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Book Review: Part 1 — A Catholic Review of Altogether You by Jenna Riemersma

Dec 27, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

Merry Christmas to you and to your loved ones. I hope this season is one of peace, joy, and love for you and all your parts.  It is a blessing to be with you.

I am excited to continue our series of book reviews on parts and systems work from a Christian perspective by bringing a review of a very popular and important book by IFS Consultant Jenna Riemersma.  And I’m very happy to have a guest reviewer, psychologist Peter Martin, guide us through Jenna’s book, to draw out the best of it for those Catholics who would like to use it as a resource.  This is the first installment in Peter Martin’s three-part review.  Even if you are not particularly interested in Jenna’s book, I encourage you to read Peter Martin’s review, as he brings in so much new and creative thinking about Internal Family Systems grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person.

Part 1 — A Catholic Review of Altogether You by Jenna Riemersma

By Dr. Peter Martin

Whenever a new book hits the shelves attempting to integrate the Christian faith with Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, I find that parts of me are chomping at the bit to read it and quite literally ready to purchase it on the spot. My—or my parts’—rationalization is that there must be something intellectually enticing and interesting inside its pages, something innovatively distinct in the IFS and Christian faith integration effort to merit an entirely new book. In the least, there is likely to be a few key takeaways that translate to lasting insights and applications with respect to how to be a better Catholic, both psychologically and spiritually. So, with an assist from my compulsive book buyer part, often I am all too shamelessly ready to click the purchase button on the cheapest and most accessible book seller site.

When Jenna Riemersma’s (2020) book—Altogether You: Experiencing Personal and Spiritual Transformation with Internal Family Systems Therapy—was published, true to form I allowed my internal parts to hold sway and with little reservation I bought it the very hour I heard about it.

How could I not, I reasoned? None other than the founder of IFS, Dr. Richard Schwartz, wrote a very favorable Forward to the book. Historically, Schwartz has not been too favorable toward Christianity itself. Thus, it caught my attention to read some of his high praise for Riemersma’s work: “Reading this book made my heart sing. With wit, raw self-disclosure, and engaging writing, Jenna translates my life’s work for Christians” (p. xi). [As an aside, I’m not so sure anything I’ve ever written has inspired even my mother’s heart to sing.] Schwartz continues, “This is a groundbreaking and courageous book” and welcomes the reader to a “scripture-centered new way of love” (p. xii).

Admittedly, though interested, parts of me were skeptical on how orthodox and Christian-integrated it would be. The secular founder of IFS stated that this book translates his life’s work well to a Christian audience. I wondered if this book would focus too much on endorsing IFS principles at the risk of departing from orthodox Christian belief. I also wondered at the outset if it would be more robustly IFS yet too limited on Christian theological and philosophical integration. Would it be secular psychology-heavy and Christianity-lite?

However, with Schwartz’s accolades in mind, I surmised this could be a helpful book for the faith-minded clinician and client. One potentially well worth the read.


So this review is the first of a 3-part series on Riemersma’s book. Today and next week, in parts 1 and 2 of this review, I will focus on a Catholic anthropologically-informed review emphasizing the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition. I will draw heavily from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a sure and certain doctrinal guide to determine and specify points of convergence and divergence from orthodox Christian views. Part 3 of the review series will be more applied, more focused on what is solid and clinically and personally helpful versus missing or in need of improvement.

Below, following my initial impressions of the book, I will: I) expound upon some of the key and orthodox Christian integration assertions that Riemersma makes in the text (Good Points); next week, I will: II) clarify some potentially confusing or misleading statements that could be interpreted as diverging from orthodox views (In Need of Clarification); and III) identify and correct other assertions in the book that appear to be more clearly outside of orthodoxy (Not-so-Good Points) and in one case, what seems to be a misinterpretation of Christian history.

Initial Impressions

Once I got my copy, I poured myself a glass of cabernet and relaxed into my reading chair close to the fireplace with book in tow. I opened it with eager anticipation of what I might find inside. Actually, I’m not that cultured, and I don’t have a fireplace. And my drink was a half-filled lukewarm glass of water. But I was indeed curious about the content of the book.

Early on, I found that I was nearly of same positive mind as Schwartz after reading Riemersma’s Preface, which concludes with a quote from Brennan Manning: “You are loved just as you are. Not as you should be. Because you’re never going to be as you should be” (p. xiv). So true, and such a good reminder for all our parts, most especially our managers. None of us will ever reach our full potential on this side of heaven, and all of us need the reassurance that we are loved as we are with all our limitations, with all our wounds, scabs, and burdens.

  1. Good points in this book

Early on, it became apparent that Jenna Riemersma is a generally engaging writer. Her use of personal disclosure, numerous anecdotes and stories, case examples, witty turns of phrases, made for a generally interesting read throughout. Her background training in addictions counseling also seemed to inform her well-scripted sections on struggles with impulsivity and compulsion, on firefighter parts, which were some of the best I have read in an IFS-informed text. I also appreciated her continual summons to continue to walk from the “God image” rather than from a burdened and blended part. This is the key Christian integration theme she returns to throughout her book. Importantly this emphasis seems to be both anthropologically and clinically valid.

She also converges with Catholic thought in a variety of other ways.

On page 75 Riemersma provides a very helpful discussion on the three loves (of God, neighbor, and self), all of which are essential on the Christian journey. Sometimes Christians can focus on the love of God and neighbor to the exclusion of the self, even though proper and ordered self-love is essential for love of neighbor. Indeed, according to Thomistic philosopher Dr. Anthony Flood’s analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings on the 3 loves: “The unity of substantial oneness determines a priority of the love of self over the love of others,” that self-love provides the “guiding principle for how he relates to others,” and one cannot love self properly without “loving God more than self” (The Metaphysical Foundations of Love, 2018, p. 134). In line with St. Thomas, Riemersma captures the importance of proper and ordered love of self for authentic love of neighbor.

