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Gently Approaching What Underlies Problematic Daydreams

Sep 13, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts members,

Over the past several weeks, we have journeyed together through a seriously Catholic exploration of daydreams from many different angles. Thank you for traveling with me. Let’s briefly review our course thus far:

In this week’s reflection, we will be investigating the ways a person’s parts – or unique subpersonalities – can influence his daydreams. For the sake of this investigation, our person of interest will be Thomas, one of the characters I introduced in the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode 120, titled Understanding Narcissism More Deeply with IFS. (Nota bene: You don’t have to listen to the episode to follow this discussion of Thomas’ parts and their daydreams, but the podcast does provide some background and context).

Our understanding of Thomas’ internal system will be through an Internal Family Systems lens.

IFS, a therapeutic orientation developed by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., posits that each of us have an innermost self and also parts. According to Schwartz, the parts are separate, independently operating personalities within us, each with its own unique prominent needs, its roles in our lives, emotions, body sensations, guiding beliefs and assumptions, typical thoughts, intentions, desires, attitudes, impulses, interpersonal style, and world view.

Understanding different parts at play

Through the course of our lives, trauma, attachment injuries, relational wounds, and family dynamics cause parts to take on specific – often extreme – roles in our systems. The IFS model identifies three main roles that parts play:

  1. Exiles are the most sensitive parts, carrying the burdens of shame, grief, sorrow, anger, abandonment, worthlessness, despair, terror, neediness, isolation, and a sense of being unloved and unlovable. Generally banished outside of conscious awareness, exiles desperately want to be seen, heard, known, understood, loved, redeemed, and healed. Exiles occasionally break into consciousness and flood a person with the intensity of their experiences. These parts often present as very young developmentally.
  2. Managers are parts that work strategically and proactively to prevent the exiles from flooding a person’s system with their intensity. Vigilantly guarding the exiles, managers attempt to imprison them in the unconscious, striving to restrain them from breaking out and disrupting the system. Managers’ efforts may include controlling, criticizing, intimidating, ruminating, excessively seeking to meet other’s needs, hiding, inhibiting emotions, approval seeking, conflict avoiding, hyper vigilance and a self-absorbed focus.
  3. Firefighters are parts that leap into action, reacting when exiles jailbreak and are no longer sufficiently suppressed by the managers. Generating impulses to take bold, drastic, emergent actions to stifle, numb, or distract the person from the exiles’ burdens, firefighters have little concern for any long-term consequences of their reactive defenses. Firefighter behaviors include excessive alcohol use, binge eating, shopping, sleeping, dieting, excessive working or exercising, suicidal actions, self-harm, violence, drug use, dissociation, distractions, obsessions, compulsions, escapes into fantasy, excessive videogaming, repetitive screen checking, detaching, avoiding, inhibiting emotions, anxiety, pessimistic thinking, chronic watchfulness, and raging.

More information about IFS is available in episode 71 of the IIC podcast titled A New and Better Way of Understanding Myself and Others. With this basic understanding of the IFS model in mind, let’s take a look at Thomas’ parts and how they influence his daydreams. For those who haven’t listened to the podcast introduction, Thomas has pronounced characteristics of overt narcissism in his internal system. His daydreams reveal deep unmet attachment needs and integrity needs. Looking below the surface of Thomas’ fantasies, we can connect with his parts. Some of these parts were previously outlined in the podcast, others are being explored here for the first time.

Thomas’ exiles and their fantasies

From his infancy, Thomas experienced emotional alienation and neglect from both of his parents. Thus, his isolated part feels disconnected and alone, separated from the rest of society, different from other people, not included in any group or community (including the Catholic Church). Thomas’ isolated part carries the burden of abandonment and isolation and doubts if God exists or if He cares about him.

This isolated part’s burden of needing a mother’s care fuels fantasies of being unconditionally loved and cared for, of being held and fed. These fantasies play out in a preoccupation with women’s breasts, driven by the felt need to nurse, which was the only time this part sensed being connected with a mother. After reaching puberty and being exposed to various kinds of pornography, his preoccupation became sexualized, leading to an almost exclusive attraction to breasts, a clinical condition called partialism, in which a person has a strong sexual desire directed toward non-genital body parts. Thus, when cracks in his manager parts’ defensive positions emerge, Thomas find himself daydreaming about sexualized contact with the breasts of idealized mother figures to try to meet his isolated part’s attachment needs of being seen, heard, known, and understood, and to be comforted, reassured, and soothed, as well as to be delighted in.

