Boundaries For Your Soul: Understood through a Catholic Anthropological Lens

Jan 17, 2024

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

As we continue our series of reviews of Christian IFS works, I am so pleased to bring to you the first of two reviews of Boundaries for your Soul by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller, two friends and colleagues of mine.  Boundaries for your Soul was written for a general Christian audience, and makes no claim of being specifically Catholic; thus, our Souls and Hearts’ philosopher-in-residence Monty De La Torre, Ph.D., expert in metaphysics, sifts through the book, to sort out where this book converges and diverges with a Catholic understanding of the human person.

We want you to be able to draw the best from this book and the others in our recent series with confidence, and leaving anything that is unhelpful to Catholics behind.  So without any further ado, here is Dr. De La Torre’s review…

Boundaries For Your Soul Understood through a Catholic Anthropological Lens

A book review by Souls and Hearts’ philosopher-in-residence Monty De La Torre, Ph.D.

Many of us who have an interest in psychology and mental health are familiar with the classic New York Times bestseller Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.  Maintaining healthy boundaries is an important aspect of our spiritual health. When we establish proper boundaries, we ask others for what we need and want and give our “yes” and “no” in an adaptive way (e.g., devoid of passive-aggressive acts). In their book, Boundaries for Your Soul, Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller provide a guide for establishing boundaries not with the people we typically interact with outside of us, but with those who are within us. That is, with our parts.

Utilizing Internal Family Systems (IFS), Cook and Miller have written “…the first book that focuses entirely on applying boundaries concepts to your internal thoughts and feelings…an approach that integrates boundaries concepts with IFS concepts – interpreted through a Christian lens.”

They go on, “We’ve developed this Christian approach to IFS because, ultimately, the best way to care for the overwhelming parts of your soul involves inviting God’s Holy Spirit to be with them.”

As Catholics, we can get on board with their intention to unite the good of IFS with the healing power of God’s presence. This review is meant to provide an overview of Boundaries for Your Soul and the authors’ Christian approach to IFS and boundaries and to discover the common ground with a Catholic anthropology.

Part 1

Cook and Miller recognize the “inner turmoil” that we all face when conflicting thoughts and feelings arise within our soul. Their solution is a Five Step process which I quote verbatim:

  • Step 1: Focus on an overwhelming part of yourself.
  • Step 2: Befriend this part you don’t like.
  • Step 3: Invite Jesus to draw near.
  • Step 4: Unburden this weary part.
  • Step 5: Integrate it into your internal team of rivals.

Those of us familiar with IFS will recognize these steps. When we establish proper boundaries with those parts within then “…you’re able to respond with more resilience to life’s challenges. You’ll be true to the person God created you to be and to the work he has planned for you to do.”

This is certainly true. In the Catholic spiritual tradition, attaining interior peace or interior integration (to use a more contemporary term) increases our love of self, neighbor, and God. What makes IFS so important and impactful is the healing and self-knowledge that we gain from addressing our internal family.

Cook and Miller identify numerous parts of our soul that, although well-intentioned, undermine our interior peace. They pinpoint a few: the “fearful part”, the “hardworking part”, the “striving part”, the “task manager part,” and others. These parts, they conclude, can be resistant to God’s will in our life. From a Catholic point of view, this makes sense. Turmoil within our parts and within our soul can drown out God’s voice and negatively impact our discernment of His will.

The authors make an important point with Biblical reference that our “inner being” as St. Paul tells us, is to be filled with Christ. This “inner being” is, according to the authors, your “Spirit-led self…Your Spirit-led self is you when you are being led by God, who abides within your soul.” If, as St. Irenaeus states, “the glory of God is man fully alive” or “a living man” (as some translations read), then the process of becoming divinized, fully alive, or our Spirit-led self, should entail unburdening our parts and receiving the natural healing that occurs through IFS and the supernatural healing that can also be part of the process through the invocation of the Holy Trinity and the saints; not to mention the normative channels of grace accessible to all Catholics viz-a-viz the sacraments.