She also accurately distinguishes between forgiveness and reconciliation on page 121. These two terms are often inaccurately equated with each other. (To further understand this and other misconceptions regarding forgiveness, see my article Blocking myths about forgiveness published on Drawing from over-interpreted or at least misinterpreted biblical passages like “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22), Riemersma emphasizes how Christians can put themselves in harm’s way if they attempt to reconcile and reunite too early with someone who mistreats them and remains unrepentant. Forgiveness is indeed a biblical mandate (see Matthew 6:14-15), but there are times when reconciliation with the person who mistreated you may be a bad—even dangerous—decision.

As mentioned earlier, throughout most of the book she refers to the Imago Dei (image of God) in a manner consistent with orthodox Catholicism. This is important because she associates, even equates, Schwartz’s notion of “Self” with the Imago Dei. [I will subsequently refer to “Self” with lowercase letters, thus “self”].

Consider the assertion she makes on page 18: “But I believe what Schwartz titled the ‘Self’ is actually the fingerprint of God—the Imago Dei in every human being…. That is why in this book we will mostly use the term God Image in place of the term Self.” Riemersma explicitly differentiates the self (which she equates with the God image, the “fingerprint of God”) from God Himself. Just as your fingerprint is not you, and you are not your fingerprint, neither is God’s fingerprint him, and God is not his fingerprint. Elsewhere in the book, this is not as clear. But in this passage, it is unambiguous.

This is of no small importance, especially when attempting to integrate IFS with a Christian view of the human person. Schwartz, and sometimes those who make efforts toward this type of integration, often give too much credit to the IFS notion of self. They also do not give enough credit to God. Even Christian writers on IFS errantly claim self has a greater capacity by itself, unaided by grace, to make us more God-like than it truly can on its own accord. Orthodox Christianity asserts we can only become God-like with God’s divine assistance. To explain, following are a few Catholic-informed distinctions on degrees of similarity with God that I will revisit in later sections of this review.

Levels of Resembling God

Similarity to God can be understood on a continuum ranging from lesser to greater. In Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott puts this succinctly: “Since the time of Saint Augustine the general teaching of theologians is that creatures unendowed with reason are a ‘Trace of the Trinity’ (Vestigium Trinitatis), those gifted with reason are an ‘Image of the Trinity (imago Trinitatis), and those endowed with saving grace a ‘Likeness (similitudo) of the Trinity.’” (p. 83).

To be a “Trace of the Trinity,” a nonrational animal, means this creature resembles God, in a sense mirrors him, is his “Trace.” To be an “Image of the Trinity” is to have a greater similarity to God than the nonrational animal. And to have a “Likeness of the Trinity” through sanctifying grace is to be even more like God than the first two categories. Furthermore, a glorified human person in heaven, perfected in the face-to-face beatific encounter, is by far the most like God.

However, being in any of these categories of resemblance to God does not make a human person (or any creature) to be God himself. Even the perfection of grace experienced in the glorified state in heaven still falls greatly short of God himself. There we will possess and experience full flourishing and be loads happier, but still not be God. There always remains an “infinite distance” between Creator and created, between God and man (see Ott, Fundamentals, p. 256). This distance should not be thought of in terms of physical distance, but in terms of being. God in his essence is still infinitely greater than and distinct from man, even at man’s highest level of being.

Also, in heaven there is loving connectedness but still personal differentiation. There is a clear distinction between Creator and creation, divine and human, God and man. Heaven is more a glorified Christian fruit salad than a pantheistic fruit smoothie; more a beatific community of distinct Persons / persons than an amorphous bowl of divine Jello.

Let’s recap the continuum of similarity of physical creatures to God:

  1. a) Nonrational animal (“Trace” of God)
  2. b) Rational animal (“Image” of God)
  3. c) Rational animal with Image of God and sanctifying grace (“Likeness” of God)
  4. d) Rational animal in glorified state in heaven
  5. e) God himself

These distinctions have important implications for integrating IFS with orthodox Catholicism. For instance, one must assert that e) is infinitely greater than any one or a combination of a) through d). If one assumes Riemersma’s assertion that the IFS construct of self equates with the Image of God, then the most the self can be is b), which resembles God less than c), which in turn resembles God less than d)—all of which are not God himself and infinitely less than him.

These distinctions will be important for the rest of this review.

Next week, I will point out and explore some potentially confusing or misleading statements that could be interpreted as diverging from Catholic views (In Need of Clarification); and III) identify and correct other assertions in the book that appear to be more clearly outside of orthodox Catholicism (Not-so-Good Points) and in one case, what seems to be a misinterpretation of Christian history so that Catholic readers can distill out and keep the rich, valuable material and leave the aspects of the book that diverge from Catholicism (both anthropologically and theologically) behind.


Be With the Word for the Feast of the Holy Family

In this 42-minute episode titled The Holidays and Food! Disordered Eating or an Eating Disorder?, Dr. Gerry and his guest, Dr. Laura Cusumano discuss her struggle with anorexia in college, how she overcame it, and how food can be misused in an effort to self-soothe.  They explore how from Halloween to New Year’s we can be inundated by less-than-healthy food options – but also how food in the proper order is beautiful.  You can hear Dr. Gerry read and offer a mediation on the Mass readings here.

I look forward to joining you in the New Year next week, and I wish you a great Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God on January 1.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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