Ask a Counselor: roll away the stone of approval-seeking

The stones that weigh us down, that keep us from mature growth.  What are they, and how can we roll them away?  So far in this series, we’ve looked at the stones of perfectionism and shame.  This month, we’re exploring approval-seeking.

As we look at approval-seeking, remember that we’ve already figured out that perfectionism and shame are counterproductive.  Also, we’ve learned that mistakes and failures are simply opportunities to turn back to the Love that never lets us go.

Carrying those insights forward, let us remember:

The things we find inside ourselves when we examine approval-seeking are not occasions for shame and self-flagellation.  

They are simply more opportunities to turn back to Love.

In that way, whatever we find inside of ourselves, no matter how negative it may seem, is a gift.

One more reason to turn back to Love.

Years ago, I read somewhere that the purpose of approval-seeking is CONTROL.

“But wait,” I thought, dismayed and alarmed.  “OTHER people might be controlling, but not me!  I’m a nice people-pleaser!  I’m just here trying to make everybody else happy and demonstrate the immensity of my servant’s heart!”

The truth is, though, if I can get someone else to approve of me, if they like me, if they admire me, I may be able to:

  • control their feelings about me, AND perhaps even
  • control their behavior toward me.

If I’m a person who desperately needs to be loved, I may find myself in a “weak people-pleaser” pattern.  If I’m a person who desperately needs to be admired, perhaps the “strong pedestal dweller” life will suit me better.

Either way, when I’m approval-seeking, I’m trying to control the response of others. 

Somebody else holds the key to my emotional, spiritual, personal well-being, and I’m going to seek their approval until they give me what I need, whether it’s love and affection or admiration and elevation.

Approval-seeking may be a skill set that served us well in the past. We may have learned to control others this way in our family of origin, as a survival skill.

In a dysfunctional family, our peace, our calm, our very physical safety might depend upon our ability to read social cues and behave in ways that will produce beneficial outcomes for us:

  • If you’ll just be funny enough, you can keep dad from drinking.
  • If you’ll just be sweet enough, you can keep mom from crying.
  • If you’ll just be competent enough, at least you’ll be necessary to others.
  • If you’ll just be incompetent enough, your parent can feel strong and in control, and never threatened by you.

While approval-seeking may have served us well in the past, there are hidden costs in the long term.

Here are some signs that approval-seeking isn’t working out the way we’d hoped:

  • We get angry that other people aren’t doing enough.
  • We’re so busy doing what everybody else wants that we don’t take responsibility for ourselves.
  • Our needs go unmet, and we hope that others will try to please us like we’re trying to please them.
  • Black hole syndrome:  no matter how much approval people give us, it’s never enough.
  • Imposter syndrome: we’re never who we appear to be.
  • Defense mechanisms are required to cope with the difference between our insides and our outsides: projection, displacement, denial, rationalization.
  • We’ve tried so hard to please others that we don’t really know what we want or need any more.
  • We’ve lost our SELVES along the way.
  • We feel empty, afraid, alone, no matter how happy we try to make others feel.
  • We may find ourselves just “done.”  At the end of our rope, at the end of our plan, at the end of ourselves.

Coming to the end of everything we know is a scary thing, but hear this good news:

“Until we are led to the limits of our current game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”  Richard Rohr

The deep mind-shift here is about SUPPLY.

Our mistake is looking into the human system for supply.  When we are limited to the human system for supply, we’ll always have a scarcity.  I can’t do enough for you, and you can’t do enough for me.  We will drive each other crazy trying, and get real mad at each other in the process.

But when we lay ourselves down in the constantly flowing stream, a whole different thing begins to happen. 

We receive, we are renewed, we live and work and play in the Source. 

We don’t have to worry about who has what, because the constantly flowing stream of belovedness encompasses us all. 

No need to hoard it for ourselves or make rules that lock others out. 

There is more than enough for us all.

We are all perfectly loved, safe, and chosen.

Everyone belongs:  approval guaranteed.

Abandoning approval-seeking is one of the hardest tasks we’ll undertake as adults, I believe.  We know the truth that God is enough, and that he should be our source and supply.  But the tug of the others around us is great.  We’re talking about our family, our friends, our supporters, our colleagues.  All these relationships built on…well, let’s just say…less than the real truth about who we really are.

What will they think, say, or do when we stop trying to please them all the time?  Will we lose relationships?  Lose our job or career?

One of my favorite passages from The Chronicles of Narnia is the chapter called What Lucy Saw, in Prince Caspian.

In this particular chapter, the children are traveling through rough, unfamiliar country when Lucy sees Aslan and wants to follow him.  The problem is, nobody else sees Aslan.  And Lucy–the youngest, nicest kid in the family, the born people-pleaser—ends up following her siblings to keep them happy.

Once the decision is made, CS Lewis writes: “And Lucy came last of the party, crying bitterly.”

And it makes me wonder.

With all our approval-seeking, people-pleasing and pedestal-dwelling:

what are we missing out on when we try to drum up what we need from each other,

rather than diving into the deep well, the true Source, the ever-flowing stream?

What are we frantically following, when we could be pursuing Love?  

What bitter tears do we weep, trailing along behind people who can never give us what we truly need?

Resources

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff VanVonderen

The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner

Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend

Breathing Underwater, Richard Rohr

photo credit

Ask a Counselor: roll away the stone of shame

This month, I’m continuing a series about removing obstacles to emotional and spiritual growth.  The idea is this: we’re all built to grow and mature, and we will naturally carry out that purpose when we roll away the stones that hold us down.

Last time, I talked about how perfectionism blocks growth.

This time around, I want to talk about shame.

Shame seems like a normal response, when we’ve failed in some way.

I did something wrong, so I’m ashamed of myself. 

Shame may even appear to be helpful at first.

I did something wrong, I’m ashamed of myself, I never want to do that wrong thing again.

But shame, it turns out, is like Dr. Seuss’s Oobleck.  Shame doesn’t stay where you put it, attached to that one thing you did wrong, that one failure, that one thing you want to change.  Shame grows and multiplies and oozes all over the place, generating so much pain in the process that it requires self-medication, in and of itself.

Paul Young (author of the The Shack) says that shame destroys our ability to distinguish between an observation and a value statement.  We can’t differentiate between our behavior and our identity.  When something goes wrong (and that’s pretty much the entire state of life on this planet: things are wrong), we think the problem is not what went wrong.  We think the problem is us.

Shame says things like:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).

Letting Go of Shame, Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron

Why do we have shame, anyway?

  • Perhaps our parents needed us to be perfect in order to feel okay about themselves: when we failed, did wrong, or were just children, they felt deeply ashamed and projected their shame onto us.
  • Perhaps we were taught by a toxic religious background that God is ashamed of us.
  • Perhaps our culture taught us that we should be ashamed if we aren’t manly enough or pretty enough or thin enough or smart enough or athletic enough or enough, enough, enough.
  • Perhaps we think we need shame to punish us enough so that we’ll finally quit doing the bad things.  (Try that idea and see if it works.  Bookmark this post for later use when you’re ready to test another hypothesis.)

It’s really, really good for us to look at where our shame messages came from so that we can dismantle the mess and rebuild.

But wherever the judgment comes from, any time we pronounce judgment on ourselves, shame comes along for the ride.  In Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd talks about this very thing:

“Our fundamental sin is that we place ourselves in the position of God and divide the world between what we judge to be good and what we judge to be evil.  And this judgment is the primary thing that keeps us from doing the central thing God created and saved us to do, namely, love like he loves.”

When we judge ourselves, we can’t love ourselves as he loves us.  We won’t love others the way he does, either. Those of us who are hypercritical of ourselves are also hyperjudgmental of others. We may look nice and kind, but underneath we’re ready to rumble.

Most of us, if we’ve been around Christian circles for more than 10 minutes, have heard all about our value and worth before God, have read a book or a whole library full of books about our identity in Christ When we dig into the truth of God’s love for us, we know that shame isn’t our story.  We know—in our heads, anyway—that Love is our story.  That no matter what we’ve done, Love has done all the work that needs to be done.  It is finished.  That is our reality.

