Move Past the 5 Love Languages

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Starting in the early 1990s, I had couples in therapy start to mention something about their “love languages”. As a trained therapist, I was confused by this term “love language”. I had never heard it used in any context before, and I asked my clients to explain it to me.

Eventually they pointed me to the book by Gary Chapman called “The Five Love Languages”. I did a quick read and felt it reflected the approach taken by many pop-psych books. I mistakenly predicted it would have no impact on the counseling world.

I was wrong. At least, I was wrong about one aspect. It certainly does have an impact on the counseling world, if one refers to people going to marriage counseling. It has virtually no impact on therapists. There are some pastoral counselors who made extensive use of the material in their pastoral offices. But the concept itself does not line up with any therapy modality accepted by psychologists.

The premise of the book is very simple.

  1. There are five ways we show love to others
  2. Each of us prefers two of these languages
  3. Our partner will appreciate us more if we express love in their language.
  4. Couples should buy the book, identify their love languages, share this information with each other, and have a happy life together.

Boom! Instant marital success. Well, to Chapman’s credit, he never says this is a panacea to solve all difficulties in long-term relationships. Though, after reading the book, that implication is not hard to pick up. More to the point, desperate people in difficult relationships viewed it as a fix-all for their relationship. And on the surface, following this formula can improve some elements of a marriage.

But it can also make some existing relationship problems worse.

Long-term relationships are difficult and nuanced. Tricking out one element of the relationship may mask other problems. Following the principles in this book produce only a temporary fix. And when a couple puts all their hope in a temporary fix, the result can be devastating.

Chapman’s concept, and all the subsequent spinoff books, have several significant problems connected to it.

It is a Reductionistic List

Some people claim that Chapman never said this was a comprehensive list. But he actually does claim that. He goes into detail explaining his background in pastoral counseling and that the love languages that made the cut are the five he sees most often with couples. In fact, he claims several times that all expressions of love can be placed in one of these five categories.

To be fair to Chapman, research psychologists are always trying to reduce relationship and personality characteristics to three, four, or five categories. And Chapman may have seen that and wrote his thesis accordingly.

So in essence, these are five love CATEGORIES. But he doesn’t say that.

My first caution about the book is that it is dead wrong. Not only are these five love languages not the only ones, they may not even be the most important ones.

Let me give several examples of other love languages. Note that these are not even close to being all of the remaining love languages. There could be thousands of love languages for all I know. The five that Chapman chose are very Americo-centric, cis-heteronormative, and very much based in white culture. I am sure that individuals from other cultures would have a tough time identifying Chapman’s five as their subset of love expressions.

Sex: Chapman mentions several times that sex is just a type of Touch. But in this, he is wrong. There are many people that come into sex therapy with me who distinctly don’t like being touched. But they love sex. And then there are some who love to be touched and held, but do not have any desire for sex. Sex would never mean love to them, but touch would.

Sex is a completely different category on its own. Some find rough sex to be loving. Others find the same with oral sex, slow sex, BDSM, group sex, ethical non-monogamy. There are ways that other people find some sex to be unloving. As a love language, sex can have many expressions. But it is ludicrous to place sex under the Touch category.

Respect: Some would say Respect is different than love. But that argument could be made about quality time, and any of the other love languages. Many people believe that if a person shows respect, this shows their love for a partner. And there are hundreds of ways respect can be offered.

Example: A University of Washington study showed that couples married more than 40 years had one thing in common more than any other: The husbands respected their wife’s opinion. That is the only common identifier they found in interviews with these couples. Yet it does not show up on Chapman’s list.

Gentleness: In this sense, I am using the word “gentleness” as the opposite of “violence”. This is one of my major criticisms of Chapman. He does not differentiate between the five love languages shown in a gentle atmosphere versus a violent home. If a person is violent and then buys their partner gifts, the gift does not equal love. Neither does quality time if there is violence. Affirming words do not mean much if someone has bruises from last night’s fight. On their own, gentleness and safety are important ways that love is expressed. Most people would identify that as their first love language if they knew it was an option.

Partnership: This is the willingness to partner with someone you love as they attempt something difficult or painful. There are many examples of this. Being willing to sacrifice money, time, and effort to see your partner get a degree or a better job. Going with them to a funeral. Standing by them as they confront a difficult person. All of these rise above and beyond Chapman’s limited categories of ‘acts of service’ or ‘quality time’.

Listening With Understanding: One of the most loving and effective things a partner can do is to listen in a conflict with the goal of understanding. Most of us in conflict get defensive or want to win. But when someone listens with the goal of understanding, this shows the partner there is a greater goal; to love and work through the issue. The Gottmann Method, a standard in partner therapy, claims this is the greatest of the expressions of love.

There are too many more love languages to mention. Food, giving space for your partner to have time alone, inability to be easily offended, telling the truth, living in integrity; these are all love languages in their own right and should not be diminished because they didn’t make Chapman’s five.

The Basic Premises are Simply Not True

Since the book has now been in existence for over 30 years, it is not surprising a number of studies have been done to determine if the book is accurate.

This study looked at the questionnaire that Chapman uses, the five languages themselves, and whether participants could adequately measure their own preferences from the list. Their study showed that one could not determine their love language consistently from this questionnaire. So, the bottom line is that Chapman’s questionnaire is not accurate by any metric.

You should be aware that Chapman is not a psychologist. Neither is his theory based on any scientific research at all. He never claims it is. He simply says that the book is based on his own observations as a marriage counselor with no degree in counseling. That’s it. He is very up-front about it. So it should not surprise anyone that his results cannot be reproduced by scientific research.

There are several other studies that debunk his hypothesis, but I’ll just mention one more. In 2013, Polk and Egbert published this study in which they proved that people do not have two primary love languages, that they do not respond better if someone shows love in those languages, and that it can’t be proven that learning about and utilizing love languages helps relationships.

That pretty much says it all.

‘Love Languages’ Concept is Manipulative

We manipulate others when we do something for the purpose of getting them to behave the way we want them to. This is the underlying premise of Chapman’s book. He is telling us that if we learn another person’s love language and use that love language with our partner, they will respond better to us. This is manipulative and many people have identified it that way.

I was in therapy with one person who made it quite clear how he felt about his partner doing this. He knew when his partner was trying to get him to agree with him when he bought him expensive gifts over a short period of time. His partner would always follow it up with a big “ask” for something he wanted him to do. It was blatant manipulation. He wasn’t buying gifts out of love or concern.

Now, not everyone does this. But the book lends itself to this kind of use. And though this is an obvious misuse of the book, Chapman’s only caution about it shows up in a subsequent edition, suggesting that he didn’t see this kind of misuse until long after people were trying to implement the book into their relationships.

(Note: It is impossible to find original copies of the book unless you already own one. The book has been revised many times due to outlandish claims in the original edition).

Many therapists have written about the co-dependent nature of the Five Love Languages. They note that many people who are already co-dependent can be easily manipulated via love-bombing using this format. Though I would hope Chapman would be mortified by narcissists and other abusers using the Love Language modality in this way, it is exactly what love-bombing does. Nowhere in any edition of his many derivative books on the Love Language subject does he warn about love-bombing.

Nowhere is Trauma/Abuse Accounted For

One classic symptom of those who have been abused as children is the inability to trust that they are safe with other people. Therefore, a traumatized/abused person will notice how someone is using love languages and will immediately distrust it. If the person who is trying to love notices that the response is distrust, this will create further tension from the non-traumatized partner.

The best way to love a traumatized person is to keep checking in with them, holding space with them, and ask them how they would like to be shown love at any given juncture of the relationship. This is much better than trying to read your trauma-affected partner and guess what their love language might be on any given day.

Sometimes, the best expression of love is for one partner to leave the other partner alone for awhile.

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Why I Will Never Be an Evangelical or Charismatic Again.

I had been pastor of this church in Northwest Montana for only six months. I took one Sunday off to go back to British Columbia for the weekend to pack up my house we owned there to prepare for moving. Through a friend, I had arranged for a professional singer/preacher to do his thing at the church in my absence. He had good credentials from people I trust.

A week after finishing my move to Montana, an older couple in the church asked if they could go to lunch with me. They seemed nice and my schedule wasn’t overwhelmed yet, so I agreed.

We made pleasant small talk and I started to get to know them. There was definitely something off about both of them. They told me about moving to Montana from Missouri to escape the thug elements of their town. I had no idea what they were talking about. I learned very quickly as they moved to the true reason for this lunch.

“Pastor Mike, I’m sure you didn’t know the guy who spoke a couple of weeks ago. I know you didn’t. There is no way you would have condoned him” the husband began. His wife, who had been smiling sweetly a moment before had a sour face. They were together on this one.

“What happened? I asked.

“You didn’t hear? It is an absolute scandal. I’m surprised the elders haven’t called a special meeting.”

“What on earth did he do?” I was worried he may have committed something heretical.

“You don’t know? Oh my lord. He was Black! A black man speaking in our church. I’ve been talking to everyone since it happened and there is a lot of talk going on.”

I was temporarily frozen in my chair. I wasn’t afraid at all. I was seething with intense anger and I was afraid I was going to do something I would regret. And, I was afraid I wouldn’t do something I would regret.

I stood up. My plate was only half finished, but I was done.

“Lunch is over. I want you to know I consider both of you horrible racists, and I will do everything in my power to see you removed from the membership of the church. Do not EVER set foot in our church again.”

They never did. People revealed to me later that this couple had talked to them and most were embarrassed by the conversations. Montana has very few People of Color. There is an endemic racism there like most states. But the average person hides it better than the couple who met me for lunch.

This was my first foray into this kind of racism. That is not to say that Canadians aren’t racist. We are. But you don’t see it this blatantly. It opened my eyes not just to a different country that I was now living in, but a different church I was now a part of. It is one of the things that I have noticed about the evangelical and charismatic churches in America. There is something going on that is weird. And I couldn’t put my finger on it then.

But I can now. And I am doing that here.

Many of you reading this allowed me to be your pastor. That was something I cherished. Therefore, you need to hear it from me before hearing it from anyone else. I may still be friends with some of you, but I do not identify with either the Evangelical or Charismatic movements any longer. And I haven’t for awhile. But this week’s horrible act at the Capitol convinced me I have to publicly announce where I stand.

