A Catholic Review of Altogether You (Part 3: Clinical / User Review)
by Dr. Peter Martin
This is the third of a 3-part series of reviews on Jenna Riemersma’s Christian-integrated IFS book, Altogether You. As mentioned near the end of the second review of this series, which focused more on the issues that diverge with a Catholic anthropology, despite some of the Christian anthropological differences, this is one of the better books on Christian-integrated IFS that I have read to date.
Though it has numerous sound anthropological considerations, where it stands out is on what this portion of the review concentrates. Riemersma’s efforts to make this an IFS-informed self-help book takes the spotlight here. She does a good job of providing IFS applications that can assist in one’s overall human formation.
On page 118, the author, also spends time with an essential component of personal growth and development that Schwartz calls “tor-mentors.” Riemersma defines a tor-mentor as an “activating situation or person” (p. 118). Rather than wrongfully justifying oneself for doing or saying hurtful or harmful things to another because one feels hurt, there is another healthier option.
As the author puts it, “When my parts take over, I tend to offend from the victim position—feeling justified in doing or saying hurtful things because I feel like a victim—which winds up hurting others and me” (p. 118). As the adage goes, hurt people hurt people. There is a much more life-giving alternative: “People whose parts activate me actually become a difficult gift in my life. As Schwartz would say, they become my ‘tor-mentors.’ They bring up the parts of me that most need healing, so in this way they mentor me in my personal and spiritual growth” (p. 118). Noticing the pain and hurt one has experienced from what something or someone else has done or not done is important. Equally or more important is what we do with it. We can lash out and mete revenge. We can avoid and escape the pain, stuff it “way down where it belongs” (as a person I know humorously puts it). We can listen to the lies of the Enemy who tells us we deserve it, that we are not worth anything better.
More adaptively, we can do an inward turn, the “you-turn,” the turning toward the pain inside and see it as an opportunity rather than a curse. This for some can be a type of psychological Copernican Revolution. Once this insight is embraced and lived, it tends to alter the course of one’s experience of self. If compassionately and consistently implemented, it provides greater authentic self-knowledge. It thus paves the way for more authentic and ordered self-love, since one cannot love what one does not know. Not to mention there is a greater potential for loving God and neighbor.
Similarly, Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen, in his book Into Your Hands, Father: Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us makes the claim that, in IFS terms, the individuals who offend and hurt us the most may be our greatest allies. They may be the very persons we thank the most when we reflect on our lives while residing in heaven. They were, indeed, the tor-mentors who unwittingly helped us to grow more Christ-like through the numerous crosses if felt like they placed on us during our earthly life.
Becoming Friendly with Your Firefighters
The author devotes two chapters for each type of protector (i.e., managers and firefighters). This review will focus on firefighters primarily, because Riemersma’s thoughts are quite helpful with respect to these more reactive (with manager parts being more proactive) protector parts. She focuses the first chapter of each of the protector types on helping the reader to conceptually know protectors in general as well as common examples of protectors. Then in the second chapter of each protector type, she assists readers to experientially know and care for their own protector parts.
From a self-help, human formation perspective, Riemersma is probably at her best in the book in her overview of and work with firefighters. (For a taste, I’d suggest readers review at least pages 103 to 104 to read her section on raging/aggressive firefighters.) This is some of the best writing I have read on IFS firefighters in addictive profiles, whether in a Christian- or secular-based book. Her proficiency in this area may be in part due to her professional specialization in treating addictions. Parts that directly influence acting out or compulsivity and impulsivity are generally firefighters. If someone you know says they have an Addictive, Overeater, or Drinker part, it is most always a firefighter.
She delineates and describes in detail three categories of experience in which one might encounter firefighters: 1) Limited relationship; 2) Significant relationship; and 3) “Oh dear, those little buggers are mine.” (pp. 116-134). These useful conceptual summaries and more experiential Going Deeper questions for each situation category, and her discussion questions at the end of the chapter are quite helpful. These sections may be helpful for clinicians, clients, and non-clients to peruse even if there is no formal addiction present. This is because parts present on a continuum or range of protectiveness or woundedness. Even if one has a part that is not as extreme as described by Riemersma, certain features may resonate with the person and be helpful to consider. Her context-specific focus is also constructive. A part may blend, for instance, when a person is with a parent but not with a spouse; or at home but not at work; or during the night but not the afternoon, etc.
Allowing Exiles to Have a Voice
IFS states that protector parts have a burdened role, which is to primarily suppress or repress, to “exile” Exile parts. Wounded exiles tend to be like sad, loud, and crying children in a public venue. Wounded protectors can be like caregivers who take extreme measures to address them. The louder or more intense exiles get, the more protector parts tend to “swoop in” to quiet them, to exile them. This type of swooping in is a wounded role, based in fear rather than authentic love.
