Category Archives: Psychological growth

Please people out of love, not defensiveness

Thanks to David McElroy

A man reluctantly agreed to marriage counseling. When he got to the session, resistance was written all over his body language. She predictably got the ball rolling with a string of criticisms which she assumed I would consider well-intentioned facts. I turned to him and wondered out loud what he was feeling. He said, “I’m the one who organized this therapy.” She said, “You wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t nagged you, like I usually have to.” He said, “It is impossible to please you.” Their defensive exchange quickly arrived at deeper understanding. But it doesn’t always go that way.

Defensiveness

The Gottmans include defensiveness as the third horseman of their Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse. They define it as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” Many people become defensive when they are being criticized. It might be more effective if they just said “Ouch.” But what they usually do is take an eye for an eye and respond with blame. The husband above did not listen to the legitimate complaint behind his wife’s criticism, he justified himself by shifting the blame to her for not recognizing his efforts.

We have all been defensive. When any close relationship is on the rocks, it is a good time to notice what is important to you and what scares you. You are probably defending it the way you do that. The storms of intimacy have a way of uncovering what we might keep hidden. What is hidden by us or from us is often well-defended.

We hate feeling exposed. We rarely start off talking about what we keep hidden because we prefer it hidden or are no longer conscious of what we hide. When someone considered why their mind went blank when certain subjeccts came up, he noticed a little person in a subterranean control room getting a command when he was threatened to, “Shut the gates!” We all have a “switch” of sorts that activates our defenses.

Acting defensively is usually a knee-jerk reaction. We all have defense mechanisms we organized when were very young to make sure we survived. These behaviors usually involve our deepest emotions, which we may or may not be conscious of. But the behaviors are very familiar and feel crucial. We have a childish commitment to them.

When you feel unjustly accused or threatened in some way, you usually first try to get your partner to back off. You defend yourself in a reasoned way. Easy-to-see defensiveness is shifting the blame. We say, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The Gottman’s have a good antidote for de-escalating a relatively superficial power struggle. They teach us to accept our own responsibility. If you have a problem, check with yourself, first.

If you are activated by certain situations over and over, it is likely your partner is hitting that button in your unconscious where you have a deep need to feel cared for and it is not happening. For instance, if I already feel unworthy and you criticize me, I will get defensive. Actually, if you just point a finger at me and start a sentence with “You!” I will probably feel defensiveness rise up.

Have you noted the last time you were defensive yet? Have you noted the effects of your own and others’ defensiveness in your life? If not, now would be a good time.

A favorite Christian mechanism: reaction formation

In power struggles, it is usually the most powerless people who think they have to exercise the most power and bear the most burdens. Strong people feel fine about being strong and doing things strongly, perhaps with little self-awareness or compassion. Powerless, fragile, wounded, or traumatized people often feel alone against strong forces and come up with all sorts of ways to protect themselves. I wish all this defending were invented by adults; it would be easier to see. But most of it gets built before have much ability to think about what we are doing. We are surviving. But even as asults we often react like powerless children when we are most distressed.

The definitions the Gottmans use above for how couples are defensive are quite accurate. But they are also oversimplified. For instance, I think one of the greatest defenses a child learns is to appear to be defenseless, to appear compliant or pleasing. Rather than expressing themselves to ignorant or inattentive parents they discover a pleasing personage (Tournier)/persona (Jung) which engenders some validation of their worth, or at least gets them fed. You may have tried to be pleasing enough to avoid the violence lurking in the household or to be more pleasing than a sibling to get a better share of limited resources. Many children begin to unleash themselves from this form of defense with the terrible twos when they explore the boundaries of what they are being schooled to obey. Others just perfect their false self and even forget how furious they are with how relationships hurt and shame them.

I think many of my Christian clients are working out this subtle form of self-defense. They have been well-schooled that causing conflict with parents or the church system is a big no-no. So they defend their place in the family or the larger system by looking like they are being good while seething inside (or being depressed because they don’t know they are seething) — this is the seed thought of many semi-autobiographical novels, right? Freud called this mechanism “reaction formation.” You might feel guilt or shame so you act out the opposite of what you feel by looking compliant or self-assured, effectively hiding what you fear to have exposed. The classic example Google will immediately tell you is of the elementary boy who bullies a girl because he can’t deal with the attraction he feels. I think I remember blushing when a playground friend accused me of liking the girl I had just beaned with a four-square ball.

Christians are notoriously seen as repressed hypocrites because they never allow their true feelings to despoil their appropriate behavior. When a child learns they are powerless against their abusive or neglectful parents, they may adopt the persona that works for their best interests, hopeless of ever being truly seen. When such a persona marries, they surprise their partner when a person does not show up. I suffer for people who have a mate pointing a finger at them when all they are trying to do is please them. They’re like the poor man who said, “You can’t be pleased.” Being pleasing was the main weapon he had to use in the power struggle and he is disappointed it does not work.

Roman sacrifice: Suovetaurile

Try not to find your defenses in the Bible

For many church people, reaction formation seems like a tenet of faith. If you want to find it, you can read it into many scripture passages. For instance, look at Romans 15:15: 

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” NRSV

I think this is easily interpreted to say, “Jesus did not please himself, but others. So you should please others, not yourself. That’s love. And such love will be rewarded. Don’t please yourself if you want to go to heaven.”

When I was young, some teacher taught me the way to J-O-Y is Jesus, others, yourself, and they meant in that order. I instinctively put the three words in an inclusive circle, but my teacher definitely meant it as a hierarchy. Other teachers left off the Y altogether and encouraged me to annihilate or at least severely discipline myself for Jesus; these days some people call that mentality “cruciform.” Even though Jesus says you lose yourself to find yourself, and Paul says he leaves his false self to receive a true one in Christ, many Christians spend a lifetime denying themselves and presenting the same false compliance they did as a child, often feeling the depressing or anxiety-causing effects of resenting how they are never recognized for all they do and are.

Love out of love

We have seen a lot of angry Christians on the screen in the past few years. I think they drive people out of the church with their reaction formation. They are obviously angry, but they think they are behaving in the loving way Jesus would prefer, and saving people from sin. Not acknowledging I am miserable or being curious about why, while I insist I am just trying to please you, quickly undermines trust in any relationship. When you cause such suffering, don’t blame your mate for persecuting you like Jesus was.

If you read the whole account that leads up to the often-misinterpreted snippet of Romans, above, you’ll see that Paul acknowledges the weakness of people who are frightened by pagan meat. He doesn’t tell them to eat it and pretend they like it. To the strong who are just doing whatever they want, eating whatever they bless and feeling blessed, he says to attend to the dark side of the strength they have – the side which would ignore the poor for the pleasure of their own freedom or power.

If, when you please me, you are mainly trying to get loved, I will feel that. If you care for me because you are defending yourself, I will probably know that, eventually, too. We won’t be tuned in to each other because you won’t really be there, just the persona you think pleases me. If you are having a similar relationship with God, same results, by the way. You might not be so aware of it, but I will probably pick up on the anger and resentment you really feel, which you try to hide behind your appropriate behavior. What’s more, I will likely feel like I should be helping you in your project to “love” me, because you will be even more angry or depressed if you don’t succeed at it. Your success means I accepted your sacrifice of your true self for me as of supreme value.

I’d rather you loved me out of love not defensiveness.

