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Loving Conversations on Controversial Subjects: A Parts-Informed Approach 

Feb 1, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

This week, I am excited to share a reflection written by my Souls and Hearts co-founder and dear friend Dr. Gerry Crete. Offering a parts-informed approach to engaging with others constructively and positively in the culture wars, Dr. Gerry uses abortion as an example of an emotionally-charged, hot topic. His example models a way to authentically love others who hold radically different beliefs with an eye on how our own parts work will help diffuse conflict and deepen the bonds of connection and relationship. Without further ado, I offer you his reflection:


Loving Conversations on Controversial Subjects: A Parts-Informed Approach

By Gerry Crete, PhD, LPC, LMFT

With the overturning of Roe v Wade in June 2022, pro-life advocates have much to celebrate. However, we cannot deny the reality that our nation remains deeply divided on the topic of abortion as well as many other issues that concern politics, economics, education, and human rights. There has been a societal redefinition of both marriage and gender. In the abortion debate, the definition of human life itself is at stake.

Engagement on the topic of abortion can often lead to more entrenched positions and contempt for the combatants on the other side. While pro-life advocates continue the important work on the policy level to defend life, there are ways that each of us can simultaneously work to engage in positive and constructive ways with the goal of converting hearts one by one.

A Relational Approach

Christ calls us to love our enemies in a radical way, and so, before we engage with someone on a controversial topic such as abortion, we need to pray and ask for many graces and cultivate the virtues of moderation, patience, godliness, and fraternal love, for we are called to approach others with love and compassion even when it is difficult. We may need to pray to the Holy Spirit for the gifts of wisdom, understanding and counsel, so that we can learn how to engage with those on the other side of the culture wars in a way that is more likely to move their hearts.

In addition to this spiritual preparation, we can benefit greatly with a parts-based psychological understanding of the inner conflicts and inner struggles that we need to recognize and resolve within ourselves before we engage with others. I will demonstrate how the psychological approach of “parts work” helps me with both spiritual recollection and the inner transformation needed to engage in a positive and effective way with others in the culture wars.

Healing the Abortion Debate – Preparing Myself to Connect

In bringing a parts-based approach for conflict resolution to bear on the public discourse on abortion, I use my own parts as an example and walk you through the process of identifying my parts, understanding my parts, engaging my inmost or core self, in preparation for connecting with others.

Recognizing my parts: The first step begins with self-reflection and an awareness of my own parts well before I engage in a discussion with others on a topic such as abortion. When I take a moment and “look inside” myself as I reflect on this debate, I recognize a few of my parts are especially prominent.

  • My Crusader. The first part to show up is my “Crusader” part who wants to engage in battle for a holy cause. I do have religious beliefs that inform my pro-life position. Isaiah speaks of God forming me in the womb. John the Baptist leapt for joy in the womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth. The Church teaches that life is sacred from the moment of conception. Abortion is obviously a form of murder. For this part of me, the evil of abortion is a no-brainer. This part of me wants to protest, change laws, and fight the good fight. 
  • My Investigator: I also have an “Investigator” part who wants to research the science in question. This part has become an amateur embryologist over the years. He has learned about the new genetic material of a zygote and all the stages of development of an embryo and a fetus. He knows when fingernails are developed, when the heart starts beating, and when an unborn child feels pain. This Investigator part is ready to engage in a scientific debate about what constitutes human life. He wants to win this debate without referencing religious beliefs, knowing the science stands on its own. 
  • My Philosopher: As I continue to notice my parts, I recognize my “Philosopher” part who understands that our post-modern world operates from a subjective deconstructivist mindset. This part is convinced that an unborn child is objectively a human being. An unborn human baby does not suddenly have worth because he is wanted nor lose intrinsic value because he is an inconvenience. This Philosopher part engages in the debate around personhood. 

Connection with my parts: At this point, I can pause for a moment and notice these three parts of the self: the Crusader, the Investigator, and the Philosopher. As I breathe slowly, close my eyes, and self-reflect, I can recognize that these parts are good. They have good intentions. The Crusader wants to fight a just cause, the Investigator wants to research and solve the problem, and the Philosopher wants to discover and share the truth.

I can also reflect on the past and remember moments when these three parts were burdened or threatened and how they responded to this perceived external threat. When feeling threatened, my Crusader part has sometimes become threatening in return. When my Investigator part has been challenged by opposing scientific theories, he has gotten angry and dismissive or drilled into exhaustive detail to defend his theory no matter the relational cost. When my Philosopher part is misunderstood and confronted with extreme relativism, he becomes self-righteous, and contemptuous. All three parts, when threatened, quickly see the person holding an opposite view as a danger and a non-person. Any chance of changing someone’s mind or resolving the conflict has likely vanished.