The problem is that many of us functionally believe what our shame says about us, rather than what God says about us.

We will “Yes-But” ourselves to death:

“Yes, God loves me (I’ve read all the books), BUT I need to fix this one thing in order to be truly worthy of full fellowship.”

When we trust our shame instead of God’s Love, we remain the god of our own lives, capable of rising only to the level of our own bootstraps.

And we know all this!  We are fully aware!

When we know the truth, why can’t we just believe the right thing about our identity in Christ and let shame go?

Richard Rohr hits the problem right at its heart:

“God’s freely given grace is a humiliation to the ego because free gifts say nothing about being strong, superior, or moral.” Richard Rohr

At the root, shame is all about ME.  It’s my ego that holds the whole sad structure in place.  My sin, my shame, my need to work hard to make it all go away, outweighs the work of Jesus on the Cross.

My sin is the Big Story because, deep down, I truly believe that I am the Big Story.

Rolling away the stone of shame means releasing my own sin and shame as the ultimate preoccupation, releasing my self as the center of the universe, and instead turning toward the True Story: God’s love and grace, freely given.  Ours to receive.  Or not.  We get to choose.

Ego is the difference between the two sons in the prodigal story.  The younger son ditches his ego in the pigpen.  The older son clings to his ego with both hands, pouting on the porch, refusing to join the party.

There’s a wonderful story about Thomas Keating, a teacher of contemplative prayer.  After a session of prayer, one of his students came and complained, “In 20 minutes, I failed over and over again!  My mind wandered ten thousand times.”  Father Keating replied, “How wonderful!  Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”

I think that story demonstrates what it looks like to rid ourselves of ego.  We stop worrying about our own strength, superiority, and morality.  We release judgment–ours or anyone else’s.  We just turn back to Love, over and over and over.

This is what rock bottom does for us: it kills our ego.  But rock bottom, our brokenness, in and of itself isn’t the story.  The Big Story is this: get up out of the slop and GO HOME.

Brene Brown has done a bunch of research on shame.  Interestingly enough, her findings echo what Father Keating and Richard Rohr and the Prodigal Son all say: vulnerability is the cure.

“Through my research, I found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce.” ~ Brené Brown

Not our strength, not our perfection, not our ego.

Vulnerability.

Turning back to Love, ten thousand times.

This is the invitation we all face, daily:

Reach out.

Love is here.

It’s safe.

Be vulnerable.

Roll away that ego and all its shame.

Just come Home.

And when we stop looking at our own mess and our own failure and our own shame, and when we just show up again at Home, the change we were hoping for actually happens.  We’re connected to the Vine, and Life lives itself out in the branches.  Goodness has nothing to do with what we can muster up in and of ourselves, and only what we receive in relationship. We simply live out the truth of the Love that we live with.  The blind man who came into contact with Jesus put it this way: “I don’t know how this happened!  I was blind, and now I can see!”  (John 9:25)

“God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good. And then you can be good because you draw upon such an Infinite Source.” Richard Rohr

****

That’s a great ending to an inspirational blog post, right?

“Yes, BUT!”

“It sounds too simple!”

“It can’t be that easy!”

If you’re hearing that response inside of yourself, that’s the ego, pronouncing its need to be strong, superior, and moral.

Oh, did our ego intrude?  

How wonderful!  

Another opportunity to turn back to Love!

This is the practice we must engage, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day:

roll that stone of shame away, accept the sunlight and rain down into the seed that is our hearts, and open to the unfurling of Grace.

“Stay faithful to your practice.  Grasp the whole thing through the heart, in a way that grows slowly.”  Cynthia Bourgeualt

 

Recommended Resources

Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van Vonderen

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Brene Brown Listening to Shame TED Talk

Brene Brown The Power of Vulnerability TED Talk

Paul Young’s story of how shame worked in his life, and how he found healing: a must-watch

photo credit

Ask a Counselor: roll away the stone of perfectionism

Years ago, I read that people are like trees: made to grow.

Sometimes, though, it’s like we’re planted under a big boulder, and that huge rock keeps us small and stuck, frustrated and trapped, unable to grow into all we were created to be.

The advice to therapists in this particular article was:  help clients roll away the boulders, and they’ll grow like they’re made to grow.

For my missionary clients, perfectionism is one of the most common boulders that blocks and traps the healthy, natural growth we’re all intended to enjoy.

Now, a lot of us will admit to being “a bit of a perfectionist.”

It’s almost a point of pride, like when you’re asked to identify a personal weakness in a job interview: “Oh, I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”

This signals to the boss that this is a great thing for him and his company, because he can work you into the ground and you’ll never stop because you’re “a bit of a perfectionist.”

It makes you the perfect employee, until it makes you completely crazy.

How many times do we see that story played out in our world?

I’ve lived it myself.

I think we’re lured into perfectionism because we believe its false promises:

  1. Perfection is possible.
  2. When I attain perfection, everything will be perfect.

Some of us are lured into perfectionism because we think God requires it of us.  We’ve heard “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) without reading the context. (Check it out and get back to me!)

I can tell you, from both personal and professional experience, that these promises of perfectionism are complete lies. 

The truth is:

  1. Perfection is impossible. (This is the whole story of the Bible, y’all: we can’t, so God does.)
  2. Any small gain that we make toward perfection must be meticulously maintained. Perfectionism is an endless gerbil-wheel of performance. If we stop, it all falls apart.  Jesus offers rest for our soul.  Perfectionism does not.
  3. The longer we pursue perfectionism, the more we’ll lie to ourselves about the results we’re seeing. It’s the sunk-cost fallacy: we’ve invested so much that we can’t quit.  We’ll end up pretending, to ourselves and others, that things are so much better than they are, just to keep all the plates spinning.
  4. As perfectionism starts to take its toll, we’ll turn to self-righteousness and the denigration of others to create the illusion that we’re winning at the perfection game. Other people’s sins will become so much worse than our own. Maybe we can’t actually attain perfection, but at least we’re better than that loser over in the corner, blessherheart.

Here’s my best advice to perfectionists (including myself):

STOP IT.

Stop it before perfectionism buries you alive under that stone forever.

Paul Young says, “When you’re faced with fear, you only have two options: control or trust.” 

Perfectionism is all about us keeping control.

When we finally have the courage to let go of perfectionism as our savior, and to trust in Love instead, the strangest thing happens.

GROWTH.

LIFE.

PEACE.

And we find the ability to pour those things out of ourselves into the lives of others, knowing that we are rooted and grounded in Love, and Love will fill us endlessly, completely, fully.

We cease striving.

We know that God is God and we are not.

We know that God is God to others, as well, so we don’t have to try to fill that role when we can’t.

All the things we were hoping perfection would give us, grace gives us instead, without the terrible consequences to our mental health.

It’s like we were created to grow, or something.

Who knew?!

  • How many people know and love the real you?
  • How much pretending is required of you in daily life?
  • Where are the lies of perfectionism at work in your life today?
  • How hard do you need to work, to stay on the gerbil wheel you’ve created?
  • What’s the greatest fear that comes up for you, when you think about getting off the gerbil wheel?
  • How can you respond to that fear with trust instead of control?

Resources

Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul

The Search for Significance, Robert McGee

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff VanVonderen

Changes that Heal, Henry Cloud

photo credit

Ask a Counselor: My child is LGBTQ. What should I do?

A Life Overseas is not a policy-making institution, but rather a support system for missionaries and Christians living overseas.  My experiences and opinions are my own, and I am solely responsible for them.  I am not speaking for other writers or editors.  

Due to the controversial nature of this topic, comments will be moderator-approved before posting.   

Anyone who needs help and support can write to me personally, here.  

A missionary friend of mine told me the other day that when she learned that her child was part of the LGBTQ community, she felt as if she had been cast into a wilderness.

