How No Bad Parts Is Helping Me Navigate The Turbulence Of Dating

How No Bad Parts Is Helping Me Navigate The Turbulence Of Dating
Photo by Matt Mariannelli / Unsplash

My friends and family know me as the paragon of joy—they literally call me “Golden Retriever.” For the last few years, I have prided myself on this nickname, serving as a bastion for my friends and family as they go through their own struggles. How do you remain so happy and cheerful? They ask. I would laugh and make one of my jokes: “The cocaine helps.”

Now, I’m the one struggling. Over the last six months, I have been on 15+ dates, and it’s been an emotional roller coaster.

I feel a confusing cocktail of disappointment, frustration, resentment (toward myself), and hollowness, alongside ecstasy, joy, and hope.

There’s disappointment and frustration at how much work has gone in for little reward until recently. There’s hollowness from this confusing deep seated need—which seems to have come out of nowhere starting six months ago—to create an incredible romantic relationship.

Critiquing all these parts comes the Stoic inside me, which complains at my softness:

How can you feel these negative emotions while so many more are suffering from real problems like starvation, death, financial instability, and more? You have people you can help through your content creation. This is distracting you. So, you had a hard time finding a date, booo hooo. Toughen up.

All of these conflicting parts acting simultaneously begs the question: which one is me?

For a while, I blended with this Stoic and neglected to do the internal work of navigating this turmoil.

This only made the feelings worse.

I started stonewalling my emotions to protect myself from rejection in dating. One girl I went on over four fantastic dinners with sent me a text saying they weren’t emotionally ready for another relationship. Reading the text in my dorm, a part of me knew I should let myself feel the emotions that arose. Instead, I turned off my phone and distracted myself by writing a script for my YouTube channel.

Over the last few weeks, I have often woken up and lain in bed for minutes on end, feeling an unexplainable loneliness in my chest.

Thankfully, a few weeks ago, while on a call with a friend from my writing club who is particularly interested in healing and introspection, he recommended the book No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz. In the book, Schwartz provides a system for understanding the self and helping it heal no matter your background. One of the essential ideas is everyone can benefit from this healing even if they have no significant trauma.

In fact, sometimes, it’s those who haven’t had any trauma who need it the most because they believe they don’t have anything to heal from.

Intrigued, I began reading the book after the call in my dorm room. It quickly became a salvation for me during this difficult period.

Schwartz explains many people have a conception of the self that is antagonistic to good mental health. They see the self as a mono-mind, concrete across situations. And they believe their thoughts and feelings are "them." There are two major problems with this conception of self.

Firstly, our self is incredibly fluid.

We aren’t the same around our parents as we are around our best friends. I’m not the same in my childhood hometown of Hamilton as in Cornell University. We aren’t the same now as we were five years ago. Seeing the self as a mono-mind doesn't do justice to the many multifaceted selves we have.

Secondly, with this conception of self, any negative feelings or thoughts we have are seen as signs that we are bad.

That's crazy.

Who hasn't had feelings and thoughts they didn't want to act upon? I’ve literally stood next to a baby and thought, “I wonder if their head would break like a watermelon if I smashed it.” I’ve opened the fridge at 9:00 p.m. and felt an insane craving for some cake. And during this dating period, I’ve had feelings and thoughts of worthlessness.

Seeing these feelings and thoughts as "us" puts us at war with ourselves. Instead of showing up with compassion and curiosity, we show up with fear, anger, and pitchforks.

Thankfully, No Bad Parts provides an alternative viewing of self in Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is based on two main ideas:

  1. Multifaceted Self: we are not made up of one concrete self but many parts that emerge in different environments and play different roles in our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
  2. Systems Thinking: these multifaceted parts interact with each other in collaborative, competitive, and parallel ways to create a self that is different than the sum of its parts.

These two ideas run against the negative conceptions many of us hold about the self mentioned above.

Let’s explore more what parts are because they are central to understanding IFS. Our parts are different aspects of ourselves that conflict and collaborate to help us navigate the world.

In IFS, there are two different types of parts:

  • Exiles: our youngest, most vulnerable, parts created from a past traumatic experience or experiences.
  • Protectors: parts dedicated to protecting our exiles.

Protectors are further subdivided into two more parts:

  • Managers: parts that try and alter the situations we get ourselves into beforehand to protect our exiles.
  • Firefighters: parts that influence us to do sometimes drastic behavior at the moment to protect an exile.

Most of the time, our parts help us live well, but sometimes, they can make us feel, think, or do things that aren’t in our interest. This occurs when our parts become what Schwartz calls burdened, meaning they have unprocessed experiences (could be positive and negative) loaded onto them that can make them act in maladaptive ways.

