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 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 idiotic action 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 all you amateur and professional neurologists: 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.

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 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 are. 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 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 near 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 which flooded the Core Self with fear and dread.

Janine also had 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. This is the purpose of all firefighter parts.

She also had a Isolation Manager who was working to keep her feeling like 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 had 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 up to three signs that it is happening:

  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 touching 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. For most 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. Then correct their mis-information. 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.

Why I Work with Sex Offenders

This short article is part rant and part catharsis.

A common question I am asked is how I can be an advocate for those who have been horribly victimized in sexual assault and child sexual abuse, and also be a therapist for sex offenders.

Isn’t this, at the very least, a conflict of interest? Shouldn’t there be a separation of duties where one therapist focuses completely on one group, and a different therapist works with the other group?

I don’t see it that way. Please keep an open mind and heart.

In 1984, I was finishing up courses in abnormal psychology with Northwest Baptist College. As part of my study, I had to do an internship in related fields. Since one of those fields was sexual deviance, I enrolled in one of the programs the Province of British Columbia offered. I lived in a remote region of Eastern B.C. They were giving paid internships to anyone willing to work with men who had been released as sex offenders.

For six months, I met with seven different men. All of them had been convicted as child molesters. In addition, I also did case study interviews with three more men who were spending the remainder of their lives in jail for molesting children. One of those men had admitted to over 250 molestations; he kept a journal of all of it. That journal was the basis for his life conviction.

Continue reading “Why I Work with Sex Offenders”

A Century of Trauma
Part One: What We Are Facing

†

I am not slamming the Greatest Generation–or anyone else. This is a retrospective on what brought America, and its institutions, to the emotional crisis we are facing today. Click To Tweet

In 1998, the broadcaster Tom Brokaw published one of the most significant cultural books of the 20th century. He called it “The Greatest Generation”. It told the story of a generation of men and women who survived the Great Depression and then immediately went on to fight and win in World War II. There are many things I could quote from that book, but here is one which summarizes his thesis:

“There on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness….when they returned home,they married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers. They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.”

Brokaw wrote these 464 pages to pay tribute to the bravery, sacrifice, and solid principles lived out by the survivors of that generation. There is one glaring problem with the book though. It only tells one side of the story.

And the other side of the story is dark and ominous.

In this article, I am not slamming the Greatest Generation–or anyone else. This is a retrospective on what brought America, and its institutions, to the emotional crisis we are facing today. We are identifying sexual abuse, sexual assault, leadership abuse, and significant trauma by victims in every corner. Some are asking if the Millennial generations are over-reacting or if things have gotten worse.

The primary thing I want the reader to know by the end of this study is that what we are experiencing now is hopefully the final season of healing for almost 100 years of PTSD as a nation.


Let’s begin again with Brokaw and his own words. In this video, he is remarking on people’s reaction to his book. One grown daughter of a WW2 veteran says this, “As I read your book, I realized that I never really knew or understood my father.”

I have heard this story too often in counseling. It is not just younger generations saying it;  I hear it from baby boomers who grew up with parents of the Greatest Generation. Here are the most common observations of those parents:

  • I never really knew them
  • They seemed distant
  • They were cruel, angry, and hurtful
  • They seemed locked into their own world
  • They weren’t very affectionate.

What caused the Greatest Generation to react this way? 

I contend they are not the only generation that has manifested strange and harmful behavior to their children. I believe that harmful and destructive behavior has been on display in American families for several generations. Where did this all start?

I believe it began with the 1st World War. The soldiers returning home from the war brought devastating post-traumatic stress with them. And this was never diagnosed. And if it was diagnosed, it was called something different. And then it wasn’t treated properly.

Long before the effects of this world war began to wear off, the entire nation entered into a brutal Depression. This Depression caused PTSD through hunger, danger, malnutrition, familial suicide ideation, alcohol abuse and many other reactions. 