I still believe the theological basics of both groups. But I can’t tolerate either movement any longer. I have taught in evangelical/charismatic churches for 36 years. I taught at over 200 conferences, seminars, schools, and training retreats. I have sat on boards of evangelical organizations, been at the head of movements, and participated in both healthy and very unhealthy meetings. I have not seen it all, but I have seen enough to know I am accurate in what I’m going to report here.

The American versions of Evangelical church and Charismatic church are not godly and not where I can go.

The American versions of Evangelical church and Charismatic church are not godly and not where I can go. Click To Tweet

And let’s dispense with the “Not All” fallacy at this point. Every time a legitimate criticism is leveled against any group, gender, party, religion, institution, etc., someone will always point out that not everyone is involved in that error. Though that is always true, it is also an attempt to divert from the point. You may read what I’m writing here and say “but not all Evangelicals do that”. Yes, but enough do all these things that I feel confident in lumping the entire movement in with these errors.

Since 81% of evangelicals promoted a maniacal man for President, and based it on the beliefs I outline below, I feel confident lumping in the entire movement together.

Notwithstanding that, here are the many reasons why I will no longer call myself part of Evangelicalism.

  1. Endemic Racism: Every level of American society is affected by the decision to make slaves a part of American culture since its beginning. Regardless of whether you accept Critical Race Theory, everyone has to admit that the vast majority of black individuals grew up in poverty and will live their entire lives in poverty. They will live in fear of the police, and will receive only token support in their efforts to change things. As I have observed, white evangelicals will be “nice” to people of color but will do nothing to change the culture so the disparity can end. Since slavery started in America, the church has openly and tacitly approved of it. It is not enough to say “but I have some black friends.” The church is historically guilty of even finding doctrinal reasons to promote slavery. And though the doctrines on slavery have formally changed, nothing substantial is being done by evangelicals to enact reparations.
  2. Christian Nationalism: The evangelical church (I am including charismatics in this as I don’t want to have to keep typing both), is intricately tied to the notion that God chose America to be the greatest nation in the world, a so called “City on a Hill”. Read any book by Eric Metaxas or others, and you can see this outlined. Most evangelical leaders with few exception, teach their church that country, the flag, patriotism etc. are godly attributes. God supposedly loves America and has chosen her to fulfill a manifest destiny as part of his plan. This is why God approves of our military, our wars, our way of life, our political system, our leaders. They will say that God chooses our leaders.

    Everything other nations do is criticized. And yet when America does the same thing, it is excused. Our soldiers executed an entire village of My Lai in Vietnam and christian leaders did all they could to excuse the behavior and justify it. If planes fly into the World Trade Center it is terrorism. If drones destroy thousands of lives in the mountains of Afghanistan in order to kill 20 terrorists, it is justified.

    The church will listen to whomever promises to “Make America Great Again.” Even though we are told explicitely in the bible to pledge our allegiance to no one but God, the church has made patriotism its great unspoken doctrine. Our nation is not evil; believing we are called by God above other nations is.

    I just can’t do it any more. Trump won you over by making grandiose promises of American greatness. You think he accomplished that when he removed us from treaties with other countries, when he blocked non-whites from coming into the country, when he said we would not participate in climate change preparation.
  3. Christians Support of Guns and Violence: If you have ever heard me speak, it should be clear that I am a Pacifist. I am not passive–these words do not mean the same thing. I do not believe any person should be killed by another person. Ever. I don’t think children should be killed if they are viable in birth. I don’t think criminals should be killed. I do not think we should go to war and kill. I especially don’t think you should kill another person because you’re afraid of them.

    You don’t have to agree with that. But in my 30 years in America, I note your obsession with guns. You have to have them in your nightstand for “protection”…even though it has been shown that you are more likely to be killed with your own gun that to kill an intruder. And I find this obsession with guns goes along with this false belief that Christians have to be tough and macho.

    Donald Trump knew this. At his rallies, he attacks those who are weak, and makes heroes out of those who are violent and merciless. He criticized the handicapped as weak, he vilified prisoner-of-war John McCain as the greatest loser because he got captured. On the other side, he paraded an openly racist Sheriff of one small town (Joe Arpaio) for all to see and hear because he practiced racial profiling. When the sheriff was arrested for contempt of court, Donald Trump pardoned him.

    Evangelicals and charismatics want to be warriors, soldiers for Jesus. You can leave me out of it.
  4. Assuming to Be a Christian Means You are Anti-Choice: Billy Graham was pro-choice for most of his career. So were many leaders within evangelicalism, including W. A. Criswell, Pastor Emeritus of First Baptist of Dallas. That is, until 1980. Then, evangelical leaders made a deal with the Repubican Party. They would make “pro-life” the evangelical thing and Republicans would support their anti-choice agenda.

    They did this despite the fact that the Bible says virtually nothing about abortion, and nothing definitive about when life begins. I am pro-life…I don’t broach taking any life…but I also believe that we have never defined that life begins at conception, either medically or theologically. Christians adopted this stance to get political control, and that is all it is for. Before the 1970s, very few people in churches even knew what it meant to be Pro-life.

    You don’t think these mega-pastors care about little babies do you? They don’t even allow them in the sanctuary when they’re preaching.

    An evangelical church that purports to be against abortion should be very much in favor of birth control. And caring for poor women who are the predominant ones who have abortions for financial reasons. And setting up better systems for childcare for working single mothers. Churches put almost NO effort into these things and teach actively against birth control for singles.

    Trump knew that promising to support wee babies in the womb would guarantee the vote. Other than putting conservatives on the Supreme Court (which will likely do nothing to make abortions illegal), he did NOTHING for the unborn or the families of the poor. But that wasn’t the point for him or evangelicals. It was about controlling the voting bloc. If conservatives and conservative christians were all that effective at curbing abortion, why is it that abortion rates have fallen much more in Democratic Presidencies than Republican? Because Democrats teach birth control and care for the medical needs of the poor.
  5. Passive and Active Contempt for Women, LGBTQ, Immigrants, and Victims of Sexual Assault: This was the clincher for me. And it still shocks me. I spent the past 30 years counseling victims of sexual abuse in churches and in church organizations. I have met with over 200 of them. In all but two cases, the churches either tried to cover up the abuse, or claim it didn’t happen, or force the victims to apply grace and forgiveness to the crime.

    And this applies even more to well-known evangelicals. Men like Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, Bill Gothard, and Andy Savage were all protected and defended by their churches after assaulting victims. Pastors such as Paige Patterson, C J Mahaney, and Matt Chandler covered up abuse they knew about.

    And then, after all that–which goes back decades and decades in evangelicalism–they have the audacity to say that women cannot be preachers and leaders in the church because they’re too weak. They have the temerity to claim that the LGBTQ individuals in the church are disqualified just for who they are, and that immigrants belong on the mission field and we need to build a wall to keep them out. Over 80% of evangelicals supported the building of the wall. At the same time, they send missions teams to Mexico in the greatest show of ironic hypocrisy I’ve ever witnessed.

    Trump knew all of that as well and he appealed to white male egos. The pastors as a large bloc touted him as God’s man for this hour. Hundreds of so-called charismatic prophets still claim God showed them he will be in the White House for a second term. And even though they have been shown to be wrong, most of them will not change their minds or repent.

    More than anything, I cannot stand all the duplicity of claiming that white males are to lead the church when most of the egregious behavior has been by white males.

    Considering all of this, and seeing what it culminated with at the Capitol last week, I see no reason whatsoever to align myself with the culture or community of evangelicals or charismatics.

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Understanding Internal Family Systems – Part 1

My granddaughter looked thoughtful. She took more time than I thought a 5-year-old would take to answer the question “What’s your favorite movie?” I shouldn’t have been surprised. This girl thinks things through.

“I’m ready Papa. I know my favorite.”

I waited. “So, which one is it?”

“I just love “Inside Out”. Don’t you? It is so beautiful and I like that the girl has all the same parts inside her that I do. Can we watch it now?”

And so we watched it. “Inside Out” tells the story of a young teen girl. It charts her progress since the moment she was born. The movie shows her brain and how various parts of her psyche (Anger, Fear, Disgust, Joy, and Sadness etc.) develop and create relationships even with each other.

One reason I love the movie is that it serves as a great starting place for discussions on a therapy method I love called Internal Family Systems.

Internal Family Systems is part of a larger branch of psychology called Complex Systems Psychology. The basic idea is that our inner psyche is a complex amalgam of Parts, Structures, and Systems all designed to move us toward our full identity.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) focuses on how the Parts of a person’s psyche work together, much like the various characters in “Inside Out” relate to each other. In this article, I want to introduce you to those Parts and explain how each of them works. In subsequent articles we will address more of the problems which IFS seeks to help with.

The very basic idea of IFS is the concept that most people initially struggle with: That our sense of personal identity is not just one part, but is a multiplicity of various sub-personalities or Parts. When I tell people that, they assume I am saying that these Parts are all fully formed personalities with Ego Power equal to all the other Parts. But this is not true. Let me illustrate.

Have you ever been thinking of doing something and then another part of your thinking totally disagrees with that? And then, in the midst of those competing thoughts, a third thought–more an emotion–reacts to the ideas of the second thought. If we were just one Part, we would always think in a straight line. But our sub-conscious contains many opinions and reactions to the events and ideas of our lives. These opinions and reactions are some of what we in IFS call Parts.

To make it simple as possible, let me outline the four basic Parts that make up our psyche:

The Core Self: This is the decision-making part of our mind. It is the part of us that makes the final designation on what our true identity is. This is the only Part of us that really knows the entire breadth of our life to that point. This is where all the wisdom, knowledge, and experience is centered.

Many sacred writings, including the Bible, Koran, and Baghavad Gita call this Part our Heart. It truly is the heart of who we are and will be. But it is not the only Part.

Exiles: IFS is one of the therapies which believes in Ego States. An Ego State is a snapshot of who we are at any given age. We have a 6-year-old Ego State, another one at 7 and maybe another one a few months later. We are constantly evaluating who we are as we grow up. At significant moments of existential examination, we conclude “This is who I am”.

If those moments coincide with pain, loss, abuse, or injustice–as they often do–we develop a very reactive Ego State that IFS calls an Exile. These Parts are called Exiles because they represent events and emotions we never want to relive in any way. In fact, the entire Internal Family System from those moments forward exists to keep the Exiles quiet.