Thomas also has a mistreated part who assumes that others will harm, mistreat, humiliate, cheat, deceive, manipulate, or exploit him. This part generally believes the harm is intentional or the result of severe and unjustified negligence, which reflected some early experiences of psychological abuse and some physical mistreatment from his older siblings who had merciless parts that teased and bullied Thomas when his isolated part was seeking to be accepted and included. The pattern was repeated in adulthood with his wife when he has tried to be vulnerable. This mistreated part greatly distrusts and devalues other people and is suspicious and fearful of others, including God. This part tries to meet the integrity needs to survive and to be ontologically good. This part generates impulses toward daydreams of exercising superhero powers and possessing complete self-sufficiency, not needing anyone or anything, living alone but content with the idea that he is good because of his (imagined) heroic deeds.

Thomas’ managers and their daydreams

A central player in Thomas’ management team is his competent manager who is social, charismatic and attractive (with “rizz”), a part who is very effective at influencing others to do what he wants by making them feel good about themselves. This part is readily idealized by the parts of others. This part can seem very self-like and is often rewarded by others for his charm, good looks, gratifying manner, and for his effectiveness and efficiency in handling the demands of day-to-day life. This part does not have much of a relationship with God, being highly focused on receiving admiration and affirmation from other people. This part goes along with some of the mistreated part’s hero fantasies. His competent manager can also cooperate with and elaborate the sexual fantasies of the isolated part with women he idealizes and who idealize him.

Thomas has a Catholic standard bearer manager who functions as a “good boy” in his system, wanting to keep him on the straight and narrow road, following a code of conduct that is designed to make him loveable and “good enough” in the eyes of God. This part holds up unrealistic expectations that the controller strives to achieve. This part is very attracted to high ideals, having a strong integrity need for mission and purpose. This part is horrified by the sexual fantasies about women and their breasts fueled by the isolated part, and works hard to try to suppress them (and brings them up in the confessional every week), but is less concerned about the heroic fantasies of the mistreated parts, rationalizing them as harmless efforts to grow in virtue.

Thomas’ Catholic standard bearer daydreams about having a (perceived) saintly perfection in the natural and spiritual realms, saying and doing the right things and building up merit. He daydreams about being in the company of other men who are saints as well – but rarely considers female saints, for fear of objectifying and sexualizing them in his daydreams in the service of his isolated parts’ needs. He avoids even reading the writing of women saints, and one can detect sexism or even the scent of misogyny in this part, who sees women (especially buxom ones) as potential temptresses.

Thomas also has a controller who tries to protect him against feeling shame by enforcing a very disciplined domination over the other parts in his system. Directed by his Catholic standard bearer, his controller exerts pressure for excellent performance in order to protect Thomas from being shamed by others or from experiencing shame in conscious awareness within his own system. The controller imagines that if he can just do everything perfectly, nothing bad will happen. The controller effectively completes tasks, makes plans, schedules, and organizes to “make things work out.” This part engages in planning daydreams as well as some power and control fantasies, and contributes the element of power and dominance in his sexual fantasies driven by a fear of becoming aware of the neediness, dependency, and shame of his isolated part.

Thomas’ firefighters and their fantasies

When his isolated part breaks out and threatens to overwhelm Thomas with the intensity of the attachment needs it bears in response to being devalued or shamed by others, Thomas’ intimidator takes over. His intimidator attempts to protect his exiles from further mistreatment or humiliation by confronting others before they hurt or harm him. This part desires to be powerful enough to ward off perceived threats and provide a sense of safety and security. His intimidator threatens others in various ways and can hurt or even harm others in his efforts to distract from and stifle the intensity of pain carried by his exiles. The intimidator and the competent manager team up with fantasies of power and glory, successfully vanquishing “enemies” and neutralizing their threats to himself and others. Thomas’ intimidator also routinely takes on roles like Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the Equalizer, and can get lost in first-person shooter video games and in daydreams reliving his victories as the shooter.

To protect his exiled parts from further harm and avoid attracting any attention to their needs, Thomas has a faultfinder firefighter who insists on devaluing anyone who re-wounds or activates his exiles by pointing out their faults and wrongdoings. If the offending persons are not immediately present, this part engages in devaluing fantasies of confronting them, cutting them down, treating them with contempt, and dismissing them as unworthy of his love. The faultfinder’s anger and external focus on others serves the function of distracting Thomas from the pain, needs, and distress of his exiles. The faultfinder will often tag-team with the intimidator in confronting others, either in real life or in fantasy. Both firefighters may also rehash old memories where they felt overpowered by others, diminished in some way or devalued, and rework the memories in fantasy so that Thomas emerges as the powerful “victor.”

