Category Archives: Psychological growth

The first week of Advent: The joy of being found

Whenever I hear a client say, “I do not feel seen,” I can relate. It is such a joy to be seen and, better yet, to be known and accepted as one is right now. We long for that experience from our first days of being held in our mother’s arms and gazing up into her eyes. And if our mother was missing or missing in action, we long for it even more.

Hide and Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (c.1940)

Being found

I could see that longing to be seen play out the other day when the granddaughters amused themselves with hide and seek. I think they love that game because they love the joy of deliberately hiding and being assured someone will come find them. You may have squealed yourself when somone lifted the blanket and there you were.

I remember being their age and trying to be a part of the bigger kids’ all-neighborhood hide and seek game on summer nights. I was little enough to crawl into some very unlikely places — and I was left in one more than once! Sometimes, no one even remembered I was hiding at all! You can tell I still feel something about not being found.

One of my stories about my mother has to do with hiding from her and not being found. She didn’t even know she was in a game of hide and seek. It was sort of a test I gave her which she usually failed. She would be talking on the phone to a friend, but not talking to me, so I used her inattention to run and hide. I was either a very jealous, demanding, four year old or she was a very neglectful mother. Even if it was the former, I felt the latter – we note even the smallest neglect. I came out after what seemed to me a long time and she didn’t even know I was gone. Sometimes she was still on the phone! It hurt not to be found. It scares us. We need to belong. We want to be seen. Through my tests and hurts I developed an invulnerability to being seen so I would not have to experience the pain of not being seen. Do you do anything like that?

Finding

I think part of my lifelong vocation had to do with not feeling found. One of my reactions to the feeling was to develop a life of finding. It is what evangelists do all day. When someone new came into the church meeting, I never left them feeling unseen if I could help it. One of my dear friends likes to tell the story of how we met – I followed her down the stairs of the meeting place saying, “I’m chasing you!” She felt noticed. A person in the church might have felt neglected if they already belonged, but if you were new to the community, I was on it. We often give people what we want to get.

I am not saying I wasn’t called to be like Jesus coming to seek and save the lost. I was. By giving that act of love I was meeting a basic need we all have! We can’t get enough of being noticed, even from the most loving parents; we keep looking for it. I’m just saying part of my motive for becoming a seeker must have included the thought that, “If I see everyone, someone might see me. If I find someone, someone may find me.” I’m glad my basic needs are still kicking — I haven’t given up on looking for love just because I don’t want to bear the feeling of it not finding me. Not yet.

These days (finally!), I think I am more content being found — or not. I have felt seen a lot. And I feel found by God. So I don’t even do much advertising for clients and mostly let them find me — so far, I have more work than I can handle much of the time. Instead of working the room at a big gathering, which I still think is a lot of fun, I can often sit back and wait for conversations to come to me. My desperation to be known can be noted, but not followed. After a lifetime of “outreach,” I can be reached. Or not.

Adoration of the Kings by Pieter Bruegel (c.1556)

A chance to find the baby

This first week of Advent, I am thinking about that obscure birthplace of God-with-us and the baby who is going to grow and present himself to be seen and known by humanity. At the beginning of the liturgical year, here (whether people know what a liturgical year is or not), Jesus is going be born in a fresh way; he will be finding many people for the very first time — some who feel terribly small and get a little comfort by staying as hidden as possible. Jesus will be seen and known by millions and either unseen or dismissed by millions more.

Jesus is so hidden! Even when people see him, he’s hard to see. Even though I know him well, I feel I know so little. What must that feel like for God? I hope she is not like me, deliberately hiding with the hope someone will find her worthy of being found! More likely, God is sure he will be found because he has made himself to be found

Jeremiah assures us of that. I think Jesus fulfills his prophecy in a wonderful way. I like to hear it in the old language (and in song).

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.
And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.
And I will be found of you, saith the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

In Jesus, God is saying , “I will be found of you, for real.” The shepherds are famous for going to see and finding the place. They went to see and I think they felt seen. The magi are famous for reading a lot into the stars, and for travelling for who-knows-how long to find Jesus.  They behold him and are overjoyed. They went to know and I think they felt known. Seeing and being seen, finding and being found is how creation works, from birth to death. When we despair of that experience, we go numb.