Let me give an example. A five year old boy witnesses his parents fighting more and more. Each day, he comes home from school wondering what horrible emotions he will feel because of their fights. Already, he is feeling chaotic emotions. He fears the disintegration of his home. He is angry at both of them for not loving each other. One day, he returns home from school and he witnesses the biggest fight of all.

At one point, Mom demands that Dad leaves the home. Dad screams at her and hits her. Then, he grabs his coat and runs out the door. The boy is left with an explosive mixture of emotions and ideas that are overwhelming. He will spend the next two years pondering what all of this means.

But at that moment, he decides one thing. It must be his fault! His 5-year-old brain takes all the evidence and reactions and this is what he comes up with. It is not accurate at all, but this is what he concludes. He doesn’t tell anyone of course. He is too ashamed to do so. But he still believes it. And that’s when this little boy develops a Part which represents the third group of Parts: The Managers.

The Managers: Managers are Parts whose job it is to keep the Exiles from reacting to any current events. To see how this works, let’s return to the little boy again.

He doesn’t like feeling that this is all his fault. So he develops a Part of his psyche–a Manager–who will remind him when he is about to make a huge mistake that will cause other people to get angry and leave. We might call this Manager a “Perfectionist” or maybe even “Shame” or “Obsessive-Compulsive”. Any of these Managers might accomplish the task of keeping that Exile from getting emotionally reactive.

Here is how this works out in adult life. This 5-year-old has grown up and is now married with kids. One of his sons is doing poorly at school. His wife simply suggests the two of them spend more time helping their son with his homework each night, perhaps taking turns.

At that moment, the 5-year-old Exile inside of him starts to react. She is saying that this is his fault, and he is not doing his job as a dad and the boy will be a failure in life because of it. He feels all of this in just a fraction of a second.

Immediately, a “Perfectionist” Manager jumps in to save the day. This Manager takes over and causes him to become obsessive about planning out the homework program. He buys a new desk for his son. He creates a very elaborate chart for homework which includes rewards and punishments. He buys four books for his Kindle on how to manage homework with elementary students.

And now, the Exile quiets down. The Manager has done his job. Unfortunately, the Core Self was not really involved in any part of this process.

Some IFS therapists call the Managers by a different name. They call them Protectors. This is mostly an accurate term. Most of our internal Managers are trying to help protect us from the real and perceived threats in our world. I prefer Managers because Protectors is only one role of these Parts. There are many others.

There are indeed Protector Parts

There are also Shame and Guilt Parts

There are Anxiety Parts. (Some people have lots of them).

Most people have Anger Parts

These are the more negative Managers. But we also have more positive Managers. We have parts that deal with our relationship needs (Sex, romance, communication skills). We have Parts that deal with other needs (achievements, freedom, fun).

There can be Healing Parts, Numbing Parts, Hero Parts, and Spiritual Parts

But for all their well-designed characteristics, the Managers are sometimes not enough. Let me give an example.

Let’s stay with the man whose parents split up when he was five. Let’s talk about another time in his marriage. Let’s say that his wife, when she gets angry, calls him a name that his mother used to call his father. The Exile of that age is apoplectic and out of control. The Managers that normally can keep this Exile out of sight can’t do the job any longer. This Exile is setting fire to the emotional center of the man’s mind. He can’t sleep at night. He can’t concentrate at work. He doesn’t know what he will do.

After work one day, his supervisor asks what is happening with him. His work performance is suffering. The two of them decide to go to the bar after work. After three beers, for the first time in weeks, he no longer hears the crying of the Exile inside. He is no longer in a constant turmoil. He likes the difference.

From that point on, every time this Exile gets out of hand, he drinks enough so he won’t have to hear that Exile any longer. Alcohol then becomes the next type of Part in the psyche.

The Firefighters: Firefighters are Parts we develop whose job is to calm down the entire Internal Family System when the Managers can’t do the job. Firefighters have one job: Distract the entire system so thoroughly that the Core Self cannot hear the Exile.

It is amazing how ingenious the brain is at creating these Firefighters. The distraction can be as simple as video games, eating more carbs, watching television or working out hard at the gym. It can be more advanced with actions like drinking too much, smoking too much weed, working too hard into the night, watching porn constantly, or bingeing on carbs.

Firefighters can be deadly. They may resort to harmful behaviors like self-harm, eating disorders, heavy drug use, unsafe and adrenaline-producing behaviors, complete dissociative shutdowns, and extreme violence toward others. Remember, the job of the Firefighter Part is to distract the Core Self when the pain of the Exile cannot be ignored any other way.

I think you can see if a person has Exiles who were abused sexually, physically, or emotionally that Firefighters can be quite common. And they are. Often, people come to the IFS therapist because they have a Firefighter problem. All that tells us is there are Exiles that need some loving.

In summary, here are the four main groups of Parts with each person:

Core Self

Exiles

Managers

Firefighters.

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A Century of Trauma, Part 2: How Each War Affected America’s Trauma

Henry Lang came to Downton Abbey to take over as the Valet to the Lord Grantham when the Lord’s previous valet had to leave suddenly. This fictional account of a household of the English aristocracy is originally set during the early days of World War 1. The writers of Downton Abbey researched how the war affected different individuals in England. Lang’s short time at the Abbey is one of the most sublime.

Lang had to leave the war because of a condition we now call PTSD. At the time, it had various names: Shell shock, soldier’s heart, war neurosis, and Combat Fatigue. The general population did not treat these soldiers well. They were often considered cowards and treated like lesser humans.

Lang came to the Abbey and at first everyone was impressed by his skill set as a valet. But quickly he showed signs of emotional deterioration. What made it difficult for Lang is the Abbey was being used to convalesce injured officers. Eventually Lang collapsed emotionally after seeing too many wounds and groaning soliders, and he left the Abbey in shame. Nothing more is said of him for the entire series.

This poignant portrayal of a character is accurately written. It is estimated as many as 100,000 British soldiers had this condition. If one adds the American, Canadian, French, Belgian, and soldiers of other allied nations, the number of soldiers suffering PTSD may have reached 1.5 million.

It is estimated as many as 100,000 British soldiers had this condition. If one adds the American, Canadian, French, Belgian, and soldiers of other allied nations, the number of soldiers suffering PTSD may have reached 1.5 million. Click To Tweet

According to David J. Morris writing in The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Over half a million men were permanently evacuated from the fighting for psychiatric reasons, enough to man fifty combat divisions.” And though many of them were sent to mental institutions, they were not treated with any compassion.

David J. Morris

Despite its prevalence, shell-shock was often attributed to moral failings and weaknesses, with some soldiers even being accused of cowardice.

Continue reading “A Century of Trauma, Part 2: How Each War Affected America’s Trauma”

“No One Will Play”

He lowered his eyes. This boy had endured a vicious spanking and was at a loss for any words to say to me. I kept asking him what he wanted me to know and see.

“No one will play” he said. “My brother will play, but he is so small. I have to do all the playing.”

This wasn’t the answer I expected. I was the therapist, the helper.

The boy was me at 4 years old.

In the therapy I practice–Internal Family Systems, or IFS–we refer to wounded and traumatized younger versions of ourselves as Exiles. We call them that because we have created an internal system for ignoring their pain and shutting it off from our conscious minds.

When I just turned four, my mother was placed in a mental institution. My brother was 2 1/2 and our father decided he couldn’t care for us. We were placed in a group foster care home for six months. After that, we went to a few other homes for several weeks at a time. Finally, my dad’s older brother took us in. We stayed with him for several months. At the end of that time, my mother was released from hospital and we were reunited with our parents.

I was reprocessing one of the memories from my days with my uncle and aunt. He was a police officer and she worked as a legal secretary. During the day, we were cared for by a babysitter. My uncle and aunt never played with us. They had no children and didn’t want any. They felt badly for us and took us in. As an adult, I am thankful they rescued us from some bad foster care homes.

But the lack of play was constant. It ate away at my 4 year old self. I wanted to have some joy in my life. In my desperation for something to do during the day, I discovered the basement of the house my uncle and aunt had rented. In that basement, there were many pieces of furniture covered with white sheets. This was the storage area for the owners of the house.

Every day, in search for meaning and needing to recreate, we went down there and explored. One day, I found a pan of crankcase oil. I had no idea what it was, but it felt deliciously squishy in my hands. I played with it for awhile and invited my brother to join me.

That’s when I noticed the pristinely white sheets covering the furniture. To my four-year old self, they looked like canvases in need of some art drawn on them.

I started to finger paint on the sheets with the crankcase oil. The oil was perfect. The sheets were perfect. We drew grandiose pictures . Here was the fun we sought for.

When my aunt and uncle came home, they had no idea how artistic my brother and I had been. So 4 year old Michael showed them. He wanted them to know that he and his brother could find something to play with on their own. He was quite enamored of the design on the sheet covering the sofa.

His uncle erupted with fury. This 6’4″ police officer blew his stack. He beat the four year old and left him sobbing in the bedroom for hours. Not once did either of them come and check on how Michael was doing. Years later, they admitted to me they were considering sending me and my brother back into foster care.

When I began to unburden Michael, I started by letting him know I witnessed what he had gone through. I affirmed his absolute right to play and to find meaning in such things. I told him I understood how hard that year had been and how absolutely lonely he felt. I assured him that I would never leave him and I would play with him any time he wanted.

He cried for awhile and then stopped. He seemed to have some peace settling on him.

So I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to do for him. He looked up. “Can you tell aunt and uncle that I’m a good boy and they need to play with me from now on?”

I responded by marching him upstairs with me. I sat my aunt and uncle down and explained what Michael had gone through. They were horrified. I also told them that from now on, they would play with Michael and his brother and not leave them so unloved and unwanted. They reluctantly agreed to this.

In IFS, the current version of who we are can create new realities for our exiles. After all, the only place they still exist is in our midbrain. The re-creation we did next is called a Do-Over.

I then asked Michael how he was feeling. He still looked a little despondent. He told me that he didn’t think he was worth playing with. So I assured him this idea was preposterous and we needed to destroy that idea. We created a balloon, and we put the words “I am not worth playing with” on it. Then, we let the balloon go and a huge wind came and took it away.

That second, I felt a loosening inside of me. I realized that for years I had carried an idea that I was not worth having fun with. People didn’t mind doing serious things with me. But they refused to play with me. That idea now felt gone.

