Vale of TearsAppendix Two - Praise Carts and Protective Mechanisms
Appendix Two – Praise Carts and Protective Mechanisms
FOR THE BENEFIT of those who wish to come alongside people who are manifesting more severe psychological side effects, this section is going to explore some of the ways by which people develop “protective” mechanisms to help them cope with their grief.
Although these lightning sketches will inevitably veer us more towards a “text book” approach (and contain rather stronger meat than the average person might wish to deal with in the immediate throes of grief) you are sure to find material here that will prove helpful in every phase of life.
I hit on the idea of using the letters PRAISE to illustrate these essentially psychological concepts for the simple reason that it was the first word I thought of that incorporated the starting initials of the themes I wanted to explore. Given that praise “carts off” so much of our emotional baggage, it is perhaps a more fitting title than it at first appears!
Once again, I hope you will find the opening quotations an inspiring way to begin unpacking the inevitably somewhat heavy material. A moment’s additional reflection can only be a blessing!
P The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
I Identification and Idolatry
S Shame and Suppression
T Tensions (The Neurosis of Grief )
S Substitution and Sublimination
Grief that never seems to fade, and conflicts that never resolve may be pointers to the fact that we have developed strongly entrenched protective mechanisms. When trouble threatens, or someone comes too close, these spring into action, causing us to react in ways that enable us to cope, but that others might consider inappropriate, because they distort the “reality” of the situation.
This begs a difficult question. Is it better, in absolute terms, to be somewhat eccentric but emotionally secure, or to be so acutely aware of all the dynamics involved in a situation that we live on an emotional cliff-edge? The answer lies, perhaps, in the degree to which these “protective” mechanisms skew us away from reality. A typical example would be the person (or couple) who knows deep down how serious a health issue is, but who nevertheless determines to act as though they are sure to get better.
Life is so precious that we find it hard to fully embrace the thought that everlasting life will be still more wonderful. When husbands and wives know deep down that death is imminent, yet choose to keep up the pretence that it is not going to happen in order to spare each other’s feelings, it often leaves the survivor with a host of unresolved matters to deal with afterwards.
We saw earlier how the “Divine Anaesthetic” holds certain griefs at bay until we are strong enough to bear them. There is a balance to maintain here, however. As surely as some members of the medical profession are frankly brutal in the way they communicate bad news to people, others are inclined to disguise the seriousness of peoples’ conditions until the very last minute – by which time their drug-induced condition may render it too late for them to face up to certain issues.
The balance favours honesty, in order to make the most of the remaining time. I came across a most moving testimony the other day of a prominent minister who declared that although thousands had been praying for his wife to recover, they had come to an assurance that she was not going to be healed. This has obviously been an immensely distressing time for them, but they made it their explicit aim not to look inwards – and be overwhelmed – but to focus on loving God and serving others. Testimonies like this, that are written in the midst of some great ordeal, somehow seem a great deal more authentic than those which present a neatly “finished” story because they draw the reader in to be part of the pilgrimage.
Don’t all good stories do the same? My seven-year-old son and I recently watched Because of Winn-Dixie. The film is a sensitive demonstration of how the power of love can pierce people’s protective mechanisms and bring their hearts to life again.
Newly arrived in the small township of Naomi, a preacher and his ten-year-old daughter find it a far more dispiriting place than its pleasant name suggests. The names are ironically chosen. The landlord of the home they rent in “Friendly” Corner is far from friendly, and the “Open Arms Fellowship” by no means lives up to its name. Everyone, in fact, leads miserable and lonely lives in Naomi. No wonder, then, that the girl prays to make some friends. The answers start when she persuades her reluctant father to adopt a stray dog, who she came across wreaking havoc in the local supermarket.
As the girl reaches out into the steely-hearted community to overcome people’s sense of isolation, the turning point comes when she organises a party for the community. Friendships are formed and the village is transformed. Best of all, her father, who his daughter had consistently referred to until now as “the preacher,” once again becomes her “daddy.”
