Elaine is a 55 year old woman who has been in Parts Work therapy for the past four months.  She is recently separated from her husband of 32 years since he began an affair with a 34 year old woman he met at a party six months ago. This woman is also married.  Elaine was working as bookkeeper for her husband’s Insurance Agency, but now she is unemployed.  Presently she lives alone in the country at their home, raises farm animals, maintains a large garden, and assists her 88 year old mother who lives two hours away in the family house by herself. Elaine’s husband, Ryan, claims to still love her, but is refusing marriage counseling because the condition requires he stop seeing his lover. Elaine believes Ryan is suffering from a mid-life crisis, will snap out of it, and return to her. This event, however, has shaken Elaine’s world and precipitated a spiritual crisis. She has always prayed for a strong, enduring marriage and cannot resolve why this is happening. Elaine has a strong affiliation with her church, serving on committees and volunteering in the soup kitchen, however much of her social life was through her husband's network of friends.  Elaine and Ryan did not have children.

Elaine has read Parts Work: an Illustrated Guide to Your Inner Life by Tom Holmes and has taken well to Parts Work therapy.  I began using the prototype deck of Inner Active Cards with Elaine and she has since used many of the images to represent her inner parts as well as imagining her own. Having a well developed ability to visualize, Elaine did not choose to create her own images of these special parts.

Do-Gooder (left) is featured here with Burn-out (right).  Do-Gooder presented as a one-dimentional card reveals that this part is a façade operating from internalized “shoulds and oughts”:  “As a Christian I should do this – I ought to do that…” Also, Elaine's husband has an extroverted personality and often coerced Elaine into extending herself into his social, political, career and personal interests, beyond her introverted comfort level. Although Elaine believed she was serving her church and husband for virtuous reasons, she realizes now that her behavior has not been rooted in Self-leadership.
Burn-out is how Elaine really feels. Elaine’s sees this when she looks through the eyes of Truth.    

Sharon: And we will talk about that more in a few minutes.  Have these guys step back for a while. (I move the three cards to the side) Because now I’d like to get to know this part of you. (Peaceful Guy sitting on the rock).  Tell me about this card.

Ben:  That’s me when I go hang out at the creek.  I’ve always liked it there.  I like to go down there by myself and just watch the water.  And there are birds and all sorts of wild life.  It’s so peaceful.

Sharon:  This sounds like a beautiful place. I can see you relaxing there and enjoying the beauty of nature. And  I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine yourself there right now.   Shift around and get comfortable if you need to and take a few deep calming breaths.  Ask these other parts to step back for a while as you take a break, letting them know that we will come back and talk to them later. Let them know that they are safe, that you are safe, and it’s important for you to go to the creek to learn something important about yourself.  Just imagine what its like to be at the creek; the sound of the water, the sights and smells, the way the summer air feels on your skin.  And notice how calm and peaceful you are.  All your worries and concerns floating down stream. I give Ben a minute to fully engage the scene. Are you there? (Ben nods) Good.  Now have Stressed-out Boy show up.  And tell me how you feel towards him. (Pause) Is he there?

Ben:  Yes, he’s there.  And I feel sorry for him, but he doesn’t try hard enough.  He could do better.

Bouncer, left, was assigned to watch over Elaine’s Child part (right). Bouncer serves as a protector for a curious, but vulnerable little girl with a tender heart .

In “real Life” a Bouncer is a person hired to keep order usually at a bar or night club. In the book Parts Work (page 19), the Bouncer is shown as a healthy form of Anger.  When child parts are hurt, Anger will often come to the rescue, which is normal, but in an extreme form, can do more harm than good. Bouncer will alert Elaine to trouble, giving her the courage to stand up for herself, and the power to say "NO!" to those who might take advantage of the child's soft heart.

Sharon: Hmmm, I’m hearing a critical voice.  Another part is in the living room and it’s saying the Boy isn’t good enough.  Ben, open your eyes now and look at the other cards again.  See if you can find a card to represent a part that thinks the Boy isn’t good enough.

(Ben picks the Judge.)

Sharon:  Yes, I think you found him. What’s his name?

Ben:  Judge.

All artwork ©/™ Sharon Sargent Eckstein & Backwoods Press, 2012. Graphics and Web Site by Jane Eckstein.

Case Examples

(about a minute passes and Ben has a smile on his face)

So what is happening?

