Your Tor-Mentors: God’s Gift to You at Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Thanksgiving is again upon us — the annual American holiday famous for family reunions, turkey feasts, televised football and backyard pick-up games, the Macy’s parade, afternoon naps and pumpkin pie.  A day specifically set aside for giving thanks to God for all the good things in our lives.

This holiday brings our families together from near and far, a day when friends and neighbors break bread together. This annual celebration with its history and tradition also comes complete with all the ingredients for a total ‘interior disaster.’

For mixed in with the cranberries and the stuffing comes a host of people converging for the festivities. We encounter others in close quarters with whom we don’t relate regularly. With good reasons. Some of these people simply torment us with their challenging personalities, habits, and mannerisms.  There are guests at the table who might be quite welcome at the gathering, but aren’t really welcome in our hearts, and with whom we aren’t really interested in nurturing a relationship beyond the casual holiday niceties.

The cast of characters

Let’s be real. For many of us, the excitement of this holiday is tinged with anticipation of being in close contact for extended periods of time with people who just rub us the wrong way.

Let’s take a look at a stereotypical lineup for tomorrow’s feast:

  1. Uncle Jimmy gets under your skin, pontificating about everything from the Church culture to current events to pop culture (see the image above) as if his opinion is truth and the only valid position.
  2. Sister-in-law Sue can’t stop talking about her ongoing, mysterious physical ailments and the numerous ways that conventional medicine has failed her, drawling on about her hope for a cure from an expensive (potentially sketchy) alternative treatment plan, someone you’ve seen scammed repeatedly in her search for the ‘hidden cure.’
  3. Ben and Donna, married 30 years, alternate between subtle bickering and passive-aggressive silence toward each other, generating a low-grade, chronic, miserable vibe that seeps into the entire environment.
  4. Grandma Betty, in the early stages of dementia, often unable to carry on a sensible conversation, can’t help but just get ‘in the way’ in the kitchen where she formerly held the lead role in the food preparations; no one really volunteers to be the next person taken hostage by her repeated stories and half-thoughts.
  5. Steve and Jenny’s spoiled children fight amongst themselves, complain noisily, make unreasonable demands, and disrespect their elders while their embarrassed parents awkwardly defend their children’s “free spirits” and their right to be both seen and heard.
  6. Brother Henry really takes football seriously, and keeps the TV volume amped to hear every call and commentary, adding his own loud outbursts throughout the game articulating his passion for the sport in ways that you find obnoxious and overbearing.
  7. Adolescent Tommy ruminates about video games incessantly and is incommunicative, disconnected from and disinterested in the family, living true to the T-shirt he wore to Thanksgiving dinner:

Backstage preparations

A successful Thanksgiving feast requires much planning and careful attention to detail.  In a similar way, our interior preparations for this upcoming celebration to be spent in the company of our own particular ‘cast of characters’ can pay off in big ways.

It’s likely that some of the people we’ll encounter at our gatherings tomorrow are prime examples of what Internal Family Systems founder Richard Schwartz calls “tor-mentors.”

Richard Schwartz is not a Christian, but his description of tor-mentors captures how they can be a gift to us.  He writes in his essay, The Larger Self that:

…I’ve tried to let my most disturbing clients become my best teachers. They’re my tormentors – by tormenting they mentor me because they trigger key wounds and defenses that I need to heal. Also, they present ample opportunities for me to see what happens when I don’t take the bait and, instead, remain Self-led.

Alicia Dabney in her article Tormentors or Just Mentors? How IFS Therapy can Help you Discover The Gift that Keeps on Giving defines tor-mentors as “individuals who torment us but also teach us about what is needed to heal. Tor-mentors can be among our most valuable teachers, for they make us aware of what needs our loving attention.”

Take a minute and envision the person (or persons) most likely to be your key tormentor(s) as you celebrate Thanksgiving.  Let’s prepare for the interior, hidden work that will enable you to be truly loving toward your tormentors from the inside out not just at this holiday, but every day.

Tormentors as PIECES in our lives

Our tor-mentors are PIECES in our lives.  PIECES, an acronym that I introduced to you on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year in the weekly reflection Thanksgiving: Skin-Deep vs. Profound, refers to all that we find difficult, challenging, annoying, or otherwise unpleasant and disagreeable to us.

PIECES stands for:

Persons – My family members, neighbors, coworkers, friends, all the people I am in contact with – and this includes my tor-mentors.  In particular the “P” in PIECES references certain parts of the person that I find trying or problematic. 

Institutions – My school, the company I work for, the Church, my parish, professional, social and fraternal organizations, etc.

Events – The things that happen in my life, and in the lives of those near to me.

Circumstances – Current conditions, conditions, states of affairs and factors in my environment that impact my life and welfare, and the lives and welfare of those around me.

Experiences – What I perceive with my senses, and my internal reactions. These include my emotions, thoughts, impulses, desires, attitudes, perceptions, memories, temptations, pain, body sensations, distress, psychological symptoms and any other subjective happenings within my psyche, soul, or body.

Systems – Integrated networks of interrelated members who interact in a larger whole, such as my family, my friend groups, social clubs, all of which may not be formal institutions.