Keep the tissues handy but take heart from the truths this film is pointing to: God sees our helplessness and hears our prayers – and the power of love can reach through our protective mechanisms to make new beginnings possible.
The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
Once you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, then you develop some confidence.
Someone once wrote, “that which is written without effort is usually read without pleasure.” High standards and hard work are essential for turning promising starts into something truly worthwhile. If grief hooks into perfectionist tendencies in the wrong way, however, we can end up ensnared in an entirely false model, striving to achieve higher standards than God is actually asking of us. This is not only a certain recipe for frustration, it stops us from being able to enjoy what we already have. It can also cause us to project onto others our dislike of things that we despise in ourselves. As Bill Lemley reminds us,
When nobody around you seems to measure up, it’s time to check your yardstick.
The following excerpt, taken from Wikipedia under Perfectionism (Psychology), will help us to make the all-important distinction between “normal” and “neurotic” perfectionism.
Normal perfectionists derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort, while neurotic perfectionists are unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things well enough to warrant that feeling . . . [“Neurotic”] perfectionists are people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals, and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment. [“Normal”] perfectionism can drive people to great accomplishments and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles . . .
The meticulous attention to detail necessary for scientific investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep working until the music realises the glorious sounds playing in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great artists at their easels until their creation matches their conception all result from perfectionism.
High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. For example, Michaelangelo’s perfectionism spurred him to create masterpieces such as the statue David and the [ceiling of] the Sistine Chapel.1
As surely as we should praise God for the skill and persistence which enable us to keep going until our work is fully formed, it is as well to be aware that neurotic perfectionism can lead to procrastination – that is, putting things off because our efforts never feel quite good enough to risk showing to others. This is especially likely to be the case if our self esteem is already on the low side, in which case we may be gripped by the fear of failure and the need to earn approval.2 These are issues that require specific prayer. You may find these insights a helpful starting point.
Striving for excellence motivates you;
striving for perfection is demoralizing.
A man would do nothing if he waited
until he could do it so well
that no one could find fault.
Ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering,
there is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.
The little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.
Think of repression and we normally associate it with the forcible subjugation of others. Here, however, we are concerned with the specific defence mechanism whereby people push anxious thoughts and desires down into the depths of their subconscious.
We saw in the section on “Resisting excessive self consciousness” that most of us are skilful at projecting the image of themselves that we wish to convey. When enough people mock our aspirations, however, we may choose to bury our hurt and put on some form of a mask to keep up appearances – rather like the actors in ancient Greek plays, who wore masks to indicate the type of role that they were playing.
Since our quest throughout this book has been to reach a place of greater emotional honesty, a major part of our efforts need to be directed towards bringing these repressed hurts and hopes into the light of the Lord’s loving gaze – if possible, in the company of someone with whom we feel free to take off our mask.
One telling indication that repeated repression has caused something to go profoundly wrong in our subconscious is when we find ourselves deflecting attention away from ourselves by becoming increasingly critical of others.
In acute cases, the harrowing traumas we have pushed down resurface in our dreams, or when we are away from our usual routines and are hence more vulnerable. So far from fearing these “exposing” times, we are wise if we welcome them as an opportunity to do serious business with the Lord. Human nature being what it is, we are often tempted to skim over issues that we find too painful to address – but specific prayer for these situations may be required to enable us to live an integrated life.3
It is worth being aware that the source of some people’s grief may not lie where we expect it to. For example, the person who sheds bitter tears in the aftermath of a divorce or bereavement may be lamenting what had been missing in the relationship (particularly if it had been a violent or abusive one) rather than just missing the person who is no longer there.
If these people had been keeping most of the knowledge of this abuse to themselves, it is only to be expected that they experience a sharp reaction now that there is no longer any time left in which to put things right. To avoid descending into depression (and to risk repeating this pattern in future relationships) it is important to recognise what is going on. This is all part of taking the mask off in order to get to the root of issues that have long been repressed.
Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.
With the levels of gambling and alcoholism ever on the rise, who could even begin to estimate the grief these addictions cause? Addictions incline people to crave for love, and to feel abandoned when life gets tough. But where someone indulges an addiction, it often induces a “co-dependent” reaction in other people (usually family members) who try to “manage” the problem. In the long run, this rarely makes it easier for the person affected to take responsibility for their problem.