The news came right at the beginning of Lent, and, ironically, her church had asked her to preach on the story of Hagar.  As she worked through the story of Hagar, and how the angel of the Lord found Hagar and cared for her in the wilderness, my friend started thinking about all the other stories in the Bible of wildernesses and angels who visited the wanderers there.

My friend said,

“And an image came to mind: I remembered that in old maps, when the artists didn’t know what to include, there would be a blank and ‘here be dragons’.  Maybe in a ‘wilderness’ of whatever sort (depression, bereavement, unemployment, etc), we can write in ‘here be angels’. For now, I have to walk through this one day at a time, but who knows, round some bend in the path, maybe an angel will show up.”

 

When a parent learns that a child is part of the LGBTQ community they may feel exactly like my friend: like they are struggling in a wilderness waiting for an angel.

But their child has been in the wilderness as well – and may have been there alone for a long time.

About 4% of the adult population in the US identifies as LGBTQ.

Right now, we’ve got about 10,000 followers on our Facebook page.  If each one of those followers represented just one child, that’s 10,000 children.

4% of 10,000 is 400.

400 kids who will one day reveal to their parents that they’re part of the LGBTQ family.

400 families who will experience the wilderness, too.

Some of our families and kids are already in that wilderness.  I know, because they write and tell me so.  I know, because they are my clients.  I know, because they are my friends.

Every parent of LGBTQ kids that I’ve ever talked to loves their kid, and wants to the do the best they can for their child.  

The problem is, they don’t know what to do. They’re confused by the varying stories they hear about the LGBTQ world, and most of them are too scared to talk to anybody about it.  

This article is for those parents, the ones who are going to hear this news from a child that they love, and wonder, “What am I supposed to do now?”

Here is the first, most vital, overarching thing you must do:

LOVE AND ACCEPT YOUR CHILD, JUST AS THEY ARE.

FOR YOUR LGBTQ CHILD, THE FIRST ANGEL IS YOU.

ACCEPTANCE IS LITERALLY A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

Let me tell you why.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for all young people ages 10-24.  At this already-vulnerable time of life, LGBTQ youth are figuring out that they are different, that they’re part of just 4% of the population, a population that’s regularly been characterized as an abomination, and blamed for everything from Hurricane Katrina to the collapse of the nuclear family.  These are the things they’ve likely heard in church, and possibly from friends and family.

Remember that coupled with their feelings about their gender identity or sexual orientation is the identity of being a third culture kid. This can make their journey exponentially more complicated.

It’s not surprising, then, that LGBTQ adolescents are FOUR TIMES MORE LIKELY to attempt suicide than their peers.

Even more horrifying, LGBTQ youth from highly-rejecting families are EIGHT TIMES more likely to attempt suicide.  Source

For example, after the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality in the summer of 2015, the LDS Church in Utah ruled that, regardless of the SCOTUS ruling, the LDS church would declare apostate those in same-sex marriages.  In the two months following the LDS announcement, 32 LDS LGBTQ youth committed suicide.

By contrast, “family acceptance in adolescence is associated with young adult positive health outcomes (self-esteem, social support, and general health) and is protective for negative health outcomes (depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation and attempts).” Source

It is also worth noting that family rejection has been shown to increase sexual risk-taking.

To keep your child as safe as possible:

  • Accept them as they are.
  • Love them unconditionally.  Which means: totally without condition.

Think back to the day before your child confided in you. You delighted in them; delighted in their amazing personality and unique gifts. They are still amazing. They still have unique gifts. What has changed is that now you know the inner turmoil and pain that they have been feeling; you have been invited into their wilderness and they have honored you with their story.

No matter what your child tells you, there are 4 things that will always be the right thing to say:

  • I love you.
  • Thank you for telling me.
  • How can I help?
  • No matter what happens, we’ll get through this together.

ACCEPTING YOUR CHILD DOES NOT MEAN YOU’LL BE “CONDONING SIN.”

  • You don’t have to accept that promiscuity is okay. 

Just because someone is LGBTQ doesn’t mean they are promiscuous.  The Christian LGBTQ people I know aren’t promiscuous at all.  They want to manage their sexuality in healthy ways just like I want to do with my own. As a therapist, I would see sexual acting-out as a sign of deep pain.  Acceptance should help with this (the research shows), and therapy can help as well.  Even if your child is acting out, LOVE.  Especially if your child is acting out, LOVE.

  • You don’t have to accept a progressive view of Those Six Passages.   

Your child may accept a progressive view of scripture, and you may not. You can disagree about the Bible and still treat each other with love and care. People don’t do this very well or very often, but it absolutely is possible.  If you struggle to reconcile acceptance without being “unbiblical,” you may find comfort in Greg Boyd’s Third Way.

  • You don’t have to accept marriage equality.  

In the past decade, two thoughts have emerged around marriage equality. Side A believes that LGBTQ people have God’s blessing to marry, just as straight people do. Side B believes that LGBTQ people should remain celibate.

Most conservative Christian parents are comforted by the idea that Side B exists, and hopeful that their child will choose Side B.  However, as a therapist, I would suggest that how your child chooses to manage their gender identity and sexual orientation will be their decision, not yours.  I would encourage you to try to understand where both Side A and Side B are coming from, so you’re ready for what your child chooses.  (Resources included below.)

I have gay friends my age (I’m in my 50’s) whose parents never “agreed” or  “affirmed” — but they were able to accept and LOVE their gay kids anyway, just as they are.  I think that’s an incredibly powerful act of faith which all of us can emulate, regardless of what we think the Bible says or how we wish others would choose to live their lives.

If your child does choose celibacy, be aware of the incredible burden that celibacy places upon your child in Western culture.  For some background on this, please read Brett Trapp’s blog, Blue Babies Pink.

  • You DO need to accept that your child’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation is not a sin.  

Our sexual orientation, in and of itself, is not a sin.

Being straight is not a sin, although straight people do many sinful things.  Some of those sinful things involve our sexuality, and many of them don’t.

Same goes for LGBTQ people.

  • You DO need to understand what the reputable evidence shows, regarding choice and change.

There is NO peer-reviewed science to support the idea that sexual orientation is a choice.  There is NO peer-reviewed evidence to show that sexual orientation is the result of abuse or bad parenting.  In fact, the reputable evidence shows that sexual orientation is a matter of birth.

You can read a summary of many relevant research articles here.

The best article I’ve found about the medical realities for transgender people is here.

The nugget is this:

“Based on available scientific evidence, the jury is no longer out – sexual orientation is programmed into the brain of an infant prior to birth. The evidence includes studies of genetics, prenatal hormonal impact, maternal immunity, and other prenatal factors.”  Joani Lea Jack, Christian mom, pediatrician, and member of the LGBT provisional section of the American Academy of Pediatrics

GET YOUR SELF-CARE ON, PARENTS. 

Remember the “Ring Theory” of care: put the person needing care in the center of the circle.  Then follow the simple rule: comfort in, dump out.

Your child is in the center of the circle.

Bring COMFORT IN to your child.

  • Love.
  • Support.
  • Listen.
  • Give hugs.
  • Find a therapist, if needed.
  • Get them into a support group if possible.
  • Accept their decisions about how to live their lives, even if you don’t agree.

Then, find a place that’s safe for you to DUMP OUT, and get the support you need in return.

Find your angels.  They are here, even in the wilderness.

  • Find a counselor who can help you process your emotions and create healthy boundaries.
  • Educate yourself with the resources listed below.
  • Find safe friends who will walk with you.
  • Find a support group:  connect with other Christian parents of LGBTQ kids who are faithfully loving their kids.

There is help in the wilderness.  You are not alone.

