Applied Review #3 Boundaries For Your Soul: Intense Emotions and Parts

Feb 21, 2024

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

Today I share with you the fourth and final installment of our review of Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller’s 2018 book Boundaries for Your Soul.  For quick reference, here are links to the previous three reviews in our weekly reflections:

Today’s installment focuses on the practical applications of Alison and Kim’s five-step process of helping the reader work with intense and difficult emotions and their associated parts  This section of my review covers Part III of the book, chapters 9-14.

In Part III, I was initially surprised that the chapters were organized by emotions, intense and problematic emotions. I was also taken a bit aback by the idea of setting limits and boundaries on an emotion, rather than more expressly discussing that we are working with parts. What about the idea that a part is not just an emotion? Don’t we engage relationally with parts, not the emotions per se?  Are we anthropomorphizing (or “partomorphizing”) emotions here?

But as I reflected upon using emotions as a starting point more deeply, I saw the wisdom of Alison and Kim’s approach. For a reader who is relatively new to working with parts, what is often most prominent (and problematic and distressing) is the intensity of his or her emotions. The emotion is often (but not always) the most recognizable trailhead generated by parts in distress. Thus, organizing chapters 9-13 by emotion is quite attuned to the reader.  I can imagine readers jumping to the chapter that addresses their most intense and “difficult” emotion, making the book even more user-friendly.

Overall evaluation of Part III – general strengths

I greatly appreciated how there is a readily identifiable pattern to each chapter. Each chapter begins with a definition of terms, specifically the emotions discussed in the chapter. Those who listen to the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast to know how important it is to me to define our terms, so that we can communicate clearly.

Then, each chapter walks you through Alison and Kim’s five steps of taking a You-Turn, each with a different emotion that is problematic because of its intensity. Those five steps, briefly reviewed are:

  • 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)

The specific emotions corresponding to the different chapters in Part 3 are as follows:

  • Anger (Chapter 9)
  • Fear and Anxiety (Chapter 10)
  • Sadness (Chapter 11)
  • Envy and Desire (Chapter 12)
  • Guilt and Shame (Chapter 13)

As I look at this list of emotions, I can’t imagine one that I would leave off, or an additional one that I would include – the emotions selected were just excellent, and the order Kim and Alison addressed them also led to a good flow.

What is beautiful about Part III is that we get five repetitions with five different emotions, five separate applications of Alison and Kim’s five steps of taking a You-Turn.  This is one of the best examples of spiral learning I have found in the IFS literature, walking the reader through the process repeatedly, clarifying how their You-Turn works in different situations, both in vignettes and in Kim and Alison’s personal histories with their parts.

Each chapter reviews, in bullet point form, the benefits, dangers, needs, and fears associated with each intense emotion. This is brilliant. The bullet points make the examples of benefits, needs, dangers, and fears much more readily understandable and digestible.

I particularly like how Alison and Kim lead off with the benefits of each emotion. Listing the benefits of each emotion not only helps to de-pathologize emotions, but is also an invitation to appreciate the emotion — and not just the emotion but the parts that carry the experience of that emotion. This can help our critical manager parts move away from dichotomous assessments of parts and their emotions, letting go of judging parts and emotions as “good or bad” or “right or wrong.”

Then each chapter discusses different manifestations of the emotion, and this is the point where Alison and Kim discuss different kinds of parts associated with the different experience and expressions of the intensity of the emotion.

Their idea of setting boundaries with parts – the idea that parts might need more than just affirmation and attunement and positive reinforcement, but also at times need gentle correction, limits, and boundaries is not emphasized as often as might be desired in IFS circles. Alison and Kim’s emphasis on boundaries and guidance for little parts sets their book apart from the rest of the field and is an excellent contribution. Phenomenologically, many parts are like little children, and little children need guidance and correction from those who are older and wiser and who love them.

Overall evaluation of Part III – general weaknesses or omissions

My primary concern with these chapters is essentially a repeat of my criticism of Part II, which I will simply requote here:

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.

On page 213, the authors mention that you might want to find professional accompaniment in working through the five steps of a You-Turn, particularly when there is emotional overwhelm.  But as a second concern, apart from that brief statement, there was no guidance in Part III about what to do when the emotions experienced are so intense that the person is often dysregulated in doing parts work. It would have been helpful to include guidance in a section titled “when to seek professional help” to aid the reader in identifying when his or her internal system is so chaotic or extreme that professional therapy or counseling is warranted.

Finally, the book lacks an index. I compensated for this by buying the Kindle version as well as the paperback, so I can search by keyword.

Now let’s turn to each of the chapters, and evaluate them separately on their individual merits.

