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.

Featured

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.

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 Polymath and the Pain

A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”; Latin: homo universalis, “universal man”) is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

–Wikipedia definition of “Polymath”.

This past year, I have learned a hard truth about myself. I’m not who I thought I was, and who other people may still think I am. And it hurts me to have to admit that to myself. It is painful but cathartic to admit it to you.

Around this time last year, I had a minimal existential crisis. A certain SiriusXM radio station broadcast their list of the 1000 greatest rock and roll songs of all time. Because I was on the road a lot that month, and because they kept repeating the 1000 songs, I got to listen to various sections many times. There were so many songs that I didn’t bother arguing with where they should be placed on the list–until we got to the top 150.

That’s when I had my crisis. I actually only knew a few songs here and there. At one point, I listened for an entire hour and never heard a song I knew. The critical point came when I realized that the top 150 had five songs by The Who, and none of them were “Pinball Wizard”. And, I knew none of those songs. Not one. I also knew only two of the five Rolling Stones songs, none of the Grateful Dead songs, none of the Grand Funk Railroad songs (though I called them GFR like I was their biggest fan), and only a single Jimmy Hendrix song.

Continue reading “A Polymath and the Pain”

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”

Myths and Misunderstandings about Demons

The 45 college-aged students were stunned and frightened. Some were weeping, and others were so angry they balled up their fists and held their breath. They looked around as if they were about to be the next victim in a Hallowe’en movie. “Jumpy” describes their mood. Some of them reported weeks later they had not had a good night’s sleep since that horrific weekend.

Was this a murder mystery experience? Did they just do a horror movie marathon? Or did they really experience a supernatural phenomenon?

Actually, none of those things happened. They went on a college-and-career church retreat with their church. They invited a group of seniors from a local Bible College to come and do some teaching and direction for their weekend.

“It will be fun”, they thought.

“It will be instructive”, they hoped.

“It will be the most chaotic moment of our lives”, imagined none of them.

The worst part was…I was one of the teachers that weekend. I and my fellow college students were zealous and ignorant–a very toxic combination. Continue reading “Myths and Misunderstandings about Demons”

Reviewing the Introduction of Jay Adams’ “Competent to Counsel”

As a sophomore studying theology in 1975, I read the textbook for my Pastoral Counseling class and was shocked. Though at that stage in my life I had taken no psychology courses–that would come several years later–I knew enough about the basic philosophy of psychology to suspect this textbook was not accurate.

Little did I know that book would sell millions of copies and affect the viewpoints on psychology for an entire generation. The book is called “Competent To Counsel” written by Jay Adams. The book, and Adams are the cornerstone of an entire counseling methodology called “Nouthetic” or “Biblical” Counseling.

Though the Nouthetic group (referred to now as the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors ) has many other resources they lay claim to, none is more influential than this book.

I do not like this book. I can state that up-front. I also do not agree with its premise: All psychology is humanism and must be rejected. Continue reading “Reviewing the Introduction of Jay Adams’ “Competent to Counsel””