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.

Church and the Asexuality Trap

“I don’t know if I want to be married to James any more. This marriage is torture and I can’t see any solution.” Adeline slumped over in her chair and sighed. James just rolled his eyes and sighed a different sigh than hers.

She sighed out of hopelessness. I thought his sigh had tints of anger in it. I asked him to explain how he saw it.

She’s making something out of nothing. Every time we fight it’s always about sex. And I don’t understand it. I give her all the sex she wants. And it’s never enough. And I hate that we have to keep talking about it all the time. Can’t we talk about something else in marriage besides sex?”

I don't know if I want to be married to James any more. This marriage is torture and I can't see any solution." Click To Tweet

James and Adeline had met in a short-term Bible training school. They knew instantly they were perfect for each other. They both loved God, loved to travel, and wanted to get married and have a family. They had so many things in common. They shared so many of the same basic goals in life. Soon, each of them felt they had found their soul-mate

James planned to get a job in computer-aided design and already had his degree. Addy still had to finish her professional year in preparation for teaching high school. When James proposed marriage, she accepted and they began to plan the wedding. They were both ordered and structured people. They knew what they wanted and when they wanted it.

And they knew they wanted each other.

Continue reading “Church and the Asexuality Trap”

Why Pastors Make Poor Allies

It was 1992. The church I attended was heavily invested in the pro-life cause. Many of its members marched in front of the only abortion clinic in our town, shaming women who entered, and calling for strict change of law to make abortions almost impossible to get. There were prayer meetings in the church to defeat the “powers of darkness” surrounding the abortion industry.

One of the members was involved in a commission to help re-write some of the state’s laws on abortion. Another member had been thrown in jail twice for marching against abortion. We had our “pro-life credentials” well established.

No one knew the reservations I had about the pro-life movement. As a counselor, I knew that dozens of women in our church had abortions in the past. Some of them were the most vehement opponents of abortion. Some of them lived shamed lives, hoping no one ever found out about them.

I had doubts the movement was from God. I had researched the pro-life movement’s political roots, and knew I could not support any of the principal players. I searched in vain for any mention of abortion in the Bible. Even the few verses which spoke about God calling someone from their mother’s womb were found in poetic writings which are hardly substantial fodder for theological positions.

In short, I had my doubts about all the marching going on.

The worst part was the work of the Holy Spirit inside of me. The Spirit of God was convicting me of my hatred and judgment toward women who made the decision to terminate their pregnancies. God would not allow me just to ignore those hateful attitudes. In prayer one day, God directed me to publicly apologize for my attitudes and to make amends. I started to prepare a teaching but God showed me it wasn’t enough.

Continue reading “Why Pastors Make Poor Allies”

Explaining my Exvangelical Status

He was my mentor. He was ordained in a conservative evangelical church. He had been meeting with me for several years as I sought to reconcile what I believed about God and the Bible with the huge discrepancies I saw in the church. It was good to bounce my frustrations off his mind. I think I would have left Evangelicalism for good if he had not helped me cope with the hypocritical practices of the church.

That’s when he dropped a bombshell. He had been attending some evening meetings at a local charismatic group. We both believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still given to people in the Church today. We also believe that there are proper and ridiculous ways those gifts can be practiced.

Here was his bomb. The night before, he claimed he saw gold dust appear on people’s hands during worship. Someone else said God gave them a gold filling during the prayer time which replaced their regular filling. My mentor was full of thanksgiving to God for these miracles. I asked him if he could confirm the gold dust or the gold tooth. Could he say with full assurance that it was really gold and not just some glitter or sweat from dancing in worship?

He was really angry with me for asking that question. He warned me not to criticize what might be the work of the Holy Spirit in case I was blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

At that moment, I decided I was mentally done with the Evangelical movement.

I wish I could give you the entire delineated journey of the previous 28 years up to that point. I have written about some elements of the journey in my books, articles, and blog entries. But with this essay, I want to explain to my friends and readers–and perhaps to those in my denomination looking for a reason to disqualify me–why I am not part of that tribe any more.

And I need to explain the parameters of what I left behind. Continue reading “Explaining my Exvangelical Status”

The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 1

Shattering the Lens.  The Grooming Behavior of Pastor-Predators

Mike Phillips

with

Julia Dahl M.D.

This may be a difficult post for several reasons.

First, this post asks the reader to reflect on what the term “Pastor” means to them. Commonly, pastors are understood to be spiritual overseers.  If what you believe about all pastors is dependent on the image, faith, or charisma of your own pastor, this post asks the reader lay aside the naive ideal that all pastors are divinely-called shepherds.

There are some narcissistic men who lead a church or ministry and use the flock for their own gratification. Often, this will manifest in sexual relations with church attenders.  This behavior by some destroys many decent images of healthy pastors and other church/ministry leaders. I don’t blame anyone for struggling to confront and accept this conclusion.

Here is the reality we deal with:

Pastors can be roughly grouped in three categories:

  1. Divinely called and faithful servants of God.
  2. Divinely called servants, presently tempted, and struggling with personal sin. They deal with their own weaknesses but do not use others for their gratification.
  3. Intentional usurpers of the pulpit and the congregation for the purposes of their own enjoyment and control.4c50b3e8-24ba-4416-b469-b44e0dbd3af8

This third category of pastor are those who most represent pastoral misconduct. In recent days, with the advent of the #metoo, #churchtoo and #silenceisnotspiritual movements, brave victims share their stories of pastors who practice abuse and mayhem.  It will be impossible to ignore this third category of pastor with the growing body of reports of pastoral misconduct on the news and social media.  To clearly understand the problem of sexual abuse by pastors, I encourage you to read the stories of victims in order to accept that some men seek the pulpit with the intention to serve themselves and not to serve God.

Is this just a few men?  Sadly, no. Continue reading “The Grooming Behavior of Pastoral Predators – Part 1”

Jesus Addresses Victim-Shaming

Joleen’s parents marched into my office with their daughter trailing behind. Dad’s hand wrangled her wrist so tightly I could already see the marks forming from his fingers. They flung her down into the chair in front of me.

“Tell Mr. Phillips what you did!” Her mother spat these words at her. Joleen never raised her head or spoke.

“I said tell him!”

Immediately, I got up and came around my desk and stood between the parents and their sixteen-year old daughter. From the intensity of their anger, I guessed she was either pregnant or they had discovered she was sexually active. As I came around to stand beside her, Dad said something under his breath. I realized he had just called her a name associated with shaming someone who is sexually active. I got angry. I asked her parents if they would leave my office and go into the waiting room so I could talk to her.

Hesitant at first, she admitted she and her boyfriend had sex the night before. She was frightened and angry about her experience, so she told her sister who promptly told her mother. Within an hour, they had come to my office.

I sat down beside her and asked her not to give me the details about the sexual experience, but how she felt about it and herself. She began by using the same disgusting label her dad had used. I asked her not to do that. Then, she explained how the sexual encounter happened. I didn’t allow her to give me explicit details, but even without them, I realized something awful.

Her date had raped her. Continue reading “Jesus Addresses Victim-Shaming”