Cook and Miller provide a helpful overview of the different kind of parts within us:

  • Manager parts, “…are protectors that strive to keep you emotionally safe and prevent more vulnerable parts of you from experiencing harm.” For example, “worrying unnecessarily about situations out of one’s control.”
  • Firefighter parts, “try to extinguish pain after it occurs.” For example, “mindlessly surfing the web and escaping through social media.”
  • Exile parts, “are the distressed parts that your managers and firefighters are trying to protect.” For example, “shame, fear, insecurity, hurt, a feeling of worthlessness, a feeling of being marginalized…”

From a Catholic point of view, awareness of these movements within our soul is the first step in achieving interior peace. The recognition that within our soul, we have an internal family of parts trying to protect us is both sobering and profound. The authors assert that IFS and God’s grace are complementary and not antagonistic to inner healing.

Part II

So, how does the healing process work?  The following is a summary of Cook and Miller’s  five-step process as mentioned above.

  1. Focus: This first step is an attempt to identify the agitated part. The part is typically felt somewhere in your body. Sometimes, the part manifests as an image.
  2. Befriend: Once the part is located, we acknowledge their presence and begin to dialogue. Acknowledge its pain. What are its needs? How do you feel toward the part? Thank the part for its good intentions and “extend compassion” toward it.
  3. Invite: Ask the part if it would like Jesus “to be near”. Let the part communicate what it wants from Jesus. Ask Jesus if He “wants to say or do anything, or to give you a specific gift.”
  4. Unburden: This is a pivotal step. We identify the burden that the part has been carrying and we ask if they are willing to let it go and replace it with positive qualities such as a particular virtue.
  5. Integrate: Once unburdened, we ask the part if he/she would like to take on a new and more positive role, along with a new name. So, instead of being the fearful part, now unburdened of its fear, it might want to be called the resilient part.

These five steps certainly have the making of what may be described as a new contemporary Catholic spiritual exercise. Like other spiritual exercises, for example, Lectio Divina, these five steps allow for an examination of and dialogue with our soul and Christ that can yield immense healing and self-knowledge. I would only add the importance of combining these steps with participation in the sacraments. Although these steps are a psycho-meditative exercise, we might conceptualize them as a kind of psychological sacramental.

Part III

In part III of their work, Cook and Miller take a closer look at certain parts that can be very difficult to overcome. I think we can all relate to many of these thorny emotions and their maladaptive offspring. Below are a few examples from authors’ more extensive list of the benefits, dangers, needs, and fears of certain parts.

Angry Parts:

  • Benefits
    • “point you to exiles needing your attention”
    • “protect you from danger”
  • Dangers
    • “irritability and hostility toward others”
    • “aggressive impulses or actions”
  • Needs (this is what your anger needs from you)
    • “be open to another perspective”
    • “be willing to be humble before God and open to his instructions on how best to proceed”
  • Fears (the fears of your angry part)
    • “No one will take care of what I’m protecting.”
    • “My voice won’t be heard.”

Fear and Anxiety:

  • Benefits
    • “signal the presence of a fearful exile needing your attention”
    • “Inform you of emotional, spiritual, and physical challenges that need to be faced”
  • Dangers
    • “insecurity”
    • “inordinate people-pleasing”
  • Needs
    • “to develop courage, with God’s help”
    • “for you to help it recognize that it is only one part of you – not the sum total of who you are”
  • Fears
    • “I’ll put myself in danger.”
    • “I won’t be prepared.”

