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Most of us have too much stuff and try to do too much. Simplifying can lower our stress. If we’re in recovery, simplifying life is important, because stress and chaos lead to relapse. If our lives are too full and overloaded, it only makes sense that cutting some things out and simplifying will be part of the solution. They will help us have happier, more fruitful lives.
But if simplifying becomes our ultimate goal,
we’re never going to be happy,
and we’re going to miss out
on opportunities that make life meaningful.
Anything worthwhile is likely to be stressful, time-consuming, and will complicate our lives. If simplifying and lowering our stress is our primary goal, we will have to stop doing many important things, because they make life complicated.
What do you cut?
Here’s a scenario that has played out many times in my work as a pastor: A person in the church is volunteering in a ministry and doing a great job. But they are feeling too busy and overwhelmed and feel the need to simplify their lives. Guess what is the first thing they cut out of life in order to “simplify”? Of course: their volunteer work in the church.
Meanwhile, they’re working at a job they hate, with working conditions and expectations that are out of control, and/or they are caught in demanding, dysfunctional relationships where they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to please people who are perpetually unhappy, and/or they are gone many weekends pursuing sports and other activities for their kids, and/or they’re watching a ton of TV.
But when they realize that they are too busy and stressed out, the thing they pull back from is the volunteering they do to help other people. They let go of the thing that is easiest to step away from, but it is also likely the key area that has the potential to make their lives fruitful and fulfilling.
Engaging in service doesn’t simplify life, but makes it meaningful
I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:
“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.
“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Just over a decade ago I began a journey, disillusioned by my experiences with “church” and the type of Christian faith and practice it advocated. I was a pastor, and thus a spokesperson for this brand: through teaching, preaching, and counseling. The crisis for me came in having to admit that what I had been taught — and was teaching — wasn’t really working in my own life. The faith and spiritual practices weren’t adequate to deal with the struggles and challenges of my life, or in coming to terms with the traumas of my past.
On a leave of absence from my ministry position, I committed myself to face — with “ruthless honesty” — the spiritual questions I had been unwilling and/or unable to face when I was preaching and leading a church.
It’s not my intent to chronicle this journey: there have been many twists and turns, and it’s still ongoing. But what’s important to say is this: What has emerged is not a story about faith that was lost, but rather a faith that has been refined. What is emerging is something that is — I think — deeper, more real, and more precious.
My observation is that many people go through similar process in their experience of recovery. And now that I’m back working as a pastor, I’m also seeing many people go through a similar process of spiritual transformation that starts out looking more like spiritual disillusionment, doubt, and/or “giving up on church.”
It feels like the end of something, but it could be the beginning of something better.
Your tribe does not have exclusive rights to “Being a Christian”
I am learning that following Jesus is a multi-faceted process, and that “Christianity” is a much larger tent than I had realized. I fell into the error of assuming that what I had experienced and learned was “the Christian faith,” and when I saw its failings and inconsistencies, I assumed that the only alternative was to dismiss the Christian faith as a whole.
After a year or two of drifting, I began to see that things are much more nuanced than I had been led to believe. I discovered that there are many people like me, with the same questions and reservations about the version of Christianity I had. What they did … and what I’m doing … is living out a different expression of Christianity.
So one of the things that’s emerging for me is a deeper appreciation for what I would consider to be the mystical core of the Christian faith. That is, the mysterious connection between the human and divine. That is, the experience of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” that Paul talks about in I Corinthians.
In his excellent book “Answering the Contemplative Call” Carl McColman writes this:
“We need to be like Mary of Nazareth, offering ourselves up so that our very bodies can offer hospitality to Christ. Like Mary and Martha of Bethany, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, like Simon the leper, we are invited to receive God?—?within us. This is not a mental game, as if we just have to think, ‘God is inside me,’ to make it so. After all, God is everywhere, so God is already inside you (and me, and everyone else) whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.
“Therefore the key is to learn how to recognize God’s presence, and, in recognizing that presence, choose to embrace it, respond to it, and love it. And the only reason to love God’s presence is because we love God.”