Then, before this trauma could be processed and treated, the second World War happened. The effects of this, as I will show, were even more devastating than the first war. Within a generation of the first wave of trauma-recovery, an even bigger double wave came made up of survivors of the Depression and WW2.

Before the country had any chance of recovering from the effects of WW2–which we will describe in the next article–the Korean War happened. Then, before the effects of that war had diminished, the Vietnam War took place. There are many trauma scholars who feel the Vietnam War may have been the most devastating of them all in terms of its effects on the American family.

So now, from WW1 to the end of the Vietnam War, three straight generations of Americans had to cope with the effects of trauma. That is when we had hoped for a lull in the activity. But, by the time the Baby Boomers were entering adulthood, the Vietnam vets had all returned and were affecting their families with all the devastation of the other wars. The Baby Boomers experienced what is known as Secondary PTSD which can be almost as life-threatening as primary PTSD. 

Before a generation passed, the nation endured two Gulf Wars, the nationwide horror of 9-11, and one of the most prolonged recessions in American history. We add a fourth generation of PTSD to the mix. 

Thus, it would be proper to understand how trauma effects a person, that person’s family, and the culture which has to embrace it.


According to the book “Trauma-informed Care in the Behavioral Sciences”, trauma, 

including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.

Chapter 3 – Understanding the Impact of Trauma
Before a generation passed, the nation endured two Gulf Wars, the nationwide horror of 9-11, and one of the most prolonged recessions in American history. We add a fourth generation of PTSD to the mix.  Click To Tweet

Literally hundreds of books have been written to chronicle the possible effects of trauma. But, for the sake of this article, I want to highlight some of the most common ones which have affected families in America, and therefore, America as an entire society.

Look at this list, and see if you can figure out how this may have changed the very nature of the American family.

Trauma can cause:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Family violence
  • Sexual violence
  • Emotional dysregulation. This can result in emotional outbursts, completely shut down emotional response (known as Flat Affect), shame, sadness, out-of-control anger, panic attacks, and paranoia.
  • Body reactions, such as autoimmune responses, weakness, proneness to injury, injuries that won’t heal, back pain, migraines, digestive problems, heart problems, sexual dysfunction, neurological disorders, etc.
  • Sleep disorders
  • Schizo-affective reactions
  • General distrust toward people

Scan that list and ask yourself this question: If this trauma is not treated, how would it affect the family of the person who suffers the effects of trauma.

In the next article, we will explore the ways that trauma was perceived and dealt with by the four generations since 1914.

The Six Stages of Deconstruction

(This 2004 article appeared in its original form on the MTPastor blogger site I used to manage. The number of people experiencing Deconstruction has greatly increased since then. I decided it could use an overhaul).


“Tearing things apart is a powerful aspect of human nature.”

–Patti Smith

Greg and I had gone to high school together. We attended the same church and youth group. We graduated Bible College together and were ordained within a few months of each other. We genuinely liked each other.

So why did I want to punch him in the face?

I was just beginning to Deconstruct.

It was 1983 and my wife and I were at the national Congress of our Canadian denomination. The big issue being debated was whether women would be allowed to serve as pastors and elders in churches. For two years I had passionately advocated for full inclusion of women into ministry leadership positions. I had done my homework and was ready with all the theological arguments. I was ready to tear down the arguments of the Complementarians. I was even the person who brought the proposal to the committee which introduced the measure.

I had no idea Greg would make a complete ass of himself. I had no idea it would throw me into such an emotional tailspin.

He didn’t address the doctrinal issues. He didn’t appeal to historical precedent or denominational practices. He simply said: “Everyone here knows if we do this it will tear apart the church and God’s judgment will come on us all.”

With that, he was able to sway enough people to defeat the motion.

At that moment, I wrestled with whether to leave that denomination. They had already refused to ordain my wife at the same time as me the summer before. I had thought I would quit then, but she talked me out of it. When two of my close female friends from college had moved to a different denomination so they would be allowed to preach, I wondered why I was staying. Again, my wife talked me out of leaving.