Paranoia is running deeper: Help for attending to it

Researchers at Yale found a way to be happy during the pandemic. The crisis  gave them a rare chance to study what happens when the world changes rapidly and unpredictably. One of the things that happens, they confirmed, is people get more paranoid. During the recent troubles, especially in places where masks were mandated and the rules flouted, people felt betrayed and acted erratically — its part of being paranoid.

Paranoia

The researchers also found that people who were more paranoid were more likely to endorse conspiracies about mask-wearing and potential vaccines. They were also more likely to accept the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits, among other ideas, that the government is protecting politicians and Hollywood entertainers who are running pedophile rings across the country.

When fear grips someone, one way to exercise self-defense is to project that fear outward rather than feel the full weight of it. When someone is gripped by this behavior or unaware of it, their actions can be labelled “paranoid.”  Someone experiencing paranoia puts their fear on someone or something outside themselves where they can fight it, contain it, or, sadly, kill it.

Back in the volatile 1960’s, a time torn apart with Vietnam War protests, antiracism marches and assassinations, Buffalo Springfield sang about what happens when fear is rampant.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

Am I becoming more paranoid?

If you are becoming more paranoid, it would not be surprising. Many people are. When I was talking a couple of weeks ago about why the Trump effect is not over yet, one of the reasons was increased paranoia.

Nancy McWilliams says  the “essence of paranoid personality organization is the habit of dealing with one’s felt negative qualities by disavowing and projecting them: the disowned attributes then feel like external threats” (in Psychoanalytic Diagnosis). She goes on to say that people experiencing their paranoia not only struggle with anger, resentment, vindictiveness and other visibly hostile feelings, they also suffer overwhelming fear.

Paranoid people can be hard to help. To hear some people talk about it, they stopped going home for Thanksgiving during the during the Trump era because Uncle Bill would not quit talking about conspiracy theories. The general atmosphere of paranoia makes normal rules of politeness less relevant; there was no way to talk to Uncle Bill in a civil way. In therapy, or in the church, paranoid people can be difficult. They are mainly dealing with shame and guilt by loading those internal enemies they fear on you and making you the enemy.

When it comes to shame, paranoid people may use denial and projection so powerfully that no sense of shame remains accessible to them. Their focus on the assumed motives of others rather than on what is happening internally makes it nearly impossible to relate to anyone who is not sharing their paranoia.

Paranoid people are also profoundly burdened with guilt, usually unacknowledged and projected. If you try to help them, you will probably excite the terror they have that you might really get to know them. Because, if you do, you will be shocked by all their sins and depravities, and will reject or punish them for their crimes. They chronically use their energy to ward off such humiliation and transform any sense of culpability into dangers that threaten them from the outside. They unconsciously expect to be found out, and transform this fear into constant, exhausting efforts to discern the “real” evil intent behind anyone else’s behavior toward them.

Unfortunately for us all, like the Yale researchers found out, paranoia breeds more paranoia which causes people to act outside usual norms – the “norms” they suspect are fronting evil intent. Suddenly all Democrats are pedophiles and all Republicans are Nazis. So leaders such as school teachers, doctors, pastors, and block captains need watch dogs more than followers.

How does one become paranoid?

Psychological traits are all on a spectrum from healthy to harmful. They mix with other styles to form complex approaches to life. So “becoming paranoid” is not like crossing the border into a new land.

Chances are however, one is paranoid because they are very afraid. They had a good reason to think someone or something was out to get them. More paranoia may be induced by:

  • Intense fear. This fear may have been as a result of experiencing trauma, especially if it was in one’s family, but also if one witnessed violence or was threatened. Being overwhelmed by fear could cause someone to constantly worry about further harm.
  • Isolation. If one felt alone as a child or lived in a disorganized or dangerous family, they might have developed hypervigilance to survive.
  • Drug use.  Research shows substance use can cause suspicion and fear which then increases the risk of living with paranoia on a regular basis
  • Detrimental view of self. When one feels fatally flawed or worthless they are likely to suspect others think and feel the same way about them and are ready to shame them for it.

Paranoia causes mistrust; and once-betrayed, one can  remain in a state of suspicion. This suspicion will not only have an impact on one’s psychological well-being but also their feelings,  thoughts, behaviors and physical health.

If you think you are being watched and that your life is under threat, this is going to cause higher levels of anxiety, increased levels of stress or worry, and may cause you to avoid going out. I have clients from marginalized populations who are nervous about the thought someone could be watching our Zoom session via their laptop camera or phone. Constant surveillance increases paranoia. During the recent coup in our church, people stopped talking, stopped reading newsfeeds on social media, blocked people from communicating with them because they suspected anything they said or posted would be collected, misconstrued and used against them. Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep

Pandemic sleep disorders contributed to the increase in paranoia and paranoia increased sleep disorders. Living under threat has an impact on one’s sleeping patterns and is an overall high risk impact on one’s general wellbeing and mental health.

What can stop someone from reaching out for help?

Continuing to live in fear can have long term effects on both physical and mental health. If you have symptoms that worry you or someone has told you you have them, it is important to reach out for help.

The most graphic example of someone in the Bible who did not reach out for help is King Saul. Paranoia took over his life. When Saul realized young David had captured the hearts of the people of Israel, he became angry and began to keep a suspicious eye on him (1 Samuel 18:6–9). David had made no threatening moves toward Saul, yet Saul’s jealousy turned to paranoia and he began seeking ways to kill David. The Bible records that “an evil spirit from the Lord came upon Saul” (1 Samuel 18:10). This seems to imply that, in his jealousy and hatred toward an innocent man, Saul opened the door for demonic influence in his own heart. His paranoia became so overwhelming that he went on a murderous rampage, convinced that David was out to get him and that everyone else was against him, too, including the Lord’s priests (1 Samuel 22:13–19) and his own son Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30–33). We often think a king might be above such trouble, but we are all vulnerable.

A person experiencing paranoia always has reasons, often unverifable, for why they won’t get help.

  • They are afraid to tell anyone what is going on and the reasons they feel the way they do.
  • They have been warned not to speak to anyone. Their internal dialogue or real oppressors threaten them.
  • They are afraid to leave their home or visit an unknown building because it feels uncontrollable.
  • They are afraid they are being watched. They may not want to drag someone else , like their theerapist, into the bad thing they expect to happen. Paranoia and secrets go together.
  • They are experiencing hallucinations – for example, hearing voices. Their voices are fearful of people who will diminish their reality.
  • They have no idea where to go for help.

All of the above reasons to avoid seeking help can be fed by paranoia. Thankfully there is support out there to help you to overcome this. If you or someone you care about needs help, just Google “paranoia hotline.” If you want a more secure, personal connection, call Circle Counseling or the Council for Relationships.

Astrology: What it is and why it is still attractive

I opened up Susan Miller’s popular astrology website and checked what she says about my sign. I’m an Aquarius. I’m one of the 90% of us know our sign. Even though I am a skeptic when it comes to astrology, I was surprised at how accurate her description of me felt: “Ruled by Uranus, the planet associated with striking and unexpected change, rebellion, surprise, individualism, and at times eccentricity, you are happiest when you can freely follow the path you’ve chosen without interference from others.” Apart from being “ruled by Uranus,” I think my wife characterized me the very same way last week when we were having a difference of opinion.