For example, you go through a particularly tough diet, and a part of you never wants to diet again. You win a few too many awards as a kid, and a part of you begins to crave achievement above all else. You start laughing at your own jokes because you bombed in stand-up and are scared people will find you unfunny–cough, couldn’t be me.

Burdened parts aren’t inherently bad—everyone has them. The problem comes when we do what Schwartz calls blending with the part. When we blend with a part, we see the part as us. This means we attribute whatever bad feelings, thoughts, or behaviors the part has as indications of who we truly are.

Many of the horrible things that have happened and are happening in the world result from people blending with their misguided parts. The alternative, Schwartz explains, is finding the Self underneath–the pure awareness left when we unblend from all our parts.

You’ve probably experienced being in Self a few times during your life. In moments when you are so absorbed in the present, you have zero thoughts—you just are. Many traditions have called this different things but I think they represent the same idea: the Way in Taoism, the Stoic Sage in Stoicism, flow by Mihayl Csickszenmihayl, and more.

When in Self, we experience the 8 C’s:

  • Curiosity
  • Calm
  • Confidence
  • Compassion
  • Creativity
  • Clarity
  • Courage
  • Connectedness

This sounds great! The good news is the self is always within reach. We just lose track of them through blending. The goal of IFS is to enter Self more often.

Now we can understand why IFS is talked about like a family. Exiles are the small children. Protectors are the parents that try and protect them, in an ideal family at least. And the Self is like the wise grandparent overlooking it all.

Let’s tie this back to my experience dating. Naturally, because I have been on so many dates these last couple semesters, I have rejected and experienced a lot of rejection. As this happened more and more, I got more and more anxious that I wouldn’t find a girlfriend before the beginning of summer vacation.

A part of me–I believe a manager–started to build that was hypersensitive to rejection.

This part knew I didn’t have much time and was tired of getting hurt every time I gave my soul to someone and then got let down. So it thought, why not reject them or prepare emotionally before they reject me?! So, it started seeing rejection in the most small of details. They didn’t text for a day: I guess it’s over. They didn’t ask me enough questions during a date: Double over. They brought an axe to our walking date: okay, in that case, fair enough (thankfully, this did not happen).

Before learning about IFS, navigating these feelings and thoughts was really scary. I tied myself more to them and, therefore, began to believe I was just an anxious person when it came to dating.

But with IFS, I started to understand this part is simply trying to protect the exile in me which fears rejection and craves human connection.

And this is where we come to the most important idea of the book: there are no bad parts.

All your parts are trying to protect you. To some degree, the part of me sensitive to rejection is adaptive. Otherwise, someone I’m dating could leave for years to “get the milk,” and I would still be thinking, “there might just be a chance.” But all parts can misguide us if burdened.

The solution is not to scold or get frustrated with your part but to treat them like any grandparent would with their children and grandchildren. Approach them with compassion, curiosity, and understanding. Try to understand why they feel the need to act that way in the first place. Then, show them how they might act in a healthier manner.

Doing this with the part of me sensitive to rejection, I understood it was just trying to protect me from pain. I explained how this was actually hurting my dating journey. Then I showed it how it could use its hypersensitivity to find positive things in not just romantic partners but friends and family as well.

These last few weeks, I have come to all my parts with curiosity, compassion, and understanding, which has helped me immensely in navigating my dating struggles. In fact, I’m happy to say, as I’m revising this piece, that I’m now dating someone I want to ask to become my girlfriend. Someone who makes me feel alive, playful, funny, adventurous, like my best self—just without the cocaine…

Ironically, I’ve known this person for two years but had always seen them as a friend because I met them while in my first relationship. It was only going through this introspective journey that I started questioning my old conceptions and realized there was a beautiful, intelligent, curious, open-minded, and kind person right under my nose. Things change when you are more in Self.

I will end this blog post with an example conversation between my Self and my parts. Most of the time, when doing IFS, you work with a therapist to uncover your parts. But I decided to do it on my own.

I’m hoping this will give people an idea of what conversing with your parts actually looks like. In reality, it’s more rough than what I put below, but because this is in writing I wanted to tighten it up so it’s sensical. Don’t worry if your conversation doesn’t look as pretty as mine.

And before conversing with your parts, I strongly encourage you to consider doing it with a therapist. I’m not a trained professional and you should take everything I have said with a grain of salt. This is all my experience. The conversation below shows my “Self” acting as the “Therapist,” talking with me to navigate the parts that have arisen in my dating.

S: When you think about this whole dating experience what feelings come up?

Aidan: There’s disappointment, frustration, and emptiness—a hollowness.

S: Which of those feelings is strongest?

Aidan: The frustration and hollowness is really strong.