When Greg used his scare tactic to convince thousands to make this decision, I actually decided to stay. But I was no longer, in my mind, part of the mainstream. I was tearing down the “good old boy, just stick with the majority” approach.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning what it means to deconstruct. Continue reading “The Six Stages of Deconstruction”

The Five Lies that Victims Believe

falsebeliefs

In 1987, I wrote an article telling the story of four sisters who had been molested by their father. Each of them had been molested the same way. Each experienced this at the same age–he moved on from one to the next with maniacal precision. Of course, each of them had been emotionally damaged by the abuse.

I wrote the article for a psychological journal more to point out the differing outcomes of each one. Though they were all affected negatively by the abuse, they all compensated differently to it as adults. They each gave me permission to share their story since I had counseled every one through to health.

But I was intrigued by what they wouldn’t allow. Their father was still alive and still married to their mother. I had talked about the possibility of all four of them confronting him on what he had done. Though they could not have him charged because of a Statute of Limitations, they could have the satisfaction of letting him know how his crime had changed their lives. There is a healing aspect to confrontation.

But all four refused to do it. Curiously, each of them had a different reason:

  • One was afraid it would kill their sick mother
  • One felt she had somehow participated in the abuse and had no moral grounds to confront him.
  • One was sure confronting him would destroy her inside
  • The final one felt she would never be able to get the words out of her mouth.

Their unique responses to confrontation underscores how each victim experiences abuse and assault differently. But it also shows that every victim wrestles with different beliefs emerging out of the abusive situation. Continue reading “The Five Lies that Victims Believe”

Two Doors—Two False Ideas

I grew up in a “cowboy” town in central British Columbia in the 1960s. I say it was a cowboy town because our area was surrounded by 100s of ranches, and everyone in the region attended our rodeo and exhibition which centered around 4H events and ranch life. Our rodeo occupies a place in cowboy lore just a step behind the famous Calgary Stampede.

I hung out with several legit cowboys in high school. After high school, I worked on a cattle ranch and cowboy life became part of my biography.

Most Cowboys like to drink, and the men in our town were exceptional at it. My dad loved to drink beer and play poker, both of which were pasttimes of our town. My dad spent many afternoons and evenings at the saloon near our house. He spoke about it in glowing terms. It was like a mistress he was not ashamed to admit he visited.

One day, Dad, Mom and I were out for a walk. We walked by the bar and Dad pointed out this was the place he told me about. I had seen it before, but now I noticed one of its features. It had two entrances.

On the one door was the word “Men”. On the other door it said “Ladies and Escorts”. (Note: in the 60s, “escort” did not mean prostitute. It referred to a person who escorted another person to a social event. It could refer to either men or women).

I asked Dad why they had two different entrances. “It’s to protect the women”, Dad said. “If a woman goes into the man’s side without a man with her, she is not safe. No woman would want to do that.” I believe he was telling me this: This place is not safe for women without male protection. Continue reading “Two Doors—Two False Ideas”

Why Churches Disbelieve Victims and Believe Pastoral Abusers

He was the principal of the Christian school which met at the church. His dad was the Senior Pastor. He had four years of teacher training and all the obligatory certifications, internships, and education needed. He added a Masters Degree in Theology and another Masters in Educational Administration. He was fully qualified to do the job he was doing.

During the five years he had been principal, his dad’s church had grown from 200 members to almost 1500. In that medium-sized town, the church dwarfed all the others. The main draw for newcomers was the Christian school.

And that’s when the accusations started. Continue reading “Why Churches Disbelieve Victims and Believe Pastoral Abusers”

Matthew 25 Spoken to the Pastors of Today”

sheep-goats

You can read Matthew 25 yourselves.