Young Michael is now playing inside of me. He feels free.

I take delight in playing with him and he with me. It has transformed me into a much more playful person. And, other people seem to notice as well and are much more expressively playful around me.

The Limited Value of Regret

This past weekend, I listened in and participated on a podcast hosted by a close friend of mine and featuring another friend. The subject related to religious abuse and how leaders of Church ministries sometimes use recognized manipulation techniques to coerce people into “accepting Jesus”.

Then someone mentioned Christian summer camps and I felt hot in the face. I was a guy who manipulated teens for 11 years as a teen camp director!

At the time, I was a pastor in Montana, but I also helped to work with a summer camp. I realize now that my great ideas about how to get the gospel truth across to teens used techniques that manipulated them. I would subject them to late nights, constant energy-draining adventure games, emotional music, and testimonials designed to appeal to their emotional center. We started the camps on a Monday and the climax of the week was Thursday night.

By that last evening, the music, the tiredness, the stories, and the appeal wore down the will of the campers. Often on those Thursday night climactic meetings, more than 50% of the kids would be crying and “committing their lives to Jesus”. I didn’t analyze what I was doing because it all felt justified if we could help them escape hell.

Which is ironic, since I have never believed in hell.

But I do remember one girl. She had responded to the Thursday night altar calls for three straight years. The fourth year, her last year of high school, she told me that she wasn’t coming to camp. When I asked if she had a job that summer, she hesitated.

“Pastor Mike, it isn’t that. I really don’t like what that camp does to me. I feel like my mind isn’t working by the end of the week, and I make commitments I normally wouldn’t make. I don’t want to let you do that to me again.”

That was my last year directing Teen camp. I knew after hearing her disclose her experiences that I was in the wrong. Hearing it again on the podcast drove home the point to me.

Lately, I have been facing up to many regrets. Six years ago, my 37 year career as a pastor ended. Since then, I have devoted myself to providing full-time trauma therapy for clients. And, even though I have had many doubts about faith and doctrine through the years, I still kept my denominational credentials active. Even after I left pastoring they licensed me as an area therapist if I gave discounted therapy to pastors and missionaries.

Last month, they ended that relationship with me. Since that time, I have been doing a review of my life. During these reviews, I occasionally regret the decision to ever be part of the Church or to be any type of religious leader. But, I find the part of me that wants to regret who I’ve been has a very narrow-minded viewpoint.

I believe Regret comes from a Part of us that seeks to protect and defend our lives. This part feels if we analyze our mistaken decisions, we will eventually emerge from that analysis wiser and more capable.

And that would probably work too—if we were nine years of age. But when adults live in regret, especially as they get closer to or past retirement age, the Regret part captivates their thinking and brings despair. The older a person is when the regrets start, the more this part blends with the core of who one is and hinders forward movement.

Therefore, regret is something we do with ourselves. As anthropologist, Krystal D’Costa says:

Regret is a personal assessment of perceived external judgment. It cannot be assigned, like blame. Regret is something we take upon ourselves. And the human tendency is to assume the worst: “People routinely overestimate the emotional impact of negative events”.

“Anthropology in Practice” 2011

We think the purpose of regret is to cause us to hone our skills at better decision-making. But it doesn’t work that way. As philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard remarked:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both!

“Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” by Soren Kierkegaard

What Kierkegaard is saying is that it is possible we would have found regret in any path taken. There is no guarantee that different decisions would have made our lives better.

There is no real point to regret as adults. We are no longer the person who made those decisions earlier in our lives. Since we are different now, we would naturally not make the same choices most of the time. We don’t need regret to school us on any of that.

In my case, much of my decision-making as a teen and 20-something was firmly rooted in Complex PTSD. Living out of that trauma, I decided to become a pastor. I will explore the reasons in a moment; but I am now choosing to look at the young man who decided to become a pastor and choosing to have compassion on him. He was working through substantial C-PTSD and was doing the best he could do.

Since I left church work several years ago, I have spent too many wasted hours in regret. It has only served to make me bitter and confused.

So I’m taking a different approach now. I choose not to regret the years I spent as a pastor. Instead, I am journaling the many ways I made good decisions in that process, or at least had good intentions behind my decisions.

As a survivor of childhood neglect, bad parental decisions, and early complex PTSD from foster homes, I developed a manic need for community. If someone showed love or even significant affection toward me, I became attached to them. Granted, it was a very insecure attachment, but it gave me an emotional landing spot. When a church youth group accepted me at age 14, I totally committed to them. God, theology, the Bible, and church structure and life were part of that package, and I embraced it all.

I wanted to be loved. I also had a talent for convincing others to join with the Jesus movement–called Evangelism– and I was encouraged to go to Bible College to do this full-time.

At Bible College, I found a more intense love from people. We were all heading into some kind of ministry, and they accepted me and lifted me up as a leader among them. Since I needed this acceptance and admiration so much, I pushed aside many of my doubts about the Bible and about Christianity as an institution. And I had many of those.

But love was a bigger need.

As Dr. William Glasser says in his book “Choice Theory”, other than safety/security, the need for love and belonging is paramount in our minds. We will set aside our other needs in order to secure love. So, as I look back on the 21 year old who decided to become a bible translator and then a pastor, I have compassion and love for him. He was securing his need for belonging as best as he could. He didn’t do anything wrong.

I am so proud of that young pastor who fought through his doubts about the inerrancy of Scripture and chose to translate every text he preached over those 37 years from the original Greek and Hebrew. I remember he sought diligently to keep the meaning to the original readers intact. And when he stopped believing the Old Testament had any relevance to modern Christians, he still used it to shed light on the cultural milieu of the Ancient Near East. He was a good teacher and steadfastly kept his integrity.

I know why he lived in poverty for most of his years as a pastor. I know why he opted out of Social Security even though it now means I will not receive it as I retire. I know why he lived in small, remote towns when he could have preached in large metropolitan pulpits. He wanted to be authentic and he wanted to impress God with his self-sacrifice. I know why he gave up to 20% of his money to church and missions work every month, even though it meant they had trouble buying food. He did it so he could sleep at night. He believed God required this of him before he could ask anyone else to sacrifice.

Bless his near-sighted soul. I have no regrets in a single penny he spent. He spent it as wisely as he knew how at the time.

I have compassion on him for working one 10-year stretch of 60+ hour work weeks. He was getting a counseling degree, raising four children, pastoring a growing church, and counseling up to 20 people a week. I have compassion on him for never completing his three year Masters degree and for not finishing the required hours for licensure. I have compassion on him for giving up vacation time to do therapy with others, and for spending his own money to get certifications for trauma therapy. In all of this, he felt this was the way he could make his maximum impact for God in this world.

I am proud that he worked with over 200 victims of sexual assault in churches. I am proud that he worked with over 100 of those churches to seek compensation, therapy, and apologies. Even though only two churches truly helped the victims to the degree that most advocates consider appropriate, he kept working. He believed that every victim needs an advocate. He did this even though it eventually got him kicked out of one district and eventually led to the denomination removing him for good.

The Me of today has given the Regret Part a new assignment. This Regret part is now going to help me appreciate and thank every previous iteration of who I used to be and to find a way to celebrate the many years he gave to his work.

Building a New Christian Sexual Ethic

[Update: So many people read the first few paragraphs and assume I am building a case for polyamory. I am not. This is because people aren’t reading to see my key point which is further on. If you’re going to read this article to discover my proposal for a new sexual ethical system for Christians, please read all of it before reacting].


“What does the Bible say about polygamy, polyamory, or Open Marriage?” The man who asked me this had been a missionary for 25 years and was not considering a change in his marital status. He was not contemplating cheating on his wife or taking another bride. He was simply curious.

He was curious because during the previous year, three separate people had asked him these kind of questions. All who asked these questions were committed Christians with a good grasp of the Bible and the church’s teachings on sexuality.

"What does the Bible say about polygamy, polyamory, or Open Marriage?" Click To Tweet

“Mike, the Bible doesn’t make it clear where it falls on any of those issues. Though we make excuses for the Bible, there are examples in the Sacred Writings of people who lived with multiple wives, who had sanctioned girlfriends, and who lived this way openly. And from what we can see in the Bible, God never condemns this practice.”

I couldn’t argue with him. The only restriction in the Bible regarding any form of Open Marriage is the 1 Timothy 3 admonition that an Overseer should not be a polygamist. It never expands on this concept by forbidding others to have multiple wives. In short, the biblical ethic regarding Open Marriage was non-existent.


Everyone has ethics; but not everyone has an ethical system. An “ethic” is a belief in how one should act. You can have an ethic that allows you to tell the truth one day and then not tell the truth the next day. But because this is not a consistent ethic, we would say it is not an “ethical system”. I define an ethical system as a series of beliefs regarding a particular behavior that are consistent with themselves. Therefore, if you have an ethical system about telling the truth, that system should apply to all situations. Let me give an example of the difference between an ethic and and Ethical System.

I might believe that it is wrong to kill. That is an ethic. I would not (and do not) kill anyone. But how widely do I apply that ethic? I might believe it is wrong to kill others unless they are trying to kill me. I might also believe it is wrong to kill others even if they are trying to kill me. In addition, I might define killing mosquitoes as killing, killing cows as killing, killing fetuses as killing, killing prisoners on death row as killing. I might believe killing all those beings is considered killing. That is an ethical system.

However, if for some reason I feel that killing enemy combatants on the battlefield is not killing, but killing someone invading my home is killing, then my ethical system is more complex, and perhaps inconsistent.

That is the problem with most ethical systems. Most systems of behavior are internally inconsistent, at least from a logical/philosophical viewpoint. Why is it wrong to kill some people but not others? Why is it wrong to deceive some people, but not other people? Why is it wrong to have sex one day, and then it is not wrong a day later (in the case of someone who may be single and then gets married)? Most people will seek to justify the complexity and variations of their ethical systems by explaining the exceptions.

Why is it wrong to have sex one day, and then it is not wrong a day later (in the case of someone who may be single and then gets married)? Click To Tweet

We will never be free of doing this. Not even those who believe in a so-called “Biblical Sexual Ethic” can get away with it. Let me show how this happens.

In the first paragraph, I noted the question about polyamory. The idea that all sex should be between one husband (male) and one wife (female) is the standard teaching of much of the Church for much of the Church’s existence. But is it a consistent ethical system?