What I’m finding is that this mystical heart was missing for me. Make no mistake, I was certainly taught about the importance of having a “relationship with God,” and the need for having daily “quiet time.” But this was basically set aside time to read and study the Bible, and then pray. And of course “prayer” was essentially an act of speaking to God in my mind and asking Him to do things for me and for other people. Then I would get confused and disappointed because so often God would not do the things I was asking Him to do.
This is a process
I think there is so much more going on … so many more depths available in our spiritual life. There is an essential internal work, where I focus on God’s activity of bringing healing and insight and strength to my heart. That is the essence of it: the experience of inner transformation. This is what the Bible calls “sanctification:” the ongoing process of having my own ego laid aside, and the divine nature of the Spirit emerge and live out more fully in my being.
This is what was going on in Jesus’ life when he spent that 40 days in the desert, and when he would go off to lonely places in the night, and in early mornings to pray. He didn’t just sit and make lists of things he wanted from the Father. There was some kind of internal shaping going on. And this internal shaping is at the heart of the experience we can have as Christians. This experience relates to a set of beliefs that we espouse, but it goes much deeper.
I’ve been a Christian for decades, and it’s astonishing for me to realize how much is there that for all these years I just missed. Maybe the mystical core wasn’t being taught in the circles I was in, or maybe it was there, and I wasn’t listening.
These days, I’m listening.
Leadership is hard, but we make it harder by our own missteps. Leadership is challenging, but we make things worse when we don’t honor the limits of our bodies and souls. Leadership involves making hard choices, and dealing with conflict, but we make things worse if we don’t practice self-care. Instead we wind up fatigued, reactive, short-tempered, and feeling victimized by our role.
Just because we are leaders doesn’t mean we have to be martyrs.
Leadership is hard enough … let’s not make it harder. Let’s not glorify suffering, and delude ourselves into thinking there is spiritual merit in overwork. Jesus withdrew from the crowds when he needed to, and arranged his ministry in phases of deep engagement, and times apart from the crowds and busyness. We should too.
Melodie Beattie has a great meditation in her book “The Language of Letting Go” that encourages people to let go of the martyr archetype. Listen to what she has to say:
No one likes a martyr.
How do we feel around martyrs? Guilty, angry, trapped, negative, and anxious to get away.
Somehow, many of us have developed the belief that depriving ourselves, not taking care of ourselves, being a victim, and suffering needlessly will get us what we want.
It is our job to notice our abilities, our strengths, and take care of ourselves by developing and acting on them.
It is our job to notice our pain and weariness and appropriately take care of ourselves.
It is our job to notice our deprivation, too, and begin to take steps to give ourselves abundance. It begins inside of us, by changing what we believe we deserve, by giving up our deprivation and treating ourselves the way we deserve to be treated.
Life is hard, but we don’t have to make it more difficult by neglecting ourselves. There is no glory in suffering, only suffering. Our pain will not stop when a rescuer comes, but when we take responsibility for ourselves and stop our own pain.
Today, I will be my own rescuer. I will stop waiting for someone else to work through my issues and solve my problems for me.
Some of that might ring true for you, some might not. That’s okay. Look to God for help in dealing with your challenges, but remember that God won’t magically rescue us from ourselves. We’ll get into trouble if we don’t put ourselves in places where we can receive strength and grace (ie. if we don’t take time to spend in silence, in retreat, and in supportive community.)
Nobody will put the brakes on for you. Only you can decide to slow down and cut back on your commitments. Nobody will step up to the plate for your self-care if you are not willing to make it a priority for yourself.
Of course this is not to suggest that we become lazy and self-absorbed. We will still have to work hard. We will get tired. We will face challenges. But leadership is more like an long race than a crucifixion. Except for extreme situations, it will tire you out, but not kill you.
Come down off that cross. Chances are, God isn’t calling you to be up there anyway.
