A Story of Many Parts
What is self-consent? To me, it means knowing ourselves well enough to recognise our own body’s sense of ‘yes’ and ‘no’; the ability to notice, trust and value our own desires, needs and limits. Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent is the best tool I have come across for practicing self-consent because it keeps calling us back to this noticing, trusting and valuing. (It also provides a really clear language to help communicate what we’ve noticed, but that’s not the topic of this blog).
Self-consent comes into play when we’re making a decision for or about ourselves, which might barely impact anyone else. But it’s also a factor in every consent agreement we make with others. We need some inner clarity about our own desires and boundaries before we can communicate them to another.
I recently had a powerful experience of self-consent and the internal processes around it. What became apparent, for me at least, is the usefulness of considering parts-work in self-consent. What do I mean by that?
It’s common for people to say things like, “Part of me really wants to do this, but another part of me doesn’t.” Rather than dismiss this as mere indecisiveness, there are some powerful bodies of work which address ‘parts-work’ (e.g. Internal Family Systems). In such modalities, each different ‘part’ of us is listened to, and encouraged to express its own needs, desires and boundaries. In this way, disowned, ignored or traumatized parts of the self can be heard, potentially coming back into integration and healing. One part which widely known is the ‘inner child’, but there can be many other parts. Some relate to influential people in our past (e.g. “I can hear my mothers voice when I have that thought”). Others may hold different parts of our personality (e.g. “the adventurous part” or the “terrified part”). They may also be related to trauma responses (e.g. a part which is in “flight” or “freeze”).
It seems to me that all of this is key to self-consent. If one part of me wants to do something and another part of me doesn’t, how do I resolve that conflict? To help answer that, here is the story of what I learned from my recent experience…
In early September, when coronavirus rates were very low and travel to and from Italy was unrestricted, I had what seemed at the time to be a good idea. A teacher I rate very highly was holding a week-long retreat specifically for facilitators in a beautiful farm-house in Tuscany. This jumped out as a wonderful (if expensive) opportunity for both personal and professional development, especially since most of my other plans to travel had been cancelled due to the pandemic. It turned out the September course was fully booked, but it was being run again in October, and I booked for that. As the date approached, I anxiously followed the news as coronavirus rates started creeping up again.
Without any advance warning, the Italian Government changed the rules about travelling to Italy two days before my flight. On arrival at the airport, everyone was given strict instructions that we had to attend a nearby clinic to get tested for coronavirus within the next 48 hours, and that if we tested positive we would be put into isolation. This came as a complete shock to me: I wouldn’t have flown if I’d known this to be the case.
I spent that night in a hotel in Florence as planned, unable to sleep, and feeling that I had three choices:
- The most obvious option was to take the test, hope to test negative, which was the most likely outcome, and then proceed to the retreat. The problem was that I might test positive. (I later read that a couple of British men had been held in isolation in Italy in this way for two months). Although my mental health is generally pretty good, I occasionally have claustrophobia, a panicky feeling of being trapped, even when I’m not. This started for me 20 years ago after I left a high-demand Buddhist karate group, which in the end became psychologically and physically abusive, and in which many of us came to feel we were trapped. In Italy that night I felt a lot of fear rising within me at the thought of being held in captivity, in a foreign country, against my will.
- The second option was not to take the test, and hope to get away with it. For a while this felt like a tempting option, until I remembered that it would be easy enough for them to compare a list of who was on the plane and who had registered for the test. I had also read that some people have been sent to prison for violating Covid rules in Italy. This wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take.
- My third option was to take the next flight home, and miss out completely on the retreat I had come to do.
As I lay on my bed in the hotel, I became aware of two different ‘parts’ arguing within me. One was the ‘adventurous part’, which passionately wanted to go on the retreat. The other was the ‘terrified part’, which wanted to draw a boundary and say “No, this is not a risk I’m prepared to take – the risks are too great.”