It is worth noting that when these parts become reactive and protective, they are not just responding to a perceived external threat. They are protecting my wounded exiled part, an “inner child.” When debates become heated, this part might recall fear or shame from the past. All these feelings are buried deep, but when a debate triggers them, the emotions become intense. In order to prevent my system from being overwhelmed, the Crusader becomes more forceful, the Investigator doubles down on his research, and the Philosopher becomes filled with contempt.

The key to slowing this process down is to pause and notice this dynamic among the parts, and then to re-engage the core or inmost self to connect with and guide the other parts of the self. If we can picture the various parts and notice their reactions, we can get enough emotional distance from them to gently guide them and help them. The inmost self is naturally compassionate and calm. It is the very heart of the soul, created in God’s image, and able to receive and channel grace.

It is from this place of recollection that the inmost self can reassure all the parts that they are good and that they are needed. The inmost self can help the Crusader put down his weapon. We will need his strength but channeled constructively and in an attuned way. The inmost self can appreciate the Investigator’s efforts but helps him see he does not need to solve all the mysteries of life at once. The inmost self can connect with the Philosopher and appreciate the truth he brings but ask him to hold his theories until after we have earned trust and made a more personal connection. Most of all, the inmost self can notice the wounded young exiled part. This child needs to be reassured that he is safe and will be protected.

As we prepare to engage with someone holding an opposing position, we start by pausing, taking a deep breath, and looking inside. We can picture the inmost self and all the parts of the self. We can notice how much love and goodness resides within us. We can pause and offer a prayer of thanksgiving. We can ask God to increase our love and grant us wisdom.

Healing the Abortion Debate – Connecting With Others

Engaging with Compassionate Listening

It is essential that we listen to our opponent and ask honest questions seeking understanding. When she shares her point of view, we are often really hearing from just one of her parts—and that part does not represent the whole of her. She may have a Crusader part who believes in fighting for a woman’s right to choose an abortion. She may have an Investigator part who has concluded that life begins at some stage of development such as sentience, self-awareness, consciousness, higher levels of brain development, viability, or taking a breath. She may have a Philosopher part who believes that carrying an unwanted unborn baby is a form of oppression. Although we may strongly disagree with these conclusions, we need to recognize the good intentions of our opponent and that they are attempting to protect their internal system.

When our inmost self listens with empathy to the stories and experiences of the other’s parts, we can express genuine compassion. We can affirm the good intentions of the other’s parts without agreeing with the conclusions. We can acknowledge her fear and empathize with it even if it does not resonate with our own lived experience. And there may be times when it does resonate with our experience—maybe the experience of our wounded inner child. We can tap into this to strengthen our understanding and empathy, which may lead to greater connection. We may choose to share our own experience to show that we understand and build trust. Ultimately, love heals and helps parts be open to truth, goodness, and beauty.

In my experience, the two most common arguments expressed by those that oppose any legislation restricting abortion are based on fear of the following:

  • Fear of physical harm. Women will die. Women will be forced to have babies even if their lives are in danger. Pregnancies are inherently dangerous. Women with ectopic pregnancies will die if not allowed to have medical abortions. Women, especially poor women, will risk their lives getting illegal abortions.
  • Fear of government control. The government wants to attack or oppress or control women, enabling men to continue or return to doing so. Women and minorities have been abused by the government in the past. Politicians want to force women to have babies but don’t care about either after the child is born. The government wants to encroach on our civil liberties. Right-wing politicians are imposing religious beliefs on women with no regard for their beliefs. Women will be criminally suspect if they have a miscarriage.

If our Crusader, Investigator or Philosopher parts dismiss these fears with nothing but logic and data, we will likely cause these fears to increase rather than decrease in our opponent. Fear is the strongest of human emotions and we need to take these fears seriously. We cannot address an emotional response with reason alone. When someone is afraid, we need to reassure them, not argue with them. We need to help them see that we support them where we can.

We can consider that the intensity of our opponents’ fears could be exacerbated by their own unresolved past trauma. The fear of physical harm may be intensified by past experiences of violence and neglect. The fear of government may be intensified by past experiences with controlling parents. If we dismiss these as irrational, we will only intensify our opponent’s resolve. If we respond with genuine empathy and concern, we demonstrate that we do want what is best for them because we care. On an emotional level, we have to be able to say, “I hear you, and perhaps I understand what you are saying” and mean it, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

We may become fortunate enough to develop a real relationship with our “opponent,” even if she holds opposite views. By starting to encounter and engage with her true self a real connection may result. We could become friends instead of opponents. She may start to hear the sincerity in our voice and become interested in better understanding where we are coming from.

