Book Review: Restoring Relationship

Dec 20, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

I am very excited to continue our series of books reviews on books informed both by parts and systems on the one hand and by a Christian anthropology on the other.  This book review series is designed to help you as a Catholic draw the best from these books and leave the rest behind.

Today, our very own Dr. Gerry is our reviewer.  Thank you, Dr. Gerry, for sharing your thoughts about this important work with us.

Review: Restoring Relationship: Transforming Fear into Love Through Connection by Molly LaCroix

By Gerry Crete, PhD

It is exciting that there is a growing number of Christian-focused Internal Family Systems (IFS) books written by experienced therapists. In Restoring Relationship: Transforming Fear into Love Through Connection, Molly LaCroix delivers an informative and gentle path into the world of IFS for Christian readers. Her tone is inviting, warm, and compassionate as she weaves real-life scenarios and helpful wisdom into a slow but masterful exposition of the IFS model. For Christians unfamiliar with the model, this book is a great entry point.

LaCroix is a licensed marriage and therapist, educator, and speaker as well as an experienced trauma specialist. She identifies as a Christian (non-Catholic) and she spends a great deal of time at the beginning of the book addressing what might be the reader’s sensitivity to being hurt by church people. If you have experienced spiritual abuse or just insensitive treatment by people at church, this will be a welcome approach. She explains that church people sometimes behave badly because of fear: “Fear is the emotion that prompts us to turn to judgment. Fear is, unfortunately, potent enough to block love. Fear motivates our protective strategies, blocking our heart and shifting the focus from relationship to rules.” Here we have LaCroix overarching spiritual theme: God is about love and relationship, not rules.

Original sin and calling out evil

LaCroix cites author Gregory Boyd who says that original sin is in taking God’s position and judging what is good and evil. I understand and respect the point being made here, but I’m also sensitive to the fact that there is, in fact, evil in the world, and we are, in fact, called to at least name it.

If you define original sin as perspective-based, and judgment is only the allowable perspective of a God upon us (but it is not an allowable perspective from us to others) then does that mean original sin does not exist from our perspective? Can it therefore never be referenced or accessed? If original sin is only the purview of God because He’s perfect, then you are not eliminating judgment, but the basis of judgment. Where does one find the basis for discernment in this model? How can we know what is acceptable and not acceptable?

These questions aside, I believe her main point speaks to the need for Christians not to be a self-righteous polarizing presence, but to be focused on loving, healing, helping, nurturing, and caring. LaCroix says that we are to focus on discernment instead of judgment. We want to be a safe and welcoming culture, not a toxic one; otherwise, we run the risk of being an insular community rather than a beacon of light for the world.

Relationship over rules

LaCroix goes on to focus the importance of relationship over rules. She says, “the question for anyone who wants to be a source of healing is whether we offer religious rules to the hurting person, or loving relationship.” She uses poignant examples to make this point. Love cannot be about performance. As a therapist, I also see so many clients who, in their heart of hearts, seem to believe that God cares more about enforcing rules than in having a relationship with them. That is not to say that God does not call us to righteous living, but He puts a priority on healing and restoring, not condemnation. She uses the story of the prodigal son to make this essential point.

Call to humility and curiosity in relationships

She then calls the reader into a stance of humility and curiosity to connect with hurting and wounded people. She emphasizes being present with others. LaCroix addresses the topic of anxiety, which is primarily seen in the context of difficult, painful, or lost relationships. We connect with each other through our emotions. She states, “Validating the emotion, which does not require that we understand or agree with it, instead sends a message that we are available to connect and are accepting of the other person’s experience.” I would have been interested to hear her explore further the nuances of what it means to be “accepting of the other person’s experience.” Sometimes one might be understanding more than accepting, or even confused, upset, even angry, while still loving the person and clearly wanting their good.

The role of vulnerability

Next, she explores the topic of vulnerability and how it is super-charged when combined with compassion, validation, and understanding. This is the antidote to shame and Jesus shows us the way throughout His entire life leading up to His suffering on the cross. It is in this section, now Chapter 4, that LaCroix first mentions the IFS model and briefly introduces the notion of the internal family and the 8 C’s.

LaCroix’s parallels between IFS and a Christian vision for relationships

LaCroix draws a parallel between Richard Schwartz’s IFS model with Jesus’ vision for relationships. She points to the fact that we are created in His image, and that God promises that the Holy Spirit will always be with us, and that living in the Spirit involves love, peace, patience, and gentleness. She describes salvation as “a process, not an event; it is the process of transformation, of healing, and it is rooted in relationship.” This is a refreshing perspective where salvation is not seen as a one-time event but a healing and transformative journey.

IFS as a “spiritual practice”

She describes IFS as a spiritual practice. I would have liked more information upfront about why she believes this is so. At Souls and Hearts, we explore how a parts-work approach can be compatible with our faith. I have come to see how a parts approach can also powerfully deepen our “inner world” experience as well as our relationship with God and others. We do, however, have serious concerns, especially in recent years, about the spirituality expressed by IFS founder Dick Schwartz.