The word is, a growing number of people, particularly millennial women, are turning to astrology to help them judge relationship compatibility, understand friendship dynamics and make life decisions. What keeps astrology going? Maybe, we’re all just looking for answers in an uncertain world — at least that’s what Ali Roff Farrar and her husband James think; they are influencer types, personal trainers and wellbeing experts.

Are the stars aligning?

Cuneiform planisphere

If you need to, you can blame the Babylonians for astrology. They were the first to organize a system. Until the 17th century, astrology was a common pursuit by scholars and the general population. The Bible writers refer to it as common sense. The Magi in Matthew 2 might have followed star signs from Babylon. In Luke 21 Jesus refers to signs in the sun, moon and stars. I call it a kind of “second tier” spirituality. The Apostle Paul, in Colossians 2, teaches us to raise our sights:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces [basic principles] of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.

“First tier” spirituality is centered on Jesus and results in personal transformation and a true self lived in harmony with God, creation and others. [Post applying the two tiers].

Nevertheless, people have looked to the stars for guidance for thousands of years. As the sciences developed, skepticism about the tradition of astrology deepened. Modern science has found almost every immaterial notion to be unreliable. For instance, many studies have found the personalities of Aquarians are not determined by the stars. This little study from the Age-of-Aquarius-1970’s is often quoted to that end.

A widely-cited National Science Foundation study in 2014 found that skepticism around astrology was decreasing. But that might be because people don’t know the difference between astrology and astronomy. Die-hard astrologers interpreted the findings to say a new generation was embracing astrology with open arms. The study said half of 18-24 years-olds believed astrology (or astronomy, perhaps) is a scientific tradition. Eight years later, those 26-32 year-olds are keeping the astrologers and Instagram wellness gurus in business.

Astrology has staying power. Many people are still turning to astrology and studying their horoscopes with diligent faithfulness. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs (1968) is still a go-to guide for them. It is the only astrology book ever to enter the New York Times best seller list. It was republished in 2019, sells in many formats, and still  converts people. 60 million copies of her books have been printed.

Astro Poets

From the look of my social media searches, a lot of people are into astrology. The private FB group “Astrology Guidance,” based in India, has 158,000 members. The Urban List will tell you who to follow on Instagram. TikTok will help you find astrologers on their site. The Astro Poets, Dorothea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov, give amusing advice to their 707K followers on Twitter (@poetastrologers). Some people are making money, of course. But a lot of people are just sharing their passion.

The “wellness industry” is booming. The #selfcareohyeah audience is tuning into their physical, mental and spiritual health. Circle Counseling therapists have most of their time slots filled. If there is increased interest in astrology, it is probably rising with an increased interest in all things “wellness.”

Lost certitude leaves people scrambling?

If  anything is certain now, it’s that we are living in an age of uncertainty. Untrustworthy leaders, an impossible-to-climb-onto property ladder, climate change, the remnants of the pandemic and poisonous politics all add to feelings of ambiguity and insecurity in our lives. We are all wired to avoid uncertainty, and it produces acute stress responses [a study about that]. When we can’t know how our futures will play out, we turn to things that promise us insight. Jesus told a story about a man who felt content in his certainty

And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:19-21)

His story was about how people choose other, vain means to address their desperation rather than trusting God. Astrology is one of the ways people try to get a sense of control, especially in uncertain times.

Application of the spectrum

The information our horoscopes offer is not accurate. Anyone can see that. But astrology does give some sense of control over one’s life. When uncertainty causes us to feel out of control, we tend to lean toward one end of the spectrum of locus of control or the other.

  • On one extreme are those who act according to an  internal locus of control. They think that ultimately, we are each responsible for the events in our lives. There is no such thing as fate or destiny; people who work hard get what they deserve.
  • People on the other end have an external locus of control. They think something or someone else is responsible for the outcome of their lives, like the movement of the stars and planets, the “universe,” and many surrender their agency to their society or the rules of their religion.

Statistically, women are more likely to lean toward the external end, believing their lives are guided by fate, luck or destiny (representative study). This correlates with research showing more women believe in astrology than men (Pew 2018). So, for those of us who believe that forces greater than ourselves guide our lives, astrology is one place that offers answers, direction and meaning.

Followers of Jesus are finding an organic sense of their agency as part of creation in relationship with the Creator. We are called to value our unique expression of the image of God with which we are born and value the restoring work of Jesus as we learn how we fit into and experience the wholeness we cannot supply for ourselves alone. Astrology may be a second tier expression of our yearning to know, to be safe, and to exercise our spiritual awareness. Trust in Jesus is the door into the first tier, where we discover the fullness of ourselves on the way into truth and eternal life.

Three reasons the Trump effect is not over yet

Is it just me, or does any time before the pandemic feel blurry? I was thinking about 2011 and it felt like ancient history. Eleven years ago, Obama was president, four of my grandchildren were yet to be born and things were looking up.

But in that year the seeds of what has blossomed lately were germinating. 2011 was the year The Book of Mormon musical surfaced on Broadway. Over the last decade, its scathing look at “believers” has become more and more prophetic as Evangelicals hardened into Trump supporters, as a horned shaman bellowed from the house dais on January 6, and as Rusty Bowers said last week it was a tenet of his (Mormon) faith that the Constitution is inspired by God.  A mormonesque capacity seems to have captured people all over the world. Elder Price doubles down on such “believing” in the big song from the 2011 hit:

Facts, orthodoxy, institutions, common sense, and laws notwithstanding, people are going with what they believe. On June 17th Couy Griffin, founder of Cowboys for Trump and a member of the Otero County Commission in New Mexico, refused to back down from his refusal to certify the local election results after the New Mexico Supreme Court demanded he do so. He said, “My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.” When he ran for the office in 2018, he said his experience as pastor of the New Heart Cowboy Church in Alamagordo would help him administer the needs of the county. When you are reduced to thinking you believe in your gut, a Trump cannot be too far away.

I started a session this morning by asking a client how she was doing and she said, “The world is so crazy right now, I’m not sure.” I think a lot of us wake up the same way many days. So what is going on?

The Donald Trump effect is not over

Thomas Edsall tried to sum up the Trump effect last week in the Washington Post.

Whether he is out of power or in office, Donald Trump deploys conspiracy theory as a political mobilizing tool designed to capture anger at the liberal establishment, to legitimize racial resentment and to unite voters who feel oppressed by what they see as a dominant socially progressive culture.

The success of this strategy is demonstrated by the astonishing number of Republicans — a decisive majority, according to a recent Economist/YouGov survey — who say that they believe that the Democratic Party and its elected officials conspired to steal the 2020 election. This is a certifiable conspiracy theory, defined as a belief in “a secret arrangement by a group of powerful people to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions.

According to a poll released on January 6, 2022, roughly 52 million voters believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. The Republican Party has committed itself unequivocally and relentlessly to promoting that false claim. On June 18, the 5,000 delegates to the Texas Republican Party convention adopted a platform declaring that “We reject the certified results of the 2020 presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”

That’s what is happening. Maybe we will finally figure out why. Here are three reasons I am pondering.

We’re not titrating off our social media meds fast enough

LiamReading NFT on Twitter

Facebook has begun losing users, but Tik Tok and Instagram keep growing, as well as gaming and other communication platforms. It has all turned into a hotbed for misinformation. And it is addictive. The screens are a cheap way to medicate what we won’t overcome.

