Have you noticed during this pandemic that some of your “old friends” keep showing up uninvited? I think you know who I mean – those behaviors so familiar for so long that you naively thought you had left behind. Maybe it’s procrastination or sluggishness. Maybe it’s peevishness or fault-finding. Maybe it’s fretting or freaking out. Maybe it’s binging on food or alcohol or YouTube. Maybe it’s slipping back into pornography or masturbation, after doing “so much better.” You get the idea.
I remember having that experience back in 2008, during my first year of graduate studies in Rome. My first oral exam approached, and lo! My inner procrastinator, whom I had killed and buried (or so I thought) was suddenly alive and well. There I was, at 32 years old, back in the old ways of avoiding studying and wasting hours upon hours of my time – not in deeply satisfying or fun connecting with other people, but in escaping and numbing that left me feeling more and more like a failure.
During the previous five years, in my bustling ministry as a high school chaplain and teacher, I totally thought I had overcome procrastination. I truly changed many habits and discovered the joy of being tidy and organized and responsible – or so I thought. During those five years, I rarely procrastinated because I simply couldn’t afford to. But given the opportunity once again…
Hello old friend.
He made himself at home in my heart as though he had never left.
I now understand that there was so much more going on than procrastination. This was not primarily a matter of discipline or a lack of discipline. The deeper truth is that I was not very connected to my emotions, nor to the deeper needs of my heart. I was feeling lonely, sad, and disconnected. I was fearing failure and struggling with shame. I was feeling very much like I felt when I was 10 or 11 years old.
A wise man I once knew always liked to say “old pain, old solution.” If I am feeling like an emotionally vulnerable 11-year-old, then it’s easy to begin acting like one.
Unfortunately, when we act like 11-year-olds (or 8-year-olds or 3-year-olds) we have a tendency to be frustrated or disgusted or self-shaming. Why do I have to be this way?? What’s wrong with me??
Children in distress need comfort and care, not shaming. We can learn to be kind to ourselves in those moments.
A year ago I was reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. I was moved to tears as he described a trauma treatment called Internal Family Systems therapy. It really resonated with me. IFS describes the all-too-common human experience of having many voices and movements within our hearts at any given time. It’s almost like each of us has multiple personalities within us. We have an assortment of character roles that we can quickly assume, without even thinking about it: the procrastinator, the perfectionist, the fault-finder, the binge eater, the gossip, the worry wart, the hider, the flirt – and so many more.
Internal Family Systems suggests that our deepest, truest self is an integration of all these different “parts” of ourselves. I will give a caveat that there are (unfortunately) some very New-Age versions of IFS that risk turning us into narcissists or Gnostics or worse. But Christians like Chuck DeGroat (author of Wholeheartedness) do a marvelous job of describing the wholeness and integration that Jesus came to bring. All of these inner characters – some of them deeply familiar to us – are good parts of our good hearts, created in the image and likeness of God. Some of these “parts” are still stuck in childhood, still playing the same old role they began playing all those years ago. And they are tired and exhausted. They long to hear the Good News of Jesus.
IFS divides these inner parts or characters into three main groups: exiles, managers, and firefighters.
Often when we experience serious trauma or neglect in life, our survival instincts kick in, and we discover ways to protect ourselves and endure. We instinctively find ways to lock away the most tender and vulnerable parts of ourselves. These become the exiles.
The exiles carry heavy burdens such as shame, fear, loneliness, sadness, anger, or resentment. They also carry our deepest human potential – for trust, vulnerability, dependence, relationships, connection, creativity, innovation, fruitfulness, and self-gift. As long as they stay locked up, we will only be a shell of our true selves. But letting them out feels so scary. It seems so much safer to keep them locked away.
That is where the managers come in (sometimes called the “protectors”). They receive a commission at a very young age – work vigilantly and relentlessly to keep guard over the exiles. Make sure they do not escape!
For myself, at a very young age, I learned how to hide myself. Better not to let my true self be seen. That is probably my oldest manager/protector. Many of my other inner characters are variations on how to hide myself – even in plain sight. I learned early and often how to dissociate from the present moment, how to daydream, how to be shy, or how to procrastinate.
Around age 11, I somehow hired an entire crack team of new managers – headed by the perfectionist. Working for him were other high-performance managers like the “A” student, the athlete, the achiever, and the Pharisee. Performing and achieving somehow felt so safe – indeed, I stayed in that mode for about 30 more years!
These characters served me so well – until they didn’t. It sure seemed like, with them working so hard, they could somehow find a way to make sure I never make any mistakes and therefore would never be unloved or rejected. It turns out that Love doesn’t work that way. But 11-year-olds still have a lot to learn about Love.
There are many manager or protector roles that we can take on – the worry wart, the future tripper, the planner, or the control freak. And then there is everyone’s all-time favorite: the inner critic – that almost undetectable whisper within that tells us we are going to fail, that we’ll never be good enough. Even that inner critic is a good part of ourselves that means well – trying so hard to protect us from the pain of feeling rejected or unwanted or unloved. Probably there was a time when that voice helped us survive. Eventually, it becomes a torment.
