The Counterfeits of Self-Giving

Aug 31, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts members,

This morning, I was reading Fr. Jacque Phillippe’s book Called to Life before the Blessed Sacrament and a passage on self-giving leapt out at me to share with you today in our weekly reflection.

Self-giving and its counterfeits…

Fr. Philippe writes:

Still, self-giving is not always so simple in practice. People sometimes give generously of themselves, without experiencing the happiness promised by the Gospel. Instead they encounter sorrow, fatigue, and frustration. Their own needs are forgotten; they themselves are ignored. We’ve all heard a generous person explode with anger and exclaim, “I’m fed up with waiting and everyone else, with having to do all the dirty work, with being taken for granted and never so much as hearing a ‘thank you’!” [pp. 91-92]

This passage that many consider our reflection on the inadequacy of a single personality to describe and explain how we feel, think, desire, and behave. Consider the Fr. Philippe’s generous person above — what type of personality does his brief vignette describe?

Initially, it seems that the person is kind, generous – of the personality styles delineated by the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, this presentation is perhaps best reflected by a dependent or hysterical personality style.

But then we see this dramatic shift from giving of self to exploding with anger, bitterness, resentment, impatience, which seems more like the reaction from a narcissistic or paranoid personality. Almost like a night and day, or Jekyll and Hyde type of presentation.

It seems like there might be two personalities here, hard to reconcile into one personality descriptor. We might be able to shoehorn it into the masochistic personality style. Or maybe we will invoke the ubiquitous “borderline” personality, which is characterized by a “pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships” according to the DSM – we mentioned that in last week’s reflection, the “stable pattern of instability.” Meh.

But maybe we can find a better way of understanding what’s going on inside Fr. Philippe’s generous person. Maybe we can consider the person having different parts, or if you prefer, different modes of operating.

The many motives of “self-giving”

One place to begin is to look at motives or intentionality. Fr. Philippe briefly lays out several problematic, self-seeking motives that can motivate self-sacrificial actions that mimic authentic self-giving. He writes:

Self-giving can end like that when it is not freely chosen or when it is chosen out of some motive other than disinterested love – fear of saying no and not being accepted, emotional dependence, a perfectionistic streak rooted in pride, a sense of indebtedness, the notion that to save others we need to please them, or else the desire to teach others a lesson by shaming them. There is even such a thing as calculated generosity that resembles a kind of unconscious bargaining: I will give myself to you, provided that you give me the emotional gratification or the ego boost that I crave. [p. 91]

First, it is interesting to note just the variety of different motives that could give rise to apparently generous behaviors. Fr. Philippe gives us a gift by laying these problematic motives out so clearly for us.

We are many parts…

It is difficult to incorporate multiple conflicting motives into a single personality. But when we consider that we may have multiple parts – or different modes of operating – we have a way to explain the multiple conflicting motives, feelings, thoughts, desires, beliefs, values, and agendas inside each one of us.

Polarization #1: the compliant surrenderer vs. the feisty protector

So let’s re-examine Fr. Philippe’s vignette of the “generous person,” who gives and gives, and then snaps, exploding with anger and criticism. And let’s bring in the idea that the generous person has parts or at least different modes of operating.

If it helps, you can think if these parts as very similar to the inner emotions in the Pixar film Inside Out – these five different colored figures inside of the main character Riley sometimes take over her control panel and dominate her life.

To provide one possible explanation for the generous person’s behavior in the vignette, I will bring up two parts that I very often see polarized in Catholics – a compliant surrenderer and a feisty protector. Here are my typical brief descriptions of these parts – can you imagine me describing these parts to Fr. Philippe’s generous person?

Your compliant surrenderer, based on its assumptions from its experiences, works hard to protect you by assuming a submissive, subordinate, and more passive role in relationships, to ingratiate and thus seek reassurance and avoid conflict or rejection from others. This part has an excessive focus on gratifying others, even at the expense of your own needs, hoping that, in turn, others will then meet your deep needs. This part does not want to frustrate or irritate others or to be seen as selfish for fear of alienating others. Other people consider your compliant surrenderer to be very “nice.” This part may be inclined to allow others to mistreat you, and fears advocating for your own needs in order to preserve a pseudo-harmony or quasi-peace in your important relationships, and to avoid conflict at nearly all costs. This part seems to hope that other people will intuitively sense and meet your needs without you having to express them.

