Improving communication with parts is often the key for recovery in those with dissociative disorders. While especially true for those with dissociative identity disorder, like us, patients with other types of disorders on this spectrum can also benefit from improving communication with parts.
We first began trying to change the way we talk to each other
when our therapist introduced us to Non-Violent Communication. The information in the books and worksheets about communication was invaluable, but like with most things – we could not apply it. Since we had parts, we couldn’t just do what the book and worksheets said to do. That’s true for most people with dissociative disorders. It’s why we mostly get called non-compliant. The truth is that those non-compliant patients with BPD, PTSD, C-PTSD and other dissociative disorders really just need a different approach, the parts approach.
The parts approach to internal communication
We’re no doctor but we are an expert on ourselves. We are capable of observation and know what works and what doesn’t work. The below approach isn’t designed to replace therapy or as a treatment model. We used trial and error to discover what worked best for us and our parts. As always, we share this here in hopes to help other systems (and medical professionals) understand more about what worked to help us live our best life with dissociative identity disorder.
Again – this approach isn’t exclusive to dissociative identity disorder, it works well with all disorders and even for those that aren’t dealing with a disorder but just their anxiety. We think that those who experience strong emotions can benefit from communicating internally with their self(ves) in the same type of way. Nothing listed here is new or revolutionary, it’s all been taught for years by experts – we just added a parts approach.
Using compassionate communication to gain the trust of parts.
All parts and system makeups vary, but almost always there’s at least one (sometimes dozens) of parts that aren’t trusting of words. For us – we have several that were not easy to gain the trust of. According to those parts, they didn’t believe anything we said because no one had ever followed through or cared before. Over time we also discovered that one of the things that was holding us back was that our parts were triggered by another part expressing feelings. We found out that it was because in the past abusers had used expressing their feelings as a way to disown ours.
So even though, our therapist (and NVC) had taught us that we should express – we decided to not do that until we had gained the trust of all parts. Instead, we stuck to listening to the parts and not expressing how we felt at all. It was not easy and we failed along the way – heaps of times. But we finally developed a way to communicate with parts that enabled them to feel heard. Here’s what we did.
We asked parts to let us know what things were triggering for them, specific phrases, the way things are worded, etc.
We were shocked to find we had so many things that triggered parts, and things we thought were considered compassionate – actually were not compassionate FOR US at all. We had to adapt the words we used to be less common ways to express things. Instead of using, “I understand” or “I know exactly what you mean” we shifted to saying things like, “That must have been extremely difficult, if you feel like sharing, I would appreciate hearing more about it.” Once we had our list of triggering phrases and words – we avoided using them.
We made a list of phrases that made parts feel safe and comfortable
Once we knew what NOT to say – we had to figure out what TO say. Before we had been just trying to figure out what to say to make them feel better. We honestly didn’t even know ASKING them what they needed to hear to feel safe was an option. But it is. And we did. We asked our parts what phrases would work best for them. We asked them what they needed to hear us say to feel like they had been heard. Most of them didn’t want to know we heard what words they said, but instead wanted to know that we got where they were coming from when they said them.
The phrases we use vary based on which alter we are communicating with. Each alter is comforted by something different because they all have different core fears. In order to figure this out and get good at it – we had to practice. We did practice, we kept practicing and we kept failing. We couldn’t stay on track and we couldn’t keep up with which phrases to say and which ones to avoid. That’s when we discovered our problem – – –
Our going on with normal life part was needed to improve communication.
Now – we aren’t saying that trauma related parts can’t do this and be good at it. It didn’t work that way for us and there is some science behind why. Trauma related parts don’t have access to the prefrontal cortex and that means that it’s harder, without the going on with normal life part also present, to act in a way that isn’t a trauma response. Over time we can rewrite those responses, but that happened way later for us. We found that our going on with normal life part was capable of keeping track of which phrases to use. We also learned that the going on with normal life part was able to stay calm and not react automatically to the words said by the trauma parts. We think it’s because the going on with normal life part lacks the connection to the amygdala (or threat response center)
Our best advice is to find the going on with normal life part of your system. This part will be able to feel compassion for parts but also keep distance. Known as the “thinking center,” the parts that live in the pre-frontal cortex often are more capable of rational thought and awareness of the present. It’s often the host, but not always, because sometimes trauma related parts must host. The part that feels the most detached from the trauma is a good place to start. The role of that part is to keep pushing through and acting “normal” like nothing has happened. In systems that are experiencing severe symptoms and lots of switching, it may be hard to figure out who is the best at this – and will take some trial and error.
Our going on with normal life part modeled a more positive way to communicate to our trauma related parts.
This was basically a full time job for months. It took that long to get everyone on board. We did this in a couple of ways. The first was during normal day to day communication. With coming and going of thoughts and urges, Isabelle began to focus on clarifying needs and how she could help instead of what the part was doing wrong or the flaws in their reactions. When she hosted morning meetings, she continued to validate, use the words they said they needed to hear and repeatedly asked what she could do to help. Inevitably, she was met with the answer “nothing,” over and over. But like any going on with normal life part would, she kept pushing on.
In addition to doing it every time the part showed up, we also made time for Isabelle to visit with the parts and help them by changing the focus of the conversation when they were talking. Focusing on clarifying what they meant, validating how they felt, and asking them for what they need – Isabelle, over time earned their trust.
We used visualization meditations to connect with trauma related parts
This second part of what we did – may not work for some. For us, we don’t ever believe change is actually happening. It’s hard for us to believe that the work we are doing will pay off – so we had to see it. Visualization meditation doesn’t work for us if we try to visualize sitting on a beach, but it does work if we are visualizing parts and inner world interactions. So we decided to try it.
We set aside time each day for Isabelle to visit with one of the parts in their home in the inner world just to hang out. While there – Isabelle would model this communication style to them. Through those conversations we learned a lot about the system AND gained the trust of the parts. We knew that we had accomplished that when the parts began to ask Isabelle how she felt. Our efforts had created space for the trauma parts to trust and want to befriend Isabelle!
Isabelle would sit the body down in a quiet spot in the outerworld. We would get very comfortable and turn on our favorite brain waves. Closing our eyes with the intent to visualize Isabelle walking down the path in the inner world, knocking on the door of the parts home, and the conversation. For us, the visuals just flood when we intentionally try to enter the headspace but that’s because of how often we intentionally visit there. With practice, it gets easier.
Once we begin to visualize we try to ground ourselves in the visualization. We do that the same way we try to ground in the outerworld – by focusing on the 5 senses. We list what we can see, hear, smell, feel and taste in the inner world. Isabelle always has to ground herself in the inner world to stay present since she has a hard time accessing it.
The meeting plays out as we watch. Our visualizations feels more like setting an intention and watching a movie play than it does us guiding the visuals. I suspect that’s a common thing with us that dissociate to survive. We spent time daily, visualizing Isabelle hanging out with our parts. She spent a lot of time with Lydia and Emmie and then finally Julia (her arch nemmy) Some parts, like Gage, saw the changes in the others and didn’t require visits. The key to getting everyone on board for us – was those meetings.
Once we all committed to improving communication – it happened fast.
We all began to use that type of communication, we all began to read the book and do the handouts while we were fronting and we even read the book together and out loud some nights. While we don’t always communicate in a non-violent way we are getting better every day.
We don’t require those daily meetings anymore, but we do still have them. We use them to work things out, ask each other for help and to comfort one another. Those meetings have been a powerful tool that we learned from adapting NVC with the parts approach.