Eugen Dimant says people know factual news is more accurate than conspiracy theories. But they expect sharing conspiracy theories to generate more social feedback (i.e. comments and “likes”) than sharing factual news. The more positive social feedback for sharing conspiracy theories significantly increases people’s tendency to share these conspiracy theories that they do not believe in. Once you get away with a lie, when people believe it, when there are no repercussions, when it becomes part of your brand, it is hard to stop.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, noted that spreading a lie can serve as a shibboleth — something like a password used by one set of people to identify other people as members of a particular group — providing an effective means of signaling the strength of one’s commitment to fellow ideologues. Like a gang member’s tear drop, believing and advancing the lie demonstrates how far you are willing to go to belong.

For people on the edge, holding on to social media for connection, even still afraid to be in a face-to-face social group because they aren’t vaccinated or the virus might break through, belonging to a lie might be alluring.

Jacob Chansley known as the Q Anon Shaman

Paranoia has been increasing worldwide for a decade

Many people have said the pandemic just accelerated societal trends that had been growing for years. Acquaintances in West Philly have been documenting the deterioration of their blossoming neighborhood for quite some time and trying to figure out how to get into the burbs. The pandemic pushed their poorest neighbors right over the edge. But before that, the whitelash after Obama was making Black people and all marginalized people frightened and reactive. At the same time, Rupert Murdoch has made billions stoking the fire of fear building among people who feel they are losing their rights, their place, their planet, their future.

“Conspiratorial thinking” is so common it has become a topic for social scientists and psychologists to study. One of the reasons the neighborhood may have more trash in it could be linked to what they are discovering. A group of English researchers wrote about the connection between conspiracy thinking and everyday crime: “Such crimes can include running red lights, paying cash for items to avoid paying taxes, or failing to disclose faults in secondhand items for sale” (2019 paper).

People are paranoid on the extreme right and the left of the political spectrum, worldwide. A psychologist from Amsterdam argues there are psychological benefits of believing conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories help perceivers mentally reconstrue unhealthy behaviors as healthy, and anti-government violence as legitimate (e.g., justifying violent protests as legitimate resistance against oppressors).”

The paranoia is everyday and mainstream. Edsall says people committing far-right violence — particularly planned violence rather than spontaneous hate crimes — are older and more established than typical terrorists and violent criminals. They often hold jobs, are married, and have children. Those who attend church or belong to community groups are more likely to hold violent, conspiratorial beliefs. These are not isolated “lone wolves;” they are part of a broad community that echoes their ideas.

Paranoia breeds more paranoia. If it is amplified by giant corporations and media megaphones, if it seems like everyone else feels the same, it is no wonder the ball is rolling.

The church has had its heart cut out

The church in the U.S. has often been the rock upon which corruption and cruelty crashed. It is no longer that rock. It is more like a ship which was listing long before the pandemic, sinking under the weight of its capitulation to power and profit. After having witnessed French history for three weeks recently, such sinfulness seems cyclical. The same sinfulness sank the French church a while back.

The pandemic was a torpedo. Preoccupied before the disease hit with fighting over race, sexuality, sexual abuse, authority and whether narcissistic white, mainly, and other males have a lock on leadership, the lockdowns revealed every unaddressed weakness and unleashed disaster.

Churchgoers are still wandering around dazed. Their post-pandemic church is not the same. Leaders are burned out and leaving in droves. The Black church and Catholic Church have seen the largest drops in attendance. Overall, the Barna group says, only one in three worshippers are still and only attending their pre-Covid church.

Maybe I should say the church’s heart has been colonized instead of cut out. Couy Griffin sums up a new worldview that took root after the conspiracy mentality invaded the church. He doesn’t consult the facts, his duty, the law, the Bible or his community, he trusts his gut — I would say his gut marinated in a tank of lies if I weren’t interested in being more generous. When you were their pastor, did you teach your people to trust their gut instead of Jesus and his church?

I don’t think people wake up one day and decide to overthrow the government. In our era, people already in a weakened state, too poor, too abused, too undereducated, too alone and uncared for are easily pushed into the arms of the gang, the ideology, the dictator. When people in the church think about themselves, their marginality, their anger instead of turning into Christ and his community, they can also lose the heart of their faith. I hear about how that has happened in the lives of my clients every week. I have experienced the emptiness first hand.

If the planet survives long enough, the church is likely to make a comeback. We may die but Jesus is alive. I know my month has been full of inspiration and new hope.

But it is hard to feel a lot of confidence things will change any time soon.  Many people are hanging on to believing in believing like Elder Price. They are believing in themselves because they are all they’ve got. They are floating in a sea of lies trying to trust their gut, trying to hang on to some shred of morality and integrity. I respect their resilience. I hope we can all hang on until we outgrow our ego-driven self-protection and open up to the presence of God, presented in Jesus and ever-present in the Holy Spirit.

What do we hate more: Humility or Forgiveness?

It took a while

Our internet provider was trying, really they were. The autopay failed, for some reason. I lost consciousness about fixing it. They called us in France and I told my wife the call must be a scam, mainly because I drunk with beautiful countryside and did not want to be bothered. I came home and paid the day after they cut me off.

Now I am waiting for the cable guy to show up because they could not reconnect, even after I bought a new modem to replace the one the nice lady said was too ancient to be trusted. I can almost guarantee you have had similar issues. We now live under the incomprehensible thumb of virtuality, so there are new challenges. But we still have the same old inner problems when we face them. I am mainly talking about the need for humility and forgiveness.

Sometimes I hate humility

It is downright shameful to mismanage the cable bill and subject your loved ones to a day without Netflix (and worse!). That sentence may have aroused a common response: “It’s no big deal. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It could happen to everyone. It will all work out.”

All that is true. But one might as well say, “Stuff that shame back where it belongs! I don’t want to see it. It is shameful to feel shame.” Being humiliated is tantamount to being murdered in our culture. So we walk around all day suspicious someone is trying to humiliate us. Our comedians amuse us by mocking people. We revel in scandalous revelations about celebrities.

While I was praying post-cable-fiasco, I felt I had some space to be humble. It is obvious to God, and to me when I am present to God, that I am fallible. Even though I strive to be unassailable, I mess up the cable bill and get shut off. Then I get defensive and look for someone to blame (like the cable company who called me to tell me I was going to be shut off). Then I withdraw and don’t want to talk about it. Then I spend twelve hours in recovery until I can look at it and say, “Yep. That happened. You did that.”

Being humble is just admitting who we really are and what we really did. It is being seen as God sees us. God knows we are dust, a breath. We have sinful responses to almost everything. Yet God loves us without reservation and respects us enough to fill us with the Holy Spirit and trust us to make our way into wholeness. Humility is not just admitting I am flawed. It is also admitting I am loved, regardless. It is admitting I can’t prevent all wrong, all suffering, and admitting I am not shameful if I don’t. I am just fallible and, apparently, nonetheless-lovable me.

But not as much as forgiveness

The other side of the humiliation of having one’s precious internet shut off is forgiveness. That word may have aroused some common responses in you. “No need to ask forgiveness. No problem. It’s nothing. Let’s just move on. You’re not to blame. You’re fine.”