One of the personal messages of Advent to us all is this: It is at least possible I will be found by someone who is glad to see me. I can sit in my cradle and assume I am a baby worth loving, even if it seems to me I am not. Some kind of shepherd or wise man will wander in with admiration and gifts. Whether my self-esteem is high or not, I can at least accept that baby Jesus is God seeking me and I can stop hiding now, I am found. I can stop hiding from not being found because I have been deemed worth finding. It is a constant fact that I am seen, sought, and loved.

Three ways to stop the argument in your head

Someone I know (call them Z) was betrayed big time by two old friends not long ago. A job was lost, a reputation sullied. One of the betrayers moved far away from their small town, so Z felt OK about cutting them off. But the other person was not going anywhere. It was almost guaranteed Z was going to see her at the supermarket.

This traumatizer kept popping up in Z’s head. She had said some terrible things. She had told some lies. Z suspected she was spreading slander to common friends, not to mention other people in town who were hungry for gossip and did not mind a bit of scandal.

Invasive thoughts were getting a bit debilitating. Z was out for a walk along a beautiful creek on a perfect fall day but the slanderous woman found some headspace and soon Z was arguing with her. She was impossible to shake. Z’s spouse asked what was wrong and suddenly they were both mad again and the leaves began to turn dull.

Most of us can be tormented by recurrent negative thoughts that tie us up: “What if? What did I do wrong? What am I going to do? How can this be happening to me?” Hurts and losses bubble up as anger. We start saying all the things to the person we didn’t say before. We imagine what they are saying and argue back. We let them colonize our minds. Soon we’re afraid to go to the store for fear of being more overwhelmed!

Here are three common ways to get out of the debilitating cycle of arguing in your head, three ways to move on, grow up, or get through rather than dreading the thought of that person, rather than feeling stuck, or fearing the possibility of open conflict .

Shutting off an internal argument

These suggestions are mainly about changing how you behave.

  • Accept the problem is not going away and be friendly anyway. This may be important when you are related to the antagonist. Just accept you’re different and let it be. “Don’t go there.” Obviously, some major differences may require planning for a calm conversation. But smaller issues can be let go.
  • Choose who you relate to. You do not need to have a good relationship with everyone, especially abusive or argumentative people. It may pain you to scroll by people you think you should care about, or maybe even love. But it is not required to soak up bile or endure uncaring behavior.
  • Remember you have value even if they don’t value you. What other people think about you or say about you is mainly about them, not you. If you are not so emotionally wrapped up in what they said or did it is easier to avoid having unfinished arguments with them in your head. If your co-worker mocks you for the mistake you made, talk yourself out of staying awake feeling stupid that night, “He’s got reasons for being mean and I’ve got plenty of reasons to think I’ll master my job.”
  • Nip the internal argument in the bud. How often have you been washing dishes and realize the free space in your brain has been invaded by “that old argument?” It is great if you can gently note what’s happening and turn to something else. It might take some practice. Maybe you could create a helpful catch phrase to use like, “These thoughts are poisonous, don’t drink them.”
  • If you can’t stop, you could distract yourself. That does not mean looking them up on Instagram and feeling superior. Go for a walk, even if it just around the house; get your body on your side. Call a supportive friend (not to get them arguing too, that could just dig the rut deeper). Do a puzzle. Breathe it out – pray it out. You might not want to vacuum, that might leave brain space unoccupied for more argument.
  • Try setting apart a limited time to fret. If certain thoughts are derailing the whole day, you might try setting apart a limited amount of time to go ahead and think them through. A half an hour in solitude after dinner to practice an upcoming conversation or play through an old one might diminish the threat of them popping up when you’d rather be having sex or preparing for an exam.

Working through the feelings

These suggestions mainly attend to emotions.

  • Trying mentalizing about the whole conversation instead of deflecting bits. Imagine what you and the other person are really trying to say; you might get to say what you wish you had said. But don’t just unleash your fury and devastate them, focus on the feelings that upset you. When the co-worker made you look incompetent, why did that hurt? Are you insecure? Do you feel you are not recognized for your abilities? Did he remind you of your dad, your brother or that demeaning coach in jr. high?
  • Name the emotions as they arise. It is hard to keep a replay going if you don’t feel it deeply. The incident may have triggered some unfinished developmental business you have or may have reignited a traumatic experience. If you name what you feel you might understand your emotions better and and not be run around by a mysterious inner “force.” You might say, “I’m afraid I will be embarrassed when I see them in the store,” or “My anger is strangling me.” It is good for us when we let our emotions be normal, not a threat or a sin, and figure out what we want to do about them.
  • Get your feelings out of your head and into your journal. Maybe your process so far has been the first part of working something out and now you can express what you’ve come to and even make a plan. Use your journal. Maybe you could write a letter to the person with whom you’ve been arguing. You don’t have to give it to them; sometimes communication is no longer possible, or advisable – especially if you’ve been abused or they represent how you have been marginalized. In that case, just getting it out of your mind and onto the paper may be enough. You could burn the letter and let the contents go. You can close your journal and leave the feelings in the past.
  • Professional counselors try to be adept at helping people work through anxiety. If you are losing sleep, t of knowing increasingly angry or depressed, you might like to talk to someone you can trust, professional or not.

