Applied Review #2: Boundaries for Your Soul

Feb 14, 2024

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

We are continuing our in-depth review of the 2018 book Boundaries for Your Soul by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller, two friends and colleagues of mine, focusing on the practical applications.  This section of my review covers Part II of the book, chapters 4-8.

This review follows the anthropological review  by Monty De La Torre, Ph.D. from January 17, 2024 and the first installment of my applied review from January 24, 2024, which covered Part I of the book.

Part II is the conceptual center of the book, consisting of Alison and Kim’s five stages of taking a You-Turn, walking the reader through a step-by-step process of connecting with parts, unblending, unburdening, and integrating parts.   A summary of their five steps, which are the structural foundation for these chapters, are as follows:

  • Step 1: Focus on an activated part of yourself (Chapter 4)
  • Step 2: Befriend this part (Chapter 5)
  • Step 3: Invite Jesus to draw near to this part (Chapter 6)
  • Step 4: Unburden this part (Chapter 7)
  • Step 5: Integrate this part into your internal team (Chapter 8)

Overall evaluation of Part II – general strengths

Alison and Kim demonstrate many strengths in Part II of their book. They explain concepts clearly. The illustrative vignettes and stories that they use, both from their clinical witness, but also their personal experiences are clearly written, never overbearing or overdone. Throughout this part of the book, Alison and Kim maintain a personal, conversational tone, without becoming overly familiar or casual, and I very much appreciate that balance.

In these chapters, Alison and Kim incorporate many quotes from a variety of different sources that are illuminative and add color to the text. They also bring in scriptural quotations that are familiar to most Christians, and readily and easily connected to the concepts they address.

Alison and Kim provide experiential exercises to invite not just the reader’s intellectual manager parts, but also to extend a welcome to nonverbal parts. A book on the application of IFS, in my opinion, is incomplete without experiential exercises, and each of these five chapters has its own exercise to help the reader experience the concepts discussed, not just in the mind, but also in the heart.

Finally, I so appreciate the gentleness of this book, the appreciation for the human condition, and it is clearly evident how much Alison and Kim care for their readers. In their writing of this part of the book, they have been able to maintain the delicate balance of being personal and connected with the reader, yet being conceptually rigorous and clear. Their writing style is one of the reasons why I so often recommend this book to those seeking a Christian approach to parts work.

Overall evaluation of Part II – general weaknesses or omissions

The main concern I have with these chapters is that there is little guidance if the reader is unable follow the directions in the experiential exercises.  Suggestions are lacking for the reader who is blended with a part who simply will not unblend when asked. There is no advice for the reader who struggles to maintain emotional regulation and stay in the window of tolerance. Parts can often be unruly in their desperation, anger, fear, and in the intensity of their needs. Parts are often very young, and working with young parts can be quite challenging and difficult, with parts responding in a wide variety of unexpected ways.

In the vignettes and examples, everything seems to work out well for all parts in the end, in a way that seemed idealistic and oversimplified to me, underestimating the amount of patience and perseverance and steadfastness that this internal work requires. In my own personal internal experience, and in accompanying others in their interior work with parts, things are often not so tidy and ordered and easy as the impressions the book may make on the reader– especially when one is working internally without the benefit of accompaniment, a therapist or counselor, a coach or spiritual advisor.

Guidance is lacking in these chapters on what to do when parts have deeply held negative God images and are not willing to trust God yet, either the Holy Spirit in the Spirit-led self or when Jesus is invited in to the system. (I discussed negative God images in episodes 23 to 29 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast.)

If the reader encounters a block with the experiential exercises, this perceived failure can lead to blame and recrimination within the reader, a sense of having failed, due to parts’ unrealistic expectations of success. With an explicitly God-centered approach, the stakes of self-blame can be even higher as the reader can think, “Not only did I fail at working effectively with my parts, but I also must not love Jesus enough, because I couldn’t connect with Him in this work.”  I think it would have been helpful to give permission to the reader to not do the exercise if it does not feel right and good, if the exercise does not seem to be what is needed at this specific moment in time.

Thus, the book might have limited utility on its own for those who are suffering from spiritual trauma, or who have generalized from trauma in the natural realm into the spiritual realm.

Now we will review each of the five chapters that compose Part II of the book individually.

Step 1:  Focus

In this step, Alison and Kim teach the reader how to focus on the part who is hurting, in need, in distress, and to remember that there is a reason for the distress. This chapter on “focus” corresponds to the first three of the six Fs in working with managers – Finding a part, Focusing on the part, and Fleshing out the part according to Schwartz and Sweezy’s Internal Family Systems Therapy (2nd Ed.).

Alison and Kim help you to locate the agitated or activated part within you, starting with the body, and emphasizing curiosity and compassion for your parts. Notably, Alison and Kim discussed how there are constellations of parts, and that different parts may be functioning in different ways simultaneously. Kim shares her experience as a child of divorce, and how that impacted her parts in an illustrative way.  The chapter ends with an exercise that is designed to help you focus on your internal experience.