Your feisty protector greatly desires that you not be mistreated any longer and who pulls for you to set protective limits and boundaries. Your feisty protector’s anger fuels limit-setting and justice-seeking in intense ways that can harm relationships with other people. This part is focused on the preservation of your integrity and dignity as a person and has a deep sense of justice and injustice.

Can you imagine how that generous person may initially be dominated by a compliant surrenderer part who works so hard to give of self, but with the agenda to not be seen as selfish, to be nice to other people, to maintain connections, all in the secret, unacknowledged hope that all that self-giving will be reciprocated, and that her own needs will be met?

And that does not happen.

And then, her feisty protector takes over and dominates her (like Anger in this scene from Inside Out) and explodes and acts out in an effort to protect the generous person from perceived exploitation and a loss of dignity and recognition. The problem is that the raging and the condemning of others doesn’t usually work very well, usually ending up in conflict, criticism, rejection and the needs still not being met.

But that is only one way to understand what might be going on. Here is another model of two parts in conflict that could explain the same feelings and behaviors, but coming from different parts.

Polarization #2: the self-sacrificer vs. the rebel

In many, many committed Catholics, I see what I sometimes denote as self-sacrificer part. Here is how I often describe self-sacrificers:

Your self-sacrificer who focuses excessively on meeting the needs of others, even at the expense of your dignity and well-being. This impulse often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain and needs of others. Your self-sacrificer hopes that God will notice the efforts and reward you by meeting your deep needs in a mystical, transcendental way without your conscious awareness.

And in many, many serious Catholic, I see rebel parts. Here is how I describe the rebel:

Your rebel who on some occasions rejects and throws off demands and expectations, and is very focused on immediate gratification, distraction, and the avoidance of a sense of shame and inadequacy. When your rebel is activated, you find it very difficult to follow schedules and plans and finish routine or boring tasks. Your rebel is easily frustrated. This part finds very little meaning or purpose in suffering and seeks to protect you by getting some of your own needs met in very worldly ways. Your rebel has low levels of gratitude and may be heavily criticized and rejected by other parts, leading it to be suppressed almost all the time.

In this scenario, I invite you to imagine that the self-sacrificer is drawing the generous person to give of self in order to be rewarded in tangible ways by God. The self-sacrificer’s agenda differs from the compliant-surrenderer’s mission in that the former is seeking to have God meet the deep needs, while the latter is looking for the other people to meet the deep needs.

But then, it seems that God does not meet the deep needs, despite all the effort of self-giving.

So the rebel takes over, and the rebel gets mad, has a Howard Beale moment and is not going to take it anymore. The rebel rejects the self-sacrificer’s “nicey-nice” approach and doesn’t care that much about the opinions of a God who seems light-years away and disinterested in meeting deep needs. The rebel is going to pull the generous person toward laying down some limits and boundaries and discharging some pent-up aggression toward those inconsiderate people. The rebel part prompts the generous person to explode in anger and to become harshly critical of others without much consideration of the moral aspects of the situation.

You can see of this polarization in the second scenario differs qualitatively from the polarization in the first scenario. Both scenarios explain what’s going on within the person, but they invoke different parts with different motivations for the generous person.

Purifying our intentions

Fr. Philippe and gives us wise counsel when he writes, “It is important to examine our motives and rid ourselves of such imperfect ones, so that our self-giving can become truly free and disinterested.” [p. 91]

But my response to that statement is, “Well, Fr. Philippe, how do we do that? How do we purify our motives how do we rid ourselves of imperfect motivations so that we can become free?”

This is the secular criticism of so much religious writing, and it’s shared by Richard Schwartz, the discoverer of Internal Family Systems – religious writing can be beautiful and aspirational, but it often provides little guidance to the reader for how to get there, how to actually climb the mountain, step-by-step. This passage is an example. Fr. Philippe fails to provide any guidance on how to purify our motives; he just lays out the end goal of purified motivations for our self-giving.

I have a problem with that.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to bash Fr. Philippe. I’m a huge fan of Fr. Philippe and his books, I frequently recommend them. In fact, Fr. Phillipe is one of my top five modern Catholic authors. He psychologically-minded, and he gives solid, orthodox counsel to his readers and I have found his spiritual writings to be very helpful in my own life.