It’s so easy to let our managers be in charge – or live in the illusion that they are in charge. For long periods of time it feels like success! Life seems so great.
Then something truly hard happens, and it begins to feel like our cozy little life is slipping away. We notice that one of our exiles is escaping; we begin feeling bodily sensations or emotions that (according to past experience) are a stern warning of imminent danger – a serious threat is at hand.
In those situations, some of us tend to double down on our managers. I will try even harder, impose even more discipline, become blaming and demanding with others, cling desperately to control – you know the drill.
And then it fails. The alarm goes off. Security breach. The exiles are on the loose.
Enter the firefighters.
They will put out the fire – whatever it takes. They tend to be “bad boys.” They don’t mind doing all kinds of property damage, so long as they save the exiles and get them back in their cages. Mission accomplished.
It very much reminds me of the hotel scene in Ghostbusters when they capture their first ghost – trashing the ritzy ballroom in the process. When the manager protests paying their fee, they say, “That’s okay, we can just put it right back in there…” And the manager relents.
Within my own inner “family” of characters, I have more benign firefighters like the daydreamer or the disarming smiler or the jokester. I have more intense ones like the nail biter, the binge eater, or the drinker. Addictive behaviors of any kind definitely fall in the firefighter category.
Looking back to my teenage years, my inner perfectionist was in charge most of the time, but when he and his team got exhausted, I spent hours on end escaping into video games. The escapes changed and morphed over the years. Eventually, life got hard enough that none of them were enough. That is when I realized I needed to reach out in new ways for help. So I did. My life has been transformed by the new relationships and new adventures.
Yes, during this time of COVID-19, I have definitely had moments in which multiple managers or multiple firefighters began showing up unannounced – just like the dwarves at the beginning of The Hobbit.
If you are familiar with that delightful tale, you know how Bilbo Baggins (reluctantly at first) shows hospitality to his intrusive guests. That unexpected party ultimately opens an opportunity for Bilbo to embark upon an amazing adventure there and back again that forever changes his life. All would have been different had he driven the dwarves away in disgust.
Here we find an important lesson. These various “parts” within us, these characters or members of our inner family system are not our enemies. They’re sincerely trying to help us; they just don’t know how. This is true even for those parts of the human heart that act out in the form of sexual fantasy or lust or pornography. They are trying very hard to meet a legitimate (non-sexual) need in an illicit way. Human urges may need a lot of untangling but when we get to the roots we will discover something very good.
To be sure, like those dwarves in Tolkien’s tale, our firefighters and managers are not the best ones to put in charge. Their self-interest and narrow-mindedness will get in the way. But if properly led and rightly ordered, they are wonderful travel companions and fierce allies.
The first step, I have found, is gently noticing. Just notice that all these characters have suddenly shown up. Then wonder at why they are really there…
Some of the questions I find helpful in these situations: What’s going on? What am I really feeling right now? Is there something my heart needs right now? I find when I slow down and truly allow myself to be in the present moment, I often begin weeping, not realizing just what a “party” my heart was having and I wasn’t paying attention to. I also find that it often helps to phone a friend and connect, to begin naming what is happening in the depths of my heart, describing the “unexpected party” of managers or firefighters who suddenly showed up.
In IFS therapy sessions, therapists will actually ask questions of these managers or firefighters. Why are you here? How old are you? What are you so afraid of? When these different characters within ourselves are seen and noticed, heard and understood, thanked and appreciated, then they behave like most real people would in those circumstances – they become more open and docile, willing to be led and guided by someone who is trustworthy. They step aside and allow the exiles to be truly cared for.
Truth is, they don’t actually like their job – it’s a crappy role they were forced to take on at a very young age. They would very much like it if a mature and wise person would step in to lead and direct. But they need lots of reassurance that it’s going to be safe – that the exiles won’t be hurt in the process.
That is why the self-loathing and self-shaming is so toxic. It increases the inner conflicts. Our managers will then become even more overbearing, and our firefighters become that much more sly and cunning. These inner characters are holding on to parts of ourselves that need to be saved. They are good and faithful servants in their own misguided manner. They need to be integrated and unified, not cast aside.
We may feel frustrated that old behaviors come knocking at our door, unwelcome and unexpected. But we can learn empathy and kindness. We can allow the Risen Jesus to enter the scene with his “Peace be with you.” Then the unexpected party can truly become a the beginning of a great adventure. The Paschal Peace of Jesus will begin to give direction and right order to our exiles, our managers, and our firefighters. He will gather and integrate and heal what had been scattered and divided and damaged.
Yes, sometimes this quarantine is really hard. But don’t let it get you down. See it as an opportunity to have tea with some old friends. Invite Jesus to the party and let him give his guidance and wisdom. Accept the help of other friends along the way, and don’t let the unruly dwarves get the best of you. It’s an invitation to a great adventure, one that will lead you to discover your deeper destiny, one that will heal your heart and allow the glory of Jesus to shine.