How to Take an Emotional Stand

Photo: Jon Eben Field (CCA 2.0)

For the first three decades of my life, I had difficulty taking an emotional stand. I define that as being able to say what I feel, what I believe, in a non-anxious way. I would just stuff my feelings. I thought it was no big deal, but what happened was at some point I would blow my top. All the pent up feelings would come out in a fit of rage.

The anger wasn’t necessarily directed at the people who deserved it because it was an accumulation of things. My boss did something to make me angry and I stuffed it. A family member did something to make me angry and I stuffed it. A clerk in a convenience store gave me poor customer service and I stuffed it. Unfortunately, it was usually my wife or one of my children that triggered the blow-up. They weren’t the reason for all the anger. But I would unload on them. It’s always easier to unload on those closest to you, even in unhealthy ways.

Why does this matter?

I’ve found that in families, churches and organizations, people have a hard time taking emotional stands.

This is unhealthy. When people aren’t able to articulate how they feel and what they believe in a healthy way, it results in the kind of outbursts that I described. Or passive aggressive behavior. Or blaming and conflict. It makes it challenging to communicate in healthy ways.

In the church, it is almost impossible to lead change, unless you, as a leader, can take emotional stands in a healthy way.

Here are four suggestions to help you do it better.

Say what you believe, using “I” statements.

This is communication 101. By saying “This is what I believe. This is what I think we should do. This is how I feel about it,” you are taking responsibility for yourself. In family systems theory, we call this self-defining. If you can’t do this, you are sunk.

Don’t blame others for the situation or how you feel.

The opposite of taking responsibility for self is blaming others. This usually comes in the form of “You” statements. “You always get in the way. You don’t understand how I feel. You are SO inconsiderate.” In family systems we call this defining others. Somebody may have made a mistake, may have hurt you or may even be in the wrong (at least in your opinion), but blaming is counterproductive. It will only make the other defensive and will lead to a hardening of their position.

Give the other person the freedom to disagree.

The point of taking an emotional stand is NOT to convince the other person to agree with you. That can lead to conflict and defensiveness, just like blaming. Nobody likes to be told what to do. If you define yourself, but require the other to agree with you, explicitly or implicitly, then you are trying to define them, as well. By saying, “This is what I believe. You may feel differently, but that’s how I feel,” you give people the emotional space to deal with their own feelings. You’re not trying to define them, just yourself. This is healthy. People who are emotionally healthy will appreciate that. They may not agree, but they will have a conversation. People who are not as healthy will react in unhealthy ways called sabotage, but that’s for another post.

Keep your anxiety in check.

I don’t consider it an emotional stand if you are yelling and screaming. And it’s certainly not when you are blaming. When you can’t check your anxiety that’s how it usually comes out. Of course, you can also deal with your anxiety by not saying anything and stuffing it, but we’ve already shown why that’s not a good thing.

By defining yourself in non-anxious ways, you help keep the entire conversation in a better place. You may feel anxious inside, but if are aware of it, you can do something about it. I have found that role-playing the conversation in my mind or with others is helpful. This helps to anticipate the rough spots and to be able to act less anxious when taking an emotional stand. It doesn’t mean you won’t face anxiety from the other, but it does mean you will be better prepared to keep your own anxiety from causing a problem.

I believe it is the responsibility of a leader to be able to do this. Leadership is about influence and inspiration. This is how to lead in a healthy way that helps your family, church or organization grow or change. It starts with you.

Questions for Reflection:

How do you deal with your own anxiety?

What do you do when you need to take an emotional stand?

What can you do to get better?

Does Your Family Make You Anxious? (And Why It Matters for Leadership)

I was once at a meeting of mostly clergy colleagues. There were eight of us sitting around a table. It was August and the leader asked everyone to share about what they had done that summer. As we went around the table, the answers were pretty consistent.

“I just got back from a week of vacation with my family, Ugh!”

“I vacationed with my family and I survived.”

“Our family got together and it was pretty good for a few days, but then it got ugly.”

Actually, only about half of the responses were along these lines, but it was startling to me. I never realized vacationing with family was such a problem. Since we’ve been married, that’s pretty much all we do. We vacation every year in Cape Hatteras with my wife’s family and we get together at least every other year with my family, including my mom’s sisters and my cousins.

In fact, when one of my kids was young I was asked, “Dad, when I grow up and get married, will my (spouse) be a part of the family?”

“Of course,” I said.

“No. I mean, will they be able to come to Hatteras with us?”

For my children, being family meant vacationing together, in a good way. I’m not saying we’re perfect. Like any family, we have our issues. Vacationing together is not one of them. So, I was surprised by the responses at the meeting.

So here’s the question: Does your family make you anxious?

