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.