Today there are growing numbers of suicides — especially among military veterans. I just came across a great article from Jennifer Michael Hecht in The American Scholar about suicide. It’s written from a secular, scholarly, but wise perspective. It’s so well-written that I’m doing to quote some sections at length. Here are some excerpts:
Today’s military faces a tremendous crisis. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Some of this is attributable to PTSD—posttraumatic stress disorder—but a recent Pentagon study covering the years 2008 through 2011 showed that some 52 percent of those who committed suicide had never been deployed to a combat zone. Last year, military personnel killed themselves at a rate of about one a day. Veterans are killing themselves at a rate of almost one every hour, about 22 a day. Recently the rise in military suicide was so extreme that it made the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Time magazine. The rate is higher this year than it was at this point last year.
The suicide rate is also escalating in the U.S. population at large: 10 years ago it shocked observers by reaching 30,000 a year. Now it is almost 40,000. Around the world and in the United States there are more suicides than murders. For those under 40 years of age, it is one of the top three killers. For older people it is one of the top 10, though their rate of suicide is the highest (other diseases begin to compete for numbers). Women attempt suicide more, but men succeed more often—probably because they have greater access to guns, which is one of the surest methods.
In the civilian population matching the demographics of the military (considering age, sex, and race), between 2002 and 2009 (the latest year for which we have reliable numbers) the suicide rate increased by 15 percent. According to Pentagon numbers, the military suicide rate in the same period increased by 80 percent. Even this disparity may understate the problem, since the Pentagon counts as active duty people who were active for only a few days in a given year, making the rate far lower than it would be if officials counted people who were active for at least six months, for instance.
Why this rash of suicides?
Many soldier suicides come in response to a bad situation: a broken marriage, a financial crisis, legal trouble, or some other reversal. A recent Pentagon study showed that about half of military suicides had experienced a failed marriage, frequently just months before the victims killed themselves. Another report showed that most suicides occurred in people under the age of 25. Family and friends who have lost someone to suicide often report that the person had legal or financial troubles, or both; that they were struggling with drugs or alcohol; that they came back from the war deeply changed; or that they were frustrated at not being deployed.
By and large, people kill themselves today for the same reasons Ajax (a figure in Greek Mythology that she references earlier in the article) does: because life can be disappointing, unfair, and painful, and we often respond by doing things that make us feel ashamed in the morning. The extent of the misery Ajax experiences is in large part because, as a great hero, he expects so much of himself. These days we expect a lot. We live in a culture that makes us all want to be special, and the math on that will never add up. We all feel terribly let down sometimes.
What to do about this rash of suicide?
If someone is besieged by suicidal thoughts, it is important that he get help from a mental health professional. Talk therapy can work, bringing real insight. Antidepressants can take the edge off the pain as a person figures out her life. But we can also draw on the inner resolve of the individual, and on the history of ideas.
To save our future selves from suicide, we have to do some work now. Boot camp and additional training get a soldier ready for war. In situations where most people would freeze and give up or run away, soldiers are trained to fight the fight and try to get out alive. People do not often speak of it, but the inner life of soldiers and civilians alike can be so brutal that it too requires training in advance of a crisis. We need a boot camp of the heart and of the psyche.
Beyond the moment of crisis, people do not want to die of suicide any more than the person who freezes up in a firefight wants to die in battle—they are both just overwhelmed and undertrained. The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that suicide is always a matter of taking oneself by surprise, a rushing of one’s own defenses. Like other defenses, those against suicide can be strengthened. Abundant data show us that the suicidal impulse can be of remarkably short duration. The mood passes. One study followed up on 515 people saved from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge more than 20 years earlier and found that only between five and seven percent actually went on to end their own lives. Other studies have shown that an overwhelming number of people who have attempted suicide are unambiguously glad they did not die.
An untrained person experiencing profound disappointment or depression may let the part of him that wants to die win the day. Any of us might get to a place where the sliver of ourselves that wants to die is in control for a while. Don’t let it happen. Inculcate into your very being the idea that killing yourself is not an option. This is work everyone should do. Those who have never felt intense inner pain should not scoff at its power. As the 17th-century doctor Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Hope, ye miserable. Ye happy, take heed.” Everyone suffers; no one escapes. When the bad time comes, it will feel like it is never going to end. But it will. We must think it through now so that the training against suicide kicks in and saves our life and the lives of our fellows.