Ben:  The Boy feels better now.

Sharon:  What happened to the world that he was carrying?

Ben:  He’s dancing on it.


Ben chose a burdened “child” card, Stressed-out Boy, to represent how he felt growing up in the shadow of his sister. The Judge is a “manager” that formed from cues collected from the external environment; familial, religious and cultural influences.  The “Party Animal” takes the role of rebel and/or distracter.  Here Party Animal serves as a reactionary function to diffuse the constant criticism of the Judge.  The Angry Bull card serves as an extreme protector. Anger in Ben’s case is a “red flag” that some part was in conflict with who Ben truly is: namely the Judge.

Peaceful Guy presented Self qualities and I was fortunate to have access to this source from the beginning.  Peaceful Guy initiated Self- Leadership when dealing with the Judge, an extreme manager, resulting in transformative healing in Ben’s inner system. This transformation had a ripple effect, helping to center other extreme and reactionary parts in later sessions.

This session was more “directive” than sessions I have with adult clients, mainly because of Ben’s age.  At 16, cognitive functions are still forming as is a young man’s knowledge base and perspective on life.  It was my judgment call.  Some Internal Family Systems therapists are directive in their techniques even with adults.  However, I find therapy more effective when clients are allowed to come to their own conclusions concerning parts and their purposes.  Most adults are able to do this and it fosters a sense of confidence, which ultimately translates to Self-Leadership. With young people, however, I do double duty as guide and teacher, and this has proved to be effective.

Remember this is an edited version of the session; more dialogue took place than I have presented here. The session lasted two hours.  Never-the-less, I hope this version demonstrates how Inner Active Cards function to “catch” the dynamics of the inner world, enhancing and concretizing the therapeutic process.   

I created the Boy Dancing on the World card as a commemoration to Ben’s session.  Later, Ben inspired me to create the College Student card as he discovered a part that wants to go to college and study music. His parents, concerned about Ben’s grades, worked with teachers and had Ben enrolled in A.P. (advanced placement) classes and he is doing much better. Ben continues to pursue his interest in music composition and has been getting “gigs” to D.J. at events in the area. He also is self-employed doing yard work part time during the summer, earning his own money. His parents and sister are proud of him.

Sharon:  And this is really hard on you.  Every time Judge criticizes you it makes you feel worse, it adds more weight to Boy’s shoulders. (Ben nods).  So ask Judge why he does this. Ask him why he judges you all the time. (Pause)

Ben:  He says he wants my parents to be proud of me. He wants me to succeed. And its not like I don’t try.  I do. But I’m not like Audrey.  I don’t like science that much. I’m not good at it like she is.  And I don’t like school.  I like other things.

Sharon:  You’re right:  You are not like your sister and Judge needs to know that, because maybe he’s confused about something and needs you to set him straight.  Maybe he has the wrong idea about how to help you.

You said Judge believes you have to be like your sister so your parents will be proud of you. Judge really believes he has to be hard on you to keep you in line for your own good. These kind of parts act as inner managers taking cues from the outer world about how you should behave to be successful. And the role model for Judge was your sister, Audrey. But  Judge is confused about something very important: To succeed you have to be Ben, not Audrey.  Audrey succeeds because she is doing what she does best and what she loves to do.  I heard you say “I like other things” and as long as Judge thinks you have to be like Audrey, these other things are being ignored and this stirs up conflicting emotions like you find between the Party Animal and Angry.
You know, not all successful people were straight A students. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are good examples of men who did poorly in school when they were kids. And not everyone knows exactly what they want to do in life when they are only 16. For many it’s a life long process, a culmination of many experiences. And I know for a fact that your parents love you for who you are …And you are Ben, not Audrey. And you have your own talents and abilities and path to follow in this life.  Sure your parents want you to do good in school, and sure they want you to succeed, but I really don’t believe they want you to be exactly like Audrey. They want you to be Ben. But maybe Judge doesn’t  know that.

(Ben smiles and nods)

Ben:  It means I’m trying so hard to be like my sister, to get good grades and make my parents proud of me, but I keep failing.  So I go party with my friends and don’t do my school work. (Ben points to the Party Animal)

Sharon :  The Party Animal helps distract you from your burden of trying to be like your sister and doing good in school. 