Having a healing interpersonal process

These suggestions mainly work with how you relate.

  • Express yourself. If you are a Christian you probably feel obligated to be reconciled with people or, unfortunately, appear to be OK with everyone. Regardless, if you’ve been having an argument with someone in your head and you think it is remotely possible you can have a personal, undistracted moment with them, it would could be good to talk to them. You could begin with, “That comment you made the other day about my work really bothered me. So I thought I’d circle back. Were you just being funny? Or were you trying to say something I need to hear?” It helps to rehearse what you’d like to calmly say.
  • Create a safe place. When you initiate a dialogue, it would help to let the person know you are doing something you care about and invite them into it, rather than just appearing out of nowhere saying something super serious. You could begin with something like, “I feel a little awkward being this personal, but I would like to tell you about what I’ve been feeling. I hope you’ll take a turn to talk when I’m finished.”
  • Keep calm. Something that even smells like conflict often sets people into fight, flight or freeze mode. So it will help them if your tone is calm and you speak slowly. If you have them listening and you bring some fiery emotion they will probably get caught up with how you are acting, not with what you are communicating. Remember to tell an “I” story, not a “you” story. The more you say “you,” the more likely they are to stop listening and start defending themselves.
  • It is always better for healing if there are less details and more feelings. Yes, they came home an hour later than expected and they’ve done other inconsiderate things in the past. The point is to invite them to care about how worried you felt and to work on a deeper trust that will allow you both to feel safe and connected. Especially if you are married, your marriage is a “common ground” you share. You can work on building a good relationship rather than working on one another’s flaws.

 What if none of that stopped the argument in your head?

Wouldn’t it be nice if relationships were “plug and play?” Wouldn’t it be great if each of us were not so complicated? Not long ago, one of my clients said to their mate, “Can we just agree that everyone is shitty?” The mate did not naturally go with such thoughts (thus, therapy), but they went with it that time and it relieved quite a bit of tension. Nothing really “works.” We won’t do everything “right.” We can’t. And if we did do something right, it probably  would not get perfect results in an imperfect world.

If you keep rehashing after all this work, you must be very committed to this internal argument! Maybe it has come to define you. Chances are, if you can’t let go, you are working with something rather deep. I hope you can let it be unresolved for now in a tender way. It must be a mystery and Jesus will need to save you. Constantly working out the puzzle like you are in charge of your own salvation is not going to be better than giving up on complete resolution. Many people have taken these conundrums that torment them like they torment you and lifted them to God in an act of submission and trust. Maybe you need to acknowledge the “thorn” that keeps poking you and let Jesus bear the pain with you until something better develops.

Avoidant attachment style: Why you might be developing one

Is avoidant attachment style more prevalent than it used to be? It seems so. Many people I meet and counsel have an “ avoidant streak” rippling through their character. I wouldn’t expect a lot of those people to be in therapy at all, since  they don’t usually trust in the good will of intimates (like therapists get intimate), and they generally maintain independence, self-reliance and emotional distance. But there they are.

There they are, more and more, describing their struggles to connect and their overwhelming sense of being put upon and unacceptable. They got me thinking that their troubles, though probably rooted in their childhood reaction to their parents, were being exacerbated or even created by the cruel time in which we live. The leaders and leadership structures of the world right now do not invite trust. Everyone, down to the counter server and the communion server, seems to be playing by a ruthless, negative playbook.  Flip to the macro and Putin is threatening nuclear war while climate change rolls over Puerto Rico. You probably feel at least a little insecure, yourself.

What is attachment style?

I was doing some research on what I was experiencing and came upon a scholarly paper by Mario Mikulincer (Israel) and Philip Shaver (California) which summarizes the outworking of attachment styles  and hints at why I might see adults getting caught in their childhood avoidance or developing levels of avoidance they never had (Title:  An attachment perspective on psychopathology).