When people become over-dependent on each other, they often begin to have considerable difficulty in considering their own feelings in isolation from each other. Where people constantly have to make adjustments and allowances to work around the mood of someone with addictive tendencies, they are sure to suppress a large measure of their own personality in their quest to hold the family together.
This is true not only for wives and husbands, but also for their children, who are highly likely to become ultra sensitive in such an unpredictable and volatile atmosphere. Deprived of anything approaching a “normal” childhood, whilst all the time absorbing harmful influences, a large percentage of the young people who work so hard to mitigate the effects of alcoholic parents end up drinking too much themselves – or indulging in what at first appears to be “safer” options, such as an addiction to sex, shopping or online gambling.
When people are tempted to conceal their activities, it is often a warning sign that something is more seriously out of balance than they may have wished to acknowledge. The first safeguard is to be aware of the quantity of alcohol they are consuming, the money they are spending, or the time they are devoting to certain pursuits.
As we saw “Fallout for Children”, this may have left them filling roles that children should not be expected to be responsible for: maintaining the home and caring for the other siblings, as well as covering up for the behaviour of the addicted one. There is every possibility that these victims of parental inversion may become what John Sandford calls “peacemakers in the flesh,” – their profound insecurity compelling them to try to make peace at any cost.
Addressing addictive behaviour is too big an issue for us to be able to do anything here but scratch the surface. One simple but essential safeguard for those who are caring for people with addictive tendencies is to be sure that they recognise their own needs, as we saw in the section “Caring for the Carers”.
Identification and Idolatry
Men should be what they seem.
One of the stock situations that great comic genius P.G. Wodehouse used in his writings is when people impersonate someone else in order to intrude into the hallowed portals of the fictional mansion he created in Shropshire: Blandings Castle. Wodehouse uses this for comic effect, and in order to further promising liaisons.
In real life it nearly always causes grief when people pretend to be other than who they really are.
I have witnessed men and women acting one way in courtship, only to reveal entirely different aspects to their personality once they consider themselves to be within a “safe” and established relationship. The heartache and disappointment this causes is one reason the more to pray to avoid becoming a hypocrite!
Identifying with what other people are going through is fundamental to going deeper with the Lord in prayer, but the flip side of such identification is when people seek to bolster their own sense of well being by living vicariously through others. This nearly always involves a degree of idolisation – typically parents, Christian leaders, or someone else whom they have placed on an unrealistic pedestal.
When something happens to lower this excessively high regard, nothing good comes from pushing these fallen idols off the pedestal we made the mistake of mounting them on. Beware what I call the pedestal back flip! A much healthier response is to respond, as one dear friend did twenty five years ago when she said, “I’m determined not to put you on a pedestal so that we can be friends!”
Dysfunctional and controlling people do not always have a scowl on their face. Certain people may seem only too willing to take care of us – but the “fruit” of their so-called concern is to suffocate and restrict us.4 There is a time for insisting on proper boundaries. May the Lord keep us on the right side of the boundaries between freedom and friendship on the one hand and idolatry and co-dependency on the other.
Shame and Suppression
A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong – which is but saying that he is wiser today than yesterday.
Whereas many people may not know what they are doing when they repress certain emotions, some people choose to suppress them as a deliberate attempt to keep unacceptable feelings in check. For example, if somebody has caused you grief, you may, in turn, be disinclined to show them any kindness. You may also choose to not think through the implications of certain things which are sure to have unfortunate consequences for them.
When people go a long way out of their way to avoid a particular person or topic, it is often because a root of shame has taken hold in their lives. Shame (“Pride’s cloak” as William Blake tellingly termed it) is a crippling and intimidating emotion, and whose wiles we need to be alert to. I have written about it in more detail elsewhere, and it is available on our web site.5 Look out in particular for the three D’s that it can engender:
Denial, Deferral and Dismissing things that really do need facing up to.