People considering suicide should keep in mind how it will affect others
As Hecht points out, suicide not only really hurts the people around us by causing them grief and guilt, it also creates a situation where the people we leave behind are much more likely themselves to commit suicide:
The reason I say “the lives of our fellows” is that one of the principal predictors of suicide is knowing someone who has committed suicide. We influence each other to an extraordinary degree. Parents who kill themselves leave behind children who are three times as likely to kill themselves as children who make it to age 18 with living parents. It’s not just parents. According to sociological studies, one suicide in a community very often leads to a rise in suicides by people who knew the deceased, or knew of him, or felt themselves like him in some way, especially with regard to age, sex, and occupation. In my new book, Stay, I compile a large number of studies showing that suicidal contagion is real. It shouldn’t surprise us, because studies have shown that with weight, smoking, recycling, and other choices, people do what they think the people around them are doing. Even with choices as permanent as getting tattoos or having a third child, people follow each other. After one suicide, the suicide rate in a given area increases. It happens at schools; it happens within professions; it happens after a celebrity suicide; and it is happening in the military right now.
Because of this phenomenon, suicide is also homicide—you take somebody with you. When you take your own life, you normalize suicide for people who liked you and who are like you. Once the numbers reach a critical mass, as they have in the military today, it is a massacre. We have to take better care of each other by insisting on sparing ourselves in periods of emotional agony. What I want to tell our soldiers and veterans is this: If you want your buddies to live, you have to find a way to live, too. Living through your misery is a colossal gift to the community. You may now or someday feel as if you are useless, as if the world would be better off without you. But that is wrong. You may have made some mistakes, even some terrible mistakes, but you would do even more damage—immeasurable damage—if you were to kill yourself. It is not an option.
True, someone cannot simply decide not to feel miserable, or just choose not to have suicidal thoughts, but people can choose not to go through with it. Consider, for example, that the powerful cultural taboo against suicide for women with small children corresponds to a low suicide rate for such women. They are no less depressed—50 to 80 percent of women experience some postpartum “blues,” and between 10 and 15 percent suffer from postpartum depression. Nothing suggests that they have fewer suicidal thoughts, but they resist them. If women can do this for their children, then soldiers can do it for their comrades, their families, and their own future selves.
It takes courage to live through feelings of despair
Many great minds in history have spoken of the courage required to stay alive. It may seem like a very different kind of courage than what war requires, but similarities exist. In some cases, courage on the battlefield is observed by many others and can lead to a medal, but even on the battlefield the greatest courage is often witnessed by only a few other people. An act of heroism can nevertheless be deeply satisfying. The courage to live through suicidal feelings and stay alive will not earn a medal, but it will bring the respect of those close to you and may well bring tremendous satisfaction.
And beyond satisfaction, it can bring wisdom. Most people feel at times that they have dug themselves into a hole out of which they cannot climb. No one wants to be humbled in this way, but it is an essential ripening. From military heroes, leaders we admire, and deep thinkers of all kinds, we hear over and over that real knowledge comes from pain. Living through inner pain is how we lose our arrogance, our selfishness, and our ignorance. It is how we acquire gentleness and a sense of responsibility, maturity, and the capacity for leadership.
Our view of suicide is skewed today because of our tendency to expect that life should always be easy and happy
The way we talk about suicide today is off balance. We are so caught up in the language of illness that we end up stigmatizing misery, when in fact misery is a part of everyone’s life. As a nation, we take millions of pills to deal with our sadness, yet we strive to seem fine all the time, such that everyone ends up alone with his or her struggles. We read and write about all sorts of weakness and heartache, but the stories are almost all recovery tales. We are willing to talk about it when it’s over, but while people are at their lowest points they are often isolated by shame about their troubles. We need at least to know that inner pain is common and always has been.
We need to think these issues through and take a stand now so that when we are feeling anguish, we have a commitment to avoid taking our own lives. We need to know that suicide is wrong. We need to read it, and hear it, and speak it, one-on-one and in gatherings.
Ideas are never the whole story: people face biological depression, cataclysmic financial loss, maddening drug addiction, and awful luck in love. To fix the national problem of suicide, among soldiers and civilians, we need better access to mental health care and a better economy. But ideas do matter.
