What is whole/parts theory?

I am almost positive that this is the incorrect name for the actual psychological theory, but “whole/parts theory” is how I and my alters (aka parts) remember it.

This theory is based on the belief that a human personality/identity is made up of many parts, or characteristics/thoughts/feelings/beliefs, that work together to create the complete individual.  This is how one person can have conflicting wants and needs or trouble making a decision.

Some Examples: 

  • Person A hates romantic movies, but really likes the actor playing the lead in a new romance in the theaters.  Does he go or not go?
  • Person B is invited to go out with her friends on the same day she normally visits her cousins to go fishing.  What does she choose?
  • Person C is popular and girly, but loves working on cars and motorcycles with her father.
  • Person D is in college; he wears lots of leather and chains, rides a motorcycle, is pre-med, and is a member of the student government.
  • Person E is asked out on a date by someone she really likes, but her parents told her she isn’t allowed to date yet.  Does she say no or sneak out to go on the date?
  • Person F is a geek who really enjoys anything related to computers, but he is also a great Rugby player and plays for the local team.

How does this relate to DID?

By using the whole/parts theory and the tree metaphor, I have a frame of reference to use in understanding what kinds of coping strategies and techniques will support different alters and our system as a whole.

To the outside world, I am one person with one body and one personality/identity.  It is relatively homogenous, but people who know me well, know that I am a bit eccentric and quirky too.  Coping strategies that help all of us work through system wide triggers (aka anxiety or panic in the outside world) are like safety blankets that comfort and help all of the systems while not completely addressing the root cause or primary trigger.

This is true for me because the primary trigger resides with a single alter or a group of alters in our system.  One alter gets triggered, and that causes a domino effect in the rest of the system.  We have safety protocols and coping strategies to help in times like these, but they are a stopgap to help until we get home or to a safe place where the alters can come out and utilize individual coping strategies to help with specific symptoms and triggers unique to their experiences.

That is where the “parts” part of the theory comes in handy.  To our internal world, we are 88 unique personalities who make up the identity of a single person.  We work together and cooperate to ensure every part is heard, accepted, valued and included in the choices we make as a person to the outside world.  “Every part in exactly the right place” to paraphrase my therapist.  Part of my need for and love of solitude comes from being an introvert.  The rest comes from needing extra time to help parts of myself struggling with the past and present cope with the trauma effectively and safely.

And since each alter carries a unique piece of the trauma history, he/she/it needs to utilize different strategies from others during the same panic attack, moment of anxiety, etc.  One alter at a time can be in charge of our body.  But every one of us feels the pain and memories when our body is triggered.  We experience the pain differently and have different memories surface.

How do we all use different coping strategies when inside one body?

That is a work in progress.  But here are some tried and true tips that have worked over the past year and a half:

  • Listen to your alters with ALL of your senses.  Some may speak, but most do not.  I can tell the difference between memories and alters because my memories ONLY speak, but my alters prefer sending pictures, movies, cards, notes, dance routines, songs, food, lyrics, stuffed animals, etc. to communicate their thoughts and feelings
  • Use a ?? for any questions; try sending images at first – they tend to be easier for some alters, especially child ones, to understand
  • If and when you do try and “let all of the alters out”, make sure you are in a safe place and either sitting or lying down.  I personally prefer lying down and closing my eyes; it lowers the chances of my getting dizzy or accidentally falling out of the chair.
  • When trying grounding or self-soothing (aka comforting yourself) techniques, pay attention to the sensations and feelings or avoidance of both.  Usually that is how alters express positive, neutral, and negative responses to a coping strategy or technique
  • Sometimes you have to be the parent or responsible parent-like figure in your system.  That’s okay because healthy boundaries make alters feel safer the same way children feel safer.

Conclusion

DID is confusing and scary.  Not many therapists are willing to work with someone who has DID, let alone try outside of the box strategies.  I am lucky because my therapist does specialize in DID and has helped me feel confident in pushing the boundaries of “acceptable” coping strategies.

Not everyone’s experience of DID is like mine, so please read with an open mind and only try out suggestions that have meaning for you.

Thanks for Reading

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