Most often these protector parts believe they must do their burdened job or some terrible outcome will occur. Sometimes protector parts try to “protect” others from the pain that they may need to feel. These well-intentioned protective efforts can paradoxically prolong the other’s struggles leading to more pain than if we had not intervened.
That said, in Chapter 4 Riemersma makes a bold claim that is quite important for personal growth. She writes: “I know this might sound heartless, but taking away pain is actually the cruelest thing we can do for someone caught in the grip of addiction. Every courageous person in long term recovery will tell you how grateful she is for her own personal ‘bottom’…. We don’t know why something’s wrong, and we can’t wisely seek help until we feel and experience and listen well to the gift of our pain.” (p. 43).
She then proceeds to practically apply this principle of listening to our wounded areas, listing various exiles that if heard properly can lead to growth. For example, she notes, “I need to listen to my anger to know that I’ve had a boundary violated. I need to listen to my loneliness to know that I need to invest in relationships” (p. 43). These types of helpful inward turns can lead to psychological and interpersonal progress. Many readers will appreciate later in this and a few other chapters her “Going Deeper” sections which are quite thorough, including questions for self-awareness and self-love. Additional chapter sections include “Going Further,” as well as when parts will or will not unblend, and more “Discussion Questions” (see pp. 55-62 for examples)
The Spiritualizer Part
In earlier chapters, Riemersma articulates the IFS model and provides numerous and even lengthy applied strategies about how to be in-self when turning toward manager, firefighter, and exile parts. Near the end of several chapters there is a helpful section called “Going Deeper” that has several questions to assist the reader in seeing and knowing various types of parts. Just one example: “What parts got activated in you when this firefighter showed up in [the other person]?”
To her credit, following these sections, the author sometimes includes a troubleshooting portion as well. These are designed to help the reader if the Going Deeper’s questions and recommended experiential exercises have not been sufficiently helpful.
With these more explicitly human formation-focused areas addressed, in Chapter 9, Riemersma makes a more concerted effort to discuss parts that can be spiritual obstacles. This particular chapter may be of significant interest to faith-minded readers. With respect to encountering God, she describes various burdened protector parts that block or distort authentic spirituality. These parts can make related growth and development quite challenging for the believer. She articulates relevant protector parts such as the Critic, the Aggressor, the Thinker/Arguer, and Caretaker parts.
However, beginning on page 136, she spends the lion’s share of time in this area on the Spiritualizer part. She describes it as a type of proactive manager that, if it blends with the believer, leads the person to believe that a utilitarian and perfectionistic approach to spirituality is necessarily best. If blended with a burdened Spiritualizer part, the person believes God’s love and life is contingent on “doing” morality right. In this extremely dysfunctional view, God does not, and in a sense cannot, love anyone who is not perfect and perfectly lovable. She writes that this is the case “we feel ‘not good enough’ for God, and very much want to please him and ‘do it right.’ This part that tries to ‘do’ religion and faith is a familiar friend” (p. 137). Astutely, she notes that the Spiritualizer “can feel indistinguishable from our core Imago Dei.” Here she seems to borrow from what IFS would call a “self-like manager part.” This is a protector part that has a veneer of self but underneath is actually a burdened manager part. It looks, walks, and quacks like a duck, but beneath it has the texture and taste of, well, chicken liver. It is well-intentioned, of course, but does not have the peace and compassion of self.
Not unlike other manager parts, the burdened Spiritualizer tends to feel and function like it has a dismissing/avoidant attachment style. Its unfair criticalness sews division. Its distancing and detachment can lead the person to become quite insular interpersonally: “They can’t be challenged or open in their thinking. They have to think in terms of us versus them” (p. 138). Moreover, the Spiritualizer tends to work against itself, doing the opposite of what it strives to do: “Where it seeks to effect love, it delivers hate. Where it struggles to bring unity, it evokes division. Where it preaches words of grace, it conveys a spirit of condemnation. It has broken families into tiny pieces. It has started wars. Across America today, it is splitting beautiful communities of faith in two.” (p. 138).
The type of discord reaped here is not the same as that which Jesus mentioned in Matthew 10:34-35: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” Jesus, like his true disciples, will always have those who oppose them and truth. Rather, Riemersma instead emphasizes the division that we can contribute to when we are not sufficiently operating from our Imago Dei but from burdened and critical Spiritualizer parts.
Unity in Essentials – Parameters and Flexibility
This section of the book strongly resonated with me and my experience of being a cradle Catholic. Riemersma describes the pain she experiences because of the disunity among her Christian brethren. This disunity should also bring desolation to each of us, as it undoubtedly does to Christ. Though there are hundreds if not thousands of different Protestant denominations today, there is plenty of division in the Catholic Church as well. God is, of course, not at fault here, but all of us—the Church’s fallen members—to some extent, are.