I so appreciated Alison and Kim’s discussion about how Jesus focused on what was lost – the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son – as a way of understanding our lost exiles and what they need.  This quote struck me as particularly beautiful: Jesus loves lost sheep, and he loves the lost parts of you. You can join with him in finding the lost parts of your soul and bringing them home at last. [pp. 56-57].

In this chapter, Alison and Kim mention “pursuing the sheep.” I am not so certain about this approach – as a keeper of sheep myself over the 12 years or so, I’ve found that sheep don’t respond well to being chased.  If you chase a sheep who is either in flight mode, or who does not trust you, that sheep is prone to flee and quite likely to hurt itself.  I prefer the imagery of this scene of the movie “The Horse Whisperer,” where Robert Redford handles a traumatized horse very carefully, gently, kindly, with great attunement.  Perhaps Alison and Kim meant by  “pursuing” not chasing the sheep, but rather a loving shepherd peacefully searching for a beloved sheep who has wandered off.

The experiential exercise invites you to focus in on anger, hurt, shame, or fear, but without any cautionary language about staying in your zone of tolerance, or what to do if you notice yourself slipping into hyperarousal (moving it to fight or flight) are hypoarousal (the freeze response); a brief line or two of guidance about this might be helpful to those who struggle with emotional regulation.

Step 2: Befriend

This section focuses on noticing how you feel toward near activated part, and befriending that part. Alison and Kim described how you stay focused on the part itself, not just on changing particular behaviors or pursuing particular agendas. They seek change at depth, not just superficial change. Alison and Kim also draw you in to find the good intentions of parts, even when they have strong impulses toward maladaptive behaviors.

In the particularly vivid vignette of “Margaret,” Alison can provide an example of how exiled parts look for redemption in people like those who wounded them in the past. I particularly appreciated how they use the example of Margaret’s self-cutting, as that can be a firefighter-driven behavior that frightens people, including clinicians.

I appreciated how Alison and Kim provide a frank acknowledgment that parts of us don’t like other parts of us, and especially how they described how loving your enemies also applies to our “internal enemies.”

They illustrated the process of befriending by discussing the story of King David and his internal enemies, and this example particularly resonated with me.  In episode 41 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, I discuss my understanding of King David’s childhood, which I saw as full of rejection and alienation, misunderstanding by others, false accusations, and shaming.  In episode 42, I invite you into a much deeper understanding of King David’s shame.

Alison shared a story of deep disappointment from her childhood that was poignant and relevant a story of a frustrated dream denied her.

The chapter closes with an exercise to notice how you feel toward and emotion within you. In this exercise, they described how if you are feeling something other than compassion and curiosity toward that emotion, that is another part that is blended, and they recommend seeing if that part would give more space. This is a very frequent occurrence, and very often parts will give more space if they are asked. However sometimes, they refuse.

In that exercise, they write, “Now we’re wondering—is Jesus near these parts of your soul? Are they hearing what he has to say?”  I strongly recommend here that you ask parts about how they understand Jesus before inviting Jesus in to the scene. It may be that a given part feels more comfortable with God the Father, or with the Holy Spirit.

I am a strong advocate of preparing for the encountered between parts and God by helping the parts to experience the innermost the self as a secure attachment figure for the parts. If parts can trust the innermost self, they can have more confidence in connecting with God, in the presence of the innermost self. Thus, the innermost self can mediate the relationship between parts and Jesus.

Step 3: Invite

In this step, Alison and Kim focus on their process to invite Jesus and to connect with your parts. I very much appreciated how they describe three sets of parts: sanctimonious parts, straying parts, and suffering parts.

Sanctimonious parts are like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. These parts focus on external appearances and curated images as well as covering up insecurity, weaknesses, and faults. These parts correspond to certain kinds of manager, who use shoulds and moralizing to try to control other parts. Alison and Kim describe different types of sanctimonious parts in a particularly helpful way: the legalists, judges, prideful doers, perfectionists, prima donnas, people-pleasers, and pushy point-makers.

Straying parts correspond to our firefighters. These are the prodigal’s, rabble-rousers, slackers, skeptics, mavericks, and escape artists. Jesus connected with these kinds of individuals in the Gospels, the sinners, and was often criticized for it. I particularly appreciated the descriptions of these kinds of parts.

Suffering parts correspond to her exiles, baring burdens of unworthiness, shame, insecurity, doubt, and bitterness. Alison and Kim describe Jesus’ reactions to these parts, the ways that he encouraged, helped, respected, and healed these kinds of individuals in the Gospels.

One of the great strengths of this book is the description of the “imposter religious part” in this chapter. This is a “Jesus-like part,” a part that takes on the role of Jesus, imitating Jesus even though the part is not Jesus. This imposter religious part often has a strong desire to control out of a sense of fear, and wants to help.  If you notice that an alleged “Jesus” is shaming parts, that is likely to be an imposter religious part.  I have encountered parts like this often in working with the systems of Christians who take their faith seriously.

The chapter ends with an experiential exercise, which includes this instruction: When you spend time with God, don’t leave your unwanted thoughts and feelings at the door. Instead, befriend them—and invite Jesus to be near them too. p. 88  I think there’s a potential decision here, we really want to be attuned to parts. In Interior Integration for Catholics episode 131, I discuss why explicitly God-centric or Jesus-centric approaches may not be best for every part and every person, again because of parts’ (mis-)understandings of God.

