Battling Part X—and Stopping the Self-Sabotage
In concept, defining Part X is pretty simple: We all have that inner voice that seems intent on self-sabotage, stopping us from taking risks, sticking to diets and vows to exercise, or raising our hands for new opportunities. It is that part that simply says, “You can’t, you’re not strong enough, you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve this.” Barry Michels and Dr. Phil Stutz, LA-based psychotherapists and authors of the New York Times bestselling book, The Tools, work on toppling Part X with all of their clients. In fact, these limiting self-beliefs are so pervasive, even with people who seem imperturbable and unstoppable, that Part X is the focus of their newest book, Coming Alive: 4 Tools to Defeat Your Inner Enemy, Ignite Creative Expression & Unleash Your Soul’s Potential. Below, they explain how to locate Part X and ultimately, bring it to its knees.
A Q&A with Barry Michels & Phil Stutz
How did you come to discover Part X?
MICHELS: Phil and I have treated thousands of patients from all different walks of life, but they all have one thing in common: Everyone suspects they could be more confident and alive, and that their lives could be more meaningful and joyful. And they’re right! Human beings have a vast amount of untapped potential. The mistake everyone makes is thinking that it’s easy to fulfill that potential; that it should happen automatically.
It’s not easy or automatic. To reach your potential, you have to fight for it. The fight is with an inner enemy—called Part X—that’s doing everything it can to stop you from becoming the person you know you could be. It will get you to procrastinate, flood you with debilitating anxiety, lead you to overeat or drink too much, etc. It will stop at nothing.
“The mistake everyone makes is thinking that it’s easy to fulfill that potential; that it should happen automatically.”
STUTZ: I discovered Part X as a young psychiatrist. I was enthusiastic and would push my patients, and in my enthusiasm, a lot of times their symptoms would go away. But within a few months, their symptoms would recur and they would end up right back where they started—and more convinced that change was impossible. This happened over and over until I realized it wasn’t bad therapy or insurmountable problems. I began to feel the presence of this overwhelming and very active force thwarting their progress.
Why did you decide to call it Part X?
STUTZ: Once I sensed it was real, I wanted to convey that to my patients as directly, simply, and powerfully as I could. For that, I needed a name. I called it Part X for two reasons: First, it “X’s” out your potential. Second, it’s only part of you, not all of you. That means there’s hope because there are other parts that can help you overcome Part X.
What did your patients think of Part X?
STUTZ: I’ve never had a patient resist the idea—it surprised me how quickly my patients took to it. Even if it’s not conscious, we all have this vague sense there’s something stopping us, that there’s something aggressively working against us. Most people realize that they seem to put up obstacles for themselves, or watch themselves make bad decisions. If we keep sabotaging ourselves and don’t know why, we can’t do anything about it. But if there’s a force we can name, then we can fight it.
In Coming Alive, you detail the four most common strategies Part X uses against everyone. Can you explain each?
MICHELS: One of Part X’s most powerful strategies is to tempt you with immediate gratification. Maybe you can’t stick to a diet or exercise program, or you can’t stop checking social media or responding to texts when you should be working. We also tend to lack emotional self-discipline. In the book, we cite the example of a couple who couldn’t set limits with their kids because they couldn’t resist fighting with each other over them. As a result, their daughter was lying and stealing money from them, and their son was turning into a video-game addict. I gave them a tool for self-control—called the Black Sun (see how to use it here)—and they got their act together. They began to set consistent limits with their kids and the kids learned to control their impulses, too. The parents fulfilled their potential as parents, and in doing so they freed their kids to fulfill their potential as they moved into adulthood.
STUTZ: Another major way that Part X attacks you is by making you feel overwhelmed and getting you to believe you don’t have enough energy. Once you feel you don’t have enough energy, it becomes an excuse for not doing almost anything, from taking a new job, to socializing, or to confronting people. When I was trained as a psychotherapist, never once did I hear anyone mention energy. It was assumed that your energy was what it was and you couldn’t change it. But we’ve developed a tool called the Vortex that can tap into a source of energy that you didn’t know you have. If you train yourself to use it regularly, your future will look completely different.
MICHELS: Part X’s third strategy is to make you give up on your most cherished dreams. Sometimes you want something so much that when you don’t get it, it crushes you. You’re not just temporarily set back; you’re permanently defeated. A kid gets cut from a team and gives up on sports. You go through a really bad breakup and give up relationships all together. When you get knocked down, you have to learn how to get back up again. The Mother tool teaches you how to do this. When you use it consistently, it gives you the all-important quality of resilience.
“Once you feel you don’t have enough energy, it becomes an excuse for not doing almost anything, from taking a new job, to socializing, or to confronting people.”