I’m not talking about just your immediate family. I’m also talking extended family. This is what family systems theory calls your family of origin. Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

I would say that if there isn’t something about your family of origin that makes you anxious, then you are unconscious or in denial.

The primary factor in this kind of family induced anxiety is surrounding togetherness pressure. This is the pressure to conform to existing, mostly unspoken, family norms. These surrounding togetherness pressures show up in things as basic as how you celebrate holidays and birthdays and how you do vacations. They extend to how children are raised, how money is handled and how you deal with conflict (or not). Anytime you feel the pressure to conform in your family of origin, you are feeling a surrounding togetherness pressure.

Here’s the thing. The problem is with you.

If you are feeling anxious about pressure to conform, that’s not anybody else’s fault. That’s how your family rolls. If you don’t like it, then it’s up to you to do something about it. In family systems, we call this taking an emotional stand. There are two components to this.

First, own your own position without blaming others. Say, “This is how I feel. This is what I believe. This is what I would like to see.” If you are blaming others for the way you feel, that’s not taking an emotional stand, that’s being childish. The key here is to be able to state your position while giving others the freedom to have their own position, as well.

Second, stay connected emotionally in a non-anxious way. This is called being a non-anxious presence. Taking an emotional stand is meaningless, even harmful, if you withdraw from those in your family. It’s not really taking responsibility for your own condition, it’s running away. Conversely, staying connected while you spew your anxiety over everyone around you is not helpful either.

So how do you do this?

Do your own work. Reflect on your family of origin and start to unpack the unwritten rules that make you tick. Anytime you feel anxious, ask the question, “Where is this coming from?” This is especially true if you are anxious and you don’t handle it well. If you spew anxiety at others and blame them (reactivity), if you get passive aggressive or if you just stuff it and get resentful (adaptivity), then you are not taking an emotional stand.

It’s likely that if you are anxious, there is an unresolved issue with someone in your family of origin. There is someone with whom you have never been able to take an emotional stand. Or someone has hurt you and you haven’t been able to forgive them. Or a host of other possibilities. This is not easy work. It may even require a therapist.

Why does this matter for leadership?

Because any time you feel anxious in a given situation, whether in your family, church or organization, the anxiety is your issue, not anybody else’s. More importantly, the source of the anxiety is not the situation you are in, but your inability to deal with it. And that goes back to your own family of origin. If you want to be better able to handle your anxiety in ANY situation, you need to do your own work in your family of origin. Deal with the unresolved issues. This is especially important if you know your anxiety creates problems because you get reactive, passive aggressive or adaptive.

Effective leaders are able to take emotional stands in non-anxious ways. This does not mean that they don’t listen to others. It means they are able to say what they believe and own it, while giving others the freedom to do the same. Effective leaders deal with surrounding togetherness pressures in their family, church and organization in helpful, healthy ways.

You will get anxious. We all do. I get anxious all the time. But I work on how to deal with it. I’m conscious of it. I work to be a more healthy member of my own family of origin, as well as my church and the ministry I serve. Some days I’m better at it than others. But I try to be aware of my anxiety and deal with it appropriately. That’s all we can do.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you deal with it?

What would help you to take non-anxious, emotional stands with others?

Three Leadership Lessons I Learned from Mary and Mary

8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:8-10 NRSV

The two Mary’s have something to teach us about fear. In Matthew’s resurrection account, not only are they the first to see the risen Jesus, but they are commissioned by an angel and Jesus to go to Galilee and tell the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Here are three leadership lessons that I learned from them.

Just show up.

Woody Allen was famously quoted by his Annie Hall co-writer, Marshall Brickman, in this 1977 New York Times article, “As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80% of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed, I’ve done both.”

Mary and Mary just showed up. They had no real reason to go to the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea had prepared the body when Jesus was placed in the tomb. Besides, there were Roman guards standing watch. But something compelled them to “go see the tomb.”

When God nudges you, when the Holy Spirit draws you, what do you do? Do you go? Or do you ignore God’s prompting and stay home in bed.

Being a Christian leader is about believing that God will direct your path. Will lead you and guide you. But there is an element of faith. You have to be willing to go without knowing exactly what’s in store. Mary and Mary just showed up and they saw an angel and the risen Jesus.

Do not be afraid.

The Mary’s are told by the angel to not be afraid. Then we’re told that they “…they left the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples (MT 28:8).” The word that is used for fear in the text is often translated “awe or reverence,” as in the fear of the Lord. But the classical meaning is to withdraw, flee or separate because of dread or feeling inadequate. It is often used in the scripture to describe withdrawing from God’s will.

Which raises the question: How often do you know God is calling you to do something, but you feel inadequate?