History and philosophy indicate that people can gain strength from knowing of the suffering of heroes, historical and mythical. When we are miserable, it is hard to remember anything positive, so we have to memorize some things before those moments come. Life is meaningful, and it is meaningful for reasons to which we do not always have access, because of our youth or because of our mood. Trust the wisdom of the ages and wait for greater knowledge and better times. Life will raise us up again. Practice having some faith in it.
I served for 15 years as a pastor in several church settings, then spent five years in the counseling world, and now I’m back in the church / pastoring world again. One thing I’ve taken back into the church world from my counseling experience is an understanding that undiagnosed mental illness plays a big role in all-too-many “problem situations” and “problem people” in churches today.
I’ve seen people get by with outrageously manipulative behavior in churches, because pastors and fellow church members are trying to be “nice.” At the same time, I’ve also seen an amazing lack of compassion for people who struggle with things like depression or ADHD, because people expect them to “snap out of it.”
I believe that many pastors struggle to know how to deal with certain difficult situations, and more training and understanding of mental illness could help them. They are trying to be godly and compassionate, but they may actually be making problems worse by the way they give attention to — and therefore reinforce — dysfunctional patterns. Or else they might ignore people altogether because they don’t know how to deal with them.
In learning about mental disorders and how to help people move past them, we can learn excellent ways of communicating, interpreting, and relating with others. This is not just about helping people who have a mental illness; this is about helping people with emotional struggles as a whole, something which we can all benefit from. The steps needed to help someone who has been clinically diagnosed with Narcisstic Personality Disorder, for instance, are steps that would greatly assist anyone with strong insecurities in general.
Real “church” happens when people come together, without barriers amongst one another, to grow with God. When there are “problem people” who cause strife and anxiety, this interrupts the cohesion needed for a healthy church to function. Asking these people to leave the church, before making a serious effort to help them, is not what God calls us to do. Ignoring these people and their needs means the problem persists and the church is not able to do what it is supposed to. Learning the characteristics of these mental disorders and using this knowledge to help others is what we must do to create and preserve a good church.
Here is a quick primer with an overview of some of the mental disorders that show up in churches. The descriptions of these disorders have been created by mixing and blending the language from a variety of sources (identified at the end of this article).
Relatively Common Mental Disorders in Churches
ADHD or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – is a condition characterized by serious difficulties with attention and hyperactivity. The challenges brought on by ADHD vary from difficulty focusing on simple conversations to excessively losing track of details at work. Symptoms according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health include:
– Being easily distracted, missing details, forgetting things, and frequently switching from one activity to another
– Having difficulty maintaining focus on one task
– Becoming bored with a task after only a few minutes, unless doing something enjoyable
– Having difficulty focusing attention on organizing and completing a task, learning something new, or trouble completing and turning in homework assignments
The vast majority of people exhibit these behaviors to some extent. Some medical professionals are concerned this disorder is being overdiagnosed because of how common the symptoms are. The key distinction is that people with ADHD experience these issues to such a degree that it seriously and consistently hinders their ability to engage in day-to-day life.
Bipolar disorder or bipolar affective disorder – Also known as manic–depressive disorder or manic depression – bipolar disorder is a condition in which common emotions are magnified to an unhealthy and destructive level. Those with bipolar disorder go in and out of a state known as “mania”- periods of frenzied high energy- and will typically experience depression as well.
At the lowest degree, people with bipolar disorder can be energetic and excitable, and may sometimes be highly productive. In more severe cases, individuals are erratic and impulsive, often making bad decisions because of unrealistic ideas about themselves and the world around them. At the highest level, individuals can experience psychosis, in which they hold very distorted beliefs about the world.
A common symptom of bipolar disorder is to wildly swing between periods of mania and depression, with these phases lasting anywhere from days to months. In some cases, both of these states are experienced at the same time, hence the term “manic depression”.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) – a condition characterized by instability, recklessness and impulsiveness in relationships, behavior, self-image, and moods. People with BPD typically can’t stand being alone, but their relationships with others are very dramatic and stressful. They behave recklessly and can tend to: abuse drugs, have unsafe sex, go on manic shopping sprees, etc. Sometimes people with BPD will hurt themselves, or attempt suicide.