Shame is a profoundly negative influence that we need setting free from, but one person, at least, found a way to see something positive about certain aspects of it:
The shame that arises from praise which we do not deserve often makes us do things we should otherwise never have attempted.
On another, and altogether more dangerous level, Islamic militants regard shame and humiliation as legitimate justification for resorting to violence. Patrick Sookdheo shows in Global Jihad that “gaining dignity is placed on a par with spreading Islamic power as fuel for the spirit of jihad.”6 The whole world is reeling under the impact of militants who are attempting to take revenge for the real or imagined humiliation perpetrated against them.
At a personal level, however, we are wise if we ask the Lord to show us where shame has caused us to “swallow” emotions that would be much better brought out into the open and confessed, so that we can respond to present challenges without being crippled by influences from the past. You may wish to pray into these matters right away, for your soul and spirit to be washed clean of the taint of suppressed shame.
Anyone desperate enough for suicide should also be desperate enough to go to extremes to find solutions to their problems.
One way in which the subconscious adapts to lessen the pain of grief and loss is to adopt various coping mechanisms that involve constant repetition. Typical examples of what is commonly known as “obsessive-compulsive behaviour” include feeling the need to constantly wash hands, or to check that the cooker is turned off before leaving the house.
The roots of these compulsions – which tend to make life miserable for all concerned – often lie in an extreme form of perfectionism. As surely as being conscientious is a good thing, over-conscientiousness can lead to depression and anxiety. People may be prone to such things not only through genetic inheritance and childhood experiences, but also as a consequence of shock (in which case it may be temporary) or as the onset of a mental illness (in which case clinical treatment may well be appropriate).
Mountaineers expect to experience extreme weather on high places, and when we come across strange behavioural tendencies – in ourselves or others – we need considerable skill as well as courage to negotiate the descent from Mount Extremism. Whilst fervent prayer and counsel may occasionally set people free at one fell swoop from certain “excesses”, the following are possible indicators that grief has become a neurological and chemical imbalance for which professional treatment is required.
- Excessive elation in the aftermath of loss, alternating with major downward spirals into an agitated depressive state. (This is entirely different from the authentic grace that the Lord pours out during the initial “divine anaesthetic” phase).
- A prolonged listlessness that causes relationships with friends and relatives to deteriorate, and risks turning into serious depression.
- A continuing sense of hollowness that makes people feel as though they are acting a part rather than really “living.”
- A pronounced tendency to blame other people for everything that is going wrong in their lives. This often stems from having lost all confidence in themselves. The ensuing suspiciousness, and even hostility, can as easily be directed against themselves as others. This, of course, inclines them to say or do things that cause people to reject and isolate them still more.
- A strong tendency to harm themselves, sometimes as the result of self hatred, but sometimes as a complicated attempt to punish others.
- Other forms of unpredictable behaviour that range from the mildly eccentric to the genuinely unacceptable. This may sometimes manifest itself in acts of disproportionate generosity, or, alternatively, extreme miserliness.
- Taking on the symptoms or characteristics of people they are closely identified with.
- Exhibiting a constant desire for sympathy, but being unable or unwilling to accept it.
- An increased likelihood of developing diseases such as colitis and diabetes.
Since we are exposed to inevitable sorrows, wisdom is the art of finding compensation.
Duc le Levis
We looked earlier at some of the ways in which people compensate against grief. To some extent, this is a normal part of the give and take of life. All of us can also probably think of times when, having done something wrong, we went to great lengths to make amends. Where this was offered out of a genuine desire to restore relationships, all well and good. If fear is the driving force, however, we need to be careful. Our desire to compensate can lead us into attitudes of flattery and inappropriate actions. Our goal, as always, is to act prophetically, as wisdom dictates and the Lord leads us, rather than to react defensively. Is this not something we should pray for?
Cats are dangerous companions for writers because cat watching is a near-perfect method of writing avoidance.
Those who are in denial often put off attending to real commitments and responsibilities in favour of either the self-preservedly mundane or the seemingly more exciting, A man who is late with his mortgage payments may end up gambling, initially perhaps in the hope of winning enough to cover his debts, only to find himself falling ever further behind. Such is the lure of gambling – and the in-built bias in all gambling machines!