I have Ben sit on the carpet and spread the cards out in front of him, telling him to look at each card as he lays it down.  I am sitting next to him on a low foot stool where I can see his face. Next, I instruct him to select cards that seem to represent some part of him, parts that are involved in the way he feels right now.  I stress that he shouldn’t think about or edit his choices, but go on his gut feelings about which cards fit best for him. I explain that the cards have no set meaning, only the meanings he gives to them. Ben chooses four cards he calls Stressed-out Boy, Angry, Peaceful Guy and Party Animal.

The image of the Do-Gooder card comes to me, but the image is just that – only an image: no depth, just a card with a white boarder. She is fixed in her place on the card, no emotion or movement. Sophia and I both look at it and then behind it. It really is just a card.  Human sized, but just a card with a blank back.  I reach up and grip it at the top with both hands and easily rip it in two down the middle.  The image of Burn-out comes into focus where the Do-Gooder card was.  But this character has substance.  It is a part and not a drawing. Sharon has me ask her what she needs and she says “Get me out of here!”  Then I pick up the pieces of the torn Do-Gooder card and toss them into a fire.

Ben:  Yea, but then I get mad at myself for screwing up (points to Angry) and my parents get on my back and that really pisses me off. Then I cuss and throw things and break things.  But it just makes me feel worse. So I go party again.

Sharon:  Hmmm, sounds like you’re caught in a loop.  The Stressed-out Boy is trying so hard to live up to impossible expectations and its wearing him down.  He’s exhausted.  So the Party Animal steps in to give the Boy a break.  The Party Animal is trying to help, but he doesn’t realize he’s making matters worse, because now you’re behind in school, which disappoints your teachers and your parents, which adds more weight to the Stressed-out Boy. Then Angry enters the picture and he’s really pissed.  He’s responding to the fact that the Boy can’t take any more and he wants the world to know it.  He’s very concerned about the Boy and his intentions are good, but again his behavior causes more harm than good.  And now you really look bad. More weight is added to the shoulders of the Boy. Do you see the loop?

Ben:  Yea, I do. I see it..

Now imagine being Peaceful Guy again, watching the creek flow and hearing the birds, everything that makes this place seem real to you. It is all so peaceful.  And from the eyes of  Peaceful Man, look at Judge and tell me how you feel toward him.

Ben:  I see he is trying to help, but he isn’t.  He needs to back off.

Sharon: Yes, that’s right. He needs to back off. But he has a job to serve you.  Having a healthy inner Judge part can be very important in life, like knowing when to stay away from kids who could get you into serious trouble, or standing up against a bully, that sort of thing. So, tell the Judge how he can help you right now.           

Ben:  He needs to stop criticizing me and tell me that I’m good at what I like to do, like my music.  I really like my music and my friends like it too.  It makes me feel good when I  D.J.(disc jockey)  at a party and everyone’s dancing and having a good time.  I like making people happy like that.  I want Judge to tell me I’m doing good when I ‘m working as a D.J..

Sharon:  That’s a great idea.  Sounds like you know what makes you happy, and right now that’s when you D.J. and see people having a good time. And how does Judge feel about that? Is he willing to help you explore what it means to be Ben, to help you find you’re path in life? Ask him about this.

Ben:  Yes, he’s OK with that.

Sharon: Good. Now have Peaceful Guy  take all of your parts, Angry, Party Animal, and Judge to the creek.  And once you are there ask Peaceful Guy to help your parts understand Stressed-out Boy and to help him with his burden, with the heavy world of expectations and criticism on his back.  Just let the scene play out.

At the beginning of the session I took about 10 minutes to explain “Parts Work” using the book Parts Work:  An Illustrated Guide to Your Inner Life by Tom Holmes, to highlight ideas of multiplicity of mind and how, and why parts develop and function.  I stress that he is safe and has the right to stop therapy at anytime. We review the rules of confidentiality and my duty to warn. I will be using Inner Active Cards (prototype, before publication).

Elaine keeps a journal and records each session. Elaine has given her permission to use the following excerpt from her journal as a case example. It is written in her voice.

Elaine has a Thinker part who is good at analyzing, but who also likes to take over the living room. While a Thinker part can keep a person rational and protect against emotional pitfalls, a Thinker can keep one in the intellect, avoiding emotions that need attention or signal warnings.