Step 4: Unburden

In this section, Alison and Kim describe the fears of exiles, focusing on five specific, common fears that exiles have about unburdening. Their brief discussion of burdens, and the different kinds of burdens, with different examples of each kind of burden is excellent, when the best I’ve seen. They also discuss the origins of burdens, both personal burdens and legacy burdens.

In one particularly important section, they discuss how exiled parts will seek redemption in all the wrong places without guidance.

The chapter ends with an experiential exercise on unburdening, with an invitation to unburden, presented in a very simple and straightforward way. In the Resilient Catholics Community, it is not until week 34 (after three weeks of preparation) that we begin to address unburdening exiles, and because unburdening is such a tricky and difficult thing for many people to do on their own, I don’t provide protocols for it in the RCC. Unburdening with the protocol goes much easier with an experienced professional to accompany you, especially as managers may have agendas to unburden exiles before those exiles are ready to release their burdens.

So instead, in the RCC, we focus on creating the conditions for spontaneous unburdenings, which we find to be quite frequent and less fraught with difficulties.

Alison and Kim’s experiential exercise might give the impression that unburdening is much easier than it actually is, which could lead to confusion, frustration, and disappointment for the reader who attempts it prematurely or with inadequate support.

Step 5: Integrate

In perhaps my favorite example in the book, Alison and Kim describe Abraham Lincoln facing a divided nation as an example of polarization on a macro level. They emphasize the importance of integration and wholeness. They also review all the vignettes from throughout the book in this chapter, pointing out polarizations.

The experiential exercise is a particularly valuable one, the “town hall meeting.” This one is designed to be done after parts of been unburdened, so that they can become more integrated. I actually recommend that this step come before the unburdening step, to allow unblended parts (who may still be burdened) to practice collaborating and cooperating under the leadership and guidance of the Spirit-led self.  This section would also benefit from a discussion of unburdening managers from their extreme roles after the exiles they protect or guard against our unburdened.

It is very difficult to provide in written form all the nuances of internal parts work, and I believe that Alison and Kim have done an excellent job of outlining the basics.

Next week, we will explore Part III of their book where they demonstrate the five steps in Part II in working through anger, fear/anxiety, sadness, envy/desire, and guilt/shame.  Here you see them put their model into practice repeatedly, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with you.

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Dr. Gerry on the air…

Dr. Gerry has been busy discussing his new book, Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing Our Parts.  Check him out on these new releases:

  • The podcast A Catholic’s Perspective with the Religious Hippie episode 4:15 Let’s Discuss Mental Health. 53 minutes
  • The Sacred Heart Radio Show Driving Home the Faith with Fr. Rob Jack, episode 2.12. Dr. Gerry comes on at about the 1:37 minute mark

Episode 131 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast recently released

The 108-minute IIC episode 131 titled On God’s Role in your Human Formation was just released on February 5. In this episode, I address a controversial clip from episode 79 of the Restore the Glory podcast, in which host Jake Khym provides an example of how he brings Jesus into his own parts work. I explain the potential issues I see with bringing God into human formation work. Then, I dive into the seven reasons why I initially focus on the natural realm:

  1. Almost no one else focuses on human formation grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person
  2. Human formation is the basis of all formation, according to St. John Paul II
  3. There is a huge wealth of information from secular sources that I can and should bring to the Church
  4. So many spiritual problems are spiritual consequences of human formation deficits
  5. My training and experience are in human formation, not spiritual formation
  6. Natural means are primarily used for the early development of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers
  7. Explicitly God-centric approaches are not optimal for every part in every person, and may even be harmful in some cases.

Join Dr. Gerry and me at the Catholic Psychotherapy Association Conference in New Orleans

Check out all the programming at the Catholic Psychotherapy Association annual conference from April 25 to 27, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

I will be hosting an evening on Wednesday night, April 24 at 8:00 PM — 10:00 PM, before the Conference begins.  Anyone associated with Souls and Hearts is welcome – you like these weekly reflections, if you are into the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, or if you are in the RCC, you are welcome.  Get in touch with me if you’d like to join us at crisis@soulsandhearts.com

The next night, after the CPA social hour, at 7:00 PM, Thursday, April 15, I will host an evening event just for those Souls and Hearts members attending the CPA conference. We will do some demos, experiential exercises, a little bit of didactic and time to spend together.

Souls and Hearts will have a vendor table at the Catholic Psychotherapy Association Conference in the Vendor Hall — great opportunity to stop by and see us — opportunity to meet Dr. Gerry and have him sign a copy of his book.

Check out the program –Gerry Crete and Christian Amalu’s presentation Defending the Internal Family: A Catholic Approach to Internal Family Systems and Ego State Therapy will be on Saturday, April 27, 2024 from 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM local time.

Pray for us…

As we enter this Lent, please keep all of us at Souls and Hearts in your prayers – everything good thing we do has to be supported by prayer.  Please pray for us, we are praying for you.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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