God honours those who shun delusory quick fixes and stick to the path of duty. We dare not allow either grief or our human reluctance to deter us from attending to matters that really do need dealing with. Giving in to “short cuts” and temptations merely yields ground to destructive forces that will make it still harder for us to recover.
Rationalisation kills the beauty and charm of things. They are to be enjoyed, experienced, loved and felt. If you rationalise them, you will miss the beauty and charm and the feelings they evoke.
Sit by the seashore. Look at it. Feel its vastness. Feel the rising up and down of the waves. Feel and be amazed at the creation and the creator of such magnificence. What good will it do you to rationalise about the ocean?
What do we find immediately beyond the co-dependency we looked at in “Addictions”, and the tendency to avoid facing up to certain things that we have also just considered? Often, the tendency to rationalise – that is, to come up with plausible reasons to explain behaviour for which one’s real motives are either different or unconscious.”6
In other words, we make excuses for ourselves in order to cover up for behaviour which might otherwise appear abnormal or even threatening. Anything that inclines towards an opposing point of view we are likely to systematically oppose or shut down.
When a woman continues to live with the demands of an abusive husband, for example, her decision may owe less to loyalty than to fear of the consequences were she to leave or report him. She therefore goes to great lengths to justify things that others would regard as being unacceptable.
For the well being of our soul, may the Lord show us where we are in danger of “papering over cracks” when the “wall” itself (the fabric of how we approach difficulties and rationalise problems) needs serious overhaul.
Tension – The Neurosis of Grief
Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics. It is they and they alone . . . who create great works of art.
“Neurotic” is the right word to describe perhaps fifteen to twenty percent of the population. The word frightens us, but we need not let it do so. Neurotic people simply experience an above average degree of inner restlessness that leaves them prone to anxiety.
Since grief has many ways of flushing such sensitivities to the surface, it is helpful to realize that there are usually entirely logical reasons why neurotic people are as they are. In her PhD thesis, The Highly Sensitive Person,8 Elaine Aron explains that specific physical differences can be observed amongst the way that those who might rightly be described as neurotic are “wired.”
Typical indicators of neurosis include an above average tendency to worry combined with an increased inability to control impatience and irritability. Fear of illness may be another pointer, although it must be stressed that most neurotics are surprisingly well able to cope with life, despite being unusually prone to inner conflicts, doubts and depressions, as well as absorbing a high degree of hurts and “bruises” along life’s way.
Apart from any congenital tendencies towards neurosis, it can develop as the result of overly critical parents – teachers or others imposing their control on them as children. (In many cases, this pattern continues in later life too). People who have experienced much of this may come to feel “on edge” whenever they find themselves caught up in stressful arguments. This becomes so tiring that it can seriously weaken their ability to handle challenging situations. This is where more serious forms of neurosis can set in, which, in turn, greatly increase the chances of them pressing self-destruct buttons at some later stage.
Throughout this book I have encouraged prayer as a key solution for any and every situation. Those with neurotic tendencies often make exceptional intercessors, their sensitivity enabling them first to pick up and then to reflect back to God burdens that others have failed altogether to pick up.
This is precious to the Lord, but it does carry with it the risk of “overloading” that we looked at in the section of “Burden bearing in the Spirit.” When those of us with neurotic tendencies pray about inner compulsions, there is a risk that it can make us still more obsessive.
A simple technique that has helped many is to wear some sort of simple wristband, twanging it sharply each time we realise that our thoughts have gone into an unhelpful spiral. This can help to jolt our mind out of its obsession and to restore the flow of faith – providing this does not become a form of obsession itself of course!
Maybe this would make a novel use for a ‘What would Jesus do’ band!
Substitution and Sublimination
I believe the single most significant decision I can make on a day-to-day basis is my choice of attitude. It is more important than my past, my education, my bankroll, my successes or failures, fame or pain, what other people think of me or say about me, my circumstances, or my position.