People with BPD have extreme mood swings, feeling very confident or positive one day and then very negative the next. Despite these mood swings, people with this disorder usually feel consistently empty and angry.
BPD usually develops during adolescence and early adulthood, often in response to early life trauma or deprivation. This can make it difficult to spot early on, because of how tumultuous that phase of life can be in the first place.
Depression / major depressive disorder (MDD) – People with clinical depression feel bad, in every way. They lose confidence, feel “trapped” or hopeless, lack direction in day to day activities and overall life decisions, and feel consistently drained and tired. They lose interest in activities they used to find very enjoyable, and stop acquiring new skills or hobbies.
The term “depression” is imprecise and sometimes used to describe a low mood, or general unhappiness. Diagnosable depression runs deeper, and therapists distinguish problematic depression in two categories:
Major Depressive Disorder is not simply “feeling bad”. It is a mental condition tied directly to a neurological dysfunction. When affected with clinical depression, the brain has significantly less neurotransmitter activity. This means the brain’s neurons aren’t communicating with each other as much as they typically should. This is why depression affects so many aspects of a person’s life; the entire brain is slowed down. Clinical depression can last anywhere from months to years.
Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) – This disorder is characterized by an excessive and inappropriate need for approval. People with HPD are highly emotional and constantly seek attention from others. This tends to result in overly dramatic, energetic, and/or flirtatious behavior that ends up hurting them and the people around them.
People with HPD often are initially perceived as happy and enthusiastic. But they are, in fact, deeply troubled, with an extreme need for attention and validation from others. In the majority of cases, this disorder is found in people with above-average appearance, and it affects four times more women than men. People with HPD have strong feelings of dependency, are apt to make inappropriate scenes, and exaggerate their feelings and actions.
(Of the disorders mentioned so far, HPD is probably the least common in churches. I mention it, however, because it seems to show up in pastors of large churches more often than you’d think.)
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – This is a disorder in which a person is constantly grappling with insecurities related to vanity, personal self-worth, and power. Because of these insecurities, the person puts on a false – and excessive – display of arrogance, disrespect and/or superiority over others.
People with NPD often act in ways that are similar to those who are very confident and secure with themselves. The difference between the two is the underlying root of these behaviors. A healthy, confident person acts the way she does because she truly believes in herself; a narcissist will act overly confident because she does not believe in herself at all. Narcissists have a low self-esteem, and since they compensate for this by belittling or demonstrating superiority over others, they are unable to handle even the slightest criticism.
Less common Mental Disorders in Churches
Paranoid personality disorder (PPD) – Paranoia is characterized by a long-standing and all-encompassing distrust of other people. Those affected will habitually interpret the intentions of others as insulting, malicious, or otherwise threatening. This applies to serious life choices made by others, and to things as small as off-handed comments and remarks.
People with PPD have an unusual way of relating to the world. On the one hand they never acknowledge the irrationality of their unjustified suspicions, but at the same time they do not lose touch with reality completely. Instead, they have a warped view of the world, as they constantly go through life searching for any validation for their fears and distrust. They do not open up and confide with others for fear of rejection or betrayal, even if they have someone who has proven to be very trustworthy. They are simply unable to not be suspicious. If left untreated, these individuals will build up unwarranted resentments and anger for an excessive length of time.
Schizophrenia – This disorder is characterized by a breakdown of thought processes into incoherence and irrationality. Schizophrenics often have hallucinations. These typically manifest themselves as imaginary voices, but visual hallucinations have been observed as well. More common is delusional thinking and perceptions about the world. These delusions frequently concern the person’s safety and imagined threats.
Over a long enough time-span, schizophrenics will experience disorganized thinking and speech. This breakdown ranges from losing one’s train of thought, to the extreme cases of “word salad,” in which a person will simply blurt out random words with no connection of meaning or structure. It is common to see social withdrawl, decreased motivation and ambitions, degradation of hygiene, and impaired judgment in schizophrenics. Emotional capacity starts to waver as well. The individual might have unusual or inappropriate emotional responses to events and developments in life, or have difficulty processing and feeling emotions altogether.