Not really. There are many examples of prominent men in the Bible who married more than one woman. Jacob, Esau, David, Solomon all lived this way. In addition, several Bible characters had sex with sanctioned sex slaves–Jacob, Abraham, David, Solomon, Absalom, Judah and others. God does not condemn any of these men for polyamory. In many cases, God even approves of it. When David raped Bathsheba and had her husband killed, God did send the prophet Nathan to confront David. And in that confrontation, this is what Nathan says:

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.

2 Samuel 12:7-8

According to these verses, Nathan is speaking for God and claiming that God gave King Saul’s WIVES to David after Saul died! And God says that he would have given him more women if he wanted. If we accept this as God’s inerrant word, then God not only passively accepts polyamory, but actively endorses it and supports it.

The biblical sexual ethic gets more complicated than that. The concept of virginity (the absence of sexual intercourse in a person’s experience) is touted as a virtue in the Bible. But it only applies to women! Nowhere are men told they must also be virgins. Even the Hebrew word for “virgin” is a word that only refers to females. There is no Hebrew word for a male virgin. There is no place in the Old Testament where men were even expected or ordered to be virgins.

The concept of virginity (the absence of sexual intercourse in a person's experience) is touted as a virtue in the Bible. But it only applies to women! Click To Tweet

What can we say about all of this? Simply that the Bible does not present a consistent or relevant ethical system regarding sexuality. There are many more examples of this to give, but I want to move on to the solution, not just note the problem.

I don’t believe the Bible is helpful or realistic for building a modern ethical system for sexuality. There are many reasons for this, but they can be distilled down to these:

Patriarchy: Everyone who wrote Sacred Scripture believed in patriarchy. They believed that men had privileges and rights which women did not have. This affected everything they wrote, but especially their viewpoints on sexual relations. One classic example: In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John, chapter 8) only the woman is brought before Jesus and not the man. And no one, not even Jesus, openly notes this. It takes modern commentators to sort this one through.

Ancient Near East Focus of Sexuality: Virginity did not focus on sex; it focused on inheritance. A man wanted to know that his wife had not had sex with another man to ensure his offspring were truly his children. No claim could be made by another man on his children. Children and women were considered possessions of a man, even by the writers of the Bible. Even the teachings on “immorality” in the Bible are really focused on discouraging men from visiting prostitutes.

Misogyny: Women were hated in the days the Bible was written. A Jewish man prayed this prayer most mornings: “Thank you God that I am not born a gentile, a dog, or a woman”. How can an ethical system of mutuality with regards to sexuality ever come from that backdrop?

Homophobia: The writers of Scripture not only had a very low opinion of women, they hated anyone in the LGBTQ community–not that there was an established community due to fear. So, any ethic regarding those who are not cis-hetero men is going to be demeaning and incomplete if we rely on the Bible.

So how do we build an ethical system?

Christians have seen the problem with applying the Bible to many of our ethical systems: Money, power, marriage, reproduction, government, criminal justice, human interactions, etc. There have been many proposals through the centuries on how to build an ethical system which keeps some of the good teachings of the Bible but does not lean too heavily on them.

One of the most profound attempts at this was made by John Wesley. He spent years seeking to apply biblical truths to modern-day ethical problems. His view on Holiness required that our faith be lived out ethically and consistently. But he found that many in his day had widely differing views on what the Bible said on just about any topic. So, while keeping the Bible principles central, he added three more sources of revelation in building an ethical system:

  • Tradition
  • Experience
  • Logic

By tradition, he meant the traditions of the faith community one finds themselves in. By experience, he meant the experiences a Christian has which line up with the Bible. By logic, he is referring to the mind which has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to grasp deeper truths.

Thus, even with these four sources of input to build an ethic, Wesley still saw all of them revolving around the Bible and biblical truths.

I contend that isn’t going to work with sexual ethics. You can certainly hold to it if you like, but the Church’s history with strange teachings on sexuality and moral purity lead me in a slightly different direction.

I still think we can use four sources of input to build an ethical system, including the Bible. But here is how I fashion it:

  • The Bible: We can use the Bible as a source for ethics on sexuality if we strip away patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, and virginity.
  • Tradition: In the sense that we rely on a trusted community of people whose practices of sexuality are consistent and respectful, we can use certain traditions we trust.
  • Experience: By this, I mean the collected experience of all humans with regards to sexuality. In our day, we are much more refined as a society on what should and should not be allowed in sexual relationships. The #metoo movement did not start the discussion on sexual assault, consent, and misogyny. It simply sought to apply emerging community standards world-wide…to everyone
  • Logic/Reason: By this, I mean that ethical standards need to make sense to a faith community and be reasonable to apply. If the faith community one is a part of does not apply logic or reason to sexual ethics, one might have to find a different faith community.

It should be obvious that this opens the door to many different ethical systems regarding sexuality. But if you think about it, that’s where we currently are. This is even true within the church of Jesus Christ. There are elements of acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and other groups which do not accept LGBTQ as valid. Some faith groups allow for premarital sexual expression and some do not.

But there is widespread acceptance of the following:

  • Consent must be applied to all sexual relationships
  • Honesty and integrity are vital to healthy sexuality
  • The practice of safe sex is paramount for everyone
  • Sexuality with minors is always wrong.

Most of these conclusions do not come directly from the Bible, but rather from experience, logic, and the dialogue of interested communities.

To which I apply my central idea: The Bible itself is only marginally helpful in creating a complete ethical system for sexuality. We should stop trying to make it the cornerpiece of such a system.

To which I apply my central idea: The Bible itself is only marginally helpful in creating a complete ethical system for sexuality. We should stop trying to make it the cornerpiece of such a system. Click To Tweet

Deconstruction and Our New Core Self

I taught a course to teens on how to write Adventure Novels. In that style, there are several foundational rules. One of these is the concept that the adventure itself must alter the nature and focus of the main character.

As an example, let’s look at the story “The Lord of the Rings” and the main character, Frodo Baggins. Though it is certainly not the first significant adventure novel—I think Homer’s “Odyssey” qualifies better—it is the standard by which all modern adventure stories are modeled.

At the outset, Frodo is a dedicated follower of his uncle Bilbo. And though Frodo may be a leader among his friends, he is not a community leader. He is a quiet hobbit, a gentle soul, with a reflective though anxious personality. He loves home and hearth, the food and drink of his youth, his close intimate circle of friends. In short, he feels safe with familiarity.

And as the quintessential adventure novelist, Tolkien shakes Frodo’s world seismically. He sends Frodo on a quest far from home. At each juncture in the story, he is removed further from his friends. At one point, even his best friend Sam is distanced from him in many ways. His questing task requires that he give all of himself and to do it alone. By the end, he has nothing left to give out. He has given all of his old self and much more to the quest of destroying the Ring.

From the moment the quest ends and he starts to make his way back home, he comes to grip with his new Core Self. This Self has been emerging all along, he just never noticed it much. From the moment he agreed to carry the ring to Rivendell, he set his foot on a Deconstruction journey just as vast and far-reaching as the journey to destroy the power of the Ring.

His journey was the retiring of his old Core Self and the discovery of his new Core Self. The old Self became a memory and though it still influenced him for the rest of his life, it was not the decision-making part.

In short, like Frodo, we build our new Core Self by deconstructing our old Core Self and allowing a new Self to emerge.

The term “deconstruction” ironically has gone through a massive change in meaning over the past 80 years. In its original sense, coined by Jacques Derrida, it was a process of examining philosophical writings to determine the many various meanings in the original text.

Years later, writers like Barbara Johnson and Hillis Miller began to use the term to mean significant changes in areas like social sciences, philosophy, law, psychology, architecture, anthropology, theology, feminism, and political theory.

Now, the term applies loosely to the process of abandoning traditional thinking in order to explore the implications of new ideas and behaviors.

I want to apply this concept of Deconstruction to the area of psychotherapy I specialize in: Internal Family Systems. In IFS, we teach that the most critical part of our being is the Core Self. This is what we call the executive function of the neocortex or frontal lobes. This is the part of our mind that makes the final decisions and sees the big picture of who we are.

In a healthy human being, the Core Self regularly evaluates our life and determines what is true NOW for us:

What do we believe now?

Who is most important to us now?

What do we want to accomplish now and from now on?

Where do we want to live now?

To understand this, let’s look at a unique ability of the snake. The snake goes through a process called ‘ecdysis’ where they shed their skin whole. They do this for two reasons. First, the skin does not grow like the rest of the snake body grows. Snakes continue to grow all through their lives. But the skin does not. In order to keep growing, the snake must shed the last layer. They do this a couple of times a year and during reproduction seasons.

But the second reason for ecdysis may be more important. The old skin collects parasites and bacteria that could kill the snake. By shedding the skin, these unwanted travelers are sloughed off.

This is also what the human mind can do, though not as often as the snake. Our Core Self is the center of our being. As I said, it decides who we are at any given time. In IFS, we teach there are other Parts to our mind also. There are Manager Parts that keep us from feeling old painful memories, as well as keep us focused on ways to keep us safe and whole. But these Manager Parts do not want us to change. They fight change. They fear the future and are wary of the past. They want a predictable life that can be managed.

Deconstruction of anything is difficult for the Mind’s Managers. They fear this kind of whole-mind change more than anything. They fight our Core Self all along the way. But the Core Self sees change as necessary for growth into maturity. Our Core is growing larger and needs to shed off the old structures in order to arrive at this new place.

Managers oppose this with all their tools: Anxiety, depression, shame, guilt, loneliness, physical reactions, dissociation, and many other tactics. Some people will give in to the Managers and never let their Core Self grow past a certain point. They live a locked-in existence with their Parts. Though this may seem safer, it is destructive. Just like the snake gets rid of the parasites when the skin is shed, so too our growing Core Self gets rid of harmful ideas and behaviors when we allow it to grow.

I used to be a pastor; for 36 years. Approximately 25 years ago, I began to re-think the doctrines I had endorsed when my denomination licensed me. These were the classic doctrines of the evangelical faith tradition with some more about healing and the Holy Spirit added.

My fear parts didn’t want me to re-think them. What if I did that and then decided I didn’t want to be a pastor any more? What would I do for a living? I was technically a counselor also, but I had put most of my time and energy into pastoring, and my Fear parts didn’t think I could make enough money just as a counselor.