Paula Pietromonaco, Nancy Collins, Phil Shaver, Mario Mikulincer, Sue Johnson, Roger Kobak at an adult attachment conference in 2002

You may be quite familiar with attachment theory, by now, since John Bowlby started teaching about it in the 1970’s and 80’s. I appreciated the authors’ succinct way to recount how our attachment experiences result in attachment styles – how we see ourselves and habitually behave in the world.

Interactions with attachment figures who are available in times of need, and who are sensitive and responsive to bids for proximity and support, promote a stable sense of attachment security and build positive mental representations of self and others. But when a person’s attachment figures are not reliably available and supportive, proximity seeking fails to relieve distress, felt security is undermined, negative models of self and others are formed, and the likelihood of later emotional problems and maladjustment increases.

When testing this theory in studies of adults, most researchers have focused on the systematic pattern of relational expectations, emotions, and behavior that results from one’s attachment history – what Hazan and Shaver called attachment style. Research clearly indicates that attachment styles can be measured in terms of two independent dimensions, attachment-related anxiety and avoidance. A person’s position on the anxiety dimension indicates the degree to which he or she worries that a partner will not be available and responsive in times of need. A person’s position on the avoidance dimension indicates the extent to which he or she distrusts relationship partners’ good will and strives to maintain behavioral independence, self-reliance, and emotional distance.

I found it enlightening to see myself plotted on a four-quadrant chart created by anxiety and avoidance axes when it came to my attachment style. The way you can see if you are more or less one way or another is to see what you do when you are threatened or distressed.  People who score low on anxiety or avoidance are generally secure and tend to employ constructive and effective emotion-regulation strategies when life gets hard. Those who score high on either the attachment anxiety or the avoidance dimension (or both) suffer from insecurity and tend to rely on “secondary attachment strategies,” either deactivating or hyperactivating according to their childhood attachment system or the one they’ve recently developed to cope with threats.

Click for Anxiety Canada

Avoidance

I am mainly interested in the avoidance axis today, since I suspect when the CIA reports how many more assets are being killed than usual and Donald Trump had top-secret papers in Mar-a-Lago for a year it makes you want to avoid something! People who should be trustworthy aren’t. A great many people are so avoidant they trust no one. This is not new to the planet, but it is seismic right now.

According to Mikulincer and Shaver, people scoring high on avoidant attachment tend to rely on deactivating strategies – not seeking “proximity, denying attachment needs, and avoiding closeness and interdependence in relationships.” These strategies originally developed in relationships with attachment figures who disapproved of or undermined closeness and expressions of need or vulnerability.

Attachment style may be mostly about baby you, but not completely. It is too limited to think it is  something an individual carries inside and needs to deal with personally. One’s style arose in a relational setting, in a system, first off, with parents, and our habits can develop in new contexts. A marriage or workplace could change us. Donald Trump lying and calling people losers could change us.

Bowlby claimed that “meaningful relational interactions during adolescence and adulthood can move a person from one region to another of the two-dimensional conceptual space defined by attachment anxiety and avoidance.” Recent research keeps showing how our attachment style can develop, subtly or dramatically, depending on our current context, recent experiences, and recent relationships. There are studies that focus on highly stressful events, such as exposure to missile attacks, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or giving birth to a physically challenged infant which indicate avoidance is related to our present distress and the poor long-term adjustment that contributed to it. Our environment may deteriorate or we may create a dysfunctional environment which develops more avoidance.

Becoming less avoidant

Insecure attachment sets us up for other issues with both mental and physical health and strains all those relationships we hunger to have. Creating, maintaining, or restoring a sense of attachment security should increase resilience and improve mental health. Mikulincer and Shaver say,

According to attachment theory, interactions with available and supportive attachment figures impart a sense of safety, trigger positive emotions (e.g., relief, satisfaction, gratitude, love), and provide psychological resources for dealing with problems and adversities. Secure individuals remain relatively unperturbed during times of stress, recover faster from episodes of distress, and experience longer periods of positive affectivity, which contributes to their overall emotional well-being and mental health.

Whether an avoidant person moves toward security depends on how they travel three significant pathways.

