Distractions in Prayer: When our Parts Cry for Help

Jan 18, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

In my last weekly reflection, titled Distraction and Prayer: Satan, Symptoms, or Something Else?, I offered you some action items geared toward helping you understand how your distractions in prayer can be a gift. The assignment was simply to jot down the specific distractions as you noticed them interrupting your prayer time, with just enough detail to remember them later.

Maybe you haven’t noticed any interruptions in your prayers, or maybe you haven’t jotted them down yet. No worries, you’re not behind. You can begin paying attention to your distractions during prayer time, just to make a quick note.

If you have already noticed and collected your distractions, hang onto that list. I will circle back in next week’s reflection with keys for connecting your distractions in prayer to your underlying needs and emotions.

In the meantime, I offer you this ‘case study’ for a deeper dive into how unmet attachment needs and unmet integrity needs fuel distractions in our prayer lives.

Meet “Lydia,” a devoted Catholic wife and mother taking time out of her busy schedule to be with Jesus in the adoration chapel.

A Graphic Look at Lydia’s Prayer Time:

Note that the non-verbal distractions are clustered around the right side of Lydia's head; the higher-order cognitive distractions (judging, To-Do list, decision making) are on the left side, as left-brain, thinking-based, verbally-mediated distractions.

Lydia’s Internal Experience During Prayer:

[Lydia’s Rosary beads slip through her fingers and as deeper reflections begin to take shape, she hears inside…]

Don’t forget to stop for milk on the way home… Whole milk? A2? Raw milk from the farm?

Stop; come on, Lydia, focus! Save the shopping list for later!

[Lydia resumes her attempt at prayer, seeks to rest in the presence of God…]

Jim’s parents are visiting this weekend and the bathroom faucet is still leaking. The menu for our Sunday supper hasn’t been planned around their dietary restrictions, they are so hard to feed. They are sure to notice the extra clutter around after the holidays… Argh! Two of Michael’s college applications are due Friday, I bet he doesn’t have his essays done yet…

Back to prayer, back to prayer, Lydia… these things can wait….

Please, God, help me to find peace in this craziness, help me to really pray during this holy hour and let the to-do list wait.

There’s no possible way I’ll be able to get everything done, at least not to their standards, especially not with Jim’s lack of help and his lack of attention to the list of action items he agreed to tackle in the New Year.

I'm so sorry, God, I’m really failing at staying focused in prayer. 

Please, please God help Jim to stay committed to Exodus 90 and make it a real turning point in his life. He has to stop the drinking, dear God, he has to, I can’t take it…

[Lydia takes a few deep breaths and attempts to recollect herself and calm her emotions.]

It doesn’t really matter anyway; Jim’s parents will never really like me. They blame me for “taking him away from them” and don’t respect me as his wife. They are so petty, so pretentious. I hate them.

I’m sorry God, I don’t really hate them, please forgive me. I’m a bad person, I’m so sorry, please forgive me.

My mind is all over the place. I am so frustrated that I can’t focus, or that I won’t focus. What a lame excuse for prayer. What is wrong with me? Maybe I just don’t care enough…

[Then a flashback memory of her first love from 27 years ago floods her mind]

…feeling again the warmth in Tom’s eyes, that look he gave me on that rainy spring day, the touch of his hand on my cheek, the way he said my name and actually SAW ME… The abrupt end to our relationship after such a short time; without closure, no warning, without our consent… Never to be heard from again, but so often to be longed for and wondered about…If only…. 

[Self-hate and shame rise inside as Lydia struggles against a fantasy of infidelity, and in the adoration chapel, no less...]

A window into what drives Lydia distractions

Lydia’s distractions may be labeled as epiphenomena of consciousness, just random internal noise generated by flitting from one topic to another which should just be suppressed. Or seen as temptations from the devil to be resisted by willpower and fleeing to God. One could look at her distractions as stemming from her vices.

I suggest we take a very different approach and try to understand Lydia’s distractions as signs or symptoms of unmet attachment needs and unmet integrity needs.

I covered these needs in depth in the September 6, 2022 reflection titled The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship. Here is the list:

The top five attachment needs (taken from Brown and Elliott (2016).

  1. My need for felt safety and protection in relationship
  2. My need for a felt sense of being seen, heard, known, and understood
  3. My need for a felt sense of being comforted, soothed, and reassured
  4. My need for a felt sense of being valued, treasured, delighted in, and cherished
  5. My need for a felt sense of support for my highest good

Top five integrity needs:

  1. My need to exist and survive
  2. My need to matter
  3. My need to have agency, to will things and make them happen
  4. My need to be good
  5. My need for mission and purpose in life

The silence of personal prayer is a prime time for parts of us to signal distress about unmet needs. When we deliberately place ourselves in a quiet environment and external noise diminishes, parts of us capitalize on the opportunity to get our attention.

Parts are like little subpersonalities within us, each with a unique constellation of needs, emotions, body sensations, guiding beliefs and assumptions, typical thoughts, intentions, desires, attitudes, impulses, body sensations, which last over time, even when we are not immediately aware of them. Parts have different roles within us, have good intentions, and are trying to help us. 

