Saturday, March 26, 2011

Being a Both/And Person

Often, during my counseling week, a kind of theme emerges and I find myself talking about the same concept frequently. I touched on this week’s theme briefly in last week’s post – the tendency to “split”, i.e.: seeing things in terms of all good/all bad.

Why might we do this?

I think it reduces our anxiety and makes us feel safe. If we can judge something or someone in this polarized manner then we can accept or reject it/them completely and not have to wrestle with ambiguities and inconsistencies. That big grey area between black and white can make us feel pretty uncomfortable.

The problem is this way of thinking can be a real relationship destroyer. People are not all good or all bad. They are a combination of selfish and selfless, sinful and righteous, kind and thoughtless, -- and they might even seem to change day to day. If we are to be in a successful relationship we are going to have to embrace this reality.

How do we do this?

Well, I suppose we are going to have to work on shifting our way of thinking – from “either/or” and “right/wrong” to “both/and”.

What do I mean by “both/and”?

There are times when Nan doesn’t like me very much. Low levels of sleep produce irritability in me. I’m not very pleasant to be around. However, she can BOTH dislike me AND love me at the same time.  There are times when I am both frustrated or annoyed by a friend and the relationship is actually going quite well overall.

As I said earlier, moving in this direction may increase our level of anxiety at first, but the good news is that having the comfort of close relationships will ultimately promote our feelings of security.

Our ability to accept these paradoxes comes from a level of maturity that is difficult for some to achieve. I have found that the more mature we become spiritually, the more mature emotionally we also become. We are less critical, more forgiving of others weaknesses, more patient, less judgmental and more compassionate. In other words, we can have the mind of Christ.

 1 Corinthians 2:15-16 (The Message)
The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can't receive the gifts of God's Spirit. There's no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit—God's Spirit and our spirits in open communion. Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God's Spirit is doing, and can't be judged by unspiritual critics. Isaiah's question, "Is there anyone around who knows God's Spirit, anyone who knows what he is doing?" has been answered: Christ knows, and we have Christ's Spirit.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Over Spiritualizing

Have you ever known someone who seems unable to have a normal conversation without constantly injecting it with “God-talk”? If you are like me you probably get a bit uncomfortable – not because of the subject of spirituality, but because of the inappropriateness of the person. I am not sure if they are trying to reach me in some way, or if they need to constantly reassure or convince themselves (or me) about their faith. Either way it is annoying. A friend of mine calls this “icky Christianity”.

What worries me for them is a possible tendency to have polarized thinking. In counseling we would call this splitting: all good/all bad. Spiritually, they may view the world and operate as if under the law, becoming a present day Pharisee, or they may believe that grace will cover everything and so they operate their lives without regard to the full teaching of the Bible.

I am also concerned that this way of thinking may make them more vulnerable to flip-flopping in either their beliefs or their behavior. One day they seem to be following God with all their heart, and the next they have fallen off the map. What is preferable is being consistently steady, realistic and balanced.

What does this balance look like? It means operating with: structure and flexibility, love and truth, rules and relationship, principles and forgiveness, passion without pressuring or criticizing others. This is not easy. It takes strength and courage and the ability to embrace the messiness of humanity.

What also concerns me about God-talk is the effect is has on those who are not believers. Before I became a Christian the only effect it had on me was to keep me away from those who spoke that way. I felt judged and separate, an outsider. I spent as little time with them as I could and I believe it kept me away from faith much longer. I could not get to Jesus because these people were in the way.

How are you? Where do you fall in this discussion? I believe it can be an opportunity for valuable self-examination. I know I have had to strip a lot of things from my conversational style as I grew in Christ. I am still working on it, to be perfectly honest. Let’s grow together.  

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Too Close

Although many of us may come from emotionally disconnected families, some of us come from inappropriately connected ones. This might be the result of a “too close” bond with one of our parents. In her book “Emotional Incest”, Dr. Pat Love provides this checklist to help us determine if we are a “chosen child”.