A caveat

While certain underlying needs can motivate particular themes in daydreams and fantasies, I offer a word of caution against assuming that everyone’s internal connections and causal pathways are the same. For example, there is no reason to assume a husband has an isolated part like Thomas’ due to a natural physical attraction to his wife’s breasts. God’s created beauty, including the human form, is attractive and desirable. Natural attraction does not equal disordered, unresolved underlying issues or deprived tendencies. Holding the Word of God closely, we read in Proverbs 5:18-19: Let thy vein be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of thy youth: Let her be thy dearest hind, and most agreeable fawn: let her breasts inebriate thee at all times; be thou delighted continually with her love. (From the more literal Douay-Rheims translation.)

In summary, we don’t want to approach this understanding of parts’ fantasies and daydreams in a formulaic way – rather, it is critical to get to know the parts and understand them deeply, connect in relationship with them and when they feel safe enough they will tell us their stories.

Battling daydreams vs engaging the source

As traditional Catholic psychologist Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. stated in his excellent article Distractions and Fantasies, “Catholic mystics who have commented on the problem show us, therefore, that in the days before the psychology of the unconscious the common spiritual solution to unwanted thoughts and feelings was simply to ignore such disturbances.” Daydreams and fantasies were thought to essentially come either from the devil or from nowhere, and they weren’t linked to unmet attachment and integrity needs. I agree with Dr. Richmond’s assertion that we should seek to understand the fantasies or daydreams, and appreciate his reasonable model which provides an alternative perspective to the parts and systems-based approach I have offered.

In fact, a fairly common Catholic approach includes “praying the daydreams away,” riding into spiritual battle to combat them, casting out the evil spirits whose temptations lead toward inappropriate or even sinful daydreams and fantasies. Also common is denying, suppressing, vanquishing, or beating these unwanted, intruding thoughts back into the unconscious. However, these well-intended interventions occur at the end of the causal chain – at the level of the visible symptom, not at the underlying cause. This battle strategy may yield temporary relief and a sense of victory, but is ultimately destined to fail because it does not address the primary underlying causes of so many daydreams – the unmet attachment and integrity needs.

Gently addressing Thomas’ problematic daydreams

Looking at the roots – on the natural level – in our efforts to help Thomas find freedom from problematic daydreams and fantasies involves uncovering the unmet attachment needs and integrity needs that are driving the impulses generated by his exiled isolated and mistreated parts.

Thomas’ exiled parts need to experience acceptance, reassurance, understanding, healing, love, restoration, and integration within the context of a felt experience of safety and protection for all of Thomas’ parts.

How we make this approach is critically important. Although the strong desire for some relief from the unwanted fantasies could fuel a type of seek and destroy mission, or an attempt to seek and redeem at any cost, those direct approaches could cause greater instability within his system.

Alternatively, the Internal Family Systems method for relieving exiles from their burdens takes a more cautious and gentler path. IFS starts not with the exiles but with the managers. Thomas would first seek permission from his managers in order to begin working with the intensity carried by his exiles.

Risks of forcing access to exiles

Too many trauma therapies start with the exiles, not respecting the rest of the parts of the system nor anticipating possible reactions as vulnerable exiles are exposed. In many cases, after forced access to the exiles (sometimes with powerful techniques like bilateral stimulation), the managers and firefighters react strongly in a protective backlash which destabilizes the person’s system. Good intentions? Yes. Good results? Not so much.

A simplistic and spiritualized “Catholic” method for addressing Thomas’ isolated part’s needs for maternal nurturance and affection might be to introduce that part to the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother. After all, as Fr. Emile Neubert in his wonderful book My Ideal: Jesus Son of Mary wrote:

Do you understand now how Mary, by making your participant in the life of God, is really your Mother in the supernatural order, just as the one who gave you human life is really your mother in the natural order? Mary is even more truly your mother. She is more truly your mother, first because of the way in which she is given you life… She loves you – you, all imperfect and ungrateful as you are; she loves you with a love which surpasses in intensity and in purity the motherly love of all the mothers in the world. [pp. 12-13].

Sounds good, right? Thomas needs maternal care, right? Mary is his primary mother, the most wonderful mother he could possibly have, right? Why don’t we call Mary in, stat!?

Not so fast.

What if Thomas’ isolated part responded (in his usual way) with sexualized desires for Mary, focusing on her breasts? How would Thomas’ Catholic standard bearer react? We could predict a major freakout, especially if this was a new fantasy involving the Mother of God. Thomas’ system could subsequently endure a violent internal reaction, potentially leading to destabilization or even decompensation. We want to work more cooperatively, collaboratively, and gently with parts.

