A New Way to Look at Abusive Personalities
Internal Family Systems is a therapeutic approach to healing that helps us further understand why some people attempt to control and manipulate others
We typically call someone who uses abuse to control or manipulate others an abuser. I certainly have, in countless previous articles, but perhaps there’s a different way we can view these individuals, one that gives us a more charitable perspective as well as relieves some of our cognitive dissonance.
At the same time, we must always remember that there is no excuse for abuse, and those who use such tactics need to take full responsibility for their choices and actions.
The mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in people is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: they reject, explain away, or avoid the new information; persuade themselves that no conflict really exists; reconcile the differences; or resort to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in their conceptions of the world and of themselves (Encyclopedia Britannica).
For example, extreme cognitive dissonance is created when trying to cling to the belief that your spouse is kind and loving, while at the same time experiencing that he is cruel and controlling.
Part of my training to become a certified 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—made in the image and likeness of God—was created as a cohesive whole, we live in a fallen world. We get hurt, we hurt others; we develop addictions or traumas, we feel anxious or ashamed.
Under the IFS model, we can now separate our core, primary self from our various sub-parts. For example, I’m not an anxious person at the core of my beinghood, but I do have an anxious part, a part that has tried to take over and run the show in an effort to alert me of the emotional danger I was enduring for so long. Now that I’m in a safe place, I no longer need that protector part to be so prominent; I only need her to step forward and alert me to real 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.
Changing just one part of ourselves has a beautiful trickle-down effect, because other parts will change and heal as well. Healing all the wounded parts allows our true selves, as God created us, to come forward and once again be in control.
“If you are who you ought to be, you will light a fire in all the world!”
(St. Catherine of Siena, Letter T368)
The realization that we all consist of various parts is a breakthrough not only for inner healing, but for understanding and being empathetic toward others—particularly when those others are challenging to understand.
For abuse survivors, especially if the abuse has been covert, it’s confusing to reconcile the Dr. Jekyll part of our spouse with the Mr. Hyde part. The cognitive dissonance itself constitutes yet another layer of trauma. How can a beloved partner be so loving and so kind one moment, and a terrifying stranger the next?
Without getting into the various types of abusers (I’ve already done that), or a discussion on the abuse cycle (I’ve also written about that, as well as love bombing), there may be another way to view the situation.
Your abusive loved-one (or ex-loved-one) has parts, as well.
Those who use control and manipulation in relationships tend to be what IFS calls “blended.” This means that the primary self—the pure, God-image self—identifies so strongly with a part that the part takes over and becomes primary.
Someone who rates high on the narcissistic scale may be callous, lacking in empathy, controlling and ego-driven, and this may manifest all the time. Even the “love-bombing” or “honeymoon” stage of the relationship is a ruse to get narcissistic needs met. There’s a reason the pseudo-kindness sometimes comes out—and it’s all related to the (conscious or unconscious) game of manipulation, power-over and control.
These types of personalities don’t want to change—they enjoy controlling others and would never seek out the therapy needed to become a whole, healthy person.
Yet this isn’t always the case. With some individuals who use abuse to dominate and gaslight others, the toxic aspect is a part that does desire to change, but doesn’t know how (for clarification we can call it the “abuser part”). After that part goes back into hiding, the individual feels sincerely remorseful.
Until the next incident.
In IFS lingo, the abuser part is a“firefighter” aspect of the personality. Our various firefighter parts “react when exiles are activated in an effort to control and extinguish their feelings.” According to the IFS Institute, “they can do this in any number of ways, including drug or alcohol use, self-mutilation (cutting), binge-eating, sex binges.”
This includes domestic violence in all its forms (not just physical but also emotional, verbal, spiritual, financial, sexual, and psychological abuse).
The firefighter parts will put out the emotional fire any way they can, without restraint.
When a firefighter part gets out of control, it tries to put out flames that don’t exist—and that’s obviously a problem. In the case of an abuser part, that part is not only trying to extinguish a non-existent fire, but is actually creating a blazing flame which it then attempts to put out through continued control and manipulation.
You can well imagine what enormous problems this causes, and how it destroys not only relationships, but attempts to destroy the very spirit of the victim.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are no bad parts of ourselves—only 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 someone’s 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 an abuser part wants to deal with their issues in a healthy way—to put out the flames for good and transform that part so it can be merged with the true self—they’ll have to be willing to admit that part exists.
For individuals who have high narcissistic traits, this is something they’re most often not willing to do.
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 (years, not mere months—as a matter of fact, they’ll have to be vigilant for the rest of their lives to ensure the abuser part doesn’t resurface).
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 abuser part, 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” (IFS Institute).
Bessel van der Kolk adds:
“We all have parts that are childlike and fun. When we are abused, these are the parts that are hurt the most, and they become frozen, carrying the pain, terror, and betrayal of abuse. This burden makes them toxic—parts of ourselves that we need to deny at all costs. Because they are locked away inside, IFS calls them exiles.”
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, pat the dog, play some chess, chill out. Fires aren’t raging constantly—yet 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 an abuser 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 abuser part is willing. If not, if the abuser part becomes so blended with the core self that it takes over and won’t budge.
If the abuser part is deluding the true self that no change is needed, then sadly, no change will ever happen.
But 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.
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