Review of Parent, Child, and Adult: Healing Our Inner Selves

Dec 13, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

We are embarking on a project in these weekly reflections that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.  Over the next several weeks, we will be taking a deep dive into the books currently published that may be the most helpful for faithful Catholics seeking solid human formation from a parts and systems perspective.

Each of the four books we will review addresses inner multiplicity — parts and systems thinking taken inside the person.  Last week, I emphasized how important parts and systems thinking is in my reflection, titled The “How” for Your Human Formation.

To contribute to the “how” of Catholic human formation, our Souls and Hearts staff members have examined these four books carefully to help the faithful Catholic in the following ways:

  1. To sift through the anthropological issues – noting where the books might depart from a Catholic understanding of the human person, and clarifying ambiguities.
  2. To note each book’s strengths and weaknesses from an applied point of view – how readable is the book, how readily accessible are the concepts, and how readily applicable is the book to fostering growth and solid development in human formation.
  3. To describe which readers the book may be best suited for – who “fits” the book, and who the book may help most.
  4. All in the service of providing these resources in a context where Catholic can confidently draw the best from them and leaving anything problematic behind, separating the wheat from the chaff.

I want to open our series first by thanking the authors of the books we are reviewing.  I see these books as the most significant contributions to a Catholic and Christian understanding of the human person, especially the human psyche, and these authors are pioneers in the field.

Review of Parent, Child, and Adult: Healing Our Inner Selves

by Deacon Kevin G. Stephenson.

Author Kevin G. Stephenson, M.Div. M.A. LPC-S. BCC is a Catholic deacon incardinated in the Diocese of Tulsa and Eastern Oklahoma.  He is also a Licensed Professional Counselor with more than 15 years of experience, a Board-Certified Chaplain with the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, and a pastoral counselor. He is credentialed to supervise Licensed Professional Counselor candidates in Oklahoma.  He is also the founder and executive director of the Association of Catholic Counselors.  He is a member of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (see his listing here) and you can learn more about him from his vita.  Thus, Deacon Stephenson brings together a unique combination of both clinical and pastoral experience to his work.

Parent, Child, and Adult: Healing Our Inner Selves was self-published quite recently, in June 2023; I read the Kindle version, which is available free through Kindle Unlimited.  The book has many photos and images tastefully interspersed and is an easy read with a Flesch-Kincaid reading level coming in at below the sixth-grade level, making it very accessible to nearly all readers, including junior high students.  It’s also a quick read at 110 pages – I was easily able to read it in less than an hour.

Focus of the book

Deacon Stephenson bases his book on the theory undergirding Transactional Analysis (TA), a theory derived from psychoanalytic roots by Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne in the late 1950s.  TA holds that we have three primary ego states.  An ego state, according to Berne in his 1961 book Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy

…may be described phenomenologically as a coherent system of feelings related to a given subject, and operationally as a set of coherent behavior patterns; or pragmatically, as a system of feelings which motivates a related set of behavior patterns. [p. 17].

You can learn more about ego states in TA here and here.  According to TA, the three ego states within each person are an inner parent, an inner adult, and an inner child.  Each of your ego states has a role in your system:

  1. Parent Ego State – maintains the unfiltered behaviors, thoughts, and feelings taught explicitly or taken in implicitly and recorded or imprinted from the parents (or parent figures) in childhood. Examples include:
    1. “Never talk back to me.”
    2. “Always clean your plate.”
    3. “Big boys don’t cry.”
  2. Adult Ego State – experiences the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are direct responses to the present environment. These are the accumulations of what the person has learned by direct experience.  Examples include:
    1. “Never lick a metal pole in subzero temperatures.”
    2. “Some bosses can’t handle constructive criticism well, so just keep your mouth shut in staff meetings and stay below the radar.”
    3. “People really like it when you remember their names and use their names in conversation with them.”
  3. Child Ego State – replays the behaviors and internal thoughts, and feelings from one’s childhood, the stored emotions and experiences from child associated with external events. Deacon Stephens stated (p. 19) that most people experience their inner child to be between 3 and 11 years old.
    1. “Rollercoasters are scary and exciting at the same time!”
    2. “Men with beards frighten me and can’t be trusted.”
    3. “I can escape into a fantasy world where I can be anyone I want to be.”

These ego states constitute a system within a person, and these three ego states interact with the ego states of other people in different transactions.  In various places, Eric Berne defined a transaction as “the fundamental unit of social intercourse.” Identifying and correcting transactions is central to TA.  Deacon Stephenson does not get into the analysis of transactional patterns in his book, but you can find out more TA and pattern analysis here, here, and here.