No human interpersonal system this side of heaven is immune to this type of fragmentation. The author lays this out in more detail in later chapters. Any family has the potential of breaking up. That said, as Riemersma, emphasizes, the overly restrictive and hyper-critical parts of us and others are not adept at keeping families together. Quite the opposite.
Surely, Catholic orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct behavior and practice) both require parameters and limits to what is confessed, professed, and practiced by Catholic parishes, dioceses, and archdioceses. However, there is flexibility within these parameters that were set and defined by the Catholic Church.
To draw from IFS concepts, properly understood, parameters and the flexibility and freedom found within are not opposing, polarized forces. Rather, they are complementary. In some ways they “need” each other to balance and strengthen the human experience. The outward movement of flexibility is aided by the organizing or holding force of a parameter. Even the most creative and flexible painter must draw a line somewhere! Unbridled flexibility to the exclusion of parameters leads to chaos. Boundaries to the exclusion of flexibility lead to rigidity.
As St. Augustine of Hippo put it: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Burdened Spiritualizer parts are likely to become too rigid or constricting when they encounter persons and parts who step outside of or leapfrog orthodoxy. They wrongly deem “essential” those things that are not. And burdened and heterodox-leaning firefighter parts are likely to be more extreme when they encounter persons and parts who are too restrictive. They wrongly deem “non-essential” those things that truly are. And the battle wages on. All along, the calm and courageous Church like a fortress of charity stands firm and unshaken in its orthodoxy. It lovingly sets free those held captive by forces who strive to topple its walls from either the inside or out.
Riemersma makes a faith-integration statement of note. She writes, “When all parts are welcome, we are doing inside of ourselves what Jesus did on the outside. We are living the love that Jesus called us to and model for us” (p. 167). The way that Jesus (consistently, reliably, even eternally) loves us provides a template for how we can best relate to our parts. His witness is the ultimate case example, the exemplar, for how we can love our parts, ourselves, and neighbor. If one can relate to his or her parts in a manner consistent with how, e.g., the Good Samaritan showed steadfast compassion toward the person who was robbed and beaten and left on the side of the road (see Lk 10:30-35), proper self-love takes on a new, transcendent, and incarnational meaning.
Pluses and Minuses
Following are numerous potential advantages and a few disadvantages or limitations for Catholics interested in this book:
- The Imago Dei focus provides an ontological and practical basis for the importance of being unblended and living in self. Thus, others can experience us from our core, the foundation of our dignity, our Imago Dei.
- The author’s personal anecdotes and struggles help readers to connect to her as a fallen person, to resonate with her parts, and to normalize their own challenges. She is a likable and friendly writer. When people like a messenger, they are generally more open to the message.
- The book is generally engaging throughout: helpful clinical anecdotes, personal religious challenges, catchy turns of phrase, etc., made it an interesting and useful read.
- Use of frequent metaphors and anecdotes helped to clarify otherwise difficult concepts.
- The constructive conceptual overview of IFS provides a good template for doing later experiential work.
- Multiple chapters devoted to various types of parts allow for greater depth and breadth of understanding of IFS components.
- Extensive experientially-focused questions and exercises provide useful pathways and tools for the reader to implement for greater self-awareness.
- The section (chapters. 7-8) on understanding and working with firefighter parts is excellent.
Disadvantages and Limitations Summary
- The exercises at the end of certain chapters can be quite lengthy, some totaling over seven pages in length. Some readers may prefer more examples of condensed or quick experiential-based take-aways, more items that can be used quickly or in a pinch.
- The “Going Deeper” sections have little or no faith-integration, written nearly identical to how a secular IFS therapist might write them. Some readers may want more explicit faith-integration in their experiential work.
- Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers may want an emphasis on not just living “out of the God image” but also simultaneously living in and from the “God encounter” through sanctifying grace and prayer. Having sanctifying grace and living in self are not adversarial but instead mutually edify the person. As such, some might want to know not only what living in the God image can be like but also what God himself can do or what his sanctifying grace can do in and through a person who generally lives out of the God image. For instance, what are some benefits or limitations of praying while being unblended versus being blended? Can being unblended and in-self enhance intimacy with God and overall responsiveness to sanctifying grace? The author states she has a Protestant background, so these omissions are understandable.
Summary and Recommendations
This third part of a 3-part review focused on what works and what doesn’t in Jenna Riemersma’s Altogether You from a clinical perspective. Most everything “worked” well and, as with Richard Schwartz’s praise of her book, I also speak highly of her work in the areas of understanding IFS theory and applying it practically in a helpful, user-friendly way. In short, Riemersma overall offers a very good and useful self-help book.