My Manager that loves to be accepted and belong told me that my Christian friends would reject me if I didn’t hold to these truths. This Acceptance Manager predicted that if other christians learned I had let go of any core doctrine I would be summarily rejected.

By the way, it turned out this Manager was ultimately correct. Very few of my evangelical friends will even speak to me now.

At the same time as my managers were kicking up dust, my Core Self was growing, and I could not deny I wanted to be authentic to the changes in my belief system.

In order to be true to this emerging Self, I had to deconstruct evangelical Christianity. It all started innocently while reading Numbers 31, which I have written about here. By the time my wife and I had processed the heinous “acts of God” written about in that chapter, I realized I could no longer accept the Old Testament as without error. Therefore, since the Old Testament is part of the Bible, I could not accept the Bible as without error.

My belief “skin” was beginning to shed. Everything within me fought doing it and therefore I kept much of the process a secret. My wife and two oldest kids knew, but no one else. When I let go of Inerrancy as a doctrine, I felt something drop off me. I had a new Core Self. This Core Self remembers the old one. In fact, that Core Self remembers all the old ones.

Every time we continue to grow in our understanding and our values, we shed off the old self and put on the new self. This does sound similar to what Christianity calls being “born again”. We still share a history with the Old Core Self. But we are fundamentally changed and we cannot easily go back to what we once were.

I guess when I consider it, this is similar to that concept of being Born Again.

I started “shedding my skin” of Inerrancy slowly. First, I began to devalue most of the Old Testament. In particular, I discovered that the so-called “historical” books of the Hebrew Bible were actually compiled oral traditions, legends that had endured since the beginning of the nation of Israel. Contemporary scholarship, even among conservatives, shows that these books were all compiled after the Israelities returned from Babylonian captivity. There is very little proof the stories are true. They are therefore considered Religious History, a retelling of the origin stories of their people.

I also noted many of the themes of the Bible are antithetical to ethical behavior. The Bible condones, or at least does not condemn slavery, genocide, sexual assault, misogyny, patriarchy, racism, violence, aggressive warfare, and class systems of economics. As I shed off the skin of biblical inerrancy, my new Core Self felt free to grasp some of the glaring weaknesses of the Bible while holding onto some of the truths which run counter to those.

During that time, I also noticed that the Pro-Life movement had been completely manufactured for political purposes. It seemingly sprang out of nowhere onto the political landscape and was then embraced by one of the main parties. Most christians I associated with endorsed this political movement.

Despite the fact that the biblical basis for life beginning at conception is completely anecdotal and marginal, the evangelical church joined forces with one political party and shunned anyone who supported the other political party.

I could not allow the Pro-life movement to control who I was. Since its start, I stood against the Pro-life movement, even though I am a Pacifist. The movement is not particularly Pro-life since most of its members own guns and support Capital punishment. They also do not actively support programs for impoverished single parents and do not support programs for feeding the poor. They are simply Pro-fetus.

Admitting all of this gave space for my Core Self to leave behind absolute allegiance to my church and its political machinations. The more I grew out of my old beliefs, the more I found health and strength.

Each person who continues to shed old versions of themselves finds this strength building in them. And let me be clear: It is not primarily beliefs and practices we are shedding. We are letting go of who we think we are to more completely match our current life with what we want, need, believe, and do right now.

For the Core Self of the individual to lead the rest of a person’s Parts, this deconstruction of the former Self and the embracing of the new self must take place. But it is difficult and can be very painful. And the pain only increases when people around you—even your personal support system—do not like what they see in your changes.

I remember one day when a woman I love and admire told me I was cursing babies to death and would suffer unimaginable pain and torture because I saw the Prolife movement differently than she did. This woman had been like a mother to me and supported me for years as I sought to be both therapist and pastor with all the tensions that those two professions can carry with them.

And now, because I was no longer politically aligned with this movement, she saw me as an enemy.

Around that time, I read Cheryl Strayed’s excellent autobiographical story of her hike along the Pacific Coast Trail, “Wild”. She tells about how she spent three years seeking to recover from her mother’s death, often resorting to self-destructive means of coping. At one point, after drug and alcohol dependency and broken relationships looked like they would kill her, she decided on a whim to hike one of the longest continuous trails in the lower 48: The PCT.

She was ill-equipped, both literally and figuratively, for this journey. She carried too much stuff with her, most of which was the wrong equipment for this journey and had to be abandoned along the way. It was a metaphor for her life she soon realized. Her old Core Self was carrying so many things that were messing her up. She was carrying so much baggage she would have to rid herself of before she could keep going.

At one point, after losing toenails and finding massive gaping blisters from poorly fitting boots, she knew something had to change. It was at that point, in the fits of despair, that she finally started to move forward in her grief. By the time she finished her journey at the Washington-Oregon border, her new Core Self had emerged completely and she had deconstructed who she used to be.

Every culture, religion, and philosophy has a name for this journey. But whatever you call it, the key to it is to embrace the process. The more you fight the New Core Self emerging, the more you feel stifled and unhealthy. And even though the process of deconstruction is painful, it is a pain that brings personal expansion.

Blending and Unblending our Inner Parts

Janine’s ex-boyfriend called the HR department of the marketing company she worked for. He believed that her co-workers were lying about him, and this is why she broke up with him. In his call, he threatened to initiate a lawsuit against the company.

Her friend in HR told her about all his nonsense and laughed it off. She assured Janine that this kind of thing happens, but they were going to ignore it completely.

Janine heard all the HR person said, but she could not ignore it for some reason. She had persistent thoughts of being fired from her job, dragged into court, ending up in the newspapers, and having her career completely destroyed. By the next day, her thoughts carried her into ideas of being homeless and living in her car.

She even went so far as to entertain the obsessive idea that she needed to take her car in to be serviced in order to be ready when she had to live in it permanently.

As she was being bombarded with these thoughts, she felt a gripping feeling low in her stomach. She felt paralyzed and unable to move very quickly. All her breathing slowed down too far. She was also flooded with fear and terror. It felt like she was trapped and would die.

All of this because of an over-reaction by an ex-boyfriend. By the way, he never did follow through on any of his threats.

In Internal Family Systems therapy, we call the process she was experiencing a “Blending”. Blending happens when an internal mid-brain part of our psyche—either a Manager/Protector, Exile, or Firefighter—takes over the Core Self and seems to be in control of all emotions and thoughts.

In order to understand this, let’s do a little bit of brain physiology. Please note: This is a huge over-simplification. But it helps to see some of what is happening in the mind.

I believe the “mind” is a metaphoric extension of our brains. Our brains cannot see their own functions until played out in the mind. All the brain knows is biochemical reactions, neural networks, lobe structures, and electrical currents. But when the mind gives meaning to these things, the brain knows how to change and rearrange its own structures.

The mind gives the brain meaning and direction.

The prefrontal cortex is at the front of your brain. This complex of lobes and structures has many functions. You have your sense of self here. You make decisions here. You apply logic, reason, structure, pathways, plans, goals, meaning and purpose here. You also command all the mid-brain functions from here. The prefrontal cortex is your Executive Brain. No decisions can be made without it.

The mid-brain complex (made up of over 60 structures) is where your emotions, sensory data, memories, and body feedback loops reside. These structures are all controlled and manipulated by the prefrontal cortex, but they are separate from it.

In terms of Internal Family System (IFS), the Prefrontal/frontal cortex is where your sense of the Core Self exists. The mid-brain functions are where all your Managers, Exiles, and Firefighters live. This is how we can have complex conversations with ourselves. We have a Core Self, but many sub-personalities. These sub-personalities cannot make decisions, so they have to influence/overpower the Core Self to achieve their goals. And the Parts have goals, to be sure.

Take Janine as an example. Janine has an Anxiety Part that scans the future for danger. This Part saw that her ex-boyfriend was threatening her job and reputation. This caused an Exile who had been betrayed by loved ones in the past to act up. The Exile triggered the Anxiety Manager, who then flooded the Core Self with fear and dread.

Janine also has a Catastrophizing Firefighter. When the Anxiety Manager could not keep the Exile quiet, this part came in to completely flood the mind with worst-case scenarios. As Janine focused on those, the Exile’s cries could not be heard. As she obsessed, her mind was not focused on past hurts and pain. The purpose of all Firefighter parts is to distract the Core Self when there is too much inner reactivity.

She also had a Isolation Manager who was working to keep her feeling that others would not help her. Every time someone tried to cheer her up or assure her, she isolated from them. She refused to talk to them until all things had been resolved. This manager was helping an Exile who found that friends in high school had used information she had shared with them to reveal her problems to a vice-principal. This resulted in her being forced to see the school counselor. She vowed to never let anyone know about her problems that deeply. She stopped seeing her therapist during this time.

She was experiencing Blending. The Managers and Firefighters are seeking to get her to do things her Core Self didn’t want to do. The Blending often has three signs:

  1. The body experiences polyvagal response. Somewhere in the body, the person will experience some kind of involuntary reaction. This is usually an uncomfortable feeling that they can’t shake. In Janine’s case, it was a parasympathetic freeze response where she felt her whole system shutting down when the Anxiety Part gripped her.
  2. The brain is flooded with emotions. These are more than passing emotions. They are overwhelming feelings. In her case, it was fear, panic, catastrophe and helplessness. These feelings would only stop if she did something to distract herself. Binge-watching television, porn viewing, and cannabis helped alleviate the flooding. Often, firefighting responses mess our lives up as much as the Blending does.
  3. Persistent and obsessive thoughts. These thoughts do not leave but grow in intensity. When this happens, the Parts try and get the Core Self to think in particular pathways. In Janine’s case, they wanted her to plan for a future of homelessness.
She was experiencing Blending. The Managers and Firefighters are seeking to get her to do things her Core Self didn't want to do. The Blending often has up to three signs that it is happening: Click To Tweet

Why do our Parts, which are supposed to be protecting us, act this way? Simple: The Parts do not have the whole story. And they were originally created to deal with our lives when we were children or teens. Many times, these sub-personalities still think we are young. This entire system was created by young people for young people. The system doesn’t work that well with adults.

But it is our system. We cannot ignore what our Parts do to try and influence the Core Self.

The Core Self is the most up-to-date version of who you are. Because most people do not update their parts–or even know they need to–the Parts act like belligerent children inside of us. We feel “childish” when our body and emotions are influenced by the Parts. How can this be changed?