Findings from brain science

In Chapter 6, she turns her attention to brain science and does a very nice job of making very complex neurological concepts understandable as it relates to trauma and attachment. She discusses topics such as the amygdala, the hippocampus, the limbic system, mirror neurons, and memory in ways that are useful in understanding the human response to trauma. In Chapter 7, she more fully explores attachment theory, and the various insecure attachment styles. In Chapter 8, she explores how infants and children adapt to the loss of connection, while also revealing how children experience joy and delight. In Chapter 9, she brings together multiple components previously discussed and explains post-traumatic stress disorder.

God’s multiplicity

It isn’t until Chapter 10 that LaCroix begins describing the IFS model after explaining about thoughts, emotions, images, and sensations. She introduces the concept of multiplicity and briefly explores the tricky subject of how multiplicity is inherent in the Holy Trinity. She makes the caveat that our multiplicity is different from God’s. She describes the Trinity not only as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but as “Source of Love, Revealer of Love, and Presence of Love.” Although that sounds generally true, my inner philosopher part can’t resist asking questions and making judgments. For one, these descriptors for the Trinity only express a dimension of each Person of the Trinity, but I suppose all words can only do that. I would think that all three Persons of the Trinity share in the qualities she mentions, despite having particular or distinct ways of expressing them. LaCroix isn’t really inviting us to a deep theological discussion, and at the end of the day this book is simply trying to make difficult concepts understandable in a new and non-judgmental way to the average reader.

Multiplicity and roles

She goes on to say that our multiplicity most resembles the relationship between Jesus and His Church. There is a leader and our various parts do have different functions or roles. She emphasizes the beauty of God’s design in making our inner family. I like her use of the words “inner family” rather than “internal system” which sounds so much more clinical. She then does an excellent job of introducing the idea of protectors, which leads into Chapter 11. She begins with explaining the “critic” (who doesn’t have an inner critic after all?) and walks the reader through to understanding the protector’s positive intention. She explains “you-turns” and inner conflicts. At this point she even provides a helpful exercise to help readers befriend one of their protectors. In these sections we learn how to improve our inner dialogue as we relate to our parts in healthier ways. In Chapter 12, she explains how to find and befriend exiles, and provides another helpful exercise. In Chapter 13, she shows us how to use this new inner dialogue to start having more positive relationships with other people.

Addiction, grief, illness, and inner transformation

I found that the later chapters were the most helpful and meaningful to me. Beginning in Chapters 14, she turns to topics such as grief and loss, betrayal (including abuse), addiction, physical and mental illness, and inner transformation.

I found her chapter on addiction to be especially enlightening. She provides helpful research data and psychoeducation without overwhelming the reader. Like many trauma specialists, she argues against the disease model of addiction and instead emphasizes the importance of the environment.

Alternative perspectives on powerful truths – with alerts

Although my inner philosopher and theologian parts were sometimes on alert as I was reading certain passages in this book, they were also moved by LaCroix’s way of expressing powerful truths in simple but meaningful ways. For example, I thought this was an important statement, “we all share the legacy of the original loss of intimacy with God.” I see this as an insightful way to understand original sin and the need for restoration of our relationships.

She also says, “Compassion is one of the resources we have as image-bearers and it is a catalyst for forgiveness” and then she explains how we must work with our protectors before we can truly forgive. Her language here is straightforward and reaches to the core of the Christian message which is ultimately about love, forgiveness, healing, and the restoration of relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God.

On loving enemies…

She makes another important but challenging statement: “Healing makes it possible to see the betrayer as a fellow child of God whose actions do not represent their entire identity.” She doesn’t absolve the betrayer of responsibility but offers a way, through a parts-work approach, that can provide a path for healing for everyone concerned. It is often difficult for anyone, especially survivors of abuse, to see perpetrators as anything but abusers. She invites the reader to see them from a new perspective. Then she provides a powerful exercise to work with protectors and exiles who might find this difficult since they have been affected by betrayal.

Her personal story

LaCroix also shares her recent experience of a diagnosis of breast cancer and how she turned to her inner family and attended to her own parts. She shares her experience of her “minimizer” parts and how they operate in the face of challenges in order to protect us from vulnerable emotions. I was moved by her description of minimizer parts that block curiosity and avoid addressing real needs. She speaks about how advice does not help answer “the questions of the person in pain.”

Summary and general reflections on the book

Taken as a whole, this book offers a great deal to the reader. She brings together clinical experience, personal experience, theory, and Christian spirituality to offer a path to inner transformation and restoring relationships. Her clinical stories are carefully woven in with her exposition. She invites the readers to reflect on their feelings and body sensations after reading the real-life stories. She asks the readers to check in with their parts, hold space, and listen without judgment. The many experiential exercises throughout the book are helpful and well designed. Essentially, she helps the readers connect with their own parts as they work through this important journey of transformation.

Who would benefit from reading the book?