In the 1st part of the series, I discussed some points of convergence with Catholic thought. The 2nd part discussed areas that seemed to diverge with Catholic thought. As mentioned above, in the 3rd part of the review series, she generally does a fine job of offering helpful, practical and experiential exercises to assist readers in getting to know and love their parts more deeply. Readers will find her style friendly and engaging, insightful and practical, and at times simple (though not simplistic) and fun. For the Catholic reader, with the previous caveats mentioned in earlier parts of this series in mind, I recommend this book as one of the better Christian-based IFS books that I have read.
Thank you, Dr. Peter Martin for such an extensive review of Jenna Riemersma’s book, a worthy guide for serious Catholic who would like to draw the best out of it and avoid any potential anthropological pitfalls.
Only six more days…
…until Dr. Gerry’s book titled Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing Our Parts is available on January 16. Pre-order it now, and have it ship ASAP to you.
Dr. Gerry was just on Dr. Greg Bottaro’s Being Human podcast for episode 160, titled Healing Through Parts Work and Litanies of the Heart, with Dr. Gerry Crete, so tune in to Dr. Greg and Dr. Gerry to learn more about this book.
Dr. Gerry and I will both be with you live for Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode 132 on Tuesday, February 13, 2024 from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM Eastern time to field questions from you on the book. Registration is required but free, and we have space for 100 participants. If you can’t make it to the live recording, you can leave me a voicemail of your question at 317.567.9594 or email it to me at email@example.com. We want to hear your questions, comments, reactions, feedback, anything you would like to bring up about this groundbreaking, seminal book.
Five days ago, Dr. Gerry also released a syndicated article on Catholic-link.org titled Fostering Mental Health With Prayer which has been picked up and distributed by several outlets; check out how Dr. Gerry integrates prayer with mental health, including the praying the Psalms, the Jesus Prayer, and Souls and Hearts’ Litanies of the Heart.
Calling all Catholic life coaches, and spiritual directors!
Would you like to work on your own human formation with other professionals in your discipline, together? Souls and Hearts is now expanding our Foundational Experiential Groups to offer them to coaches and spiritual directors (and those in training, too). If that sound great to you, fill out our short form here
These Foundations Experiential Groups (FEGs):
- Are limited to 8 Catholic members and are led by experienced IFS-trained leaders (including me)
- Meet via Zoom for 90 minutes for each of 10 sessions (times TBD, depending on when our FEG members can meet), starting in March 2024
- Use IFS techniques to go deep inside yourself, to connect with your own parts, and work on your own real issues, in the holding environment of the group
- Guide you in better loving yourself, in all your parts, in an ordered way
- Engage you in experiential exercises that help you see, hear, know, and understand your parts much better
- Provide discussion space for the two recorded lectures that cover a chapter of Internal Family Systems Therapy (2nd Ed.) by Schwartz and Sweezy.
- In one lecture, the main points of the chapter are summarized
- In the second, Dr. Malinoski provides his “Catholic take” on the chapter, discussing where the IFS model departs from a Catholic anthropology and how to make appropriate adjustments to harmonize it with a Catholic worldview.
- Include a sequence of 10 sessions (15 hours total) at only $700 per person, which works out to only $70 per session (some need-based financial aid is available).
- Are a gateway to advanced groups that focus on specialized topics for more experienced members.
- Provide structure for you practicing parts and systems work with other group members outside of the main group times.
These groups are focused on your personal human formation, informed by IFS and grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person; they are not a replacement for IFS-institute training and do not lead to IFS certification.
Porn-Free Man conference presentation by Dr. Peter now available
Drew Boa generously made my presentation titled “Working with Parts Who Want Porn” from the 2024 Porn-Free Man Conference available to all of our Souls and Hearts members. That 105-minute presentation features three experiential exercises. Hundreds of Christians have already viewed this presentation. You can access the video here (with cool slides) or the audio only here.
Also, if porn is an issue in your marriage, check out Dr. Gerry course Be True: Restoring your Marriage after the Discovery of Pornography. This course is designed for both the spouse who has used porn and the spouse who hasn’t.
Be With the Word for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
In this 18-minute episode, Dr. Gerry shares with you how to improve recovery from addictions or other problematic behaviors by relating with yourself in an entirely different way. You can hear Dr. Gerry read the Mass readings and offer a mediation on loving our unlovable parts here.
Pray for us…
Please keep us in your prayers as we at Souls and Hearts continue to experience the growing pains of making the transition from a start-up to a much more established organization. Everything good thing we do is fueled by prayer.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,