The Core Self is the most up-to-date version of who you are. Because most people do not update their parts–or even know they need to–the Parts act like belligerent children inside of us Click To Tweet

Internal Family Systems was designed to do just that. In this article, I am only addressing Blending and Unblending. But understand the Parts really do care for you. They are trying to protect you. They don’t want to hurt you–but they often do just that. The most pain is felt when they blend with the Core Self. The cure for this is to unblend them.

A simple unblending starts with acknowledging the Part and asking it to back off. I usually start with the effects on the body. I might say, “Thank you Part for wanting to protect me by speeding up my heart rate and causing my stomach ache. But you’re hurting me. I want to talk to you, but not until you let go of my body.”

Then wait until the Part lets go. It may take a little while if you have never talked to your Parts. Once the Part lets go of your body, then move on to the emotions if they are using those also. Also be pleasant with them. Assure them you will listen and help them out. But be firm on two things:

  1. You won’t listen to them until they stop hurting you.
  2. Make sure they understand they are hurting you.

If they won’t let go, ask them how this is protecting you. Be insistent you will not approve this activity. In many situations, the Parts will unblend. Then, you can listen and dialogue about their concerns. Often the part is trying to convey something they are afraid of. Listen to them as you would a teenager or a child. Let them know you have heard them and appreciate their help. Then ask them to turn the volume down.

If you find you agree too much with them, then maybe see a therapist to help sort this out. It is possible a permanent blending has occurred because of trauma.

But most of the time, if you unblend the Part, you can get separation from them. This helps you to lead the process. Ask the Part what they do for you. What is their role? What are they afraid will happen to you if they aren’t doing their job?

But most of the time, if you unblend the Part, you can get separation from them. This helps you to lead the process. Click To Tweet

This helps the Part know the Core Self cares about them and is listening. It may not stop them from blending in the future, but they will often unblend easier if you have befriended them.

“Morals are for You or Me: Ethics are for Us”

I believe it is time for all societies to stop using Moral Imperatives to guide our actions. Instead, Ethical Guidelines work much better and will always aid us in improving society. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, the President published tweets that suggestively urged his fans to take up arms against the leaders of their states. He referenced several states–such as Virginia and Minnesota–reminded them of the 2nd Amendment, and put his tweet advocating violence in all caps. By doing this, he got the point across while maintaining a tiny margin for deniability. He did not explicitely say to try and violently overthrow state governments. Therefore, if there is any violence based on his tweets, he will deny any complicity. That has been his pattern so far in 3.5 years in office.

I believe it is time for all societies to stop using Moral Imperatives to guide our actions. Instead, Ethical Guidelines work much better and will always aid us in improving society. Click To Tweet

As of the writing of this blog, the nation is facing a terrible ethical dilemma: Do we stay at home, sheltered-in-place and risk harming many citizens in our country because of the destabilization of the economy? Or do we end the shelter-in-place, perhaps prematurely, and potentially kill more people than the COVID-19 virus would otherwise kill?

I don’t want to understate how important an ethical decision this is. There are almost no right answers to it. Regardless of where you land on this decision, you should admit it is a tricky and dangerous dilemma.

This follows on the heels of a decision many churches and Christians had to make for the past few weeks. This decision is NOT an ethical decision. Rather, it is a moral decision, and not even a very convincing one. Many states have made it illegal to gather in groups larger than 10 people. For most of those states, this includes churches.

The vast majority of churches have seen the ethical value of closing the doors, choosing instead to host virtual gatherings of their members online. But not all churches have complied. Some have defiantly opened the doors of their churches. Not only do they feel they have a first amendment right to do so, they claim to have a moral right and obligation to do so, given to them by God.

For instance, Pastor Tony Spell of Baton Rouge, LA held services for several Sundays in defiance of that state’s orders not to. Over 1000 people attended. When interviewed, Spell said,

“The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”

NBC News

The concept of “religious rights” is not an ethical foundation but a moral one. And in many cases, ethical and moral foundations can be completely opposed to each other.

Recently, Stephanie Tait, who is an advocate for the disabled and how churches relate to their needs, had this to say about the church’s attitude toward opening up churches and potentially exposing many more people to the virus. She likens it to the church’s disregard for the handicapped by claiming they should be exempt from Accessibility Requirements according to the law. She states:

So I see abled Christians who are “shocked” to see some of their fellow Christians framing this as a religious freedom issue, and essentially fighting for the right to hurt other people in the name of their “liberty” being preserved above all else?

Churches have repeatedly asserted that their right to harm certain others with legal impunity is a religious liberty issue – including disabled ppl, LGBTQ+ ppl, and Black ppl. This is nothing new. This is not “shocking.”

So respectfully, if you find yourself “shocked” at people fighting to keep holding services in the pandemic, recognize that you’ve been living in a bubble of privilege, where you could remain blissfully unaware of our history of fighting for special rights to harm others.

Stephanie Tait, 2020 on Facebook

Stephanie is stating that some Christians are claiming their rights–which is a moral claim–above what is helpful for other people (which is an ethical approach).

At this point, I want to define two terms: Morals and Ethics. In doing many hours of research into this subject, I found few philosophers, ethicists, social scientists, or pastors who could agree on a definition. So I have compiled a number of them together to come up with a working model for this document.

The concept of "religious rights" is not an ethical foundation but a moral one. And in many cases, ethical and moral foundations can be completely opposed to each other. Click To Tweet

Morals are the principles underlying the ideal behavior of each individual.

Ethics are the principles underlying all of the acceptable behavior of members of a culture.

Morals are subjective and personal. Ethics are subjective and communal.

Morals are usually based on a philosophy or religious belief. Ethics are decided upon by a society after debate and trial.

Morals transcend cultural norms, but may conflict with them. Ethics are based on cultural norms, but may conflict with an individuals morals.

We use Ethical guidelines when we decide whether or not to open up the society to business and social events again during the virus. We will debate the pros and cons of any approach and decide as carefully as possible which approach would create the most advantage and good to the most people. There is no other way of doing it.

Morals are involved as people decide if they should be in church, if they should visit a loved one, if they should share their food or toilet paper with others during this crisis.

In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot several people in Arizona, including Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. After killing six people, he was charged with murder and attempted murder. His lawyers used an interesting moral defense. They said he firmly believed in the moral philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who taught that weakness must be eradicated in order for the race of Ubermensch to appear. (Ubermensch refers to “Supermen” or “Master race”). His legal team argued that his moral compass was pointing in a different direction than the rest of society and even though that compass directed him to kill people, he should not be charged with murder. He needed to be re-educated, not incarcerated.

The court disagreed and gave him 7 consecutive life sentences.

It is the argument that is intriguing. And it is not a new argument. The argument is that a person has a right to their moral beliefs, regardless if their society considers them ethical. This does not make every action a person takes based on those morals legal, just defensible.

Soren Kierkegaard spent years wrestling with this incongruence of morals and ethics. He used the life of Abraham in the Old Testament book of Genesis as his starting point for figuring this out. In the story of Abraham, he takes his only son Isaac up on a mountain to sacrifice him there. He believed that God had told him to do so. He trudged up the mountain also carrying an ethical dilemma: Do I kill my only son and lose him? Or do I disobey God and lose my standing with Him? It seems like a dilemma where Abraham (and Isaac) lose either way.

In the ultimate deus ex machina, God intervenes at the last minute and gives Isaac a reprieve. A ram is caught in the thicket and Abraham is ordered to sacrifice the ram instead of his son. God then revealed he was only testing Abraham to see if he would obey.

As Kierkegaard pondered this moral and ethical quagmire, he imagined what the biblical tale would have shown us if it had been told differently.

In his book “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard imagines four possible retellings of this story:

  1. Abraham decides to kill Isaac and tells him it was his decision alone to kill him, and doesn’t mention God. Doing it this way, God doesn’t look like the tyrant Abraham now believes Him to be.
  2. Abraham kills the ram instead. But because God didn’t trust him and put him to the test, Abraham loses faith in God.
  3. He decides not to kill Isaac and lives in complete dejection. He believes he is not a man of faith and sees himself as a spiritual failure.
  4. Isaac sees his father hesitate: That is when Isaac realizes it was God who told his father to kill him. Isaac loses faith in God’s goodness.

Here is what Kierkegaard concludes. There is no good solution to Abraham’s dilemma. It is one of the conflicts for which morals and ethics will always disagree. The moral solution sometimes must struggle with believing something is right to do even if it is not ethical. The ethical solution must struggle as it must sometimes disgregard the moral underpinnings of our lives.

Most people believe they will choose the moral position first. In practice, however, we see they choose the ethical position. Indeed, there are times when people do choose the moral position over the ethical one, that they are often condemned by society.

Indeed, there are times when people do choose the moral position over the ethical one, that they are often condemned by society. Click To Tweet

Look at churches who have chosen to open at this time. Even other Christian groups condemned that practice.

In 1978, Jim Jones brought 1000 members of his cult church down to South America to start a communal society. As their Jonestown cult began to deteriorate, and they murdered a US senator, they realized they would all be taken into custody. As a result, Jones gathered all 1000 people into their makeshift auditorium. He invited them to join him in a final Communion service. The drink was laced with a poison. This was a mass suicide and all but the smallest children knew what they were being asked to do. Some refused and ran out of the meeting, but most of the Jonestown group killed themselves. Over 900 people died.

They were acting upon what they considered to be a moral imperative. They believed a version of an apocalyptic belief: That they would be rewarded in the Afterlife if they were faithful in this life. We do not agree with their decision, but philosophically we must conclude they were trying to live according to their moral standards. And their morality was based upon the words of Jim Jones.

They were indeed moral. But just as decidedly, their actions were unethical. We consider it wrong to do what they did. The “wrongness” of it is an ethical consideration not a moral one. In our culture, mass suicide is always wrong, as is mass murder–for the same reasons.

To be fair, some ethical decisions can lack a moral foundation, depending on what culture one lives in. In cultures where headhunting is practiced, taking the head of another person can sometimes be ethical. That is, if everyone accepts it as a standard practice, then it is ethical.