Mary and Mary are described as having felt this way. But they went anyway.

I would say that more often than not, when I believe God is calling me to do something, I don’t feel adequate. Yet, there is this weird combination of fear, excitement and joy, just like the Mary’s experienced, because I know God is up to something. And when God does it, I know God deserves the credit.

So, when Jesus tells you to go do something. Just go.

Which leads to the third lesson.

Jesus IS with us.

The angel told Mary and Mary to go to Galilee and spread the word. He promised that Jesus would meet them there. So they went, even though they felt inadequate and afraid. As soon they did, Jesus showed up. And he reminded them once more, not to be afraid.

The faith journey is filled with uncertainty. When God is calling us to lead, we may have a glimpse of what the destination looks like. But nothing happens unless we make a move. Take a step. Move in the right direction. When we do, Jesus will remind us that he is with us. That we are not alone and we don’t need to fear.

Just show up. Do not be afraid. Jesus is with us.

How much could you accomplish for God if you remember these three things?

Questions for Reflection:

Where is God calling you to show up?

What are you afraid of?

What will it take to make a move in that direction?

Two Addictions I Kicked (or Clarity Happens)

I have an addictive personality.

I always knew this. But, when I was in seminary I took a family systems course and did my genogram. A genogram is a family tree that focuses on emotional process and how things are passed from generation to generation. My own genogram showed me that addictive personalities were common, especially among the males, in my family of origin.

How this translated into my own life is that it is hard for me to do something half-heartedly. For the things I choose to do, I’m either all in or checked out.

One of my addictions was video games. This started right around the time that I finished seminary. We had gotten the original Nintendo game console for our kids, but I was the one who got hooked. I grew up loving pinball, then arcade video games, so this was no surprise.

My game was Super Mario Cart.

It’s a silly go-kart racing game that consumed me. I would play at night after everyone went to bed so that it didn’t interfere with my work life or family life. And I killed it. First I mastered the 50cc level. Then the 100cc level, which I thought meant I mastered the game. But as soon as I completed that, a whole new level, 150cc, magically appeared. I was sad when I mastered 150cc and nothing new appeared.

Then it was on to Mario Andretti racing. I always liked Indy cars, so this was cool. I got to race on tracks I had seen on TV, which made it even more realistic. It was around this time that my family got me a steering wheel, gas/brake pedal, gear-shift attachment. Big mistake. No more thumbs for me, I was really driving.

But something happens in an addiction. It’s no longer fun.

I got to the point that the only thing that mattered was winning every race. If I crashed or didn’t finish first it was a failure. And even winning didn’t feel good. I just checked it off and moved on. Worse yet, it started affecting my life. I would stay up later and later. Just one more race. Just one more race. If you’ve ever binge-watched a TV show, you know the feeling. I would stay up way too late and go to bed feeling unfulfilled. Not good.

My other addiction was the football team I grew up loving. I recently wrote about why I’m giving up my season tickets, but I have not been addicted for a long time. Oh, I love watching and rooting, but it wasn’t an addiction.

You see, when I was addicted, my life revolved around the team. The worst part was how I felt when they lost. It ruined my day. Made me grumpy. It often carried over into the next day. I would wake up and think about the game with regret. And they lost a lot. Not good.

So how did I kick these addictions? Clarity.

There were two separate but related incidents that occurred very close to each other in time. One when I was playing video games on a weekend day (my addiction had gotten out of hand). The other when I was watching my team lose.

In each of these incidents, one of my kids came up and asked me to do something with them. In each case, I snapped back that I was busy and they went away sad. It still makes me sad to think about it. I hope they forgive me.

Nobody had to tell me what was going on. I felt it deep down. You might say it was God getting through to me. But I stopped playing video games. And even though I kept rooting for my team it was different. If they lost, I reminded myself that it was just a game.

In fact, they lost so much for so long that my wife asked me, “Why do you still watch them?”

I would say, “It’s entertainment. You pay to go to sad movies don’t you (actually, she doesn’t)?”

Why do I share this?

Because every once in a while God gives us a moment of clarity where we understand what really matters.

These are life-changing, if we pay attention. And then do something about it. That’s what I learned.

I’m not suggesting that every addiction is so easy to kick. There are many that are devastating and seemingly impossible to be free from. But I am saying that doing my own family systems work helped me. It helped me to better understand who I am and what drives me. So when that moment of clarity came, I knew what I had to do.

I still have an addictive personality. But, I’m learning to focus it on positive things. I’ve been running regularly (some might say obsessively) since 2009. And for the last six months, I have been writing regularly. And in all of this, perhaps even because of this, I trust that there will be other moments of clarity. That’s how God works.