Thus, TA and Deacon Stephenson book emphasis both parts (in the ego states) and systems (in the transactions).  Transactional Analysis is thus part of the family of parts-and-systems approaches to understanding the human psyche.

Deacon Stephenson writes that:

We are one human being consisting of three persons or ego states. These three states are more than just roles we play, they are all real persons. All three of these internal persons exist within us at the same time. Some people can hear their voices and feel their presence in their bodies. Some people report feeling their inner child in their stomach, chest, hands, neck, and head. Our interior life is a family. There is a deep spiritual connection within us. It is God who designed us this way so that we could come to know Him as The Triune God. [p. 11].

One might think of these ego states as analogous to parts in the Internal Family Systems model from Richard Schwartz, who also claimed that parts are like little persons within us, and went much further, arguing that each parts has its own soul (as Schwartz equates the soul with the innermost self) and its own body.  So we need to be careful and precise in how we define these inner experiences.  So I turned to our Souls and Hearts philosopher-in-residence, Monty De La Torre (an expert in metaphysics), who responded to Deacon Stephenson’s quote above with the following clarifying response:

Analogically speaking, we can refer to these ego states as “real persons.” However, the human person, as mentioned above, is numerically one substance, i.e., one human being. The intellect has the amazing power to reflect upon itself and to reimagine person-like states. The outcome of such imaginative activity takes on the resemblance of a nuclear family, albeit, within the soul. Our inner reflective life can be understood as a likeness to the inner life of the Trinity.

We want to avoid confusion in the use of the word person; Deacon Stephenson does not mean to suggest, for example, that we have three wills and three intellects, one for each of the ego states.

The Catholic connection

Deacon Stephenson emphasizes how all three ego states are important, and have different God-given role in the person.  He makes an interesting argument that each of the three ego states reflects a different Person of the Trinity:

  1. The Inner Parent reflects God the Father who teaches and imparts wisdom to the Inner Child.
  2. The Inner Child reflects God the Son and offering and sharing his or her needs and wants with the Inner Parent.
  3. The Inner Adult reflects the Holy Spirit, carrying out the will of the Inner Child and the Parent in the daily activities of life.

Dr. De La Torre also cited Ludwig Ott’s Fundamental of Catholic Dogma in which Ott states that “Since the time of St. Augustine the general teaching of theologians is that creatures endowed with reason are a ‘trace’ (vestigium) of the Trinity, those gifted with reason are an ‘image’ (imago) of the Trinity, and those endowed with saving grace a ‘likeness’ (similitude) of the Trinity…” [p. 91], so it is possible to make the argument that different ego states may reflect different Persons of the Trinity.

Dr. De La Torre reflected that: The relations between the Persons of the Trinity can serve as an analogy for the relations found within the nuclear family. So, only in an analogical sense are the ego states of Transactional Analysis akin to the relations found in the Trinity.

Disorder enters in…

According to Deacon Stephenson, after the Fall in the Garden of Eden, the “critical parent” was created and goes on to create a “wounded child” [pp.45-46].  A “dysfunctional adult” develops when the wounded child dominates the system [p. 51].  It is not entirely clear in the text, but my reading is the Deacon Stephenson posits that the three original inner ego states all still remain in undamaged forms, but three new dysfunctional ego states were created because of sin and are transformed – leading to a total of six inner ego states.

In resounding agreement with us at Souls and Hearts about the importance of interior integration, Deacon Stephenson writes that:

An integrated person is a healthy person. They are in touch with their inner child, parent, and adult. The fully integrated person consists of an adaptive child, the nurturing parent, and the functional adult. They have the capacity to adapt to any situation presented to them. They are resilient. They can maintain the virtues of love, joy, and peace. [p. 55].

An integrated system is in harmony.  In contrast, Deacon Stephenson writes that:

The unhealthy person is disintegrated. They are cutoff from the adaptive child, nurturing parent, and functional adult. They are dominated by the wounded child, critical parent, dysfunctional adult and the voice of The Accuser. [pp. 56-57].

Deacon Stephenson views the lack of integration and especially the Critical Parent as a portal through with the Accuser (Satan or another demon) can attack the person.

The author offers, in very simple and clear but limited examples, several transactions, such as “I am Good – You are Good” and “I am Bad – You are Good” to clarifying how an individual interacts with others, depending on the internal experience of the ego states.