The way to convert hearts begins with converting our own hearts and loving our own parts. We can live as our most genuine self—the person God created—through recollection, accessing our inmost self, and living in harmony with our various parts. With Christ’s help, our burdened and wounded parts can be healed. We can then encounter others from a place of true empathy and compassion.

Engaging with Empathetic Responses

After demonstrating our genuine care by carefully listening to her story, the next step in engagement is to express our honest empathy. Again, we do not have to agree with the values expressed or the conclusions made, we must show that we understand where she is coming from. Here are some examples of empathetic statements that might be helpful:

  • It makes sense to me that you would not trust the government and politicians after what happened to you and your family. 
  • I see why you were so angry. That never should have happened to you. 
  • I can only imagine how hard it was to be pregnant at 16 with no support from your family. 
  • The pressure from your boyfriend and the expectations of your parents must have been overwhelming. 
  • I can see why you would want to protect women whose lives are at risk. 

And if you can stay personally recollected and attuned to your friend, you can allow your Crusader, Investigator, and Philosopher parts to engage in positive and constructive ways. These parts may move the discussion from the subjective experience into areas of more objective truth. Ideally, these are done when you have developed a positive relationship with someone.

  • Crusader part in “self”: When I hear your story (or listen to your reasons), I’m moved by your experience. I’ve come to see that you have good intentions and really believe strongly in this cause. I’m struggling because although I see your point, I sincerely believe in the value of human life from conception. It is painful for me to think of the end of any unborn life. It’s not something I can let go of.
  • Investigator part in “self”: I also want to do anything I can to protect the lives of women. I’m willing to fight for more services for pregnant women and single mothers. When I see an ultrasound, hear a heartbeat, or learn about the physical development of a fetus, I can’t help it. I’m more and more convinced that taking unborn life is wrong. 
  • Philosopher part in “self”: Since I believe an unborn baby is a human life, I can’t dismiss its value because of someone’s life circumstances, no matter how difficult. But I also think it’s unfair to dismiss the challenges and hardship of pregnant women especially women in poverty. I believe so strongly we need to protect both, and I hope we can work together to protect both. 

There is of course no guarantee that these statements will be well received by the other person. She may still react with anger and harsh rebuttals. In this case it is important to stay calm and recollected, keep trying to understand where she might be coming from and agree and empathize with what you can. If the discussion deteriorates, steer it back to the relationship: We may not agree but I hope you can sense that I do care about you.

This approach will at least set the tenor of the engagement and plant seeds, with the hope of further dialogue or even to develop an ongoing relationship. A genuinely loving relationship, where mutual empathy is cultivated and the Holy Spirit is given an opening, has the possibility of a radical change of heart. We are not likely to ever influence the views of a stranger let alone an enemy.

We must also be open to change ourselves if we expect the other person to be open to change. I have strong views on the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death and these are supported by my understanding of science as well as my Catholic beliefs. As I have sincerely engaged with pro-choice advocates, however, I have also realized how our society has failed women, especially women in poverty and difficult situations.

We need to advocate for a surplus of services for women and children in need. And we must promote and financially assist organizations that provide support for crisis pregnancies. Our Crusader parts need to fight for a society where no woman will be afraid and overwhelmed by an unexpected pregnancy. We need to encourage our pro-life politicians to support women who choose pregnancy even at great personal and financial sacrifice. We must also love the women working in the abortion industry, many of whom are deeply suffering with trauma for their own abortions.

As we develop relationships based on trust and safety, we share our experiences and beliefs. With faith, hope, and charity we build the Kingdom of God where love reigns, fears are relieved, unborn children are protected, and women and children receive the love and care they need.

References

Devine, A. (1911). Recollection. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 12, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12676b.htm

Schwartz, Richard C. (2001). Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park, Illinois: Trailheads Publications.

Schwartz, R and Sweezy, M. (2019). Internal Family Systems, second edition. New York: Guilford Press.

Watkins, John G. and Watkins, Helen H. (1997). Ego States: Theory and Therapy. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.


More about Gerry Ken Crete, Ph.D. Dr. Gerry is a professional counselor and marriage and family therapist who specializes in the treatment of trauma and anxiety disorders. He is a former president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association, and he founded Transfiguration Counseling and Coaching. He is also our beloved co-founder of Souls and Hearts. He has appeared multiple times with Matt Fradd on Pints with Aquinas, has meditations on the Hallow App and writes for Exodus 90. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife of 30 years and has three grown children.

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Be With the Word for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. I am grateful to Dr. Gerry for writing this reflection, allowing my first break from writing each week over the last 14 months. Please keep him, me, and all of Souls and Hearts in your prayers. Our entire outreach is fueled by prayer. And know that we are praying for you as well.

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