Sadness:

  • Benefits
    • “remind you of your need for others and for God”
    • “help you develop empathy and come alongside others who are suffering”
  • Dangers
    • “feelings of being invisible, worthless, or unlovable
    • “depression and despair
  • Needs
    • “a safe place to grieve the people, relationships, or opportunities you’ve lost”
    • “validation of the sorrow it holds (versus a quick fix)”
  • Fears
    • “Forgiving implies that my pain never happened”
    • “Exposing my sadness will drive people even farther away”

Envy and Desire:

  • Benefits
    • “lead you to longings you’ve ignored or denied”
    • “reveal unrealized potential within you”
  • Dangers
    • “petty attitudes, anger bullying, or hatred toward other people”
    • “attempts or desires to thwart other people’s happiness”
  • Needs
    • “learn to give you some space so you can gain clear perspective”
    • “offer your resentment openhandedly to God, inviting him to shape your longings”
  • Fears
    • “I’ll be stifled by heartache the rest of my life.”
    • “My desires will be forgotten or ignored.”

Guilt and Shame:

  • Benefits
    • “lead you to parts of yourself that need your attention”
    • “signal when you’re overestimating your own power”
  • Dangers
    • “the feeling that you aren’t good enough and something is inherently wrong with you”
    • “interruption of your creative process and a hesitation to take risks”
  • Needs
    • “learn to be vulnerable and experience the compassion of your Spirit-led self”
    • “learn a new perspective – that you don’t have to beat yourself up.”
  • Fears
    • “I’ll be proved a fool.”
    • “I’ll be exposed as a fraud.”

If we engage our parts with compassion and curiosity, we potentially gain a family of advocates. However, with any family, communication can be complex and painful. The authors share many  stories of clients who struggled tremendously with their parts at first but were able to persevere through the process and receive healing from their inner work and the grace of God.

In the final chapter, Cook and Miller direct our gaze toward the parts of those whom we find difficult to handle. We have parts with benefits, dangers, needs, and fears, and so do those around us. Inner healing is never done in a vacuum. Those we encounter daily are part of that process whether we realize it or not. The path toward interior integration leads to greater self-love. That, in turn, leads to a greater capacity to love neighbor and, ultimately, God.

The path of integration with others can come with roadblocks. There are times when healthy distance or separation from someone is necessary. Sometimes, it’s not safe for you to be around someone or vice versa. During those conflicts, it is important to remember that “this person is not ‘completely evil,’ as we sometimes hear, but a creation of God who is acting from (instead of on behalf of) entrenched, wayward, and yes, well-meaning parts.” If we realize that in conjunction with their freedom of choice, part of the cause of a person’s ill behavior is a result of the burdens their parts carry, then it may become easier to accept and follow Christ’s command to love those who persecute us.

At this point, a Catholic might object to the existence of such parts. They might even argue that the entire IFS project is a fabrication of the client, a complete illusion of some sort, even demonically influenced. In response, I would argue that the universal experience of the internal dialogues we have with ourselves is impossible to deny. We often say, “A part of me feels X and another part of me feels Y…” How can the reality of the intellect’s power to reflect upon itself be denied, which is essentially what a critic is doing by denying the existence of parts. Moreover, the growth and success of IFS as a science-based therapeutic modality cannot be denied.

Since the soul has the power to reflect upon itself, this activity is wondrously manifest when we acknowledge and dialogue with the voices, images, and sensations within our soul and body. If we can overcome the initial discomfort that may come with the discovery of the richly sophisticated plurality within our soul, then the sooner we arrive at unburdening our traumas through natural and spiritual means.

Cook and Miller have formulated an extremely helpful resource for our psycho-emotional and spiritual healing. Their five-step model can easily and readily be subsumed within a Catholic anthropology and made accessible to all Catholics as a trustworthy exercise that yields benefits on both the natural and spiritual plains of human formation and integration.

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Thank you, Dr. De La Torre, for your consideration of the anthropological review of Boundaries for Your Soul.  In our next weekly reflection, I will be reviewing the same book, from a practical/applied perspective, to help Catholic readers use the best elements in this work in their own lives.