Some of that is nice. But one might as well say, “Stuff that shame back where it belongs. I don’t want to be a part of it. It is embarrassing to be dealing with your private parts.” I think I said I was sorry about messing up the cable bill. I may have just looked regretful. Maybe I just furrowed my brow in self-loathing and projection. I can’t remember. I was too busy fretting about being in a situation where I needed to be forgiven. We are a punitive bunch in the U.S. We want justice. We want the “rule of law.” We ruthlessly apply any available law to ourselves, no matter how godless. And we expect the same of others.  When I am listening to couples trying to work things out, asking forgiveness or giving it is often not even a consideration – as if something else works!

I can relate to that resistance. As I was praying post-cable fiasco, I realized I needed to be humble enough to be forgiven. Even if everyone else just accepted my sins as no big deal (which is nice of them), I still felt ashamed. And until that shame was touched with grace, it was going to make an impact. It was going to flood my private parts with contempt and condemnation as I vainly tried to complete my uncompletable task of stuffing it, bearing it secretly like an ill-capped, undersea oil well, oozing pollution. All that over a cable bill!

I felt able to sit in my forgiven place with God (or I probably wouldn’t be writing this, right?). I even apologized more directly for messing up the screens. I felt released. I hope you do, too. Asking forgiveness and receiving it might be the beginning of freedom, of mental health, of love. Admitting how we hate it might be humble enough to get us started and get us reconciled with God. Avoiding that confession might keep us rolling around in some shame cycle waiting for the cable guy to come, another thing completely out of our  control.

What to do about worrying “what if”

What if I catch Covid-19 and don’t pass the test I need to pass in order to get on my return flight home? That’s an example of a “what if?” question. It is bouncing around in the back of my mind and surfaces periodically. You might have a whole set of what ifs bouncing around, some familiar and some old stand-bys. A few of you might feel disabled by them.

If you follow what if thoughts down an anxiety-filled rabbit hole, it can be trouble. It might  difficult to focus on daily life and tasks. The thoughts might even keep you up at night.

For example:

  • What if I can’t pay the mortgage this month? (money-related)
  • What if I lose my job because I have needed so much time off? (work-related)
  • What-if my dad gets COVID? (health-related)
  • What if I never get this weight off? (image related)
  • What-if my partner cheats on me? (relationship related)

These thoughts can lead to anxiety. But the pattern can lead to what ifs about the pattern!

  • What-if I have a panic attack when I’m driving?
  • What if I shut down and can’t finish my presentation and they fire me?
  • What if I can’t stand leaving the house and my coach finds out?

When are these thoughts problematic?

What-if thoughts are not all bad. They serve a vital purpose.  We have to ask questions about what is coming our direction to decide what to do! Our minds are geared to protect us from danger. That includes considering, “What if something jumps out of the woods while I am driving through this forest?” The other day I was fortunately ready to slow down when a mother and father wild boar and at least twelve piglets were huddled by the road, ready to cross in front of us. Things happen!

But intrusive thoughts may start to take up too much space in your mind and overstay their utility. Chronic what if thoughts are a habit we may have learned from a traumatic experience but go over and over again in every possible what if scenario in case it happens again. Or we may have formed our what if habit from some other  thoughts we keep repeating.

What if scenarios can spiral out of control and cause anxiety, worry or stress if they get rolling. If worry-filled thoughts distract you constantly or interfere with productivity and relationships, these ruminations could be a symptom of a disorder with which your therapist can help.

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder can involve intrusive thoughts like the what ifs but also include:

  • not being able to stop worrying or being nervous
  • knowing you worry too much
  • having a hard time relaxing or concentrating
  • trouble falling asleep
  • constantly feeling on edge

Anxiety can also take a toll on your body, and you may notice physical symptoms like:

  • having a hard time staying asleep
  • being tired all the time
  • unexplained pain
  • headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches
  • sweating a lot for no reason
  • breathlessness
  • needing to go the bathroom often

You probably noticed that a few of these symptoms are also Covid-19 symptoms. Which leads me back to “What if I don’t pass that test and can’t get on the plane?

What can we do about the “what ifs?”

Remember, you’re not alone

Many of my clients are consumed by what ifs. It is such a common issue someone wrote a children’s book about it.

What if thinking is so common, Jesus taught about it.

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! – Luke 12:22-24

No matter how you choose to deal with your what if worries, you are one of many people in the world feeling the same way right now. At one time, as many as 6 million people in the United States reported having intrusive thoughts.

Note your what ifs, don’t assess them

Reserve your self-criticisms about your thoughts and just note them. If a what if crosses your mind. You could write it down in a notebook your are carrying and get it a step away from what you’d rather turn into. This is a researched way to help lower anxiety.

Call the what ifs what they are

It may be tempting to accept what if thoughts as inevitable truths, something you must suffer or are obligated to consider. They aren’t. They are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go. What you do with the thoughts gives them power. We can manage ruminations if we name them as they come and allow them to pass.

Check your triggers

Once you can call out a what if thought, it can help to take a moment to see if you can pinpoint the source of the unwanted thought.

You might ask yourself:

  • Is something going on right now that often causes me to collect what ifs?
  • Do I feel an old, anxious thought about what’s going on right now?
  • Do I feel unsafe right now in a way I have felt unsafe before?

If we keep mentalizing, we get better at expecting certain situations to get the what ifs going. Like meeting with the boss (“What if I get all nervous?”) or going to a doctor’s appointment (“What if I have cancer?). If you know ahead of time your anxiety could be triggered by a particular situation, you could reach into your anxiety “go bag” and use some of the anxiety reduction strategies that work for you.

Use the three questions

1 — Ask yourself, “What is the worst-case scenario?”

Often, our feelings help us recognize we are caught in the spiral of what-if thinking. We may feel angry, sad, anxious, worried or stressed. Work on tuning into those feelings and you may be able to see the what if thoughts behind them and turn away from them. When you recognize that you are going over and over the what-ifs, stop and ask yourself (out loud often helps): What is the worst-case scenario here?

By doing this you are stopping the re-run of the what-ifs. Usually, it is the re-run after re-run of the thought that causes the anxiety. It is like poking a bruise. If you keep poking it and poking it, it gets worse and never heals.  So, by facing the worst-case scenario you are, in effect, no longer beating yourself up.

Often we find the worst-case scenario is not as bad as what we were thinking. But even if it is worse, at least now you have stopped beating yourself up by going over and over a bad scenario in your mind.

2 — Ask yourself, “Could I handle this?”

The answer is always Yes!  No matter what life throws at you, you can handle it. It may not be pleasant, and in some cases, it may bring hardship, but whatever it is you have the ability to handle it. And if you are walking with Jesus, Jesus is walking with you. Peter taught us, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

What do you think of this example? A woman who had two children was pregnant with a third. She had very bad anxiety over an issue at work. She was re-running scenarios over and over in her mind to the point where she had convinced herself that she was not liked or wanted by her team. To demonstrate how to ask this question her therapist came up with the worst-case scenario: the team forced her out and that she would lose her job.

Then he asked, “Could you handle this?”  Her immediate reply was “No!  How would I be able to afford to live and with another baby on the way!” He pointed out, because she had two dependents and another on the way was exactly the reason why she could handle it.  It would be hard, but she would find a way because she would have to feed her children.

Whatever it is you are facing you can handle it. It may be overwhelming if you decide to face it alone or you are trapped in an unbearable situation, but you probably have more resources than you think you do.

3 — Ask yourself, “What is the best-case scenario?”

This is something we rarely do. Unless we are daydreaming about winning the lottery, or are in the throes of first love, we rarely go into what if scenarios in the positive sense. But just like we have formed the habit of creating what if situations in the negative sense, we can get into the habit of creating what if situations which are positive.