View of self. The lack of sensitivity and responsiveness in your parents may have destabilized your self-esteem, or made you over-dependent on the approval of others. Insecure people are likely to be overly critical, self-doubting and likely to defend themselves by committing to perfection to counter how unworthy and hopeless they feel. Avoidant people praise themselves before someone doesn’t. Or they might deny weaknesses or needs because no one will care. The zeitgeist contributes to their view. Criticism is rampant right now. Perfection is a national obsession.

Emotional regulation. Hopefully, available attachment figures taught you to share your feelings and learn how to regulate them in relationship to others. Relatively insecure, avoidant people tend to cordon off their emotions from what they think and do. They may look secure and composed but they leave suppressed distress bubbling inside, which may erupt when crisis unleashes it. Then they need the coping skills and relational support system they didn’t imagine they needed.

Problems with relationships. It is no surprise that problems with our first relationships lead to learning a relationship style that has or creates problems. The avoidant person’s “deactivation” strategy for self-preservation creates issues. They generally have problems with nurture since that is a basic instinct formed with mom and dad. They may seem cold, may be unreasonably introverted, or may be overly competitive for what they see as the scarce resources of affection.

The neuroscience of attachment processes describes how the human brain evolved in a highly social environment. Our basic functions rely on social co-regulation of emotions and physiological states. So, like I said before, we should not see each other as separate entities whose interactions need to be interrogated and reconfigured according to theory. We should accept our fascinating interrelatedness as our normal starting point. When we do that, it helps us to see why separation, isolation, rejection, abuse, and neglect are so painful, and why insecurity-provoking relationships often cause or amplify our mental disorders. The pandemic left many avoidant people hesitant to ever leave their homes.  Teletherapy is a good option for them, but it may also deepen their avoidance.

Our attachment styles develop. We can change for the better. Great thinkers and practitioners are providing us a lot of help to do that. For instance, I discovered the Attachment Project website a few weeks ago. I probably sent its link to everyone I thought might be leaning toward an avoidant attachment style  (here it is). I would not put TOO much stock in this unattested and anonymous site, but it does some nice work to summarize different attachment styles and explain how people who could be characterized as “avoidant,” for instance, tend to behave and relate – and suffer. Please don’t use it to label yourself, we are in a dynamic process, here, getting worse off and better off all the time. But no matter your style, the site might help you get an inner dialogue going — and mentalizing is fertile soil for God to plant something whole and joyful.

Drugs: What do you know about the rising sea in which we swim?

Are you among the many people who will use a drug this month? When you answer, you may first think about what prescriptions you are taking. But include “self-medicating” with alcohol and marijuana — and maybe some other stuff.

You may also be experimenting with “psychedelics.” I am acquainted with people who have had profound experiences with two of the increasingly popular array of mind-altering drugs being offered to people seeking mental health (whether health means eradication or remission to them). Ketamine, psilocybin, and MDMA are high on the list of researchers as they look for new solutions to age-old problems.

In the consumer-driven U.S., buying whatever products are offered almost seems like an obligation, whether we need them or not. We have a lot of what we need, here, and a lot we probably don’t. Drugs are a well-advertised product, so you are more likely to be using them than not. I am with you. I will keep using the prescription drug I have been taking every day until the treatment is over. On our walk yesterday, I thanked God for a pain-killer that was so helpful to my wife, not long ago. According to SAMHSA, about half the people in the United States used a prescription drug in the last month. 24% used two or more. 13% used five or more (13% of the U.S. is 43 million people).

According to the CDC, when people went to see their doctor in 2018, 860+ million of them were given or prescribed drugs. 68.7% of visits included drug therapy. The drugs frequently prescribed were analgesics (pain), antihyperlipidemics (blood), and antidepressants (mental health).

In the same year, people who went to the emergency room were given or prescribed drugs 336 million times. 79.5% of the visits involved drug therapy. The drugs most frequently prescribed were analgesics, minerals and electrolytes (hydration), and antiemetics (nausea) or antivertigo agents (dizziness, nausea).

drugs: top ten drug companies 2022
The FDA approved 50 new drugs in 2021

Last year, the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer (42nd St. NYC), netted $21.98 billion. Johnson and Johnson (New Brunswick, NJ) netted $20.88 billion. Two Swiss companies, Novartis and Roche were #1 and #4 in the top five profit-makers. Local favorite, Merck (Kenilworth, NJ), netted $12.35 billion to be #5. If you watch commercial TV for five minutes, you are likely to hear from one of these worldwide mega-corporations selling their latest wonder.