STUTZ: The fourth way Part X will attack you involves hurt feelings. When a rival is promoted over you, or someone criticizes you to your face, it’s a blow to your ego. Part X invariably gets us to adopt the stance that “it shouldn’t have happened.” The problem is, it did happen, whether you like it or not. The only way to get over it is to process the hurt feelings and move on. The Tower tool allows you to do just that. It prevents you from adopting the stance of a victim and from using each injury to create the sense that the world is against you.
[You’ll find more on all of these tools in Coming Alive.]
How does Part X show up for each of you personally?
MICHELS: From the age of about thirteen on, I’ve been plagued with feelings of worthlessness and failure. It’s a really loud voice in my head saying things like, “You’re a failure! You’ll never amount to anything! Don’t try that, you’re only going to embarrass yourself!”
There was never any reality to the voice: I went to an Ivy League college; I graduated near the top of my law school class; I’m a successful therapist and a bestselling author. But the voice was always much stronger than the facts. That’s why the idea of an inner enemy appealed to me so much when I first heard it from Phil. He said what I’d been unable to articulate—that there was a ruthless force inside me that didn’t care about logic: It just wanted to undermine me! When I understood that, I stopped trying to argue with it and started fighting back. And I’m happy to say that these days I win many more battles than I lose.
“There was a ruthless force inside me that didn’t care about logic.”
STUTZ: My Part X tells me that what I have and what I’ve developed is great, but the world will not recognize it. Regardless of how many people read this article or our books—it doesn’t matter. That’s one of the things about Part X—it’s like a curator in a museum; only instead of picking out paintings, it’s picking out memories and experiences to prove its story and to point out that your self-realization is impossible. It’s the ultimate post-truth politician. One of the effects this has had on me is that I’ve learned to ask for help. I used to be completely unable to do so. But now, when I get defeated or blocked, or when my goals seem impossible, the first thing I ask myself is, “What kind of help can I get?”
How can we identify Part X in our own lives?
MICHELS: Here’s an exercise to help people identify their Part X in real time:
1. Go back to a time in your life when you felt stuck, unable to change something, or incapable of reaching a goal. It can be in any area—career, parenting, relationships, whatever—as long as it was something important to you.
2. Identify whatever it was inside you that stopped you and made it seem impossible to move forward. For me, it was vicious self-criticism, but for you it might have been laziness, anxiety, distractibility, a sense of hopelessness, or something else. Don’t worry if you’re picking the right or wrong thing—just pick one and focus on it.
3. Imagine there is something inside you that is perpetuating this problem; something constantly undermining you. Feel that thing inside of you as a dark, malicious force doing everything it can to hold you back.
4. Say to yourself, either out loud or in your head, “That’s Part X. That’s my enemy.” When you say the words, push the dark force out in front of you so there’s a little separation between you and it.
STUTZ: Practice labeling Part X like this as often as you can. You can use memories from the past, or you can identify it when you’re in the thrall of X and it’s actively working on you. (If you can’t catch it in real time, you’re dead in the water.) Even if you don’t know what to do after that, just identifying Part X will give you a little bit of freedom. For some people, being able to see it, label it, and understand how it affects them and their behavior—that itself is life-changing.
What do you do once you’ve recognized your Part X and identified its tactics?
MICHELS: Continue to label it every time it comes up, and use the quick and easy Tools [more here] to actually fight it. The Tools are your weapons of war against Part X. If it’s attacking you on a number of fronts and you don’t know where to start, pick the problem that bothers you the most and work on it relentlessly for two weeks.
STUTZ: No matter which tool you use, they’re all designed to increase your life force. When you increase your life force, it affects everything; it can help you in every area of your life.
How do you see The Tools as relevant outside of our own personal development?
MICHELS: Part X isn’t just interested in sabotaging you as an individual—it’s trying to bring down our whole society. We’ve become a self-indulgent, victimized, lazy society—prone to giving up as soon as we don’t get the results we want. But we can change that. Although the battle against Part X is inside each individual, the consequences are collective. If enough people give into Part X, our whole society declines. But if enough people fight back, it can lift up the entire society. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
STUTZ: It’s a cliché, but it’s true: You’re either part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution. To be part of the solution, means you’re doing the work, and one of the ways to do the work is to use The Tools.
Phil Stutz graduated from City College in New York and received his M.D. from New York University. He worked as a prison psychiatrist on Rikers Island and then in private practice in New York before moving his practice to Los Angeles in 1982. Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard, a law degree from University of California, Berkeley, and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. Together, Stutz and Michels are the authors of Coming Alive and The Tools. You can read more of their goop articles here, and see more on their site.