Questions for Reflection:

What consumes you? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

How does God get through to you?

What do you do about it?

How to Nurture a Disciple of Jesus

This is a follow-up to the last post on what a Disciple of Jesus looks like. It came out of a discussion in a clergy study group where a colleague asked these two questions in tandem:

  • What does a disciple of Jesus look like?
  • How do you nurture this?

It was a great discussion and it got me to thinking. A lot. I think my friend is getting to the essence of the Christian journey. As a pastor of a church, he wants to be able to cast a vision so that people can see themselves growing as disciples, can know when they are on the correct path AND can have an idea of how to get there.

I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks and here is my answer to the second question: The means of grace.

I’m not being flippant. I believe that growing as a disciple of Jesus is simple. Avail one’s self of the means of grace. I’m not saying it’s easy to do. But it’s not rocket science.

Before we go there, let’s define GRACE. This is my favorite word in all of theology. To me, it’s the key to everything. Grace is God’s unmerited favor for us. It is God’s unconditional love. It’s God loving us even though we don’t deserve it. It’s God loving us even though we can’t earn it.

To me, grace IS the power of God in our lives. When I experience God’s grace, I am more likely to be grateful, to be less selfish, to be more outwardly focused and to be more centered on God. To me, grace is a very real experience that brings us to God, reconciles us to God and molds us in the image of God. It is about nothing that we do and everything that God does. So we can’t take credit for it. We can only give thinks in awe and wonder.

When we pray for, love and forgive our enemies, that is God’s grace working in us. When we love others unconditionally, the way God loves us, that is grace working in us. When we are caring for the least, the last and the lost, that is grace working in us. So, going back to the last post, when we recognize a disciple of Jesus by her actions and her character, what we are recognizing is God’s grace working in her.

This is all nice, theological, theoretical stuff. But how does it work?

The means of grace.

This is why I’m such a United Methodist geek. Our Wesleyan tradition is built on this understanding and it continues to be relevant today. Let’s unpack it.

The means of grace are not grace. They are ways that grace is experienced. They are time-tested practices and rituals that Christians throughout the centuries have found to result in an experience of grace.

Here’s how the means of Grace break down in our Wesleyan tradition.

Works of Piety

These are inwardly focused practices intended to help us grow in our relationship with God. We can do these individually (private) or communally (public).

Acts of Devotion: Individual works of Piety include studying scripture, prayer and meditation, fasting, healthy living and sharing our faith with others.

Acts of Worship: Communal works of Piety include congregational worship, sharing in the sacraments (Baptism and Communion), Christian conferencing, which holds us accountable to others, and group Bible Study.

The individual works are self-explanatory. You might find a few thoughts on the communal works helpful.

In Communion, we experience the real presence of Jesus. Part of that experience is that we are doing this together with others and God is present in our midst. This is grace upon grace.

Why is Baptism a means of grace? My own experience has been that the longer I have journeyed with Jesus, the more my blessings have come from seeing how God is working in someone else’s life, not my own. When we do a Baptism in church, I am filled with joy and what God has done in the life of the person before us. That is grace.

Finally, Christian conferencing is a fancy way to say that we cannot journey alone. According to John Wesley, support without accountability promotes moral weakness. Accountability without support is a form of cruelty. Christian conferencing provides both support and accountability. In Wesley’s day, the primary way this was done was the class meeting. The modern day equivalent would be an effective small group.

Works of Mercy

These means of grace are outwardly focused and help us to grow in our relationship with others, as well as God.

Acts of Compassion: Individual works of Mercy include doing good works, visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and giving sacrificially.

Acts of Justice: Communal works of Mercy aim to end the systemic causes of injustice and oppression that cause the need for our individual works of Mercy in the first place. Working to end poverty, homelessness and discrimination of any kind are communal works of Mercy.

If you are a United Methodist geek, you may recognize that this format is used in Covenant Discipleship (CD) groups. CD groups are specifically focused on the means of grace in the Wesleyan tradition. I have participated in CD groups and can testify to their value. Although, I will say that any small group that is well-designed and well-led can help you to avail yourself of the means of grace.

Back to my friend’s question. How do you nurture mature disciples of Jesus?

The means of grace.

Here is the caveat. It’s difficult to nurture the means of grace in another. You can definitely have an impact on others when journeying together. But you can’t give them the desire for grace. That’s between each person and God.

You can lead a person to the well, but you can’t make them drink the living water.

As a church, we can share what a mature disciple of Jesus looks like. We can teach people about the means of grace. We can encourage people to grow in grace. Ultimately, the best thing each of us can do is grow in grace ourselves.

Questions for Reflection:

How are you growing in grace?

What individual practices would you like to start?

What communal practices would you like to start?