense of having put on my clothes–as if I had been going out in my underwear until then–because although not all Country X-ers wear broaches, all middle class women of my age do.

It’s the same with national dress. Women in Country X do not wear Western clothes. Maybe they wear them to clean the house in–I have no idea–but they don’t wear them out in the street. And so wearing what they wear made me feel better. Clothes are a part of how most of us signify that we are human. Animals don’t wear them. And maybe that’s why being forced to expose yourself is so humiliating–what is lost is the signifier.

Our displays of gender are also signifiers. Animals have a sex–and being animals so do we. But humans have a gender: we have an identity and social role organized around our sex. In fact, gender is such an important part of being human that it trumps biological sex.

I have mixed feelings about my gender–so mixed that the parts have different genders. There are even a few parts that feel without gender.

And I think my mixed feelings about gender come down to mixed feelings about being human. My experience with other human beings is so horrific I am not always sure I want to be human. Humans are cruel. They torture one another. They kill other living creatures. They are terrible.

There are times when I feel I want no part of any of that. So the broach is not just a broach. It’s about being a woman and it’s also about being human–because women are humans. It’s a way of saying, “Maybe this is okay.”