Schwartz see these “tormentors” as giving him a gift – the gift of mentorship.  The gift of revealing his wounds and his maladaptive ways of interpersonal responding.  The gift of providing a “living laboratory” to try new, more attuned, more loving ways of relating, from a recollected place, from an open heart.

Dabney adds to Schwartz’s list the gift of calling to our attention to what needs love and healing within us: The holidays may bring us together with these very tor-mentors who trigger us in some way, whether family or others with whom we have a difficult history.  Our family members have a unique way of activating us, wounding us, and challenging us.

To be clear, the understanding of tor-mentors I’m sharing here does not in any way imply that they are intentionally activating us for some good cause or with good intentions or for our greater good.  They may be ambivalent; they may be self-absorbed or have psychological, emotional or developmental challenges. Or they may be acting out of fear or self-protection.  They might even be motivated by malice.  In any event, our tor-mentors can only do what they do within God’s permissive will – and God permits their actions only to draw greater good from those actions, greater good than if the actions were not permitted.

Some questions to consider

  • How would we experience our tor-mentor differently if we saw him or her as a gift from God to us?
  • What would we find if we sought out the good that God was intending for us by our proximity to our tor-mentor?
  • What would happen if we opened our heart, just a little, to that person?
  • What do Jesus and Mary want for this person right now?
  • What would we discover if we considered our tor-mentor’s behavior as an attempt to get some underlying attachment need or integrity need met, even if that attempt is misguided, maladaptive, or even sinful?
  • How would our hearts be changed if we chose to love our tor-mentor, even a little, in the difficult moments?
  • And what would we need to do that?

Alternatives to offending or defending

Dabney writes that:  It can be common to direct our energy and attention out toward our tor-mentors or to withdraw without taking the time to get curious about what is happening for us. However, it is in these moments that, instead of fighting or fleeing, we have the opportunity to pause and then make a U-turn inside toward what is hurting to ask:

  • Where is this landing in me?
  • What might this person be inviting me to notice?
  • What can I learn about myself through this?
  • What parts need my attention, presence, and loving compassion?

To these I would add.

  • When have my parts felt similarly in other situations from the past, especially the distant past?
  • How much of my distress, frustration, discomfort, or other unpleasant experience is from this current interaction versus the activation of unresolved issues from my past?
  • What does my interaction with this tor-mentor seem to say about me? What am I ashamed about, irritated with, or disappointed about, in me?
  • Is there anything that I am critical of in the other person that I may be neglecting to see in my own system?
  • What might parts be concerned about or worry about if I were to try to see my tor-mentor as a gift to me?

Often what makes a person a tor-mentor is the experience or the assumption that he or she is not meeting our attachment or integrity needs or is hurting or even harming us in some way.  This can lead us to focus excessively on the other to the neglect of our own internal experience – and miss the gift.

The U-Turn in Internal Family Systems is word coined by Richard Schwartz to describe the process of turning one’s attention away from others and inward toward oneself when one feels the need for validation or affirmation.  It is in the U-turn that we are more likely to discover the gift from our tor-mentor.

Loving tor-mentors

As difficult as it might seem for some of our parts to believe, Romans 8:28 hold true, even in our interactions with our tor-mentors: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

In my November 30, 2022 weekly reflection titled How and Why We Reject God’s Providence, I argued that:

In my experience, the primary difference between Catholics who live lives of profound peace, joy, security, a deep spiritual childhood, with a sense of awe and wonder from those who do not boils down to one primary factor and that one factor is this:

The degree to which you sense God’s Providence in everything that happens in your life throughout your whole being, in all your parts.

This is the determining factor for a deep sense of both spiritual and emotional well-being. This is the most obvious determinant that shakes out Catholics along the spectrum of wellness: How integrated is Romans 8:28 into all your experience and being?

How integrated is the idea that your tor-mentor might be a gift to you?

If we can make space for internal reflection and learn to remain more self-led even in the most complicated and chaotic PIECES of our lives and learn to see our tor-mentors as gifts from God, we will truly have a reason for giving thanks.

Invite St. Therese of Lisieux to your inner reflections on your tor-mentors, and carry her words with you into your holiday celebrations:

Everything is a grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love – difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs – everything, because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events – to the heart that loves, all is well. [From St. Therese of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations].

May your Thanksgiving be truly well and good.