I’d like to end with a word from Brett Trapp who tells his Southern Christian coming-out story at Blue Babies Pink:

I wish I could find every parent who will eventually have a child come out to them, look them in the eye, and tell them:

When you least expect it, a battered child who’s been lost at sea will show up on your doorstep. This is your child, but it’s a version of them you’ve never met.
They will be haggard—long tangled hair, skinny, ragged clothes, dirty feet. They look like this because they’re worn out—exhausted—from many years at sea, alone in a lifeboat with no water, no map, and no paddle. You had no idea, but that’s not your fault. 
Next, welcome them inside. Offer them a drink.
After a few moments, they’re going to swallow hard and tell you they’ve been on a journey. Know that by the time they get to your doorstep, they will have had to muster every last ounce of courage and energy. In fact, getting to your doorstep may have been the hardest part of their journey. 
Your next job is to listen. And believe what they tell you…

And dear parent, whatever you do, don’t lecture them.
Don’t shame them for being in that boat. Don’t tell them that God hates people in lifeboats. Tell them that God loves those few souls in rafts just like he loves the rest on land. And remember, that you aren’t the survivor here. They—THEY—are the ones that have been on a long, lonely journey. Remember this.
Ask them if they ever saw land in the distance.
Ask them if they ever saw land-dwellers on the horizon and if they ever screamed for help. Apologize for those people that didn’t hear them or the ones who held up giant signs saying, “GOD HATES PEOPLE IN LIFEBOATS.” Tell them you’re sorry they had to see that and that you would have ripped up those signs if you could. 
Ask them if they ever put a message in a bottle and tossed it into the sea, hoping it might reach someone on land.
Tell them you wished you’d found that message. In fact, grab them by the shoulders, look them right in the eye, and tell them you would have done anything to find it if that meant getting to you sooner. Tell them you would have drowned yourself to get to them. Then tell them you wished we didn’t live in a world where scared kids had to put messages in bottles. Tell them that’s unjust. 
And finally, tell them they’re no longer alone, no longer out on those high seas.
Tell them they’re on land now and land has homes. And homes are filled with love, and love is the thing that makes the boat stop rocking. Love is the thing that calms those storms. Love is the thing that scares off black shadows in black waters. And that as long as they are breathing, they will have a home, and they will never ever be alone.”

RESOURCES

LGTBQ Christians speak:

Torn, Justin Lee (Side A)

Blue Babies Pink, Brett Trapp (Side B)

Dialogue on LGBTQ experiences at Biola University  (Side A, Side B discussion with Justin Lee and Wesley Hill)

Christian allies share their journeys to LGBTQ acceptance:

Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, Kathy Baldock

Changing our Mind, David P. Gushee

The Baptist Pastor and His Transgender Friends, TEDx Talk, Mark Wingfield

Resources for the LGBTQ community and their allies:

Canyonwalker Connections

The Gay Christian Network

For adults seeking to reconcile faith and their LGBTQ identity, web-based therapy is available at The Christian Closet.

photo credit

Ask a Counselor: three dysfunctional missionary marriage patterns

I see missionary marriage dysfunction falling into three broad patterns:

  • disconnection
  • addiction
  • abuse

Let me tell you a bit about each pattern, and share some resources that can help.

DISCONNECTION

Disconnection is the easy one to deal with.

All you need to fix the problem is:

  • two people willing to invest in the relationship,
  • and the right ways to invest, so you don’t waste your precious time and energy.

Lucky for us, John Gottman has done all the hard work of research AND writing books that put his research into user-friendly form.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is the best research out there on the guts of a healthy relationship.  It includes quizzes and exercises in each chapter.

If you’re decent human beings who want to have a better marriage, buy this book and go through it together.

Do what Gottman says.

Problem solved.

The thing is, though, that many missionary marriages today have a little speed bump called addiction.  And when you add addiction to the mix, you’ve complicated your simple problems with bigger ones.

ADDICTION

As soon as I say addiction, everybody thinks “pornography.”  And it’s true, porn is a very real and present problem in today’s missionary world which needs to be addressed.

However.

Addiction has been a problem for missionaries since time began.  And I don’t just mean sexual addiction.

I mean, the addiction of using comforting behaviors in order to avoid dealing with feelings like pain, distress, discomfort, insecurity, depression, anxiety.

In the missionary world, ministry is a serious addictive substance, used by many to avoid the difficult work of

  • facing up to one’s own personal pain and
  • turning toward a spouse emotionally.

All those seminary papers to grade, all those workshops to plan, all those sermons to prepare, all those emails to answer, all those visions to cast.

All those wonderful activities that feel so good and earn so much praise?  Those can cut the heart of emotional trust right out of a marriage.

John Gottman explains how this happens, slowly, over time.

You see, we have three choices when it comes to our relationships:

  • Turn toward
  • Turn away
  • Turn against

It’s easy to see how a pornography habit is all about turning away from the emotional and sexual relationship between husband and wife; in fact, it all too often becomes turning against as entitlement builds in the addict.

But the same is true of a ministry habit.  All too often, ministry is a spiritually-sanctioned way to turn away from a spouse.

The first step toward healing of addiction is honesty:  telling the truth about what’s going on within our emotional selves

  • to ourselves
  • to our spouses
  • to safe people who will support us in recovery.

Don’t think you can keep addiction a secret and still recover.  Being honest with others and turning toward others in true vulnerability is the purest opposite to any addiction.

The next step—for any kind of addiction–is to pursue healing opportunities through recovery groups, marriage seminars, and personal therapy.  Recovery is a long, slow process that requires real work and real support.  If those aren’t available where you’re living, MOVE yourself to a place where they are available.  Don’t sacrifice recovery on the altar of geography.

Good boundaries will be part of the healing process, for addicts and for spouses alike.

For addicts: good boundaries mean  that you will be responsible for your own sobriety, whether from work, porn, or any other bad habit.  Have a plan for behavioral, emotional, spiritual aspects of your recovery; work the plan. Access the help you need. TALK to your people.

For spouses: good boundaries will  include being responsible for your education on sexuality or other addictions, for your emotional processing, for your choices about what is healthy and not healthy for you in the relationship; have a plan for your own self care; work the plan; talk to your people.  If the issue is pornography or other marriage betrayal, you might want to look at the online resources at Bloom for Women.

Whatever marriage challenges are before you, whether you’re the addict or the spouse, you must be responsible for yourself and your own process in recovery.

ABUSE

Abuse is a real issue in missions.  I’ve had clients who are the victims of emotional, verbal, mental, sexual, and physical abuse by their spouses.  I’ve had clients who are the victims of neglect by their spouses.

I’ve written about domestic abuse in the past, here and here.

We don’t expect any spouse to be perfect, but when hurts happen, we should be able to talk about them with our partners, and expect a restoration process to occur.

A partner who has caused harm to his or her spouse should

  • change behaviors so that they don’t continue to cause pain
  • make amends for the harm they have caused
  • listen non-defensively, and
  • NOT BLAME THE VICTIM IN ANY WAY
  • do their own emotional work, not expecting the victim to soothe their shame.

If a restorative process does not occur, if there is no ability to aknowledge hurtful behaviors and do better in the future, if you’re walking on eggshells hoping to prevent the next hurt from happening, you might be in an abusive relationship.

“There is no such thing as a perfect family or church where people don’t ever get hurt.  But the difference between an abusive and non-abusive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissible to talk about problems, hurts, and abuses in an abusive system.  Hence, there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem.”  Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (emphasis mine)

If you’re a victim of domestic abuse, know that there is help and healing for you.  There is support for you, even if you’re overseas.  Check our Resource tab for options, and again, check out the online resources at Bloom for Women.

RESOURCES

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman

Boundaries in Marriage, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

How We Love, Milan and Kay Yerkovich

Pure Desire, Ted Roberts

Surfing for God, Michael John Cusick

When Your Husband is Addicted to Pornography, Vicki Tiede

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Jeff Van Vonderen

The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans

Should I Stay or Should I Go?  Lundy Bancroft

This post contains affiliate links.  Thank you for supporting A Life Overseas with your purchase!

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Ask a Counselor: A Personal Emotional Development Library

In January, Andy and I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we spoke at a conference for expat homeschooling parents.  We traveled around the world, spending thousands of dollars and untold hours on planes and airport lounges, to speak for three hours.  This made me highly, highly motivated to bring the best, most helpful resources I knew of to the conference.  And before it all slips away into the oblivion of the past, I thought I’d share the same here with you over the next few months, with the goal of helping you to build a personal emotional development library.