Boundaries with anger

Alison and Kim begin with the walk-through of their five steps of taking a You-Turn with “Gabe” and his anger issues. I particularly appreciated this quote from Alison and Kim: Still, it doesn’t help to think of yourself, or anyone else, as an “angry person.” In fact, labeling invalidates other characteristics of a person and causes anger to dig in its heels in stubborn defiance. (p. 134)  I would go further and say that it is very common for people to have parts that label other parts according to the intense emotion that they carry, e.g. the “angry part,” and that’s understandable because of how salient the emotion is. Parts will often identify themselves in this way. However, I tend to resist naming a part by its emotion because I think it’s more helpful to use a name that indicates that the part is more than the emotion it carries.

My Feisty part particularly appreciated Alison and Kim’s list of the benefits of anger, especially noting how parts that carry anger can speak honestly and present difficult truths. In the “manifestations of anger” section of this chapter, Alison and Kim discuss passive-aggressive parts, inner critics, and resentful parts briefly, but with clarity and compassion.

Boundaries with fear and anxiety

Alison and Kim open this chapter by asking the reader, “What if we told you it takes fear to have courage?”  I so appreciate this question, as my protector parts, for most of my life, equated courage with fearlessness, which is actually exiling or banishing fear and the parts that carry fear.  I wrote about this in the Foundation for Self-Leadership magazine “Outlook” in a brief article titled Fearlessness vs. Courage.  I also did an episode on this, titled The Psychology of Courage on the podcast The Catholic Gentleman with John Heinen and Sam Guzman.

As Alison and Kim note, when our protector parts suppress fear, we are not being courageous, and we lose connection with the parts of us that are holding our fear, increasing our inner fragmentation. I particularly appreciated this quote: Your exiled fear doesn’t need to be starved or shunned; it needs to be understood. [p. 147].

Alison and Kim walk through the five steps of a You-Turn with “Megan,” followed by the benefits, dangers, needs, and fears of anxious and fearful parts, which were well done. They discussed how fear and anxiety can be manifested through worrying, passive parts; active, controlling parts; people-pleasing parts who fear rejection; and doubting parts who struggle to trust God, and these descriptions were very well done.

Boundaries with sadness

This chapter provided a walk-through of the five steps of the You-Turn with “Andrea” who struggles with sadness, crying, and anger. Initially, this chapter lacked conceptual clarity that characterize the other chapters in this part of the book. The chapter title reveals that we will be learning about sadness, but in the second sentence, Alison and Kim began discussing grief, a different but related concept.

Gray Moulton, LMFT  in his article Sadness, Grief, and Depression: There is a Difference lays out the differences:  Sadness is something we all have felt. It is a normal reaction – a healthy emotion experienced with minor disappointments or losses….Grief, on the other hand, is an intense and often distressing reaction that people experience. Grief isn’t limited to a few – it’s a normal reaction felt by anyone who has experienced a major loss, such as the death of the pet you left while on vacation, or the loss of your home, your marriage, or a loved one.

Later on, in Alison’s beautiful personal story of losing her childhood home when her parents sold the house, she introduces the concept of sorrow, which, in the way she used the term, sounds synonymous with grief.

Alison and Kim also discuss sorrow in response to losing what was bad. This is an excellent section, an important one, where we learn the story of “Maria” who was in a dependent relationship with an abusive, addicted man. She refused to leave the relationship because of the fear of her grief.

We often grieve the loss of illusions. For example, at funerals, in addition to the grief of the loss of the actual deceased person, there is so much grief over what never happened, what didn’t happen, and what cannot now happen, the loss of possibilities.

In romantic relationships, after the “honeymoon period” is over, at least some parts will grieve the loss of the illusions of the other person, the loss of the idealizations, the loss of the hopes and dreams that the other person will meet deep attachment needs or integrity needs these parts carry.  And this grieving happens whether the romantic relationship continues or whether it ends.

I discuss parts’ experiences and expressions of grief in the following IIC podcast episodes:

Boundaries with envy and desire

Technically, psychologists and philosophers do not generally consider desire to be an emotion; my Collaborator parts is picky about definitions and would like to make that clear.  For an excellent discussion on the differences between emotions and desires, see Neel Burton’s Psychology Today article titled What’s the Difference Between an Emotion and a Desire?.

However, my Evaluator part is telling me not to make a big deal about it, that even bringing this technicality up is quibbling, because the inclusion of desire in Chapter 12 makes so much sense.

In this chapter, Alison and Kim lead us through a walk-through of the five steps with “José” who struggles with envy and unmet desire, when his idealized love (whom he never dated) was marrying another man.  In this chapter, there was an excellent section distinguishing between envy and jealousy, for example in my favorite quote from this chapter:

Whereas envy longs for something that isn’t rightfully yours, jealousy is the desire to possess what is rightfully yours. For example, a wife rightly feels jealousy when her husband has an affair. Jealousy was God’s response when his chosen people, the nation of Israel, repeatedly turned from him throughout history. [p. 174].