Attitude keeps me going or cripples my progress. It alone fuels my fire or assaults my hope. When my attitudes are right, there is no barrier too high, no valley too deep, no dream too extreme, no challenge too great for me. Charles Swindoll
Most people find grief disconcerting because they do not know how long some particular phase is going to last. We considered in “The Sacrament of the Present Moment” the importance of trusting the Lord from day to day to give us the necessary grace to emerge beyond our grief and wistfulness into renewed inner freedom.
I discovered the other day that to “sublimate” means not only “to chemically extract a substance,” but also to “refine and purify it”. Often when we find ourselves going through times of great difficulty I pray, “Lord let there be interest on the trouble. Bring more glory through it than if it had never occurred!”
Many who have experienced serious loss often succeed in channelling their energies into public campaigns in order that others may be spared unnecessary grief. For example, a mother whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver launched what has now become a highly influential organisation: Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD). What better response can there be than to redirect our energies towards nobler and more ethical goals?
Discovering where the Lord would have us redirect our creativity is important both for gaining a new focus in life, and to avoid focusing our love and attention in inappropriate places. We looked at positive examples of this at the start of Part Six, but some men take refuge in their minds by endowing inanimate objects with erotic qualities. The technical term for this is fetishism. The word is most commonly associated in people’s minds with tabloid revelations of extreme sexual practices, but the roots by which fetishism acquires a pathological hold in the mind usually predate any one specific loss.
Psychologists tell us that most of these foci provide a safe outlet for hostile and depressive emotions, but it is as well to take into account that once intense and obsessional yearnings acquire a prominent a place in our hearts, they are capable of dominating and enslaving our whole way of thinking.
Bearing in mind our tendency to become like the thing we worship, if we allow a substitute image to become more important to us than “real” relationships, how can this fail to develop a barrier between the free flow of God’s Spirit and our inmost heart?
Some bereaved people chide themselves for thinking too much about the physical act of love, not realising how normal this is.
When one is happily married, the physical act of marriage falls into place as a part of one’s total life. That is as it should be. But the soldier lost in the desert can think only of water . . . What we must not do is to assume that the only right way to handle the problem of physical longing is to somehow get rid of it altogether.
Such repression can be a carry-over from an abnormal Puritanism. . . The solution, at least for a given period of an individual’s life, may lie in the re-channelling of the creativity that is sexual energy.9
Some, however, fuelled by the twin desires of avoiding loneliness, and proving that they can still initiate and maintain a relationship, plunge into intense new liaisons before they have recovered enough to be able to sustain it. Though this is by no means always the case, this longing to be remarried can, in the first instance, be a “mental concept” rather than a profound longing to spend the rest of their life with a specific person. If left unchecked, these powerful desires can lead to a trail of short-term relationships that cause more harm than good – a cycle that is likely to repeat itself until areas of weakness and woundedness are brought to the Cross.
Reflect and Pray
The following passage highlights the finest examples of substitution we could ever hope to experience: qualities of joy and life replacing the things that weighed us down.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me . . .
to bind up the broken-hearted . . .
and to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion,
to give unto them beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
that they might be called trees of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.
Lord, as we draw this section to a close,
thank You for the grace You give us,
and all the griefs You keep us from.
Purify the longings of our hearts
so that grief may take no wayward path –
and You can have the joy
of walking with us
and working powerfully through our lives.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
1 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_%28psychology%29
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
2 The University of Dundee have prepared a helpful paper on the subject. See http://www.dundee.ac.uk/counselling/leaflets/perfect.htm
3 Understanding our dreams can help in this respect. See Russ Parker books Healing Dreams and Dream Stories: www.acornchristian.org and search ‘Bookshop’
4 See the teaching about transference in Is this Grief contagious?
5 See A_Pilgrim’s_Guide_to_Overcoming_Shame.htm
6 Sookdheo, P. Global Jihad. The Future in the Face of Militant Islam. www.barnabasfund.org
7 Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary.
8 Broadway Books. (1997) New York
9 Catherine Marshall. “They walk in wistfulness” in To Live Again. Chosen Books. (2001)