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A New Way to Understand Difficult Relationships
Difficult relationships are … well, difficult. Yet some go beyond “mere” conflict, disagreements, and occasional heated discussions, and enter the realm of toxicity and abuse.
An abusive relationship is a pattern of attitudes and actions that create a confusing, terrifying, fragile and crazy-making atmosphere within what should be the sacred space of the home. The abuse is repeated, again and again. Even if months go by with no obvious incident, eventually the same pattern reappears—and, as the years go by, the pattern reappears with increasing frequency.
We typically call someone who uses manipulation, gaslighting, and other toxic behaviors to control others an abuser. I certainly have, in countless previous articles, but perhaps there’s a different way we can view these individuals—while still keeping in mind that there is absolutely no excuse for abuse. Individuals who use such tactics need to take full responsibility for their choices and actions. Even so, understanding their wounds helps us to release any resentment or other blocks that can keep us from living in our Imago Dei—our true selves, made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).
Part of my training to become a trauma-informed life coach has included the study of a therapeutic method called Internal Family Systems (IFS). Developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, IFS suggests that within each of us are many sub-personalities or “families,” such as wounded parts, those parts of us that try to protect us from further hurt, and parts of us that we may not like. Although our primary self—again, made in the image and likeness of God—was created whole and complete, we live in a fallen world.
We get hurt, and we hurt others. We develop addictions or traumas, we feel anxious or ashamed. We get angry, and we stuff that anger until it explodes, or take it out on others in destructive ways. This is called “being human.”
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom. 7:15)
Under the IFS model we can now separate our Imago Dei—our true self—from our various sub-parts.
For example, I’m not an anxious person at the foundation of my true self, but I do have an anxious part, a part that has tried to take over and run the show in an effort to protect me from various dangers I’ve endured. This is wonderful, and appreciated during times of immediate chaos and trauma.
However, now that I’m in a safe place, I no longer need that protector part to be so prominent. At this point I only need her to step forward and alert me to authentic threats. Part of my own work in healing from trauma has been to create harmony within my nervous system by honoring that part, while integrating it to the background role it deserves—to come out only as a justified warning that something in my life is off-kilter.
The realization that we all consist of various parts is a breakthrough not only for personal inner healing, but for understanding and being empathetic toward others—particularly with those in our lives who are challenging to understand.
Individuals who use control and manipulation in relationships tend to be what IFS calls “blended.” This means that they identify so strongly with a part that the part takes over and becomes primary.
In IFS lingo, the “abuser” or “controlling” part is a firefighter aspect of the personality. Our various firefighter parts react and attempt to take control when feelings of shame, vulnerability, or not feeling good enough are triggered—all in an effort to control and extinguish these uncomfortable emotions.
The firefighter parts will put out the emotional fire any way they can, without restraint. This aggressive method isn’t healthy, but it’s the only way the fight-or-flight response system of our body knows how to react in certain situations, especially when issues of shame or vulnerability come to the forefront.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are no bad parts of ourselves—yet there are parts that can get out of control and need to be nurtured into their appropriate, non-extreme roles. Going back to the example of the anxious part of myself, anxiety can serve a faithful and important role in my life, and can even be a signal from the Holy Spirit that something needs to be addressed. Anxiety can be good—but only when it’s not taken to extremes.
If someone with a controlling part wants to deal with their issues in a healthy way—to permanently extinguish the flames and transform that part so it can be merged with the Imago Dei—they’ll first have to be willing to admit that part exists.
If they are willing, they’ll also have to be ready to seriously dive into a lot of work—and for a very long time. Healing is a slow journey, but it’s the immense effort that makes the reintegration permanent and transformative. Working with an IFS-trained coach or therapist is important in order to help these individuals realize, recognize, and reintegrate their various parts. This includes not just their out-of-control parts, but all the exiled parts of themselves that they’ve ignored.
Exiled parts are those “young parts that have experienced trauma and often become isolated from the rest of the system in an effort to protect the individual from feeling the pain, terror, fear, and so on. If exiled, these parts can become increasingly extreme and desperate in an effort to be cared for and tell their story; they can leave the individual feeling fragile and vulnerable.”
Individuals also need to admit and explore every out-of-control firefighter part, the ones that create disruptive life patterns and addictions (to porn, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and so much more). Firefighters need to step back when there is no fire. They must learn how to rest in the firehouse, cuddle with the Dalmatian, play a round of backgammon, and chill out. Fires aren’t raging constantly—and when they’re authentically raging, there are healthy ways to deal with them.
All wounded parts must be examined, blessed, and loved into reintegration. This is hard, long, painful work, and someone must be eager to make major life changes in order to put in the necessary effort to repair past wounds.
Why did they develop a controlling part in the first place? How did this firefighter get out of control? These are all issues that must be explored and healed—if the controlling part is willing. If an individual with these issues decides to be open to the grace of God and becomes willing to dive into the work of untangling their personality and toxic traits, healing can at last begin.
We can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).
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