We’re going to build our library from the inside out.  This month, we’ll start with what’s inside each of us, and we’ll look at the most common issues that people (especially expat people!) work on in therapy.  I’ll give you my favorite resources in each key area.  Next month, we’ll look at marriage resources.  Then we’ll look at child and family resources.

Let’s start with what we all have in common: our interpersonal neurobiology.

Dr. Dan Siegel is an expert in this area, and his hand model of the brain is one of  the most helpful, basic pieces of information that we all need in order to be emotionally intelligent human beings.  Even if it costs you money, watch this.  It’s 2 minutes and 30 seconds of pure helpfulness.

There are some things that will benefit all of us, practices that will make our brains more healthy and functional, things that will keep our limbic system calm, so we aren’t so likely to flip our lids.  I hound you all the time in this column about self-care:  things like adequate rest, good sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise, journaling.  Good self-care is good for the brain God gave you.

When it comes to brain health:

Don’t forget the gift of medication.  If your lid has been flipped for years at a time, you’ll chew up all the chemicals that allow for your brain and body to return to its healthy state of rest, and you’ll start to see symptoms like insomnia, irritability, illness, compromised relationships.  Assess your functioning, and don’t forget that there’s treatment for your brain, just like every other part of your body.  See your doctor when you need to!  

For your library:

The Whole Brain Child, Dr. Dan Siegel (Even if you’re a grown up, you were once a child.  Read this book.)

How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg  (A ton of research, fascinating stuff!  If you’re gonna pray, you ought to read this one.)

Beyond basic brain health, here are some of the most helpful areas to work in for personal emotional development.

Attachment Patterns

Securely attached adults tend to have positive views of themselves, their partners and their relationships. They feel comfortable with intimacy and independence, balancing the two. Anxious-preoccupied adults seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from partners, becoming overly dependent. They tend to be less trusting, have less positive views about themselves and their partners, and may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsiveness in their relationships. Dismissive-avoidant adults desire a high level of independence, often appearing to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. They tend to suppress their feelings, dealing with rejection by distancing themselves from partners of whom they often have a poor opinion. Fearful-avoidant adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, both desiring and feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They tend to mistrust their partners and view themselves as unworthy. Like dismissive-avoidant adults, fearful-avoidant adults tend to seek less intimacy, suppressing their feelings.”  Source: Wikipedia

In attachment theory, the basic idea is that if you had parents who responded to you, met your needs, held you, fed you, played with you, talked to you, made eye contact with you–you very likely ended up with secure attachment.  If you were neglected or abused, if your parent was impaired in some way, if there was serious disruption to the attachment bond, you might end up with an insecure attachment style.

What strikes me as I think about interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory is the words of John Donne:  “No man is an island.”  Our Christian conception of God is God-the-relationship, a trinity.  In our creation story, the first not-good thing?  It’s not good for man to be alone.  In order to have a healthy brain, in order to be resilient, we need healthy attachments.  God told us this in the first few pages of the Bible.  It’s not new news.

If the not-good thing has happened to us, however it happened, we are left with the responsibility to recognize it, understand it, and find ways forward into the goodness of healthy connection.  If we don’t take responsibility for ourselves, we’ll cut a swath of destruction across the land, which is probably not the goal we were going for when we set off in overseas work.

For your library:

How We Love, Milan and Kay Yerkovich

Relationship Attachment-Style Test, Psychology Today

Boundaries

Boundaries simply define what’s me and what’s not me.  Boundaries inform the decisions will I make as a result of what’s me, and what’s not me.

In general, missionaries are the (overly) responsible ones.  After all, out of all the millions of people who heard sermons about The Great Commission, we’re the ones who thought it sounded like a good idea to actually go and do it.  I’m not saying we made a bad choice, but I do think it’s perhaps an indication that we might, just sometimes, end up doing more than our fair share.

When we’re doing more than our share, when we’re over our reasonable boundaries, we might find ourselves feeling angry with others for not doing enough, overwhelmed by all the responsibility, struggling to function because we just can’t keep up, losing out on the joys of life.  We’ll wonder why our needs aren’t being met, while we’re so busy meeting the needs of everyone else.

Lack of boundaries is a form of self-harm. 

If you were cutting yourself, if you were trying to overdose with pills or alcohol, we’d probably try to get you some help.  But all too often in the expat world, if you have no boundaries, we’ll just praise you and pile the work higher and deeper.  Very rarely will someone tell you to get better boundaries, because you might end up saying “no” to something they want.  (If disrespect for personal boundaries a real issue in your context, read on for some thoughts on spiritual abuse.)

  • We might be a hero, needing approval and affirmation.
  • We might be a martyr, believing that God demands the ultimate sacrifice from us.
  • We might simply not realize that we’re valuable and precious and made for better things than self-destruction in the name of the great commission.
  • We might just be nice people who slide into bad boundaries without realizing it’s happening, and then get stuck, not knowing how to get out.  (Hint: “NO” is a whole answer.)

Here’s the thing.  We need to nurture better boundaries, not just because we need to lock out the toxic self-harming craziness—although that’s good!  Beyond the need to stop the crazy train, we need to create a space for peace.  Remember our brain model?  When your amygdala is anxious, it doesn’t make good decisions.  You need to chill that amygdala out so you can THINK, so you can REFLECT, so you can choose well and bless others.

  • Good boundaries acknowledge that God is God, we are not.
  • Good boundaries mean that we live within our particular capacity, within our particular circumstances.

Our capacity and our circumstances will change over time, and our boundaries need to adjust to reflect that.  Stress is cumulative over time, and boundaries need to adjust, according to present needs.

For your library:

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

The Dance of Anger, Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van Vonderen

Trauma

Into every expat life, some trauma will inevitably fall.  Political realities, medical emergencies, life-threatening accidents, conflict with colleagues, pornography addiction (many wives will meet the clinical criteria for  PTSD)—these are just a few of the “normal” traumas I see in my clients.

Spritual abuse, I’m sorry to say, is a regular feature of overseas life:  spiritual manipulation, control, and false authority patterns are terribly traumatic when you’re the victim.  If this is happening to you, recognize that it is abuse, and build healthy boundaries for yourself.

Whatever the trauma, the basics of a treatment protocol are these:

  • establish safety,
  • establish control,
  • establish recovery, and
  • establish new appropriate boundaries

We want to make sure you’re safe, because we can’t treat the trauma if it’s still happening.  Once you’re safe, we want to reestablish an appropriate sense of control to your life.  Then we want to look at what we can do for recovery, and finally think about what the future will look like, given the new circumstances.

Almost every person who’s experienced trauma ends up feeling like “other people have it worse.”  The cognitive brain manages trauma via denial.  But doesn’t matter if you were hit by a truck or a falling tree, if you have a sprained ankle or need a full body cast, when you show up at the ER, you’ll get treatment.  Taking what you need doesn’t mean somebody else won’t get their fair share.  God’s got more than enough for all of us.  When you need help, GET HELP.

For your library:

The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Jeff Van Vonderen

Shame

“I was afraid, and so I hid myself.”

Shame is perhaps the oldest and most destructive negative emotion we experience.

If we do not deal with our shame, we will hide ourselves.  We will hide ourselves from ourselves, with all sorts of defense mechanisms following: denial, projection, reaction formation.  We will hide ourselves from God.  We will hide ourselves from our spouses.  We will hide ourselves from our children.

And, as Mike Yaconelli says, “People who pretend have pretend relationships.”

We’ve got to consider, what kind of relationships do we want to have?  Pretend?  Or real?  If we want to have real relationships, then we’ve got to confront the shame that keeps us in hiding.

The cure for shame is not perfection, because perfection is just not possible.  The cure for shame is vulnerability.  Stepping out of the bushes, naked and asking for help.  That’s an option Adam didn’t try, and it seems fairly typical of all of us:  we run, we hide, we cover up any way we can and hope nobody notices.  In the end, we’re miserable and isolated and trapped.