In the Ancient Near East, a woman was considered property. It was considered ethical for a husband to physically assault his wife. But if he physically assaulted another man’s wife, he had to give compensation, since she was his property. This is why, in the Bible, when David sexually assaulted Bathsheba he is not condemned for the sexual assault but for taking another man’s wife. Nathan the prophet chastises David for taking Uriah’s wife–he does not even give her a name–not for raping her. But that fit the ethical climate of that day.

Though today in America, we would consider headhunting, sexual assault, and ownership of women to be unethical and even immoral, they did not consider it that way back then in Ancient Near East cultures.

Unfortunately, because the Jews–and now Christians–believe their Scriptures are both ethical and moral standards for all time, the two ideas of morals and ethics have become conflated.

In any theocratic nation–that is any nation that accepts a religious moral standard as a de facto ethical standard–the moral law is the ethical law. This is true with Sharia Law in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has been true in Israel’s history. And when Christians have enacted Biblical laws as mandatory in some countries, the moral and the ethical get confused.

In any theocratic nation–that is any nation that accepts a religious moral standard as a de facto ethical standard–the moral law is the ethical law. Click To Tweet

Philosopher and ethicist, Elizabeth Anscombe has noted,

“The impact of monotheistic religion was to transform morality into a set of laws that had to be obeyed. Laws require a legislator and a police force. God was that legislator, the Church the enforcer.”

The Quest for a Moral Compass (p. 296). Melville House.

Therefore, in any nation where the moral rules are governed by one religion or religious group, it gives power to the leaders of that group to decide what is moral or immoral.

In today’s America, the idea of “morality” or “moral standards” is almost exclusively applied to one’s sexuality. Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt says that world culture encompasses six themes when it comes to their personal morality: liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, care, and purity. But he also notes that in today’s America, authority, loyalty, and purity are mostly emphasized by Conservatives, and fairness and care are mostly emphasized by liberals. He notes that liberty is emphasized by both groups, and is seen as both a moral imperative and as a right.

Yet when it comes to ethics, liberty is sometimes shoved aside.

Unfortunately, because the Jews–and now Christians–believe their Scriptures are both ethical and moral standards for all time, the two ideas of morals and ethics have become conflated. Click To Tweet

He concludes that morality has focused way too much on sexuality: either sexual purity or sexual freedom. And he also says the problem is that most people will focus on those two things based on their personal viewpoints, whether religious, philosophical, or political.


Here is my contention. For the human race to move forward we must have an ethical dialectic. A “dialectic” is a discussion where two sides with differing opinions come together to discuss their differences. Out of that comes a new understanding of an ethical position. We have seen in the history of the world that society keeps trying to get ethics correct. And when they find out they have not got it correct, they keep having a discussion.

In other words, the ideal is to continue debating our current ethical guidelines until the majority of people are satisfied we are benefiting the most people.

Morality does not offer a changing dialectic, since it is based on some kind of absolute standard.

Here is how moral imperatives work. Christian morality told us in the middle ages that all peasants must submit to the authority of the King and the nobles. Christian morality said that men could beat their wives as long as they didn’t do permanent damage. Christian morality said that the Bible justified the owning of slaves, the subjugation of women, the fighting of just wars. All of these were placed under the aegis of morality. The people who decided what was moral were the Christian leaders.

In other words, the ideal is to continue debating our current ethical guidelines until the majority of people are satisfied we are benefiting the most people. Click To Tweet

There was no society-wide discussion on these standards. They were decided upon by religious leaders and all people were required to accept these moral imperatives.

Even today, Christian leaders tell their churches what moral sexual standards should be. They say homosexuality is wrong. They say that polyamory is wrong. They say that sex before marriage is wrong. They say it is wrong for a wife to refuse her husband sex. They say that marital rape is impossible since wives have a sexual duty to their husbands. Each of these beliefs is unassailable because they are held to be absolute imperatives. If one does not accept the moral imperative, then one must face the censure of their religion.

Now let’s look at ethics. Ethics are societal standards of behavior. Ethics have also been brutal at times through the centuries. The idea of an “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” seemed like a good idea at the time. If someone causes you to lose a limb, cut off his limb. At least it limited the damage you were allowed to enact in vengeance. But it meant a lot of people with swords were cutting off a lot of appendages.

Ethics have also created justification for war. Ethics have concluded that some people have to die for the good of others. Ethics were at the base of the Final Solution where the Nazis sought to exterminate all the Jews. We know that ethics can be harmful.

And we know that morals can be harmful.

The difference is this: Morals are not supposed to change; ethics are supposed to constantly adapt and change depending on the current ethical understanding of the culture.

Which one then should we adopt to guide our society?

In his book “How Then Shall We Live”, Chuck Colson suggested that we use an absolute moral standard as the basis for how we craft our laws and live our lives. Why? He says that only a Moral Consensus gives people a tangible sense of security that something is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. In this book, he bemoans that so many people do not hold to a Christian standard of morality any longer. He believed that this lack of a clear Moral Consensus was going to ruin us as a nation.

Is he correct? I don’t think so. Even within the Christian Church, a moral consensus has proved to be impossible. On so many issues, the church disagrees with itself. On issues like divorce, war and pacifism, premarital sexuality, marital sexuality, birth control, sexual identity, euthenasia, capital punishment, separation of church and state, etc. there is no moral consensus. The disagreements outweigh the agreements. Consensus is usually reached only by denominational legislation and not through dialogue.

Let’s take the issue of birth control. My wife is a school nurse. She helped to found a local clinic. She and one of her close friends, an OB/Gyn, sought to be allowed to put out a bowl of condoms at the front desk of the clinic. A member of the school board opposed this. Why? Because she had a moral opposition to condoms, she would not vote to allow them.

This person’s moral argument against handing out condoms is simple. They believe the Bible opposes premarital sexuality. They believe that giving a teen a condom is giving them a way to practice sexuality without immediate consequences like pregnancy or STD’s. They believe this gives tacit approval to a teen to have sex. Since this is what they don’t want, the condom is the point of the spear.

The ethical argument for condoms is simple. Teens will have sex whether you want them to or not. Only condoms protect against both STD’s and pregnancy. Condoms prevent both unwanted outcomes.

The Moral Imperative is a personally held belief that teen sexuality is wrong. The Ethical Guideline is based on something both groups can agree to: No one wants a teen to be pregnant or catch an STD.

I believe that an Ethical Guideline ultimately can be a better way of governing human behavior because it requires the majority of all of us–regardless of religious or philosophical belief–to agree before we accept it. And Ethical Guidelines are not legislated first. They are felt first. They are things we know to be true among us.

For instance, look at sexuality. As we have moved on from the middle ages, through the Enlightenment, to the modern age, and now into a Postmodern reality, we have changed our views on what is ethical. And I think many of those changes are good and just. They could stand improvement, but they are changing much more quickly than the moral views of sexuality.

Here are Ethical Guidelines of sexuality that most people today can approve:

  1. That all sexuality needs to take place after all parties give consent and continue to give consent all through the sexual act.
  2. That consent must be informed. This means that if someone does not understand the deep significance of sexuality, they should not enter into it. This includes minors, the mentally disabled, and those for whom sexuality would be dangerous.
  3. That consent must be equal. This means that anyone who uses their authority, position of power, or position as overseer to have sex with an individual, the sexual act is not ethical and may be illegal.
  4. All sexuality should be carried on between two adults who are honest and straightforward about their relationship status. This excludes adultery and lying about one’s identity.

There may be many other ethical guidelines that we could come up with as a society. Other societies might have different guidelines. In the future, more guidelines might be developed.

But the advantage of an ethical guideline over a moral imperative is that it embraces everyone in a culture and doesn’t require them to first ascribe to a religion or a philosophy. I propose that even if we strongly hold to a religious or philosophical viewpoint, we can all participate in the discussion on the best ethical guidelines for all to accept and live.

Understanding Internal Family Systems – Part 2: Meet the Exiles

(All stories in this article are composite sketches, compiled from real-life stories. None of these stories represents any one person dead or alive. But they are all true.)

Roni was a pastor’s wife. Unfortunately, this meant her life was lived in a fish bowl. Everyone saw her and everyone had an opinion on her behavior. People noticed how she dressed, how she responded to criticism, what skills she had and didn’t have, how her kids were dressed and behaved; it was an endless exam. But, she thought she handled criticism well and prided herself on not letting other people get to her.

One night, her pastor-husband came home from a board meeting. At the meeting, he had been attacked viciously by two board members regarding a story he had told in his sermon. They felt it was highly inappropriate and could lead to members of the church thinking he supported a particular sexual activity. He came home in tears and poured himself a large glass of wine.

Roni fought with herself about what to say. The problem was, she had told him during the week he was making a mistake with that story. The exact thing she predicted was what happened. She had a gut feeling people would misunderstand his point if he used that story from his childhood.

He also remembered she had told him this, for after sitting down, he looked right at her and said: “And you’re no better than all the rest. You’re just a big prude like the rest of the church.”

Panic struck Roni like a physical force of nature. She didn’t even know why she felt this panic. But it was so strong, she was still awake at 2 am, long after her husband starting snoring. She had thoughts of shame, guilt, insecurity, and doom. She was sure he was going to pull away from her. By 3 am she finally succombed to sleep, but was awake again at 4:30.

Over the next few days, she settled down emotionally, but then noticed an old habit was back. She was picking at the skin on her arms. She would catch herself doing it and then she would stop. But as soon as she stopped thinking about it, she would go back to picking at the skin. By the end of the week, she had several open sores that she had to put bandages on.

What had happened to Roni? If you haven’t already, go back to this first article I wrote in this series and review the basic terms I will be talking about in this article. Simply, Roni was seeing an Exile in her life manifesting herself. This Exile is a feeling and belief she had started to have as a young girl. She had tried to manage this old part of herself. She certainly tried to forget about this part. She did all of this without really knowing this Exiled Part existed.

Over the next few days, she settled down emotionally, but then noticed an old habit was back. She was picking at the skin on her arms. She would catch herself doing it and then she would stop. But as soon as she stopped thinking about… Click To Tweet

Exiles are those thoughts, feelings, experiences, or reactions from our past that bother us so much we don’t ever want to re-live them. We create most of our internal family system to prevent the exile from showing up. In Roni’s case, the Exile showed up as soon as her husband accused her of being part of the group attacking him. At the end of the article, I will show exactly how this worked in her life.

First, let’s understand more about Exiles.

Continue reading “Understanding Internal Family Systems – Part 2: Meet the Exiles”