There have been many times in my life when I have listened to the adventurous part and over-ridden the terrified part. And why wouldn’t I? Most childhood adventure stories are about someone doing exactly that. It was also the approach of the abusive Buddhist group I was in – the message was always to observe the terrified part, but not be ‘limited’ by it – in other words, to ignore it. It’s neatly summarised in the new-age phrase ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’
But the question I asked myself was, ‘What happens to the terrified part, if you simply ignore it?’ I’d been reading about trauma and attended some trainings in it. I recognised that the ‘terrified’ part of me was having what’s called a Flight-type trauma response. And one of the key insights in this field is that we don’t heal our old traumas by ignoring or over-riding our deep trauma responses.
I became strongly aware of the ‘deciding’ part of me, which needed to adjudicate between the adventure loving part and the terrified part. And I sensed that if I ignored the terrified part now, it might somehow never be able to trust the deciding part again. In that moment it became crystal clear that I needed to listen to and honour the terrified part. I wept tears of relief as I made this decision.
I then had a ‘conversation’ with the adventurous part, reminding it that while I heard and acknowledged its desire, we also had to listen to the needs of other parts, and right now we were getting a clear no, a hard boundary, from the terrified part.
It was like observing a conversation around sexual consent and boundaries, where one party really wants all the excitement of sex and the other party is expressing a clear no. When I noticed that similarity, I became even clearer that the ‘decision-making part’ of me was making the right call.
So I promptly went online to book a flight back to the UK that afternoon. When I got to the airport, I called a friend about what was going on and burst into tears. But inside, my body felt ‘whole’ and in integrity. I felt clear that I had practised self-consent.
Want To versus Willing To
The Wheel of Consent emphasises two types of ‘yes’ in making consent agreements. The first is the yes of ‘want to’, when I am putting forward my desires. The second is the yes of ‘willing to’, when I say yes to something which isn’t my first choice, but I’m genuinely happy to do it because it’s what someone else who I like or value wants. The Wheel of Consent usually describes this ‘want to’ and ‘wiling to’ (and of course also the third option, ‘not willing to’) as a conversation between two people. In this situation I was clarifying them between two parts of myself.
My ‘adventurous part’ had expressed its ‘want to’, i.e. to go to the retreat. My ‘terrified part’ had expressed a clear no. For a while, the adventurous part tried to persuade the terrified part to change its mind, but it wouldn’t. Then the decision making part weighed in, reminding the adventurous part that it had received a clear no and it needed to honour that. It also then asked the adventurous part if it would make it easier to let go of this particular adventure if it remembered the many previous adventures I had taken it on, and if I assured it of future adventures to come. And then the adventurous part agreed that it was genuinely willing to let go of this particular adventure - even though that wasn’t what it wanted. Note this is a very different experience to the two parts ‘fighting it out’ until one of them wins and one of them loses - which is what I feel would have happened if the firm ‘no’ of the terrified part had been over-ridden. Equally, if in a different situation the 'terrified part' expressed a concern, rather than a hard boundary, then it might be willing to let the adventurous part do what it wanted.
Many aspects of society and culture are non-consensual. I imagine we have all over-ridden our own self-consent many times, for perfectly valid reasons: sometimes it's easier, or safer, or it's the only available option. Sometimes it's just become a habit. We probably all experience it many times as children, but most of us also do as adults. I suggest our capacity for self consent is also impacted by many factors including our trauma history, social privilege or lack of it, access to therapeutic interventions, and so on. I have written more here about a current tendency for people to identify with their regal, or 'sovereign' part, as a way of regaining a sense of control or having stronger boundaries.
Developing more awareness of self consent where we have no power to actually change a situation could be very painful. But in situations where we do have power and agency to make meaningful decisions or change a situation, then practising self consent seems to me invaluable. And for me at least, both the Wheel of Consent and parts work are essential elements of self consent.
Rupert James Alison, November 2020
Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors by Janina Fisher, which describes working with parts in a and trauma-sensitive way.
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