Experiential exercises and methods of healing

Deacon Stephenson offers some cuing questions to help the reader rewrite “bad scenes” or negative scripts that injured the Inner Child, focusing on different locations of a house, other common locations, and different common events in life.  He offers some advice for introducing and connecting the Inner Child to Jesus, and for healing the Inner Child by restoring his or her trust in the Inner Parent.  He also discusses how to heal the Inner Parent by:

  1. Tracking the Inner Parent’s criticisms of the Inner Child, with a focus on shaming transactions
  2. Transforming critical parental statements in to nurturing statements
  3. Connecting the Inner Parent with Jesus in relationship

Finally, there is a focus on healing the Inner Adult, consisting of

  1. Fostering harmony between the Inner Parent and Inner Child so they do not suppress the Inner Adult
  2. Implementing various self-care measures
  3. Inviting the other ego states to forgive the Inner Adult

For more information, you can read an introduction to Deacon Stephenson’s thinking in his July 17, 2023 article titled Parent, Child, and Adult: Healing our Inner Selves.

Summary and recommendations

To my knowledge, Parent, Child, and Adult: Healing Our Inner Selves is the first book published from a distinctly Catholic anthropology that address parts and systems, and it had the following particular advantages for the Catholic reader:

  1. The book is explicitly grounded in a Catholic anthropology.
  2. It is very easy to read and understand, written below a sixth-grade level, and thus accessible to nearly all readers, including adolescents.
  3. Some readers may very much like the extensive use of photographs and artwork.
  4. It connects with an established conceptual model of the human psyche, Transactional Analysis, which has been developed over the last six decades.
  5. Conceptually, it is among the simplest of the parts and systems models, making it an excellent introduction to parts and systems thinking for those who may be overwhelmed with other models (e.g. Internal Family Systems, Schema Therapy, Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy, the Structural Theory of Dissociation, Ego State Therapy, etc.).
  6. The book brings in many references to the Catholic Church, and integrates the natural and spiritual realms.

The book may have the following disadvantages for some readers

  1. Its conceptual simplicity and introductory nature may leave more intellectual readers hungering for a more complete model of the psyche.
  2. Some readers may desire a more explicit and structured, step-by-step approach to healing.
  3. The book does not address complex spiritual trauma, and what to do if any of the ego states are not willing to connect with God for healing.
  4. No recommendations are offered about how to distinguish between the voices of the Critical Adult and The Accuser, what has natural origins in the person himself or herself and what is demonic, and it is important to get this right.

In summary, if you are building a library of books on parts and systems from a Catholic perspective, seriously consider including Parent, Child, and Adult: Healing Our Inner Selves by Deacon Kevin G. Stephenson in the Kindle edition for $5.99.


Joining the Resilient Catholics Community (RCC)

The RCC leads the way for human formation, through the in parts and systems thinking and grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person.  Instead of trying to use spiritual means to resolve natural-level human formation deficits, we focus on the best of the natural means, thus avoiding the spiritualizing and spiritual bypassing that hold so many Catholics back from growing in the natural realm.

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.  We are learning our human formation arithmetic so we can do the spiritual formation algebra.  Much more is available on our RCC landing page.

Listen to Dr. Gerry on Spirit Radio

Dr. Gerry was a guest on the December 9, 2023 episode of Spirit Radio’s Truth, Culture, Life with Royce Hood to discuss his new book, Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing Our Parts which is available from Sophia Press.

Be with the Word for the Third Sunday of Advent

In this 26-minute episode Surviving the Holiday Blues Dr. Gerry Dr. Gerry discusses the Sunday readings from a psychological and family-oriented perspective. Although the holidays are meant to be a joyful time, many people struggle with higher levels of depression, grief, loneliness, and stress. Some people also experience seasonal affective disorder. Dr. Gerry integrates the best advice from the mental health community with the wisdom of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and he shares the Mass readings with commentary and reflections with us here.

Finding a therapist…

As much as we might like to (and as often as we are asked), Dr. Gerry and I can’t take on any more therapy clients.  We are pleased to announce that Souls and Hearts has posted a list of Catholic therapists and coaches who appreciate Internal Family Systems.  Check that out here.  You can also check out Christian IFS therapists here and here.  And don’t forget, we have our free video course A Catholic’s Guide to Choosing a Therapist.

Pray for us

And as I always ask, please keep the Souls and Hearts members, staff, and me in your prayers.  We can’t do what we do without you and your prayers.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S.  Please share this weekly reflection with anyone you think might benefit – personal sharing and recommendations are the single best way we  spread the word about Souls and Hearts.


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