This precision is important because envy and jealousy are so often confused and are so often used interchangeably. This quote by Neel Burton M.D., in the Psychology Today article The Psychology and Philosophy of Envy captures the longing in parts carrying envy:

To feel envy, three conditions need to be met. First, we must be confronted with a person (or persons) with something—a possession, quality, or achievement—that has eluded us. Second, we must desire that something for ourselves. And third, we must be personally pained by the associated emotion or emotions. I say ‘personally pained’ because it is this personal dimension that separates envy from more detached feelings such as outrage or injustice….In sum, envy is the personal pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others. In Old Money, Nelson W Aldrich Jr describes the pain of envy as, ‘the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air.’

Alison and Kim note that envy alerts you to unmet desires, inviting you to evaluate what might be missing within you.  As many of you know, I think of “that which is missing” or as the  unmet attachment needs and unmet integrity needs.

Boundaries with guilt and shame

This chapter begins with standard dictionary definitions of guilt and shame that highlight the differences. This chapter is particularly important, because I believe shame is so poorly understood in our culture.  In IIC Episode 38, Seeing the Signs of Shame in Yourself and Others, I listed five dimensions of shame: shame as a primary emotion, as a judgement, as a bodily reaction, as a signal, and as an action (as in “shaming”).

In the chapter, I really like how Alison and Kim brought us back to Genesis 3, to Adam and Eve’s experience of shame after the disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. They walked through the five steps of the You-Turn with “Julie,” and list the benefits, dangers, needs, and fears associated with shame and guilt.

In the section titled “players in the shame game,” the shaming inner critic is treated gently, with gentle acknowledgment that this part is trying to help. Similarly, a perfectionistic part who works so hard to make you worthy of love is included in a thoughtful and kind way. The text also discusses “a guilty conscience” which is sandwiched between these other two parts. While not specifically labeled as a part, given the title of the section and the other “players” in the section, there seems to me to be an implication that a guilty conscience can be a part.

And in one sense, that makes sense. It can feel like our conscience is a part.

While acknowledging that different Christian denominations can take very different views on understanding one’s conscience, from a Catholic perspective, I see identifying any part as one’s conscience is problematic.  The Catholic Encyclopedia, following St. Thomas Aquinas says the following:  The natural conscience is no distinct faculty, but the one intellect of a man inasmuch as it considers right and wrong in conduct, aided meanwhile by a good will, by the use of the emotions, by the practical experience of living, and by all external helps that are to the purpose.

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes in paragraph 16 reads:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbor.

As multiple faculties within a person contribute to the conscience, I would say it is much more accurate, from a parts and systems perspective, to say that different parts at different times influence the conscience to varying degrees, but no part rises to the level of being the conscience, the “most secret core” of a person, as Gaudium et Spes describes it.

This is consistent with Dr. Gerry Crete’s conceptualization of conscience on page 57 of  Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing Our Parts where he locates in the conscience within the innermost self (in contrast, the parts are located in the heart but not within the innermost self) — see this downloadable PDF of his diagram.

Dr. Gerry writes that. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “the spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasizes the heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of one’s being, where the person decides for or against God” (CCC 368). If the inmost self can be seen as synonymous with the heart in this regard, then the inmost self also includes the conscience and can choose between good and evil.” [p. 5].

The conscience is just too central and too important within a Catholic anthropology to be considered a part.  Reconciling and harmonizing IFS concepts with a Catholic anthropology is still in an embryonic phase, with much more development to be done.

Boundaries with the challenging parts of others

This is a very important chapter in the book, because it invites us to understand our neighbor much better, which makes it easier for us to love him or her much better, in accordance with the second great commandment. To have a deep sense that our neighbor’s innermost self is blended in a given moment, and what our neighbor is saying or doing, often with vehemence, is not our neighbor’s whole story, that within our neighbor, there are other parts, who like hold other positions, other beliefs, other feelings, other desires, other experiences, etc., that are not being represented or included in the moment.   When our neighbor’s innermost self is blended, the fullness of his or her personhood is not on display, and it’s comforting to know that there is much more to them than their parts who have taken over.

In this chapter, Alison and Kim introduce us to “Isabel,” who is recognizing that her husband’s statement that he doesn’t love her anymore is coming from a part of him, not all of him.

Alison and Kim offer five learning objectives in this chapter, inviting the reader to consider how to:

  • respond to others in need
  • resolve conflicts
  • love others who have what we call “parts in process”
  • create deeper connection and more satisfying relationships
  • maintain healthy distance from unsafe parts of other people

What is especially valuable in this chapter is the contrast between helpful responses and unhelpful responses to others who are blended.  This is followed by a brief discussion of some neuroscience findings that inform us of how to enhance her personal relational connections, and then a useful list of questions to help you explore with your parts a difficult relationship with someone near to you.