Helper is a major player in Elaine’s Inner Family. Elaine enjoys helping others when it involves projects she likes to do. Sometimes, however, Helper takes on too much.  Because  helping others is part of her moral value system, Elaine feels good about herself when she volunteers at church. She also believes helping her husband achieve his goals will strengthen their marriage.  Consequently, Elaine often sacrifices her own needs over the needs of others.  

Elaine has an introverted personality temperament and enjoys quiet time by herself either reading, listening to classical music, knitting or walking in the woods.  Solitude is the name of her part that needs quiet time to recharge.  Solitude is allied with her Thinker part; she likes to read nonfiction, e.g., history, philosophy and science. Solitude is also allied with her spiritual part Truth, which is not featured in image. Elaine admits that she often neglects these parts, who are essential to her psycho/spiritual and overall health:  she just has too much to do!

I give Ben several minutes to study his selected cards and instruct him to imagine how that part feels when it is active (in the living room).  Then I have Ben tell me his story using the cards to represent his feelings.

Ben:  This first one (Boy world on his shoulders; Stress-out Boy) is how I feel most of the time, especially at home and at school.

Sharon:  You are carrying a heavy load on your shoulders.  That is quite a burden and the trail you follow looks hard, if not impossible.  Tell me what this means to you.

This is an abridged version of an actual therapy session which lasted two hours. Although my client has given permission to present this case for educational purposes, names and certain details have been changed to protect my client’s identity.

 Ben is a 16 year old high school student who reports feeling depressed, having trouble in school and strained relationships with his parents.  His mother is a teacher and his father is a salesman. He has an older sister, Audrey, who is a junior at a prestigious college on scholarship to study chemistry.  On the day of this session, Ben presented friendly and polite, appropriately groomed in jeans and a T-shirt. Ben is about 5’10” and weighs approx. 135 lbs and reports no physical illness.  He says he likes sports, likes to party with his friends, hang out by the woodland creek near his home and play with his dog. He also likes to compose synthesized alternative music. He says he has a good relationship with his older sister. In fact, it was she who told him to seek help for his depression. He denies alcohol use although admits smoking marijuana when he parties with friends, but not during school hours, which is substantiated by parents and teachers.

I start out in my glen (safe place) with all of the parts that have been defined to date in their usual places. Bouncer and the Child, Thinker and Solitude are still sitting quietly by the creek.  Truth and Sophia are in front of me.  The Divine Light is there in the distance.



Through a marital crisis Elaine experiences the primal emotions of heart-break and extreme anger which dominate and restrict her life. To represent these states Elaine chooses the Child card, which carries her innocence of trust and love, and the Angry Bull card,  which represents her rage, not only toward her husband, but also toward God, for violating all that she held righteous and vested.  In previous sessions, Elaine has identified and worked with other parts, not all of which are found in the Inner Active Cards deck - Thinker, Solitude, Truth, and Helper, and the Spiritual Guide, she calls Sophia. In this session Sophia appears and takes the wounded Child and Anger to the Glen, where they are filled with the Divine Light of Self-energy and unburdened of their extreme emotional pain, rage and fear. Then Elaine is confronted with the "Do-Gooder", a part that appears as a one-dimensional card.  Elaine immediately recognizes this card as a persona she had developed to meet her internalized "Christian" standards of virtuous behavior, much to the neglect of her own true introverted nature and talents.  Elaine rips the Do-Gooder in two, and out steps "Burn-out", the card that represents how she truly feels when the Do-Gooder.takes over.  Elaine is reconnected with her Spiritual Core, Truth, and through the eyes of Truth, is given the clarity to see who she really is; a deeply compassionate, contemplative, whose heart is always safe and indestructable. Through the wisdom of Truth, Elaine will further explore and develop her innate strengths and talents, charting a way to genuinely contribute to the world as a whole, compassionate introvert, whether the marriage holds or not.

Initially, I had Elaine imagine a safe place for any parts needing comfort and rest. Elaine visualized a beautiful glen with shade trees, big rocks, and a flowing creek illuminated by Divine Light.  This worked well, as one of her first parts to present was a Child, curled in a fetal position, wracked with a broken heart.  Standing over the wounded child was her fuming Anger.  I asked Elaine to ask for spiritual guidance to help move these parts out of their fixed states, and the Guide she calls Sophia appeared on the spot.  Sophia took the Child and Anger to the glen where Divine Light filled them with Self-energy:  Anger was transformed into Bouncer and the Child, comforted and put under his protection.

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