Interior Integration for Catholics, episode 130 released: Grounding IFS in Catholicism– Litanies of the Heart by Dr. Gerry Crete 

In this 85-minute episode, my guest, Dr. Gerry Crete shares with us the inside story of his just-released book, Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing Our Parts. This seminal book firmly grounds IFS and parts work in a Catholic understanding of the human person, showing how parts work is both Biblical and harmonizable with our Catholic faith. Because the intellectual experience does not fully encapsulate the human experience, Dr. Gerry describes how he uses stories and vignettes in a way that connects with everyone, not just therapists. He shares with us how he invites all the outcast parts into relationships, making them feel safe enough to connect on a deep level with others and God.

Dr. Gerry also provides a glimpse of the writing and publishing process, the challenges and struggles he faced, as well as his moments of inspiration. We discuss a few favorite pages from the book, such as Dr. Gerry’s diagram of the soul and body overlapping in the heart, where all the parts are.

Dr. Gerry and I would like to continue the conversation about the book with you – join us live for Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode 132 on Tuesday, February 13, 2024 from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM Eastern time.  Dr. Gerry will answer your questions from you on the Litanies of the HeartRegistration 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 crisis@soulsandhearts.com.  We want to hear your questions, comments, reactions, feedback, anything you would like to bring up about this exceptional book.

  • You can purchase the book from the publisher, Sophia Press here.
  • Check out Sophia’s beautiful flyer for a lot of info on the book.
  • The book is available from Amazon here.
  • Check out our Souls and Hearts landing page for the Litanies of the Heart for more about the book and the prayers that inspired it.

Dr. Gerry on the air…

Watch Dr. Gerry as Greg and Jennifer Willits host him on their show Adventures in Imperfect Living for this 80-minute episode titled Overcoming PTSD and Anxiety with God’s Help as they discuss his book, but from a very personal perspective, as the hosts have known Dr. Gerry for years.

Also, host Brendan Gotta invited Dr. Gerry on his Gotta Be Saints podcast for a 43-minute episode titled Recovering from Stress and Anxiety with Dr. Gerry Crete, getting into parts work, “original trauma” and more about his new book.

Finally, Dr. Gerry had a great 28-minute interview with Fr. Michael Orsi of Action for Life Florida about the book.

Dr. Peter on the air…

Lila Rose invited me on her podcast for an 84-minute episode titled The Truth About Narcissism with Dr. Peter Malinoski (check out the audio-only version here).  In this episode, Lila and I discussed how I got into psychology in the first place, some of my own narcissistic dynamics when I was dating my wife as a teenager, the shame that those with narcissistic dynamics deal with, red flags in dating, the roots of narcissism, malice in narcissism, and embracing your true identity and what fuller integration looks like.

Souls and Hearts’ resource sheet for helping professionals

As a free gift for our members, check out this free downloadable PDF of our two-page resource sheet which brings together many of our most cited and used Souls and Hearts resources in one handy little shareable package.  This is a valuable resource for therapists, coaches, spiritual directors, priests, mentors.

Be With the Word for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

In this 18-minute episode, Dr. Gerry shares with you how to love people with whom you disagree, focusing on the book of Jonah.  You can hear Dr. Gerry read the Mass readings and offer a mediation on inviting you to change by attending to the resistances to change within you, with an invitation to experience the compassion, kindness, and goodness of Jesus in this 21-minute piece here.

Position open for a mental health professional at Ruah Woods Psychological Services in Cincinnati, OH

From my friend, Catholic Psychologist Andrew Sodergren in Cinci.  Some of you may remember him as a guest on the IIC podcast for episodes 12 and 13 as he shared with us his expertise on accepting, reverencing, and loving our bodies, deeply connecting with our bodies, and experiencing our bodies as good:

Ruah Woods Psychological Services (RWPS) in Cincinnati, OH is seeking inspired mental health professionals to join their team. There is an immediate opening for a therapist skilled at working with couples and children. However, other areas of expertise are also welcome.  A parts-informed, experiential approach to therapy grounded in Catholic anthropology is a huge plus!  Interested parties can get more information by contacting the director of RWPS, Dr. Andrew Sodergren at asodergren@ruahwoods.org or visiting RWpsych.org.

Pray for us…

As always, please keep the prayers coming.  We are praying for you.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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