It struck me that this book would be of particular value to someone who has experienced wounding in the context of their church or religious community or to someone who is struggling to support someone who has. She brings in brain science and information about trauma and addiction, but my impression is that this book is primarily focused on restoring relationships in the context of grief, loss, and relational wounds. She tackles the topic of hardness of heart in the Christian community rather than deep theological questions about the nature of our soul or heavy psychological treatments for acute complex trauma. The greatest value of this book for most readers lies in her therapeutic experience, parts work approach, and practical wisdom to healing and overcoming.

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New episode on “borderline personalities” on the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast

Episode 128 of the IIC podcast titled Recovering from “Borderline Personality” with IFS was released last Monday.  In this 98-minute episode we explore in detail how Internal Family Systems can help with borderline dynamics. We review the definitions of the innermost self and parts, the six attachment and six integrity needs, and we discuss the three major reasons why clients with BPD have been bruised and wounded by mental health professionals. I review the seven tenets of Therapist-Focused Consultation (TFC) and then we walk with “Tina” from episode 127 as she begins IFS informed therapy, and how that therapy invites and includes all her parts, without the need for grounding exercises that suppress her exiles and firefighters. This episode may be particularly helpful to Catholic therapists and counselors to not be afraid of or destabilized by those clients with borderline dynamics.  This is an especially important episode for therapists, coaches, spiritual directors, and pastoral counselors.

Joining the Resilient Catholics Community (RCC)

I don’t know of another Catholic organization that is as focused on building a community to nurture the best in human formation as the RCC.

We have three overarching goals in the RCC:

  1. Tolerating being loved, embracing the vulnerability it takes to receive authentic love
  2. Embracing my identity as a beloved little son or daughter of God and Mary
  3. Reflecting love back to God, my neighbor, and myself.

Almost all Catholic ministries and outreaches focus on spiritual means toward these goals – fostering a life of prayer and penance, frequenting the sacraments and fostering a devotion to our Lord in the Eucharist, spiritual reading and catechesis, scripture study and practicing different devotions, and the list of spiritual practices can go on and on.  And that’s great, those kinds of means are important.

But the RCC backs up and starts earlier.

The RCC is “pre-spiritual.”

In the RCC, we focus on preparing the natural foundation for the spiritual life, learning the human formation arithmetic so that we can do the spiritual algebra.  We work through the necessary developmental experiences that need to occur in the natural realm in order to fully embrace the spiritual means.

As a young man, I realized after an ongoing, soul-mangling spiritual trauma that lasted from my late teens into my early 20s that so many of my “spiritual problems” were at actually spiritual consequences of psychological and human formation issues in the natural realm.  I was traumatized, and I could not just pray it away.  I was confused and wounded at the natural level.

And I needed natural means to heal.

When I started seeing clients early in my career, I saw so much of the same – people who insisted on calling God “mother,” not because of complex theological theories – but because their image of “father” was so toxic that they could not abide seeing God as a Father – they were trying to hold onto a belief in God and not slip into agnosticism or atheism so they transferred to an image of God as “mother” which allowed for connection.  Once they had a much more positive experience of  masculinity and fatherhood in the natural realm, the door opens to see God more readily as “Father.”

The Resilient Catholics Community is the center of Souls and Hearts, where the deepest and most transformative work happens – and it happens in us together, together as we journey on this pilgrimage of reshaping ourselves in the natural realm via a structured, ordered, and strategic path of authentic human formation.  Learn more on our RCC landing page.  Check out our video from December 1 on the RCC with lots of Q&A here and apply for the RCC with this link.

If you have questions about the RCC, reach out to our lead navigator Marion Moreland at marion@integratedhearts.com or call me on my cell at 317.567.9594, especially during my conversation hours which are every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern Time.  If you need financial assistance, reach out to our office manager Patty Ellenberger at admin@soulsandhearts.com.  We never to turn away any Catholic who is a good fit for the RCC.

Be With the Word for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Join Dr. Gerry for his reflection on the Mass readings for this Sunday in his reflection titled Fatherhood: What it Means to be a Good Man and a Good Father.  How is fathering different from mothering? The “essentialist” position says that fatherhood is universal and biologically based. It also says that without a father figure there are negative developmental outcomes for boys. Dr. Gerry discusses how postmodern social constructivism defines fatherhood and masculinity. Dr. Gerry shares his own experience of fathering and being a stay-at-home dad. Research studies show the favorable outcomes of positive father involvement and warmth and closeness. There is a discussion of gender norms for men and how this brings pressure for men. Dr. Gerry also discusses not only being a provider and protector but also how to access the “true self” which includes qualities such as curiosity, courage, compassion, creativity, patience, faithfulness, playfulness, connectedness, and presence. Dr. Gerry shares the Mass readings and a guided meditation on them here.

The end of Advent…

We here at Souls and Hearts wish you the very best in these final days of Advent leading up to the great celebration of Christmas.  Please keep us all in your prayers as we pray for you as well.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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