I think Jesus had to come here to show us what we need really need: real, vulnerable relationship.  God with us.  God walking with us:  talking with and eating with and weeping with.  God healing and holding and comforting.  God who makes it safe for us to be vulnerable with, the kindness of God leading to deep, lasting change.

God with us is also God vulnerable to us.  As a helpless infant, as a child, as a man nailed to a cross. Self-protection was not the way Jesus functioned.  He just stepped out there, arms open wide.  No shame, even carrying all the sins of the world.  If we’re Jesus-followers, we can follow him there, too.

It might sound crazy, but I’m telling you, it works.

For your library:

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli

That’s 10 good books for your personal development library.  I’ll be back next month with some more!

Don’t forget about our resource tab, when you’re looking for more help.

And while you’re reading, don’t forget your yoga breathing.  Just THREE MINUTES A DAY will produce measurable, positive brain changes!

This article contains affiliate links.  When you click through to Amazon from our links, A Life Overseas receives a small portion of any sales, which helps keep us alive and kicking.  Thanks for helping out!

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Ask A Counselor: What’s the self-care plan for 2017?

Hey friends, it’s January!

I don’t care about resolutions, but I do care about our self-care plans, because if we don’t think about our self-care plans now, the year will roll on, and we’ll be left gasping in the dust somewhere down the road.

Last January, I asked you this:  what would you do daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly to care for yourself in 2016?

So, how did it go? 

  • Looking back, were you able to carry out the plans you made? 
  • Were your plans adequate? 
  • In other words, did your self-care do its job? 

Like I said last month, my self-care plans weren’t adequate for 2016.  By mid-year, several unexpected difficulties had arisen, and it was clear that I needed to adjust my self-care accordingly.

I adjusted in three areas, based on a biopsychosocial understanding of mental health care.

  • I took better care of my biological self through yoga and body work.
  • I took better care of my psychological self through emotional and spiritual work.
  • I took better care of my social self through boundary adjustments with work and rest.

Not only am I feeling much better now than I was back in the summer, but I can also touch my nose to my knee!  This may sound like small potatoes to you, but I’m pretty sure I was partially fossilized from general disuse before yoga got ahold of me, so it’s a nice accomplishment for me, and it means that I’ll be able to crawl around in the floor with my brand-new granddaughter when she gets to that stage in a few months.  Good self care, unexpected benefits!  I like it!

Here’s a quick checklist to evaluate your self-care of the last year:

How’s your body doing now, compared to a year ago?

  • Are you sleeping well?
  • Eating normally?
  • Exercising regularly?
  • Able to carry out the physical tasks of your day as needed?
  • If not, what adjustments can you make for the year ahead?

How’s your emotional/spiritual life today?

  • Are you able to enjoy life in general?
  • Are your close relationships nourishing and supportive to you?
  • Are you able to identify and process your emotions on a daily basis?
  • Are you noticing unusual levels of sadness, anxiety, anger, or numbness?
  • Are you feeling satisfied and connected in your relationship with God?
  • If there are trouble spots, where do you need to work in the year ahead?

How’s your boundary world right now?

  • Does your life reflect respect for you as an individual?
  • How’s your work-life balance?
  • What would your spouse and/or kids say about your work-life balance?
  • What did you do for fun this last year?
  • What helped you to rest and relax this last year?
  • If your boundaries are out of balance, how can you adjust this coming year?

My challenge to you this year is the same as last year:

What will you do daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly to take care of this one life you’ve been given?

Think in terms of the biopsychosocial model, and make a plan that cares for the whole you.

I guarantee that life is going to happen to all of us again in 2017, just like it did in 2016.

We may have to adjust our self-care plans, just like I had to this last year.

It’s easier to adjust an already-existing self-care plan than to try to create one in a moment of crisis.

So, before too much of 2017 happens, what’s your self-care plan for the year ahead?

You are God’s beloved.  

Let your self-care demonstrate this reality.

Here are some resources you might find helpful:

Yoga with Adriene on YouTube

The Gottman Relationship Blog

Pray As You Go App

Journaling Prompts are everywhere online!

ALO Resources Tab

ALO Recommended Reading Tab

photo credit: Pixabay

Comfort for Advent

 

The first words of Handel’s Messiah are these:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.  (Isaiah 40:1-2)

In other words, IT IS FINISHED.

This is where it all starts for us:  IT IS FINISHED.

Once we were far away; now we have been brought near. (Ephesians 2:13)

The Kingdom of heaven is at hand; it is near; it is within us. (Luke 17:21)

This is the truth that we know:  Jesus paid it all.

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And yet.

Here we are.

Still waiting.

Here’s a thing I love about Handel’s Messiah: the arrangement of the texts speaks so clearly to the paradox we all live with: the battle is finished, and yet we are still in it.

First words of Messiah: Comfort, finished, pardoned, done.

Next block of text:  voices in the wilderness, valleys that need to be exalted, rough places that need to be made plain, a brief flash of the glory of the Lord, and then a whole bunch of stuff about shaking and fire and purification.  Then a little bit about a virgin conceiving and good news, more about darkness and then “For Unto Us.”  Parts 2 and 3 are similar: promises, promises, promises, “Hallelujah,” then the suffering savior—which, incidentally, is the longest piece of Messiah.  Finally, we get to “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen.”

The message I take away is this:  guys, it’s going to be a mixed bag.  Yes, there’s glory and good news, but wow.  There are also many rough, dark, suffering places.

And the rough, dark, suffering places just keep coming.

We’re going to need the comfort.

We’re going to need it all the time.

I don’t know what your year’s been like.  Mine has been that mixed bag that Messiah predicts.

We’ve had glory and goodness, for sure.  Our brand-new granddaughter is right at the top of our goodness list.  A lovely daughter-in-law will join our family in the new year.  Our college kids are amazing us with their wisdom and love in the world.

And there have been rough, dark places.  A terrible, terminal diagnosis for a dear friend.  Devastating pain at the suffering our best beloveds have suffered.  Confusion and sorrow at the state of the world.

Honestly, a lot of this year has not felt like my warfare is accomplished.

For me, it’s felt more like raise your sword and fight on.

I’ve needed help with that this year.  Early this summer, Andy looked at me and said, “You need help.”

And he was right.  I was overwhelmed and angry and frankly, it wasn’t getting better.

What I know about myself is this:  I have a terrible tendency to push away comfort, which just makes the rough places even rougher.

I have an ongoing battle with another text from Messiah:

His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.  (Matthew 11:30)

There are two nouns in this text: “yoke” and “burden.”

And we all know this is true: we have heavy things to haul through life.

But the words used by Matthew to describe our yoke and our burden are these:

  • His
  • Easy
  • Light

Now.  My tendency is to haul my stuff around like it’s mine, only mine, and there’s nobody here to help me.

But a yoke has two sides, so that two animals can walk side by side, sharing the burden.

Along with the reality of every burden, there is the comfort of God’s great faithful Love, and the comfort of one another, and the comfort of numberless blessings that have the potential to bring peace and rest to our souls.

I just don’t always access the comfort very well in the moment.  I sometimes need a prod in the right direction.

So I found a spiritual director this summer, because I needed to verbally process my grief and confusion and pain.

I put more care into my physical body, because I know enough about interpersonal neurobiology to understand that what happens to me doesn’t happen in some isolated cognitive-spiritual chamber.  What happens to me happens within this body, and this body needs tender, loving care. I started doing yoga.  I worked less and I napped a lot more.

Andy and I went on vacation.  I laid myself down in the sand at the edge of the world and just let myself be.  I allowed beauty and peace to wash over me with the relentless comfort of the tide: it is finished.

I’m in a much calmer frame of mind these days, but I don’t think this is my final resting place.  I know there will be valleys and rough places and darkness ahead.  I’ll probably forget to receive comfort.  I’ll start hauling that yoke around like it’s nobody’s business but mine.  I’ll probably need to be reminded that there’s help, and I need it.

