Jean Stimmell: A house of divided parts

  • A house on Winding Hill Road in Northwood, photographed in October 2015. Jean Stimmell

For the Monitor
Published: 10/14/2018 12:15:07 AM

I just ran across a passage by Sigmund Freud about how words were originally magic, and still to this day retain much of their magical power; he gives this as an example: “By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him (or her) to despair.”

How can any of us deny the truth of his statement after just being dragged through the hair-pulling, heart-wrenching spectacle of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process.

Buddhists remind us that objectivity is an illusion. But that fact, by itself, does not doom us to polarization and chaos. In fact, our nation, as the very name indicates – the United States of America – has had great success in coming together to find common ground.

A common thread of our 241-year-old history is that enough of our leaders, along with us as citizens, have had the ability to see the big picture and, despite the hot blood of our partisanship, understand the viewpoint of those on the other side and, as a result, come together with a passable, compromise solution that promotes our general welfare.

However, there have been a few times in our past when we lost this ability, like the run-up to the Civil War; the resulting polarization and tribalism led us to fight the bloodiest war in our history.

No doubt, the extreme tribalism of today, the blind anger and distrust, if left to fester into a whole body infection will lead to another such crisis. Abraham Lincoln stated the truth: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Sometimes in dire times, we need to think outside the box. Perhaps Internal Family Systems (IFS), a new model of psychotherapy, can shed light on our current tribal behavior.

Richard Schwartz, who formulated IFS, understood, as a family therapist, that individuals in troubled families were often trapped in unconscious patterns of behavior that caused conflict.

He soon discovered that just as a family has individual members with different roles, so does the individual psyche have different parts that could be seen as sub-personalities. In fact, we have a multitude of such parts, including some unwanted, perhaps pushed away, parts that are aggressive and sexual.

He found that most troubled individuals have wounded parts steeped in painful emotions, such as anger, shame, fear and remorse. These sub-personalities are often in conflict with each other and with one’s core self, a concept that describes the whole, caring person who is at the center of each of us.

In a nutshell, we are all born with an innate, core self that is clear, confident and compassionate, with an unspoken spiritual component that resonates with all religious traditions. However, our core self can be overrun by irrational parts, such as those mentioned above.

To my way of thinking, IFS sheds light on our current national polarization and tribal behavior on two different levels:

On the individual level, many of us are being dominated by our sub-personalities of fear, anger and hate, which are consuming us. These irrational parts have overridden our self, which is at a higher level, the only one capable of clearly and compassionately seeing the whole picture.

Therapy, whether with a professional or self-directed, consists of first learning to recognize the limited, irrational nature of these exiled parts and then helping them develop a positive role with the framework of the larger, overarching self.

On the societal level, I guess it’s up to us voters.

Luckily, over the course of our nation’s history, we have generally chosen well, electing leaders who have at least made an effort to govern from their higher self: adhering to age-old ethical and moral principles, having compassion for the weakest among us, and seeking to expand the common ground that unites us into a single people.

Unfortunately, we are not blessed by higher self leadership today. Quite the opposite. We now have a president who, rather than seeking to unite us, relishes in dividing us further in a naked ploy to increase his power. And we have a craven Republican majority in cahoots with him, spreading doomsday stories of angst, hate and retribution in an attempt to overpower our higher faculties, in a bid to seduce us into their Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog world.

Let’s not let it happen.

In the words of Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.”

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at

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