Final sections

At the end of the book, Alison and Kim provide a “map of the soul,” in which they include the Spirit-led self and the managers, firefighters, and exiles, along with some definitions and examples of each. I tend to think of parts who are in right relationship with the innermost self as “former” managers, “former” firefighter,” or “former” exiles, as those roles reflect their previous states.

Interestingly, Alison and Kim include the parts in the soul, as does Dr. Gerry in his diagram mentioned above. This differs from Richard Schwartz, who has asserted that the human person is represented in this equation:

The human person = the innermost self + the parts + the body

Schwartz also equates the innermost self (which he capitalizes as the “Self”) with the soul, so that implies he does not see the parts as located within the soul; however, this is not certain, as he has also said that each part as a “Self.”

There is a nice summary of the five steps with questions to help you focus in when you are overwhelmed by emotion, followed by a short but excellent glossary, which serves as a ready reference for those who are learning the IFS language. It was clear that considerable care went into the creation of this glossary, and is one who appreciates the definitions of terms, I found it helpful and gratifying.

Final recommendations about Boundaries for Your Soul

For most Catholic students of IFS, if you can only have two books in your Christian IFS library, this should be one of them. Until Dr. Gerry published his recent book, Alison and Kim’s Boundaries for your Souls was my most recommended Christian IFS book, and I highly recommend it (it was the first book I ever commented about on Amazon).

Not only will you be taking in a well-structured read that represents IFS well, and grounds it in a Christian anthropology, this book is well-written with excellent examples.       No book is perfect; this book’s minor imperfections should not deter faithful Catholics interested in learning more about IFS from a Christian perspective from buying it and studying it.

The one possible exception might be for those Christians suffering from acute spiritual trauma, in which Dr. Gerry recommendation in his review of Molly LaCroix’s Restoring Relationship: Transforming Fear into Love thought Connection might be a better fit due to its slower progression and less explicitly God-centric approach.

And I just found out that Kim and Alison narrated their book on Audible, and the audio version has an extra chapter with a guided exercise of the You-Turn, so for those who prefer listening to reading, that is a great resource.

My gratitude goes out to Alison and Kim for all the work, care, faith, hope, and love they put into this book, and my desire is that these last reviews of it will encourage more Catholics to take in the riches stored within Boundaries for Your Soul.


 Dr. Gerry on the air…

Check out Dr. Gerry’s appearance as a guest with host Fr. Dave Dwyer on the Busted Halo Show, which just recently came out – check out the 17-minute interview here.

And Dr. Gerry was my guest with a live audience on the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast for Episode 132, titled Live Q&A with Dr. Gerry on His Book, “Litanies of the Heart.” In that 83-minute episode, we begin by receiving some wonderful feedback for Dr. Gerry about his book. Then we dive into some questions our audience has for Dr. Gerry:

  • Can 58 years of rearranging my life to recycle the feelings of shame from being molested be resolved?
  • Can it be true that not all parts can know Jesus or not all parts can have a relationship with Him?
  • Are we naturally in self as children, before experiencing trauma?
  • In attachment terms, can mis attunement happen pre-verbally, affecting access to your inmost self before you are able to express it?
  • How much culpability do we have for sinful behaviors driven by the unmet needs of parts who have good intentions?
  • What are the relationships among the inmost self, the intellect, and the will?

Be with the Word for the Second Sunday of Lent

Join Dr. Gerry for Be with the Word for the Second Sunday of Lent, in his 21-minute episode titled Abraham and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.  In this episode, Dr. Gerry continues his Lenten series on dissociation and discusses the parasympathetic nervous system which is how we experience safety. Dr. Gerry discusses the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story and explains how God wants a new covenant based on safety, trust, and connection. God also reverses the ancient notions of life and death through Christ whose true nature is revealed to three apostles at the Transfiguration.  Check out Dr. Gerry reading the Mass readings for that Sunday here along with guiding the listener on a meditation to discover the vastness of the universe God created and to experience the Transfiguration.

IFS-information Ignatian retreat

IFS-trained Jesuit priest Fr. Jeff Putthoff and IFS therapist Kimberly Lee are hosting an interdenominational, IFS-informed Ignatian retreat at the St. Leo Abbey in St. Leo, FL from November 7-10, 2024.  More information is available here.  I have met Fr. Putthoff and Kimberly, but I don’t know them well, and I find their offering intriguing.  If you go, please circle back and let me know how it went, as I would like to hear from any Souls and Hearts members who experience the retreat.

Pray for us

And as always, please keep us at Souls and Hearts in your prayers.  We so need the support of prayer as we forge onward, bring you the best of human formation, informed by parts and systems approaches, and grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person.  Why?  So you can flourish.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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