But the truth is this, no matter how often I forget or ignore it:

my warfare is accomplished, and my iniquity is pardoned.

It is finished.

All is well.

This work does not depend on me.

Love has provided on my behalf a wealth beyond my comprehension.

The Light has entered the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

No matter how rough or dark or deep the valley, there is comfort for us all, dear friends.

There is comfort in God’s Love for us.

There is comfort in the gifts of the Body, one for another.

There is comfort in rest for our physical selves.

May we receive comfort, and in return, offer comfort to one another, and to a hurting world.

some thoughts adapted from Comfort Ye My People by Kay Bruner

photo credit

Psalm 139, three ways

O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!

I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.
They cannot be numbered!
I can’t even count them;
they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
you are still with me!

O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
Get out of my life, you murderers!
They blaspheme you;
your enemies misuse your name.
O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
for your enemies are my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

Psalm 139, New Living Translation

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For many years, I lived on the far side of the sea, on an island in the South Pacific, and I loved Psalm 139 first this way: 

God’s Love is present everywhere on earth.

Even the places that are strange and scary and new to me–they all belong to Love, and Love has known them since the dawn of time.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Love holds me safe.

I may be new to this corner of Earth, but Love is everlastingly present:  behind and before me, no matter where I go.

In recent years, I’ve started loving Psalm 139 a second way:

God’s Love is present in my faith journey.

The places that are strange and scary and new to me–the doubts, the questions, the shifts of nuance and meaning–there’s nothing to fear, because God’s Love contains them all.

The thoughts that are new to me? God knew them first.

And no matter how many thoughts I have about God, he’s had millions more about me.

And not frustrated, angry, send-you-to-hell thoughts.

Precious thoughts.

Before I was born, Love saw and knew and blessed me.

So I’m pretty sure Love is not going to leave me now, no matter how many questions I have on this faith journey.

And when the pain and suffering of the world seems too much to bear some days, I’m loving Psalm 139 this third way:

Love goes with me into the deepest pain, and Loves me there.

The darkness inside me is light to Love, and there’s no lonely place that Love can’t be.

And Love is not just with me when I’m feeling so holy and perfect that I can’t stand myself.

Love is present in the sorrow and grief.

Love is present in the anxiety and fear.

Love is present in the anger and frustration, too.

Love loves me in all those deep places of the heart, even when other people can’t.

Wherever I go on earth, Love is my home.

Wherever my faith journey takes me, Love is my home.

Whatever I feel, darkness or light, Love is my home.

I can never be outside the presence of Love.

Love is always, always, always my home.

originally posted at kaybruner.com

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Ask A Counselor: walk in the light you have

When I was taking classes toward my masters in counseling, one of my favorite professors was an older gentleman with many years’ experience in the counseling world.  Whatever class he was teaching, we could be sure that he would regale us with fascinating tales of his experiences as a therapist.

Inevitably, he would conclude one of his yarns with this phrase: “That’s when I knew: something was wrong.”

And inevitably, I would think, “Hey buddy, I know that much already, and I’m paying you a whole lot of money to get way more specific than that.”

I wanted to know WHAT was wrong.  Psychosis? Personality disorder? Bipolar 2? What? What?  What?

After I’d had this professor for a few classes, I was brave enough to start asking, “What exactly was wrong, in the end?”  And I don’t think he ever told me.

Maybe he couldn’t remember the specifics.

More likely, though, he’d learned something that’s taken me a while to catch onto:  walk in the light you have.

When you know something’s wrong, KNOW it, and take action accordingly.  

You don’t need to wait for all the information, and you don’t need to wait for permission.

When there’s light on the path ahead of you, start walking.

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I was thinking about that this summer when I and my home-from-college kid had a movie day and watched Tangled.

You know Tangled, right?  It’s the story of Rapunzel, trapped in a tower and longing for escape.

There’s a point in the movie where our heroine is just like my professor:  she knows something is wrong.

She doesn’t know the specifics yet.

It just doesn’t feel okay any more.

Most of us are people who love a status quo–even if our status quo is an absolute wreck.

It is really, really hard to let ourselves know when something is wrong.

Even harder to begin thinking that we might need to DO something about that wrongness.

It’s really, really hard to walk into the light, mostly because we just don’t know what’s out there.  We’re familiar with our dark little tower.  We know the confines of our prison.  We may even have a lot of religious rules and regulations that defend said jail cell.

If we do manage to get ourselves out, we may feel like Rapunzel after her escape.

Change is no easy task, for Rapunzel or any of us.

It’s so hard, in fact, that a lot of times we’ll choose not to change, even when we know better.

Jesus’s friend John put it this way:  “And this is the condemnation:  that Light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”  (John 3:19)

It’s easy to quote that verse at the clearly bad people.

But what about those of us whose evil deeds are composed of

perfectionism,

performance,

people-pleasing and

control?  

Overwork,

overserving,

overspiritualization?  

The need to save ourselves by looking good and being admired?

It’s sometimes harder to leave that kind of darkness than the clearly bad stuff.

What’s more, moving from darkness to light is not simply hopping across a line.

Before: dark.  After: light.

Before: lost.  After: saved.

Before: a mess.  After: jim-dandy.

It’s more like Eugene Peterson’s beautiful phrase:  a long obedience in the same direction.

Maybe it’s like the manna that fed the children of Israel: just enough for today, for this next step, and always more for tomorrow.

When we realize that something is wrong, we pay attention.

We let ourselves know it.

We apply our gentle curiosity.

We breathe, breathe, breathe.

We stick with our tribe.

We hold onto the truth: Love wins.

We take the next step, into more light.

And slowly, slowly, we find our way forward.

We find our way Home.

originally published at kaybruner.com

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Ask A Counselor: How can I recover from stress, now that I’m safe?

We are back in our passport country for the first time in two years and while adjustment has been pretty easy, I was very surprised to realize that the traumatic events experienced overseas seemed to follow me here. I had a little understanding of reverse culture shock, but hadn’t ever heard anyone speak or write on how to adjust from living in a place where you experience trauma, to living in a safe place.

I took about a month before I realized that my automatic fear/adrenaline rush when people shout, or when I’m alone, etc. were because those could be potentially dangerous situations overseas. Being on high alert there protected me from violent places/people. But I didn’t expect to feel that in my passport country, where I am safe.

What are some ways to recover from the stress, now that I’m safe?

3741239763_625996b7ea_bI love this question because I think it’s a very common problem: we think that getting out of the traumatic situation will take care of the stress.  We don’t expect post-traumatic symptoms, and we’re unprepared when they arise.

But, my friends, this is why it’s called POST-traumatic stress disorder:  it happens AFTER the stress is over.  Weeks or months later, the symptoms will appear.

We all know that stress chemicals flood the body in a traumatic situation.  We’ve all felt that rush of adrenaline, that urge to fight, flight, or freeze.  We all know what it’s like to be shaky with reaction after a particularly frightening event.

All of that is a chemical, bodily reaction, and perfectly normal.  Most of the time we can come through a single difficult event with relative ease, unless the event is extremely traumatic.   And usually, if the event is extremely traumatic, we’ll get help processing and healing from it, because our culture is set up to help in situations like injury, illness, and loss of life.

However, when we live long-term with ongoing stressful situations, our cognitive brains will begin to rationalize:

  • “Thank goodness, nobody really got hurt.”
  • “Bombs are a normal thing here.”
  • “It’s just another riot in the market.”
  • “It really doesn’t bother me that much.”

When events are understood as “not that bad,” then we won’t get help or support.  We won’t even think we need it.  

I knew a couple of teenagers who were mugged at knife-point and didn’t tell anybody for a couple of days because:  “That stuff happens all the time here” and “Nobody got hurt.”

While our cognitive brains may need to use defense mechanisms like this in order to keep functioning in our daily context, our chemical brains are often, unbeknownst to us, living at a state of high arousal and constant alert in order to protect us from the very real and present danger that our cognitive brains just can’t process.