IIC episode 126 just released this week

Last Monday, 83-minute episode 126 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast released, and it is titled Borderline “Personalities”: Your Questions Answered by Dr. Greg Bottaro.  In this episode, my guest Dr. Greg Bottaro of the CatholicPsych Institute shares with us the most important thing he wants us to remember about borderline personality dynamics, the things that Catholics and non-Catholics most often misunderstand about borderline presentations, and his takeaways about borderline “personalities.”  We then open the floor to these questions from our live audience:

  1. How do you stay in relationship with someone who is threatening to harm themselves, you, or other family members?
  2. Are anger and anxiety typical coping mechanisms for those with borderline characteristics?
  3. “I think I may have borderline personality with a strong strain of self-hatred.  What is the role of concupiscence and wounds in borderline personality? “
  4. How would a Catholic parent with a spouse with Borderline Personality Disorder characteristics navigate teaching or picking up the pieces with young children who witness severe emotional dysregulation on a regular basis without undermining the spouse or triangulating?
  5. “Someone brought to my awareness that they see BPD characteristics in me.  How do I approach true authentic healing so that I don’t wound others, while not falling into the trap of getting a formal diagnosis to justify my actions or over-spiritualizing, trying to pray it away or just go to confession?”
  6. “How do I help my young adult son who is married to someone I suspect has BPD characteristics who is now cutting off communication with us and who is not taking care of himself and who has said he is in turmoil when his wife, my daughter-in-law, who seems controlling and needing lots of ‘space’”?

Episode 127 will release on December 4, and be all about understanding borderline “personality” from a parts and systems perspective, informed by Internal Family Systems.

Chris Stefanick and me…

Just yesterday, Chris released the first video we’ve done together on The Chris Stefanick Catholic Show, a 34-minute episode titled How to Deal With a Narcissist with Dr. Peter Malinoski.  Chris is a very engaging host, and it was a pleasure to record with him.  The audio version will soon be out on his audio podcast.

More of our resources on narcissistic personality styles can be found in these IIC podcast episodes.

  • Episode 118Narcissism: who, what, why, and how? The secular experts share their views 80 minutes.
  • Episode 119Narcissism: Q & A with Dr. Peter Martin 89 minutes.
  • Episode 120Understanding narcissism more deeply with IFS 103 minutes.
  • Episode 121Connecting with your own narcissism inside 87 minutes.
  • Episode 122: Gaslighting and narcissism – Catholic style 98 minutes.
  • Episode 123Relating well with narcissistic family members with Dr. Gerry 90 minutes.

A warm welcome to all of you who may have just found out about Souls and Hearts through Chris Stefanick.

Fr. Boniface Hicks and Matt Fradd discuss IFS and Dr. Gerry on Pints with Aquinas

Among many other topics in their wide-ranging interview from last week titled Father Boniface Gives Matt Spiritual Direction For 3 Hours, Matt and Fr. Boniface discuss Internal Family Systems approaches and Matt compliments our Souls and Hearts co-founder Dr. Gerry in a sweet and kind commentary at the 1:05 mark.  Check out that episode, there’s a wealth of information and perspective in their exchange.  The audio only is here.

Be With the Word for the feast of Christ the King

Join Dr. Gerry and me, Dr. Peter, for our 47-minute episode titled Be The Best Sheep You Can Be where we discuss how our fallen human natures tend to want to be more like “goats” than “sheep” and what we need to do to be more docile to the will of God. The readings for the Mass are here.

The Resilient Catholics Community

The RCC is Souls and Hearts’ main human formation program, where our members do their most focused work to shore up the natural foundations for their spiritual lives.

You are invited to join more than 200 other pilgrims on our journey to releasing the natural constraints that hold us back from a deeper intimacy with God our Father and Mary our Mother, to know that we are their beloved little sons and daughters, and thus be empowered to share that love with others.

So many spiritual problems are actually spiritual consequences of human formation issues.  As St. John Paul II noted, all formation is based on human formation, including spiritual, pastoral and intellectual formation (see PDV, 43,44).  Why?  Because as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Grace perfects nature; it does not destroy it.”  And grace needs our nature, our human nature, to perfect.

In the RCC, we are seeking to perfect our human natures in a way that is gentle, attuned, and informed by the best of psychology and secular resources but also, first and foremost, grounded in the perennial truths of the Catholic Faith.  And we journey together, in companies of nine people, with two companions. Learn more on the RCC landing page.

If you these weekly reflections speak to you, if the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast makes so much sense to you, and especially if you resonate with the IIC experiential exercises I offer in episodes 93100102104106108110111117, and 121, then the RCC may be a great fit for you. Much more information is on our RCC landing page.

Dr. Gerry’s book

Speaking of Matt Fradd, check out his endorsement for Dr. Gerry’s book, Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing Our Parts.  Matt Fradd said:  Litanies of the Heart provides innovative approaches linking Christian meditation and psychology that will help the broken find comfort, consolation, and healing for their wounds.  Check out dozens of other endorsements here, and you can pre-order as well.

Share, share, share…

Please share this weekly reflection with anyone you feel might benefit from it.  I so appreciated it when our readers take the time to give a gift of our resources to others.

We are thankful for you… 

All of us at Souls and Hearts are thankful for you in this season – we are glad you can connect with us.  Please pray for us, especially as we make the transition from being a start-up to being a more established organization.  I have a lot of work to do on the internal management side to help us accommodate our growth, and the success that you have brought us; sometimes the guy with the machete, making a path in the wilderness needs to learn a whole lot more to be able to put in a four-lane highway.  Just sayin’…  Please keep me and all our Souls and Hearts staff and members in your prayers. We are praying for you.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Feel free to brows nearly 100 back issues of our weekly reflection in our archive.  Also, check out our resources page for nearly all our resources catalogued by topic in alphabetical order.

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