In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the Son of Man, now called the King, accuses the religious leaders of not helping the poor, hospitalized, homeless, hungry, and thirsty. He lets them know when they withhold these things from people, they are really withholding them from Him, their Creator.

We do have other necessary things we are withholding from people today in the Church. Though not all of us do this, enough of us do that it is worth revisiting Matthew 25 to see if it could be re-imagined this way: (Please note: All of these are based on actual court cases from the past two years)

“Depart from me, you who are cursed with trying to get more butts into the seats, and burn with the eternal knowledge that you caused one of my little ones to stumble.

For I was slapped by one of your husbands and you refused to believe he could do such a thing; and then you elected him to the Deacons board.

I was molested in the Sunday school classroom, and you said there was not enough proof.

I was led down a dark road by the youth pastor and forced to have sex, and you covered it up and made it all go away.

I told you that your pastor had an affair with me, and even though the evidence was overwhelming, you said there was nothing you could do.

I was taken advantage of by a narcissistic church leader, and you all ganged up on me and told me if I had dressed more modestly, none of this would have happened.

I was photographed by your children’s pastor and used for child pornography, and only when the fifth victim came forward did you do anything.

I was raped, and even though the law says you must tell the police, you hid behind Matthew 18 and handled it yourself. And he has now raped four women and he is still a member of the church.

And what will you answer?

How Pastor-Abusers Choose their Targets

In her 1998 novel, “Where the Heart Is“, author Billie Letts tells a dark story of two victimized women, Novalee Nation and her friend Lexie Coop. Both of them have suffered hardship and heartache at the hands of the  people closest to them. Novalee has been consistently abandoned by everyone. Lexie has been beat up by the men in her life.

In the climactic scene, Novalee gets a frantic call from Brownie, one of Lexie’s kids. When she arrives, she finds Lexie barely alive with the two older kids huddled in a back bedroom. She had been dating a good-looking man she met at a gas station. One afternoon, she got off work early and went home to be with the kids. She walked in on this man molesting her oldest son and daughter. In protecting them, she was beat into unconsciousness.

Days later, Lexie and Novalee are going over what happened that fateful afternoon. “How did he find me, Novalee?” Lexie gets out between sobs. “How do they always find me? Men like that somehow know that I will just invite them into my life and will let them hurt me and the kids. How do they find me?”

That is the same sort of question every victim of clergy sexual abuse has asked me.

It adds insult to pain when the victim of Clergy Sexual Abuse (CSA) realizes they were not chosen at random. The pastoral-abuser targeted them specifically because of certain characteristics. This thought weighs on the victim’s mind and often leads to anxiety and confusion. In many cases, it produces guilt and shame. “I must have done something wrong to cause this.” “What is wrong with me that he would do that just to me?” It also doesn’t help that other Christians ask the same question: “What did you do to cause this Man of God to commit such a sin?

Those questions are some of the forms of victim-shaming and blaming. It is still victim-shaming when the victim does it to herself. Continue reading “How Pastor-Abusers Choose their Targets”

The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 2

Opening the Eyes: The Cycle of Abuse

Mike Phillips

with

Julia Dahl, MD

One of American literature’s most enduring characters is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, the lead character in his novel “The Scarlet Letter”. In this book, Hester has an affair with the parish minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. She becomes pregnant with his child and bears a daughter, Pearl. Because she is a widow, the people of this Puritan community quickly surmise she has had an adulterous affair with someone in the town. They cannot convince Hester to name her accomplice, so, her church and community decide to shame her. Her sentence? She must wear a scarlet letter “A” (for Adultery) embroidered on all her clothes.

She wears this emblem designed to shame her for the rest of her life, choosing to place the needs of the community and her abuser above her own and protect the identity of her abuser.  Hester allows her abuser to continue his life without shame since she will not reveal the father, Rev. Dimmesdale. I have read this book several times, and the final time I came to this conclusion:

“Hester has been duped”. Continue reading “The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 2”