In Episode 71 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, titled A New and Better Way of Understanding Myself and Others I give a detailed description using ten of my own parts and described how parts operate within us.

In order to more fully explore the specific underlying reasons for Lydia’s distractions, allow me to introduce you to six of her parts which fueled her distractions and disrupted her prayer. Using Internal Family Systems (IFS) language, Lydia’s exiled parts are listed in blue text, her manager parts in green, and her firefighter parts in red. Bear in mind that Lydia is aware of relatively little about of these parts’ emotions, intentions, thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, impulses and desires – so much of their experience is in her unconscious, not allowed into her awareness.

  1. A shame-bearer, who questions whether Lydia is acceptable to God and whether she is loved by God. This part bears the burden of relational injuries and attachment wounds. This part deeply desires love, affection, nurturance, and healing, but is often suppressed by other parts. Lydia’s shame-bearer has a Deistic God Image, experiencing God as distant, disengaged, disinterested and uncaring. Her shame-bearer bears the brunt and the effects of the attachment injuries and relational wounds inflicted on her by others, including her husband Jim and her in-laws, leading Lydia to judge herself as unloved and unlovable. You can see the shame-bearer activated in her self-condemnation around being a “bad person” and asking “What is wrong with me?” This part feels shame about her parenting, cooking, organizational capacities, and housekeeping and fears being shamed by her in-laws. This part has a deep need to be ontologically good (integrity need 4) and to have felt sense of being valued, treasured, delighted in and cherished (attachment need 4), and sees Tom as a potential savior. This part holds decades of shame over her insufficient supply of breast milk for her youngest son and attributes some of his current health problems to formula supplementation. This part is hoping to correct those health problems by choosing the “right” milk now for him as a teenager.
  2. An abandoned part who experiences intense emotional pain and distress (her emotional experience is not well differentiated) and who carries the weight of abandonment and isolation, feeling victimized, frightened, hopeless, needy, deprived, lost due to some experiences of emotional neglect and a lack of attunement when she was growing up. This part may also have a diffuse sense of identity, feeling very hollow inside and questioning whether she matters to others (integrity need 2). This part bears the burdens of neglect, including feeling neglected by God and her husband. This part signals her distress about “no one helping” to get ready for the visit from Jim’s parents and grieves her idealized version of Tom, especially when she feels distant from Jim, her husband. The abandoned part so wants to be seen, heard, known and understood (attachment need 2) and is seeking out in memory and fantasy the romantic attention from her first boyfriend.
  3. An angry part who carries rage about core needs for affection, nurturance and love not being met, and may make demands on both Lydia and others that seem excessive. This part is usually suppressed and almost entirely unknown in Lydia’s system, but in the silence of the adoration chapel, it breaks through into her conscious awareness. This part is very focused on justice and injustice and violations of her own integrity by important figures in her life, and may rail at God in anger for perceived violations or a seeming failure to protect and nurture. This is the part that carries unresolved hatred for her in-laws and anger toward her husband, and it is stifled by her self-sacrificer and approval-seeking parts who are terrified of the potential impact of anger on important relationships. Her angry part is focused on existing and surviving (integrity need 1), exercising agency (integrity need 3) and having a felt sense of safety and protection (attachment need 1).
  4. A self-sacrificer who focuses excessively on meeting the needs of others, even at the expense of Lydia’s own dignity and well-being. This part wants to prevent causing pain to others; to avoid guilt from feeling selfish; or to maintain the connection with others perceived as in need. This impulse often results from her self-sacrificer’s acute sensitivity to the pain and needs of others. This part’s inclinations can lead to a sense that Lydia’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment toward those for whom she cares and sacrifices and such self-sacrifice fuels the grievances of her angry part. This part very much wants to be good (integrity need 4) and to be recognized and valued by others for her self sacrifice (attachments needs 2 and 4).
  5. An approval seeker who is very focused on gaining approval, recognition, or attention from other people, or fitting in, in order to protect Lydia from deep-seated insecurities held by her exiled parts, particularly her shame bearer. Lydia’s approval seeker believes she only has value if others recognize her as valuable and is very sensitive to rejection. The dependence this part has on others’ opinions can impel Lydia toward making decisions that are ultimately not in accord with her integrity or dignity as a person and thus can feel inauthentic to other parts of her, especially her angry part. Her approval seeker believes that giving others what they want is the way to please God. This part distracts Lydia’s prayer by trying to find ways to please her in-laws in part as an attempt to please God (attachment need 4). This part motivates Lydia to overextend herself in long To-Do lists for others, but she continually experiences herself as weighed in the balance and found wanting by others.
  6. A self-punisher who turns the anger held by her angry part back inward toward the only “safe” one to be angry at – Lydia herself. Lydia’s self-punisher is preoccupied with compensation, atonement, reparations, and self-sacrifice in its efforts to help her grow in virtue or become more adept in social relationships and to distract her from the pain and distress of her shame bearer and abandoned part. This part has an exacting image of an accountant God who keeps a ledger of transgressions and requires payments from her. This part drives the penitential aspects of Lydia’s prayer. The self-punisher focuses on safety, protection and survival (attachment need 1 and integrity need 1). This part fuels condemnation for Lydia’s fantasies about her first boyfriend, worsening the shame experienced by the shame-bearer.

