Interview with Psychologist Alison Cook: Becoming Our Spirit-led Selves

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Well-known podcaster and psychologist Dr. Alison Cook has authored two books—Boundaries for Your Soul (co-written with Kimberly Miller) and, more recently, The Best of You: Break Free from Painful Patterns, Mend your Past and Discover Your True Self in God. Greg had a fascinating conversation with Alison about how she integrates her faith with her research and practice.

Let’s start with The Best of You. Can you give us a synopsis of your striking story that kicks off the book?

It was a Thursday in early September a few years ago. I was struggling with codependency, struggling with losing myself in the name of helping other people, feeling like that was a good Christian woman thing to do. And I finally was able to put some words on what I’ve been struggling for so long to express—this idea of kind of uncovering the self.

I’m in my 40s, healthy, with no known medical conditions, and the very next day, I had a stroke, out of the blue. I’ve never been in an emergency room before. Suddenly, I’m in a helicopter on the way to the hospital.

I did recover. I felt like “I’ve finally cracked the code on something I’ve been wrestling with for two decades.” The process of healing from that trauma, physically but also emotionally and spiritually, was the crucible in which this book was born.

In The Best of You, you focus on the self. How do we get that balance right between giving out and also nurturing ourselves in a positive but not selfish way?

I talk about this idea of selfhood versus selfishness versus selflessness. I think in church communities, we put so much focus on selflessness, on denying yourself, which is why I spend a lot of time in the book unpacking that idea. Because that could become a really toxic message.

I like to distinguish selflessness from selfhood, or true self. While we know selfishness is, “it’s all about me.” In fact, it’s never just about me. But selfhood is, “it’s about you, and it’s about me.” You know, I do need to have a seat at the table. It’s not all about me, but it is partly about me. It’s partly about you. We need to bring ourselves into our relationships.

Tell me about Internal Family Systems or IFS.

It is a form of therapy, founded by Dr. Richard Schwartz and based on his research. It has a pretty simple premise, and the best way to get a glimpse of it is to watch the Pixar movie Inside Out.

It’s this idea that we are comprised of parts, and I think that’s pretty intuitive for most of us. What Dr. Schwartz did was break it down into three categories of parts. The manager parts of us want to please and produce and perform. Those parts of us want to prevent pain. They want to prevent us from making a fool of ourselves. And those are the parts that show up in the world when we’re trying to put our best foot forward.

The firefighter parts of us douse out the flames of pain. These are the parts of us that try to divert our attention away from the pain to alcohol, to food, to drugs, to TV, to social media, to—you name it—whatever form of numbing or coping that just kind of gets us away from the pain. They are protectors. They’re trying to protect us from pain.

Then there’s a third category called exiles. These are the parts of us that carry the painful emotions, the painful memories that we try to shove down. These are the parts of us that need us the most. These are the parts of us that carry loneliness, shame, and sorrow. Sometimes we exile anger, especially for women, but I think a lot of Christians do.

So the goal is parenting this internal family.

In the middle of these three is the self. Dr. Schwartz called it the capital “S” Self. He believed this self is spiritual and self-healing and that you begin to bring the different parts—we call it the soul; he would call it the Self. In my work, I also call it “the Spirit-led self.” You bring it into connection with these parts and integrate them. They start to heal, and they go into proper balance. Proper balance doesn’t mean any of them goes away. It means they are in harmony with each other.

  • Science for the Church has compiled church-based resources on psychology and neuroscience.
  • Christian counselor Julie Honeycutt has developed this resource on Christianity and IFS.
  • Cook also recommends the work of psychiatrist Curt Thompson on interpersonal neurobiology from the perspective of Christian faith perspective.

How is IFS connected with Christian faith in your work?

I was raised in a Christian home. My dad read the Bible to us every morning at breakfast. We loved God, knew the Bible, and wanted to follow Jesus. From an early age, I loved other people, and I’m an observer of others—intrigued and genuinely delighted and curious about other people. But I had not one clue about how to be a self.

And so for me, it’s been a journey. I’ve learned, just buckle up and enjoy the adventure of life because there’s so much to continue to get to know in my own soul, and in that journey to find the love of God, love of others, and love of self. That triangle really is, to me, the joy of being alive in your soul. I can’t think of a better way to live.

One last question: how would you bring some of your psychological research and practice to a congregation?

Psychology can inform how we understand ourselves, how our minds work, how our emotions work, how our bodies work, and how our nervous system works. That doesn’t mean every pastor has to become a neuroscientist or a psychologist, but I think there’s so much great research on which to draw. That means I can use different tools to heal wholistically, so that some spiritual practices could be freed up.

I’m beginning to think the work that I do is under the umbrella of spiritual formation. I think about spiritual formation as not just about the spirit, but as about the mind, the heart, the soul, and even the body. All are part of discipleship and spiritual formation.

Alison, thank you for your time and thank you for your work!

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