When you take the scenario, you have been playing over and over in the negative, take the same scenario and see the best possible outcome. Then notice how you feel doing this.

The aim is to feel good.  Initially, since we are not in the habit of thinking positively, it might take some practice. I have client who feels guilty for being dishonestly positive when they try this! But the effort is worth it. We need to remember how much control we have over our thoughts. We can’t control what others will say or do, or what circumstances come our way, but we can choose how we react to them. Our thoughts do not need to control us. We can get into the habit of turning into our best-case scenarios and moving with the Spirit into blessing.

The power of virtuality: Will teletherapy close the office?

The other day, therapists working with Circle Counseling considered how we are going to manage the new reality of teletherapy. I’ll get to that.

But first, I’d like to think about what is happening to us humans in the age of virtuality, of which teletherapy is a part. I am not sure what virtuality means, completely, but how I am using it is:

you and me, individually, connecting to the great power that is the internet.
You and your screen,
you and your headset,
you and your Oculus, etc.,
accessing experiences, products, and representations of people
outside of embodied, mutual physicality.

I did not bother looking for a better definition. It would be nice if we shared one. We need some kind of common understanding for this new experience, but that will be hard to find. Because part of the facts of living in our new condition is that each of us has our own experience and resulting definition of what just happened. And we don’t need to explain it to anyone, just conform to the rules that let us into different parts of the internet.

There is a new creation occurring

I decided I needed to get serious about what I, my family, partners and clients were experiencing in the solitude of our virtual lives when I happened upon an article in the New York Times about a Japanese man, Akihiko Kondo, who is among a growing number of people who have intimate relationships with animated, but inanimate, characters. He married a fictional character in 2018: “Hatsune Miku, is a turquoise-haired, computer-synthesized pop singer who has toured with Lady Gaga and starred in video games.”

Mr. Kondo is one of tens of thousands of people around the world who have entered into such unofficial marriages. Some of the characters they marry come from manga. Manga is a style of graphic storytelling which is a mainstay of Japanese publishing and popular worldwide. A child of one of my acquaintances lost their job because they are an “otaku.” In their case that meant they were addicted to manga stories in a way that made them unable to relate to reality. Their experience gives me sympathy for Mr. Kondo. I wonder who among my loved ones is losing their hold on reality right now.

The younger my clients are, the more likely they are to feel disembodied. Some are more comfortable with virtuality than merely human reality (as in the many young men who have difficulty with sex because they are acclimated to porn). Many are avoidant, mistrusting of “reality,” which is so uncontrollable. I’ve noted a   vicious cycle. Their relationship with virtuality is often about controlling their anxiety. But virtuality ends up controlling them and creating more anxiety. Those feelings, in turn, require deeper commitment to what controls them.

I am pondering what our wholesale adoption of teletherapy, which I can accomplish in pajama bottoms and never leave the confines of my home (perhaps ever), is doing to the people we want to help. Is using the medium attaching them more securely to it? Can they ever receive what I offer if they never make the effort to know me (or themselves) as a living breathing human? Or is it OK to marry a fictional character?

Where is teletherapy leading?

I practice teletherapy and now have clients from all over the country. NPR is constantly recommending the latest in teletherapy businesses. And even though I am sounding suspicious, I know I have provided helpful therapy screen to screen — sometimes to people who would not have received it otherwise. So is there really a problem? Is there any line at all from teletherapy leading to manga addiction, much less a direct line? I don’t know. I just have a hunch there might be something worth considering.

Months  before the omicron variant hit, researchers were producing articles on how teletherapy was radically changing the practice of psychotherapy. Even as my comrades were talking about what we are going to do, I got on my other screen and found an article from March of 2021 titled, “Will We Ever Again Conduct in-Person Psychotherapy Sessions?” A few of us had already decided, “No.” Others wondered if they wanted to get back in an office. And others were dismayed the question was even being asked because they needed off the screen.

Keep in mind, the researchers I uncovered were writing about research done a full year before Omicron was discovered in South Africa and quickly turned the world upside-down again. Two and more years of adaptation to lockdowns and social distancing is more than enough to solidify a new approach.

After more than a year, the researchers reported positive experiences with online psychotherapy. Long before the pandemic, some cognitive–behavioral therapists had positive attitudes toward teletherapy. Psychodynamic people, like me, were less enthused. In their study, the participants stated the pandemic changed their attitudes toward teletherapy. Over 60% said they now preferred it.

However, 70% of the participants agreed that remote work is more draining. Nevertheless, 78% agreed with the statement: “Remote therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy.” I think screens can suck the life out of us, and I believe the powers that run them are intent on doing just that. But I don’t feel drained by remote work. What’s more, even though I think good work is done virtually, I don’t think it is one to one comparable with what happens in person. I guess that puts me in the 30% of something.

This little piece of research and just looking around will tell you teletherapy is here to stay unless some compelling reason forces us out of the arms of virtuality the same way we were forced into it. We’d have to break a habit.

Click for NY Times article

There are reasons we won’t break the habit

Many clients prefer teletherapy. Thus, I have met entire families as they interrupt mom’s session. I’ve had sessions in several cars. Every session begins with making sure the connections work. Many sessions are interrupted by some glitch. But no one needs to go anywhere and sessions can fit into the catch-all schedules we concoct now. Why rent an office if you can work from a free one?

Vaccinations have made a big difference since the researchers were talking to their participants. But health concerns remain. Many of us can’t risk carrying home some unknown virus to our aging parents, who now live with us instead of virus-ridden care facilities. You may be concerned about what it means to your own health when you think about signing up people you don’t know for therapy — some populations would be more likely to be carrying the virus! If masks are required when new variants strike, that makes in-person therapy not much better, if not worse, than online.

Insurance for teletherapy was set to expire as the pandemic waned. But it appears people will be reimbursed at the same rate for teletherapy by providers. The new online businesses advertising relentlessly will take a chunk of the increase therapists might have realized. But if you already have an established practice on your own, the cost of not needing an office is a nice, needed pay raise.

There are reasons we probably should break the habit.

I wrote my dissertation on an ethical issue, and I often lean into those questions. Teletherapy makes me wonder, “Is confidentiality affected by teletherapy?” I don’t mean “Is Google somehow listening?” But few of my clients have a devoted space to do quality work. Babies come to therapy. Children interrupt. Any number of devices need to be quashed. When at home or in a closet at the office (unless you see execs with a corner suite) there is a sense of holding invasive things at bay. It is distracting. And it is often not private. Confidentiality provides safety. An office overseen by  a caregiver who provides it for caring is a benefit.

I also wonder if doing therapy out of my home is boundary breaking. Maybe you blur your background and hope your head stays in focus. Or maybe you have constructed a background that makes your circumstances appear neutral. But we know where you are. I think many people do good work by visiting people in their homes to do therapy. Some people have little office buildings in their backyard. Good work is done many ways. But I wonder if it serves the unique process of a client when they are enveloped by the personal world of their therapist. Granted, the office can do that too. But at least the office is, by definition, a place where professional services are dispensed, often by a person licensed to give them.