S: Okay, can you tell frustration and hollowness they can come out. Let’s give them a safe place to rest. What place are you thinking?

Aidan: I’m thinking of the porch of my parents house around the campfire. They’re both sitting there now.

S: What do they have to say?

Aidan: Frustration is really, well, frustrated. He says it’s not fair. He’s worked to help us so much. Getting us to take care of our health, going to the gym for 4+ years, meditating, playing tennis, sleeping on time, eating healthily, working on our business, introspecting, and trying to be as kind as possible to women. And yet, after 15+ dates there’s been little reward.

S: That’s completely valid. He’s worked hard. It’s tough to feel like it hasn’t been for anything. What does hollowness have to say?

Aidan: He’s, huh, he’s lonely. Really lonely. He wants someone to hold. To talk about stupid stuff and ideas with. To go on adventures with. He misses our previous girlfriend. He’s confused… He feels bad for making us feel lonely when we have many great relationships other than a girlfriend. He doesn’t feel it’s okay to feel lonely alongside that.

S: Tell him it’s okay to feel lonely sometimes. Loneliness isn’t a general feeling; it can also manifest in individual relationships.

Aidan: He feels slightly better.

S: Does he want to be hugged?

Aidan: Yes.

S: Hug him.

Aidan: He’s crying in my arms. He’s tired, tired of searching with frustration. I feel warmth—lots of warmth. Uh oh, another part is coming in. It wants us to stop hugging.

S: Tell that part to step aside with you away from the campfire. We’re going to talk to it one-on-one.

Aidan: I stepped aside with it. It feels judgmental. It questions this whole process of introspection in the first place. It says we shouldn’t need to introspect like this. We have a great family, financial stability, and great friendships. We have no reason to feel this bad about dating. It says we should be Stoic. There are people out there struggling way more than we are.

S: Ask it what it’s afraid of happening if it stopped protecting you?

Aidan: It’s afraid I’ll become self-absorbed. I’ll let my other parts take over and stop paying attention to the problems happening in the world.

S: How old does it think you are?

Aidan: It thinks I’m 18. The age I was when I first went to college. It’s trying to protect me from the loneliness I felt after losing my first friend group. It’s trying to get me to focus on working to help people through content creation like I used to spend all my time during that period doing.

S: Explain to it that feeling your emotions and trying to navigate them will help you come across better to others. It’s hard to help others if you’re hurting yourself.

Aidan: It doesn’t believe me. It feels like I’ve been too self-absorbed these last few weeks.

S: That’s okay. Sometimes, it takes time for parts to become comfortable. Tell it it’s welcome at the campfire, but you would appreciate it if it lets you talk to the other parts without interruption.

Aidan: It says that sounds good.

S: How do you feel now?

Aidan: Better, but there’s still this underlying feeling of melancholy and stonewalling.

S: Do you feel it anywhere in your body?

Aidan: Yes, my chest.

S: Where is it coming from?

Aidan: Hollowness is bringing the melancholy, and frustration—no, not just frustration, disappointment as well is bringing stonewalling.

S: Tell disappointment they can come and sit in the campfire as well.

Aidan: They’re all sitting by the campfire now. It’s warm.

S: Good, ask them why they are both stonewalling your emotions.

Aidan: They say they are trying to protect me. Protect me from the negative emotion of rejection. The college semester is almost over. If I don’t find a girlfriend now, it will be until next semester when I can try again.

S: Ask them what they’re scared of happening if they didn’t stonewall.

Aidan: I would be hurt. I’d get spiteful towards women and spend the summer sad and alone.

S: It’s perfectly valid to want to protect you. You have been through a lot this last couple of semesters. Ask them what made your previous relationship so great.

Aidan: Emotional intimacy. Lots of it. Adventures. Growing together intellectually, spiritually, and physically.

S: Tell them those things can’t be had if you stonewall yourself from emotions in this relationship.

Aidan: They’re surprised. They feel silly. We were in our first relationship with our previous girlfriend. Hollowness is disappointed at them because they have kept me from feeling the very feelings that would lead to a great relationship.

S: Ask them if they’re okay with feeling some more pain another relationship even if it doesn’t work out?

Aidan: They say they are. They say they are willing to give it one more shot. Even if it leads to pain, they say it’s worth it to experience some more for the chance of a great relationship. We can heal over the summer.

S: Do they want to hug each other?

Aidan: They all want to hug. Hollowness, disappointment, frustration. We’re all hugging each other.

S: That’s nice. How do you feel now?

Aidan: The tightness in my chest is better. I feel lighter. There is still an underlying feeling of melancholy/loneliness in that area of my life, but I’m excited to see where it goes.

S: Great, keep checking on them over the next few weeks. Thanks for taking the time to introspect today.