  1. I felt closer to one parent than the other.
  2. I was a source of emotional support for one of my parents
  3. I was “best friends” with a parent.
  4. A parent shared confidences with me.
  5. A parent was deeply involved in my activities or in developing my talents.
  6. A parent took a lot of pride in my abilities or achievements.
  7. I was given special privileges or gifts by one of my parents.
  8. One of my parents told me in confidence that I was the favorite, most talented, or most lovable child.
  9. A parent thought I was better company than his or her spouse.
  10. I sometimes felt guilty when I spent time away from one of my parents.
  11. I got the impression a parent did not want me to marry or move far away from home.
  12. When I was young I idolized one of my parents.
  13. Any potential boyfriend or girlfriend of mine was never “good enough” for one of my parents.
  14. A parent seemed overly aware of my sexuality.
  15. A parent made inappropriate sexual remarks or violated my privacy.

If several to many of these statements apply to you, you may have (or had) an enmeshed relationship with one of your parents. Most often these overly close bonds are with the parent of the opposite sex.

The results can be manifold.

  • You may feel deep reluctance when trying to get a healthy distance from, or set appropriate boundaries with that parent. 
  • You may feel a vague sense of violation, but feel guilty because of your belief that they were just showing love to you. And that may be true, but the difference is in the intensity of the connection and the motivation on the part of the parent.
  • Was the parent trying to meet your needs or was the parent trying to get their emotional needs met through you? Big difference. Often this comes from an absent or difficult relationship between your parents.

If you are a parent, and find yourself getting caught up in a too close relationship with one of your children you will need to back off. The solution is to work on your marriage or to find an adult same-sex friend to share your emotional needs with.  

If you, as a married person, are having difficulty “leaving and cleaving” (appropriately forming a new family system) because of one of your parents, you may need to seek some counseling to get help setting healthy guilt-free boundaries. The same applies to single people who do not really feel free to pursue a relationship because of a needy parent.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Boy-Men and Girl-Women

A few years back there was a popular bumper-sticker that read:

“Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.”

I always thought “Wins what?” The Peter Pan award for never having to grow up? In my experience the person with the most toys had the most debt.

Then there was another declaration circulating that said:

“The difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.” Really – that’s the difference?

Unfortunately I think some people actually believe that – or at least some men believe that the acquisition of “expensive stuff” is a proof of their maturity. For them, success and its trappings can become more important than people.

How about women? What keeps them immature? I would say that living with fantasy keeps them stuck.

“Someday my prince will come. I will be rescued, life will be beautiful all the time – my problems will be ended when I just find the right man.”

That doesn’t describe most relationships I know. I would more honestly refer to that as magical thinking. It starts early in life with fairy tales and Disney movies. Attracting men seems to be more important than relating to them, just as wedding planning has become a more important focus to some than preparing for the challenges of marriage.

Childhood and adolescence is a time of self-absorption. The clinical term is “childhood narcissism”. It is when a child has not got a proper awareness of the existence and importance of others feelings – yet. To them, they are the center of the universe. However, when we carry this belief into adulthood, it prevents us from becoming fully mature.

How many boy-men are lost in video games, ignoring wives, children and other relationships? How many girl-women are enthralled with romance novels and movies? How about pornography or television sports addictions? Gossip magazines, ladies? I could go on nearly endlessly with the distractions that keep us from focusing on the requirements of a mature adult life.

Women don’t want boys for husbands and guys don’t want to be tied to an emotionally immature girl. Women still want responsible men to father their children, and men still want to marry virtuous women that they can proudly take home to mom. Don’t be fooled by rumors to the contrary.    

Taking an opposing stance to our society that reveres permanent adolescence is difficult at best – it is counter-cultural (I don’t want to grow up – I just want to be a “Toys R Us” kid). It requires self-evaluation and self-sacrifice.  My first step is to admit that I have work to do in this area. Breaking denial is scary, but also refreshing.

1 Corinthians 13:11 (New Living Translation) When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.