The medical/pharmaceutical industry is designed to sell products for consumers, like everything else in consumer economies. It is no wonder, with huge corporations needing to sell so shareholders profit and a huge distribution system dispensing drugs as a primary means of healing, there is a lot of encouragement, even pressure, to use drugs of all kinds, legal and illegal.

Suspicious drugs

Like so many products people want, certain drugs that used to be illegal are creeping into mainstream acceptance. People will kill the planet to inject fossil fuels into their environment, so we have companies too big to die who extract and refine those products for them to buy. It is not the same, but similar, with drugs. People do not think they should suffer and die (ever) and will buy whatever promises to stop that.

Drugs that were formerly illegal (or still are) are creeping into mainstream use. People appear to be more desperate for them every year. Legal opioids famously addict and kill thousands of people every year. Prescription opioids (natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone), along with heroin and synthetic opioids other than methadone (primarily fentanyl) caused 21,000 overdoses in 2010. People were aghast when that number rose to 69,000 in 2020. In 2021 the number shot up to 107,622.  2022 is expected to see further increase.

The sea of drugs we live in is full of wonders, but there are a lot of predators in it, too. So the experts are doing studies and the news people are reporting on what they are finding. I am writing because I think the researchers and reporters could be a bit more suspicious.

drugs: psilocybin capsule
A psilocybin capsule Credit…John Karsten Moran/NYU Langone Health, via Associated Press

For instance, the NYTimes published a story last week about how psilocybin (‘shrooms) curbed excessive drinking. The researchers suggested it might be a new treatment in the making. AA suspects it is more likely a new way to lose one’s sobriety. MDMA (ecstasy) is being tested as a treatment for PTSD.

In general, psychedelics are moving into mainstream mental health treatment. Forbes recently published a helpful article about the trend, focusing on treating autism. In it, the author noted the increasing use of ketamine for mental health purposes:

While the drug’s usage carries serious risks if used recreationally, there is a reliable protocol for doctor-controlled use that has a steadily increasing track record of success for treatment-resistant depression. There’s even an FDA-approved spray called Spravato that is helping to make ketamine more and more mainstream, and improve more lives each day.

I think it is easy to notice that most drugs which provide out-of-control experiences are rarely effectively controlled. The Spravato website is worth a look to see, again, how salesmanship leads the way when it comes to introducing treatments.

Generosity about drug use needs limits

With the legalization of marijuana and mainstreaming of hallucinogens, it is no surprise that the use of those substances among young adults rose to an all time high in 2021, according to the NIH.

When the NIH, CDC, DHHS, etc. talk about drugs, they are even-handed. They try to stick to the facts — even though they track illegal uses and deaths, which implies disapproval. I think I might have a similar generosity. I have clients who use cannabis for more than recreation. Other clients have had life-altering experiences with ketamine and mushrooms. In their cases, the impact was not long-lasting. But I don’t know about everyone else. I generally reserve judgment.

Even though our minds are open, our discernment needs to be sharp when we introduce drug technology into our bodies. About seven years ago, the church in which I served offered a time for our theologians to think about drugs together. I wrote about our findings and I think they still provide helpful discernment. What do God and the Church think about drugs? What are some practical ways to approach life in the midst of constant wooing into and opportunity for drug use?

Colombian drugs smugglers shipwrecked
Shipwrecked cocaine smugglers on rising seas in 2019

I’m still pondering and applying what I learned then and have learned over the past few years. Each year, as overdose deaths rise (significantly in my own hometown!), the need to think and act becomes more urgent. I can’t help but notice that as the oceans have risen due to climate change, the sea of drugs has been rising with them. Do the powers-that-be extravagantly use them to pacify the most vulnerable? Regardless, like the Covid-19 vaccines did not solve all the problems of the pandemic, most drugs over-promise and under-perform until the general population feels it is normal to have 100-year floods and 100+ thousand opioid deaths in a year.

I repeatedly encouraged drug use for my clients and loved ones last year. Some wonders were worked. But I suspect I am being too generous about the new normal, in which we use drugs as the first act of healing. I think of giant drug companies as part of the powerful forces who brought the world to the present disasters we face. Now they want us to rely on them to solve the problems with their latest products.

While I don’t think the blanket mistrust rampant these days is the answer, Psalm 146 comes to mind. Discernment begins with trusting God, not just assessing the data and making endless, experimental choices.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish. (Whole psalm)

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 who know our signs. 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 was 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 — the one that 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 to myself, “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.