I make a distinction between impulses and temptations in prayer. Impulses are internal; they stem from our parts. Temptations are external, originating outside of us from demons. As you become more aware of your parts and develop a closer relationship with them, you will better be able to differentiate impulses (which occur in the natural realm) from temptations (which happen in the spiritual realm).

Incidentally, in my opinion and limited experience (and bear in mind that I’m not an exorcist or a demonologist, so I hold this lightly), demons generally try to gain access to a person through two types of parts within a person: first, those parts that are the most rejected, alienated, and isolated within a person; and second, those that are the most angry and rebellious. For Lydia, her shame-bearer, her abandoned part, and her angry part may be the focus of attention for demons, and where temptations may be focused.

Questions to Ponder:

When you enter into the story of another person’s parts, it often brings your own parts into clearer focus.

  1. Which of Lydia’s distractions and other experiences in prayer most resonated with you?

  2. Which of Lydia’s parts are easiest for you to understand?

  3. Which experiences of Lydia’s parts were difficult for you to appreciate?

  4. Why might Lydia’s parts feel a need to distract in prayer?

As a special bonus, I am including a transcript of Lydia’s husband Jim’s experience in his prayer time in this downloadable PDF. He has very similar distractions, but for very different underlying reasons and I have not provided descriptions of his parts. If you read his experience in prayer, consider these questions:

  1. Can you identify different parts in Jim? There are five that are identifiable. See if you can name and describe them. Look for the transitions in his experience which signal parts shifting within him and making themselves more dominant.

  2. Which of Jim’s parts are easiest for you to understand and appreciate?

  3. Which of Jim’s distractions and other experiences in prayer seem most like yours?

  4. Which experiences of Jim’s parts were hard for you to accept or appreciate?

  5. Cam you see how Lydia parts and Jim’s parts may activate each other and exacerbate conflict?

Keep these questions in mind as an opportunity to begin to understand the parts in your own internal system a little better, with the goal of learning to be with God and to truly know how treasured and cherished you are in His eyes. And it is a great help to pray for light and clarity about your distractions and their causes.

Next week, I will offer you an experiential exercise to help you discover more about the underlying reasons your parts have for distracting you in prayer, like we did with this 19-minute experiential exercise from the weekly reflection from January 4, 2023, titled The Secret Psychological Reasons We Fail to Make Time for Prayer. That exercise was designed to help you get in touch with the reasons why your parts are resisting setting aside dedicated time for connecting with God in prayer.

Interior Integration for Catholics – new episodes

Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode 104, released on January 16, 2023 offered an experiential exercise recorded live, with sharing and Q&A. Titled: Connecting with your Angry Parts, this recording guides your innermost self in helping your parts who struggle with anger and also parts who work to protect you against your anger. You are welcome to join in on an adventure inside.

Mark your calendars. The Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode 106, titled God in the Hands of Angry Sinners will be recorded live on Saturday, February 18 at 10:00 AM Eastern Time. It’s free, but you need to register to get the Zoom link – then you can join us for an experiential exercise and discussion about our parts’ anger toward God and how best to work with those parts and that anger. We will release the recorded episode on Monday, February 20.

The Resilient Catholics Community

The Resilient Catholics Community is all about helping our members develop a deep intimate personal relationship with God our Father and Mary our Mother – our spiritual parents – by helping us embrace our identities as beloved little sons and daughters of God, across all our parts. We do this by helping all our parts overcome their human formation issues in order to have all of their attachment needs and integrity needs met. If you apply to the RCC, you will get a personalized six-page reference sheet from your Initial Measures Kit that details 9 to 15 different parts of you and their interactions – it’s not psychological assessment, but it is a way for you to consider your parts. That sheet is much more detailed than the summary of Lydia’s parts in this reflection. We take on new applications for the RCC each June and December. Find out more on our landing page, where you can sign up on the interest list for our next cohort.

Conversation hours with me

Conversation hours with me are every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM EST on my cell phone, 317.567.9594 – an opportunity to let me know how these weekly reflections and the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episodes are landing with you and discuss the themes from these resources.

Weekly reflections archived at Souls and Hearts

Want more of these weekly reflections? Check out the archive of all the past ones, there are so many to read. 

Be With the Word for this Sunday, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Check out my conversation with Dr. Gerry about our unique psychological take on the readings for this Sunday’s Mass in our episode titled Listening Doesn't Equal Condoning.

Please share these resources

Please keep sharing these reflections and the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast with those whom you think might benefit and spread the word. We had our best download day ever with the release of our last podcast episode, episode 104 last Monday, thanks to you. And we are now averaging more than 1000 downloads per episode with several hitting 2000 downloads and more! Much appreciation to you for being on this journey together.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Lydia and Jim are made-up characters, by the way, entirely fictional. No confidentiality was compromised in the production of this reflection. I can tell you that things will be working out for them, though, at least in my imagination.

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