My main issue with not breaking free of virtuality has to do with community. When our therapist group was sharing I felt hungry for more togetherness and most of them voiced similar feelings. Let’s talk about cases. Let’s have dinner. Let’s build some love. We are starving. Yes, we are just coming out of the weirdest two years ever, perhaps. But our starvation is the future if we conform to the changes the pandemic accelerated. I think psychotherapy is best accomplished in the atmosphere of the beloved community Dr. King preached. Attachment issues are best repaired in a place where people attach. Psychotherapy is about our bodies, not just our minds instructing our reactions and feelings. I think people feel it if therapists are not lone rangers, logging in from wherever with whoever.

The new atmosphere of virtuality is an ongoing dialogue worth having. Elon Musk did not spend $44 billion on Twitter instead of climate change action for nothing; he probably wants to be the chief oligarch. The internet domination system is the future. I’m having the dialogue about virtuality quite practically this week. On one hand, just less than half my appointments are in person this week. But on the other, we are flying to Toronto out of a conviction we need to show our faces at an important conference. It is hard to spend the money, time and energy to travel when the governments still feel like protecting their borders (especially getting back into the U.S.!). But really being there and building something planted in creation makes a difference, I hope. Maybe I will have more to say about what not being virtual is like next week.

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

Eternal: What does the word mean to you?

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 10:10

[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
John 4:14

Does Jesus mean what I think he means?

Jesus came to find us and give us eternal life. So where is it? Is it off in the future and I just need to gut it out until I die? Or is it resident somewhere in all of us and I just need to  become restful enough for it to well up? Insert your own variation of these questions.

Eternal life sounds like a good idea, but most people I know aren’t that sure about it.  I think the “may have” there in John 10:10 sounds conditional to a lot of us, like those metaphorical sheep who hear the Lord’s voice “may,” as in might, have an abundant life. Some self-described “sheep” are still out there looking for that life, and feeling tentative.

And that word to the Samaritan woman in John 4 puts a lot of pressure on her to “drink of the water,” doesn’t it?  — as if she should have already done it and be someone better already. Other desperate people, like her, are thinking, “What if I didn’t take my drink? What if I can’t find the ‘water’ to drink? Is what I’m drinking the water, or not?”

Most psychotherapy clients are searching for answers to such questions whether they consider themselves spiritual or not. There seems to be some thirst-quenching abundance somewhere beyond us all. We feel its possibility.

Jesus is offering an abundant life. He wants us to have it to the full. To the woman at the well he says this life is eternal. In the famous John 3:16 Jesus is quoted promising whoever follows him — whoever believes him and trusts him, eternal life.

Most Christians probably think eternal life is “immortality;” one will live forever — some see that immortality beginning after you die, some see it beginning as soon as you receive it like a cup of water from the Lord’s hand. Others see eternal life as more of a sense of being fully alive in the present — like eternal is the quality of the life, the very life of the Eternal One, the Spirit-life of God welling up within us.

Without thinking much more, what do you say eternal life is? Are you waiting for it? Trying to get it? Hoping for it? Living in it? Is it living in you? Is it making you? What was your first answer?

Becoming and being eternal

You don’t have to have a right answer. But how we see ourselves, see God, and see life makes a huge difference. Someone told me lately that their life was a curse. To be sure, that made a big difference in how they were moving through the week!

The word eternal invites us into the mystery, the unknown or unknowable reality we sense beyond our present capacity to experience or understand. The mysterious word eternal has two sides to it which some see as mutually exclusive, but I see as two sides of the same coin. However your day flips, you may feel on one side or the other.

The “heads” side of the word eternal might feel more familiar. Some people see eternal life as a long stretch of days leading off into forever. If that’s you and you are ambitious, then you are on a long developmental journey one day after the other. If you aren’t ambitious, then you are waiting out the tribulation you are experiencing because Jesus will overcome for you in the end.

I think this linear, physical, practical view makes sense because we are embodied spirits. I think we will always be aware of time, even in the age to come. From our first breath we are developing. Spiritually, we are becoming full or we are emptying out. I wish we could be serene pools of living water without any evaporation, but I’ve never seen that happen. If we aren’t moving into eternity, we are moving toward death.

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You can see this side of eternity in our marriages. Once we find a person to travel with, we often wish we no longer had to become anything. “Why doesn’t my partner already know what I want and give it to me? How could I have married someone who needs to learn something? Why can’t we just be OK? What happened to the honeymoon?” It sounds kind of silly when those things are written out loud. But that mate you have can set off a longing for eternity, for abundant life, that can’t be quenched very easily. The main characters on Bridgerton develop for a few episodes and enter into bliss. We turn to the lover on the couch and say, “Why are you depriving me? Where is this thing we’ve got going?”

On the other side of the word eternal, some people see eternal life as choosing abundance now. It is living in the present, being fully awake and ready to engage, drawing on that inner spring of goodness.  Richard Rohr calls spiritual life the “eternal now.” The creation itself is a gift of life and by grace Jesus restores its fullness to us. You can hear him calling if you have ears to hear.

I think this nonlinear, spiritual, otherworldly view also makes sense because we all feel the pull of our spiritual awareness – even if only for three minutes when we are touched by a beloved piece of music or when are faced with our mortality. From our first breath we have a sense of being with God.  Jesus comes to us and blows the breath of the Spirit on us and invites us to be refilled, to access what can quench our deep thirst.

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This side of eternity also shows up in our marriages. I wonder if “in touch” people like Richard Rohr might be even harder to live with. If every moment has a deeper meaning than appears, it might communicate to your mate that they are a bit disappointing at times. At the worst, such a seeker can seem a bit tortured, either making sure they are happy or sinking so far into their goodness they don’t really need anyone else. Madam Bridgerton was so blissed out on her late husband that she left it to her unprepared eldest to do the real living.  He almost missed out on his own trip to the well. To his good fortune, he was on Netflix.

Suffering

The bad news about psychotherapy is often: there will be some pain accompanying your change for the better. A lot of people can smell the threat of that suffering even in the Bible verses that promise eternal life. For instance one could reply to Jesus in John 10, “The thieves already came in and stole, Jesus! You know that; they took your life!” A person thirsty for forgiveness and community has surely talked back to Jesus in John 4 saying, “If there is so much water available, why do I feel so dry?”

People come to therapy suffering. They often come to spiritual direction, to church meetings and to dinner the same way. We are all in need of eternal life. I think the sufferers are among the most honest people on the planet. They are asking the all the right questions. Because feeling outside of eternity is terrible.

The way into eternal life begins with welcoming the future or turning into the presence of it right now. We need to move toward or with life day after day. I have been doing that for a lot of days mostly more on than off, I think. I started early, so that’s about 22, 995 days towards death and through it into the promise of eternal life. Like most of you, probably, I’ve recently had a couple of doozies of difficult years. Plus, I am getting old and have to get up and keep moving when my bones ache and heart aches. I have to keep choosing life as things change. I have to change. We suffer.

Before I go, I just want to confess for us that even when I have stumbled into wonderful abundance and when I have turned to swim in the death-quenching water all around me, even when I have done it right and when I have felt at peace, those realities have also caused suffering. I became different, I was different, and I disrupted what others considered normal. I came into abundance and had abundance to share, but people didn’t always take it or even understand it. When I wanted to connect and love, my care was ignored and my chances were stolen. I disrupted myself, too. My opinion of myself had to change because a full me usurped the me who had been protecting against emptiness for a long time.

Becoming and being eternal go together. If you can’t keep going there will be no place to be. If you can’t delight in who you are and who you are in Christ right now, at least a little, there is no motivation to keep choosing and becoming your full self.