Real life IFS demonstration

Author, podcaster, and IFS coach Drew Boa of Husband Material provides us with an example of safely and gently working with all parts simultaneously in his internal system. His recurring sexual fantasies revolved around a fetish with braces and headgear which included masturbation and pornography use. (Nota bene: Narcissism was not a prominent theme in Drew’s work, just to be clear).

Drew courageously recorded a demonstration of an IFS session with me exploring this distressing part of his life. In that 79-minute episode titled “Unburdening Sexual Arousal,” we connected with his protectors first, before unburdening his exiles. Check out that amazing and authentic IFS experience here.

Months later, Drew and I watched the video together with a number of Christian therapists and we discussed our experiences with that work. This discussion was published in episode 114 of my IIC podcast, titled “Lifting Sexual Burdens: An IFS demonstration with Drew Boa.” It’s available in both a video and an audio format.

To work with Thomas around his unwanted fantasies, we would follow a similar progression by starting with his managers. After building trust and a truly felt sense of safety, and only with the mangers’ permission would we begin approaching his exiles. Witnessing and unburdening the exiles would lead to releasing the managers and firefighters from their extreme roles. This battle plan would offer a true resolution of this issue for Thomas’ whole system.

Looking ahead to next week, I will be discussing the daydreams and fantasies of Juanita, who is married to Thomas to provide you a completely different example of how parts’ unmet attachment and integrity needs can influence one’s imagination and mental life.

Dr. Gerry’s book Litanies of the Heart available for pre-order now!

Have you ever asked or been asked, Is Internal Family Systems safe for Catholics? Is there evidence for parts in our Catholic tradition? Is there a Catholic book I can read or give to my friends who want to understand parts work grounded in authentically Catholic understanding of the human person?

Dr. Gerry Crete’s Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing our Parts is the book we’ve been waiting for, the first of its kind.

This excellent work by Dr. Gerry includes an exploration of parts work (IFS) from a Catholic perspective and includes clinical vignettes, psychological and biblical studies, reflection questions, as well as prayers and meditations.  Ideal for anyone who wants to understand how to adapt Internal Family Systems (or Ego State Therapy) to conform to a Catholic worldview, this book is ideal for both personal and group study. Order your copy here.

I’ve read the pre-publication draft and I am so impressed. No book like it exists. Thank you, Dr. Gerry, for all the time, effort, talent, and research you put into this masterful work, which will be such a blessing and benefit for so many of us.

And if you like the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast (or if you don’t), please leave honest reviews for it on Apple Podcasts, it’s another way to help support the podcast work.

Souls and Hearts member spotlight: Louisa Hall

Interior Therapist Community member Louisa Hall had the opportunity to share her enthusiasm for IFS with her supervisor, Kenna Millea, MA, LMFT, on episode 29 of the podcast, This Whole Life titled The Parts of Me in Harmony: Internal Family Systems. Kenna and Louisa unpack, discuss, and share about IFS in light of a whole-person perspective integrated with a Catholic framework.

Louisa is a graduate student at Divine Mercy University seeking to obtain her Master’s in Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Louisa is currently a clinical intern at the Martin Center for Integration in South Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Louisa first heard about Souls and Hearts in her first year of graduate school through a friend who introduced the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast. While listening to the podcast, Louisa became increasingly captivated by Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach to therapy. Louisa’s fervor for understanding IFS led her to meet Dr. Peter in person at the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (CPA) conference, which only fueled her growing fascination with understanding IFS. Following, she became involved at Souls and Hearts by helping promote the Litanies of the Heart, becoming a member of the Interior Therapist Community, and having the privilege of participating in an ITC Foundations Experiential Group with psychologist Peter Martin.

Through these experiences, IFS has taken on a personal meaning in Louisa’s professional and personal life. Personally, Louisa recognizes that IFS has exponentially increased her self-compassion towards her parts, especially the parts that she has labeled as “bad,” “annoying,” or “destructive.” Louisa is hopeful that integrating IFS into her professional work, in addition to implementing creative components, can be a source of healing, wholeness, and hope in her work with clients. Thank you for spreading the word, dear Louisa!

Be With the Word for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dr. Gerry and I invite you to our discussion of anger and wrath in this week’s 48-minute episode titled Anger, Wrath, and Vengeance, Oh My! We focus in on the difference between the feeling of anger, which carries no moral weight, and how we can deal with anger in a healthy way psychologically that also helps us make a positive impact in the body of Christ. You can listen to the Mass readings here.


Finally, and most importantly, please keep Souls and Hearts, all our members, all those we serve, our staff and Dr. Gerry and me in your prayers. The whole Souls and Hearts endeavor depends on prayer and is fueled by prayer. I am praying for you.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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