American Psychiatric Association (psychiatry.org)
American Psychological Association (apa.org)
Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.com)
Psychology Today (psychologytoday.org)
How many times have you heard someone say: “I just feel so empty?” Maybe they didn’t use that exact word, but that was the gist of it. Sometimes this label “emptiness” gets thrown around in talk about depression, sometimes with burnout, sometimes with relationship problems, or sometimes “mid life crisis.”
As a young pastor my reaction was to think in spiritual categories … people feel empty because they need God. But what happens when godly people still feel empty? What happens when pastors feel empty? It’s time we add another, more nuanced, way of thinking about “inner emptiness.”
Early life trauma
A common result of growing up with trauma and deprivation is what some therapists call an inability to “self sooth.” In healthy families parents model and teach their kids how to comfort themselves when they feel angry, stressed, or sad. When that doesn’t happen – especially when kids grow up with an over-abundance of stress and sadness – this is experienced as an inner emptiness that gives rise to unhealthy coping strategies later in life (including addictions, workaholism, and codependency).
This inner emptiness is a challenge for many people, and it doesn’t just go away when we grow in a relationship with God. Continue reading Dealing with feelings of emptiness
As an ordained minister and the senior pastor of two churches, I know from experience that pedestals are dangerous. People often come into the church with a powerful mixture of expectations and illusions about what an uber-spiritual person should be. They may assume the pastor will embody that. This is a problem when we let them down – when they see how we fall short of the ideal that they created in their minds.
But it’s maybe an even bigger problem when they don’t see our flaws, because they don’t want to see our flaws, and we get too good at hiding them. Most of the people in our churches want to see us in a good light, because this reinforces their faith … the leader of their spiritual community can serve to validate the power of that faith. I think it is rare that anyone Continue reading On the Danger of Pedestals – part 1
Loneliness is an important issue – and personal challenge – for many leaders and the people they are leading. For this reason, I was especially interested in the results of a recent study on the topic. What follows are highlights from a recent article about the study.
A new study suggests that feelings of loneliness can spread through social networks like the common cold.
“People on the edge of the network spread their loneliness to others and then cut their ties,” says Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School in Boston, a coauthor of the new study in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “It’s like the edge of a sweater: You start pulling at it and it unravels the network.”
This study is the latest in a series that Christakis and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego have conducted to see how habits and feelings move through social networks. Their earlier studies suggested that obesity, smoking and happiness are contagious. The new study, led by John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, found that loneliness is catching as well, possibly because lonely people don’t trust their connections and foster that mistrust in others.
Christakis and Fowler examined data from a long-term health study based in Framingham, Mass., a small town where many of the study’s participants knew each other. The Framingham study followed thousands of people over 60 years, keeping track of physical and mental heath, habits and diet.
From this information, Christakis and Fowler reconstructed the social network of Framingham, including more than 12,000 ties between 5,124 people (see diagram below). The researchers plotted how reported loneliness, measured via a diagnostic test for depression, changed over time.
Feeling lonely doesn’t mean you have no connections, Cacioppo says. It only means those connections aren’t satisfying enough. Loneliness can start as a sense that the world is hostile, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Loneliness causes people to be alert for social threats,” Cacioppo says. “You engage in more self-protective behavior, which is paradoxically self-defeating.” Lonely people can become standoffish and eventually withdraw from their social networks, leaving their former friends less well-connected and more likely to mistrust the world themselves.
Other insights about loneliness from the study:
- It appears to be easier to catch from friends than from family
- It appears to spread more among women than men
- It is most contagious among neighbors who live within a mile of each other.
- It can spread to three degrees of separation, as in the studies of obesity, smoking and happiness.
- One lonely friend makes you 40 to 65 percent more likely to be lonely, but a lonely friend-of-a-friend increases your chances of loneliness by 14 to 36 percent
- A friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend adds between 6 and 26 percent
The image at left is a graphical representation of the social network of Framingham, Mass. It shows lonely people clustering at the periphery of the network. Each point represents a person (greater loneliness from yellow to green to blue) and lines between points indicate types of relationships (red for siblings and black for friends and spouses).