Part of the problem is that as Catholics, we don’t understand human formation very well. We often don’t understand developmental psychology very well. We don’t understand how the brain works and how the brain influences the mind and vice versa. In short, we don’t know ourselves in the natural realm very well. And I don’t expect that our Church leaders will know all this stuff – it’s not their area of expertise, this realm of human formation and psychology. It’s up to us Catholic mental health professionals to try to fill the gap.

Part of that ignorance is caused by outmoded ideas, like that of a single unitary personality, which I addressed in last week’s reflection. But much of that ignorance stems from not wanting to go inside ourselves very deeply – from being afraid of what we’ll find. Remember, our Lord promised us that “Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you.” And I believe Him. I believe that if we seek to really know ourselves, if we are willing to knock at the door of our unconscious and find out what’s all roiling around down there and pulling us in so many directions, we will find out. The problem is not really that we can’t find. The problem is that we don’t seek.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French Catholic mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and theologian wrote that of the Faith, “There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.” I hold the same to be true about understanding and loving the deeper reaches of ourselves.

William L. Watkinson wrote in 1907 that “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” And that is exactly what we are trying to do at Souls and Hearts. To light the candle, to illuminate all kinds of issues in the natural realm – not just to identify the problem and state the end goal, but to give you a path to follow to better human formation.

So how do we purify intentions, Dr. Peter?

So you might ask me, “All right, Dr. Peter, go light that candle. How would you help Fr. Philippe’s generous person examine her motives and rid herself of imperfect ones?

And I have answers to that. Here is a summary of the steps on a natural level:

  1. To deliberately consider, and be open to embracing a much more nuanced understanding of the human person’s psyche that includes the unconscious and the multiplicity of parts or at least different modes of operating.
  2. To appreciate that each of our parts has a positive intention for us, that each part is seeking some good for us, but that parts have limited vision and their means can be maladaptive and harmful.
  3. For your innermost self to get to know all your parts at a deep level, to understand their motives and the positive intentions behind their motives and their agendas, and for your innermost self to form a loving relationship with our parts. If parts have deep sense of being safe, appreciated and loved, they open up.
  4. Then for your innermost self to address the needs of your parts, the wounds of your parts in a loving way.
  5. Some of those needs your innermost self may be able to meet directly — such as the need for you to love you.
  6. For other needs, your innermost self can be a bridge, a mediator between your parts and God, Mary, the saints, your guardian angel and other people.

There is, of course a lot more to the details, much more than I could possibly put into this already-long weekly reflection.

The Resilient Catholics Community has human formation answers

The details on growing in human formation are what the Resilient Catholics Community is all about. Together, more than 100 Catholics are on a one-year pilgrimage together to work on these issues, in a way that is solidly grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person, but that also brings in the best of psychology, neurology, and so many other disciplines. It’s not therapy, it’s not counseling — therapy and counseling don’t have a monopoly on human formation. Check out our landing page for more information.

And thank you for reading and staying with me through this whole long reflection.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. If you want a window into my psyche, I list and describe ten of my parts and lay out different ways they interact within me in Episode 71 of my Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, titled A New and Better Way of Understanding Myself and Others.

P.P.S. If you do listen to that episode, you’ll better understand when I tell you about how my Collaborator part was really anxious this morning about coming up with an idea for this weekly reflection, casting about for ideas on his own and coming up with little. My Creative part felt very little enthusiasm for the project and had no inspirations. My Guardian part was resentful of having to write this reflection, especially with the limited time I had today. But my innermost self was able to care for all these parts, and take this weekly reflection and all my parts to God and Mary in prayer. Then I received what I am convinced are real inspirations that made this piece so much easier to write. And I like how it turned out and can readily give the credit to God and Mary.

P.P.P.S. I thought of the fifth reason I don’t like the concept of “personality” that I neglected to include in my last weekly reflection — and that is when people use their “personality” to excuse their behavior. For example, when a man says, “I have an avoidant personality style, it’s just ‘not me’ to show physical or emotional affection to my wife.” Or when a woman says “I’d like to be more supportive and enthusiastic about our children’s successes, but you know how I have a depressive personality style, a melancholic temperament, so that’s just not how I roll.” There can be an assumption that “personality” can’t change. And that’s nonsense.

Social Media Sharing Box