If we’re experiencing post-traumatic stress for the first time, we may be unaware of the symptoms.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Intrusive memories

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event

Avoidance

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood
  • Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
  • Negative feelings about yourself or other people
  • Inability to experience positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships

Changes in emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms):

  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being easily startled or frightened (symptom list source: Mayo Clinic)

PTSD symptoms can vary widely in severity, as in any other illness.

Think of it this way.  You may have a sprained ankle.  You may need a full body cast.  If you go to the ER in either scenario, you’ll get treatment.  No doctor would ever say, “Go home, you idiot, it’s only a sprained ankle.”  She would just treat your sprained ankle.  That’s her job!

When it comes to post-traumatic stress, no matter how minor or how severe, every injury is in need of healing, and is worthy of treatment.  Attend to the injury you have.  Once you’ve taken care of that injury, you’ll be ready to resume normal life again.  If you ignore it, if you keep running on that sprained ankle, you’ll aggravate the injury even further.  We all know people who have done that, and it’s not pretty.  (Sometimes those people are us.)

Here are three broad areas to work on during stress-recovery.

1. EDUCATE YOUR MIND

  • Understand what you’re dealing with, so you’ll know what you need to do.
  • Read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, the best book out there on recovery from traumatic stress.
  • Listen to this podcast at OnBeing with Dr. Van Der Kolk.

2. ATTEND TO YOUR EMOTIONS

  • Find support
  • Talk to close friends or family members about what you’re experiencing.
  • Locate a counselor in your area.  You might look for someone who’s experienced in treating trauma and who has EMDR certification (a specialized trauma treatment).
  • Journal:  20 minutes per day is the number research tells us is most effective when we’re working through an issue.

3. HEAL YOUR BODY

  • PTSD is largely a chemical, bodily illness, so concentrate on physical strategies.
  • Build margin into your life by building healthy boundaries.
    • “No” is a whole answer, and a good enough reason.  If you don’t want to: NO.
    • “Lack of interest” is a symptom of PTSD.  When you’ve recovered, the interest will come back.
    • Until then, you’re in recovery.  It’s okay to say no.
  • Make time to breathe, time to be, time to play, time to laugh.
    • Laughter lets your body chemistry know that there is no danger.  You’re at rest, you’re peaceful, you’re laughing.  Your body understands:  all is well.
    • Watch funny movies or baby goats in pajamas on YouTube.  Read P. G. Wodehouse or another laugh-out-loud author.
    • Do fun things.  At least once a week, do something that is fun to YOU.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Sleep well.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Get a massage.
  • Breathe.  Breathe. Breathe.
  • Yoga is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD.  I know there is some fear of yoga, but given its research-proven effectiveness in treating traumatic stress, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you about it.  There are many Christian yoga options out there.  Google and find an option that works for you.

WHEN TO GET MORE HELP

Once you’ve recognized the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and done some stress-relieving work, your symptoms should begin to dissipate.  If you’re not feeling better within a month, it’s time to think about more help.  

  • If you haven’t seen a professional counselor, now is probably the time.
  • You should also see your doctor, as medication might be needed to restore your depleted body chemicals.

If your symptoms are severe and pervasive and you’re not able to perform the normal functions of life, seek help right away.  

Remember: post-traumatic stress is a physical illness, and help is available.

Educate your mind, attend to your emotions, heal your body.

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Ask a Counselor for a book recommendation: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

“How do we keep our marriage strong, with all the stresses of cross-cultural living and frequent transitions?”

“My husband was exposed to porn around age 10. Ever since, he’s struggled with it.  I think he’s sincere about wanting to control his problem, and over the years, he’s doing better.  It still really bothers me, though, and I feel like our relationship has suffered a lot.  How do we live with this?”

“I want my wife to keep her commitments, like showing up on time.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.  It really bothers me that she won’t make the effort to do what she says she’ll do.”

There are so many, many questions that come up during the course of a marriage, and we’ve all heard so many, many solutions… that often don’t work long-term.  This month, I’d like to introduce you to some real research about what really works in marriage, courtesy of renowed marriage expert, John Gottman.

4134045993_31d2831830_bSome of the research is kind of shocking, like this:

“Despite what many therapists will tell you, you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive.”  John Gottman, PhD

69% of marital conflicts are perpetual problems that will never be resolved, according to Gottman.

(Please note!  We’re not talking about rampant addiction, abuse, or infidelity here—we’ve talked about those before, here and here.  In this article, I’m talking about relationships where two people have good intentions, and each do their part.)

Even for happily married couples, conflict is a normal, even perpetual, part of life.

I actually think this is good news!  It means that we can turn our attention away from the frustrations of:

  • trying to change things that won’t change, like our spouse’s personality and lifestyle preferences
  • being upset about challenges our spouse is working to overcome, but hasn’t successfully conquered just yet
  • attempting to micromanage one another and life in general.

Instead of spinning our wheels in frustration, we can turn our attention toward what really does work, and that’s what Gottman addresses in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

The nutshell is this.

  • Marital success not about the correct communication patterns.
  • It’s not about making the in-laws happy.
  • It’s not about making sure everybody performs the proper role by gender.
  • It’s not about avoiding conflict or pushing for conflict resolution.

“The determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship.  For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of a couple’s friendship.”  John Gottman

Marital success is about the friendship, and this book details the foundation—the seven principles—of that friendship.

Gottman is the pre-eminent relationship researcher alive on earth today.  He’s done so much research that he can tell within 15 minutes, with 91% accuracy, whether a relationship will fail or succeed.  This guy knows what he’s talking about, and it would behoove us to listen.

One of the reasons I believe so passionately in Gottman’s work (aside from the incredible amount of research he’s done) is that working on our friendship is what worked for Andy and me when our marriage was broken, back in 2003, and it’s been working for us ever since.

I had never heard of Gottman back in the day.  We just bumbled through on our own, but we somehow ended up doing what Gottman says successful couples do.

  • We spend lots of time working to understand each other.
  • We turn toward each other emotionally, rather than away (or worse yet, against).
  • We each invite the other to influence us.
  • We solve our solvable problems.
  • We figure out how to cope with things we can’t resolve.
  • We don’t let differences mean the end of our relationship.
  • We create a ton of shared meaning and purpose in our life together.

Here we are, more happily married than ever, 13 years later, and Gottman explains it all.

The thing we found in our marriage recovery is this:  while the immediate problem was difficult and took time to work through, we could, AT THE SAME TIME, build a stronger, more robust friendship that helped us in turn to cope better with the difficulty.

I couldn’t keep Andy from looking at porn.  Andy couldn’t always keep Andy from looking at porn.  But we knew we were on the same team, so we started being on the same team by concentrating on the quality of our friendship, and that built capacity in both of us to cope with the situation while Andy did the work he had to do.

Doing what Gottman says helped us into a positive, empowering cycle rather than the old vicious, self-defeating cycle. 

If we could figure that out by pure dumb luck, just think how much easier it would be with this book!  This is the best of DIY marriage work, with quizzes and exercises in each chapter.  I can’t recommend it highly enough!

AND:  GIANT NEWSFLASH FOR MARRIAGE RECOVERY: DON’T MISS THIS!!!

Now.  I can’t mention porn recovery without also telling you about a new online resource for women in recovery from marriage betrayal:  BLOOM.

I’m so excited that after years of saying to women overseas, “Well, I hope you find help sometime…” I can finally say, “Here’s a place to go, right now!”

This is the first website I’ve seen that really focuses on trauma in personal recovery, and attachment in marriage recovery, which are exactly the therapeutic approaches I think are most helpful.  You’ll find discussion groups, classes, and other recovery tools.  BONUS:  there are classes for couples, too!

It is $15 per month, but there’s a 2-week free trial so you can check it out before you make a financial commitment.

So there you go, guys, your marriage homework for this month:  The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

And if you need more help than the norm right now, check out Bloom.

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