However the coin lands, the life and death choices being explored in psychotherapy (and many other places, of course) are about eternal life. We long for the happiness of abundant life. The spiritual thirst we feel implies there is water. Even if we suffer to enter the life Jesus offers, the choosing, itself, makes us more human and more enspirited.

Eradication or remission: With what healing do I bless you?

What do you say when you bless a sick person?

  • “I hope you get well soon” or
  • “I hope you feel better soon?”

Both, of course, are expressions of love and a sick person probably gets the love, no matter what you say. I wondered, however, why I almost always say, “I hope you feel better soon” just like my mother.  Maybe get well, seems like a demand; while feel better is more tentative, more humble. When I say “I hope you feel better soon,” I think it is flavored with, “I am not sure where this is going. I don’t feel comfortable promising wellness. But I am hopeful.”

The other day some Circle Counseling clinicians got into the subject of getting well and feeling better applied to mental health. We discussed whether mental health was more about eradication (well) or more like remission (better). I had never really thought through the difference. Eradication vs. remission is often the tension cancer patients feel, right? They wonder “Is there a cure or will I have to worry forever?” That kind of tension also applies to mental illness. “Does being well mean I am just like I remember good times in my past — a return to normal? Is it acquiring an idealized future — what I always thought I should be?” Or is mental health feeling, thinking and behaving better, beginning where I am now and moving on?

Need to talk about power

I think eradication was paired with remission in our dialogue because people in the U.S. assume power is at their disposal or should be. Around here, successful treatment for many means eradication of the invading illness. Something like “Vaccinations would have provided a no-fly zone against the virus if people had just gotten one, two, three and now four!”

Like I was asking last week, many Americans see healing as an act of power. Should Jesus followers all be like Jesus and eradicate disease and mental illness with a word, a touch, or a prayer? Or is healing more typically resting at the feet of Jesus, having faith in the storm, and persevering in trust? In a powerful country, psychotherapists might lust for power — the power of my work, my touch, my method. I heard a different take when I talked to a person last week who lives half-time in Ecuador. They said it would be much more likely there to see health in terms of one’s relational context and one’s daily process. People there never expect to have power, so they are more comfortable with unpredictable destinations and more attuned to feeling present in their relationships and circumstances. They do not find suffering sinful.

But here, I think it is good for me to answer the questions. Am I more of a psychological technician, eradicating mental illness and discomfort? Or am I providing space for health to unfold? If the latter, I might be able to promise raising your pain tolerance instead of implying all pain is an anomaly. In a recovery mindset, I might admit I don’t know the meaning of your suffering, or whether some ideal of wellness might really be a trap!

I’m glad I travel with people who ask good questions.  At one point last week, I listened to an Indian psychotherapist (his choice of label) explaining why Native people might not take advantage of the services of the counseling center on the reservation. The elders told him the center’s idea of “wellness” was mostly about becoming individualized (as opposed to tribal) and medicalized. If one is poor or constrained by colonization, “getting well” might mean eradicating who one is to become more “white” and more acceptable to the power structure. One’s setting or one’s relationships might be the cause of mental illness, not only what is happening inside. If a person refused mental health care, that might be the same thing as resisting the indignities of colonization, the end of which would likely improve their mental health!

Eradication/Medical model

I was not sure the interesting binary argument we therapists were making between eradication and remission was reasonable. Aren’t most mutually exclusive labels easily placed on a spectrum that meets somewhere near the middle? But once I started looking, I found a lot of eradication models that feel pretty exclusive, mostly coming from the world of medicine, from which psychotherapy emerged. They looked a bit one-sided, as in this definition: “The biological approach of the medical model focuses on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, etc. Psychopathology says that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The approach suggests that mental conditions are related to the brain’s physical structure and functioning” (link).

I usually love science. It is unintentionally miraculous. But I don’t love it when it dominates us. So I have mixed feelings about some relatively-recent approaches from the medical end of the spectrum that propose and sometimes promise eradication of mental health issues. Here is a collection.

  • A TV station gushed: “Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is a depression treatment that is “turning lives around in five days.” By adding imaging technology to the treatment and upping the dose of rTMS, scientists have developed an approach that’s more effective and works more than eight times faster than the current approved treatment for the world’s leading cause of disability.
  • The medical terms are Psilocybin and MDMA. The terms you know are ‘shrooms and ecstasy. Psychedelics have resurfaced as a means to treat stubborn disorders. Psilocybin (the essence of mushrooms) has been used for severe depression and MDMA for PTSD. One of my clients ended up in psychotherapy because an uninvited night of ‘shrooms unveiled an inner world he never dreamed he contained.
  • Ketamine injections have become a new mental health industry, lately. The anesthesia has been found useful for treating depression, PTSD, social anxiety and OCD. Mindbloom is the company that a new client connected with; the effects were real, but apparently short-lived for them.
  • I am not sure I think of EMDR as a “medical model” in essence. But it is another way to short-cut lengthy talk therapy. I’ve done some training myself. It gives a lot of authority to the technician. Brainspotting seems, to me, like a more easy going, user-friendly version of EMDR. Both use bi-lateral stimulation of the brain to allow for entrenched feelings and patterns to be accessed and renegotiated.

Remission/Recovery Model

I hesitate to say the “remission” end of the spectrum is more “right-brained,” but there, I said it. While the medical model gets more specific and tiny all the time, right down to your neurotransmitters, the recovery model allows for a wider range of possibilities and contexts for the state called mental health. The documentary Bedlam is one of the latest critiques of the results of the medical model the recovery model seeks to correct.

The recovery model takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery from mental disorders and/or substance use disorders as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” SAMHSA outlines four dimensions that support recovery: 1) Choices that support physical and mental well-being, 2) a safe place to live, 3) meaningful occupation and participation in the community, 4) supportive relationships of love, emotional availability, and respect.

The recovery model is in direct response to the unmet promises of the medical model. Rather than focusing on “the elusive state of return to premorbid level of functioning” these are more systemic approaches emphasizing “one’s personal ‘resilience’ and control over problems and life” (NCBI). For instance, the medical model makes many promises to alleviate depression, the leading cause of disability  worldwide (WHO). The recovery model is honest about the shortcut approaches that sometimes prove ineffective and discouraging.

In the case of depression, a sufferer is moving toward recovery when symptoms respond to treatment and diminish, however slowly. Remission is achieving a symptom-free state and returning to normal functioning. After several month s of remission, one enters the recovery stage (more). For many people, looking for remission may be more satisfying than never achieving eradication. Finding a new normal, rather than lamenting the lost one, allows a person to live the life they have.

With what healing do I bless you?

I think I can bless someone with “Be well.” Whatever wellness you have in your present state today, I hope you can have it rather than lusting for what you don’t have and condemning yourself for not being healthier. If you don’t see yourself in the light of the medical industry’s “gaze” and label yourself according to your faults, I think you’ll find amazing tools there to use.

I also think I can bless someone with “I hope you’ll feel better.” Whatever process of development or recovery you are in, there is hope of appreciating it, moving beyond it, or suffering it creatively. You have personal resources – some you know about and some which are yet to be fully realized or even discovered. You are valuable as you are right now and there are likely people who can see that. Even when you feel ill and less capable than you desire, what you bring to the community is worthwhile right now and will likely grow in blessing as you learn to love and share your true self.