In Defense of Introspection
“There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” -R.D. Laing
“Where do I start?” Almost every person that sits across from me has trouble knowing how to tell me their story...how they got to be sitting in a chair seeking help making sense of their pain and confusion. They desire to express the relevant parts of the story that will give the best picture of their situation - it’s almost as if they are defining the boundaries of their disease in hopes that the work of the scalpel won’t touch anything unnecessary. Needless to say, as we begin uncovering how they got to be where they are - there are pieces they didn’t even realize were going to come out.
The work involved in looking inward is difficult for a lot of reasons. We are not accustomed to looking at the pieces of us that we keep hidden from everyone else. We are certainly not accustomed to exploring the parts of us that we are ashamed of or feel are so unpleasant they are better left forgotten.
It is common in church circles to get pushback for this kind of work. It’s not because we don’t believe in looking inside of ourselves - we, in theory, do it every day as we confess sin. However, there is a certain resistance to really looking at our behaviors - our patterns - our deeper reasons for the things we say and do - because it involves focus on ourselves.
And I get this. The power of the Gospel is to change - to see the work of Christ and be able to claim it as our own - we are a new creation, the old has gone. But I have seen a dangerous tendency in believers to claim these truths with less understanding of why their hearts and minds are in the condition they are in. There is a fine line between claiming our newness in Christ, looking to the cross, and avoiding a look back at the path it took to get there. I am not advocating for a focus on our sin so we feel worse and repent more - that is not the heart of the Gospel. What I am looking for is a better balance of understanding, or a willingness, to explore how we arrived in our present condition. A willingness to dig up the pieces of our story that we have left unspoken for so long.
There are a few key areas in which we can explore to gain a better understanding of what makes us who/how we are currently:
-Family of origin dynamics: Lessons learned from direct teaching (“Don’t ever walk home alone from school it’s dangerous”) and from observation of how the family interacts (i.e. you never see your parents fight, you might grow up believing that couples are not supposed to argue thereby holding feelings in when you are frustrated with your spouse later in life). Family of origin dynamics are a vast subject - consider all the ways a family interacts, learns together, functions as an entity while still having these various individuals who are each unique. Even in “normal” families there are experiences that shape how we see the world, each other, ourselves - and these often happen without a ton of explanation. Parents do their best to shield kids from the dangers in the world, but even in that shielding lessons are still learned, confusing experiences are still shaping us. These things can be difficult to spot because we largely spend our childhoods making sense of the dynamics as ‘normal’ and only have our friend’s families to compare (but they were always weirder right?!) The dynamics go unquestioned, or are never considered unhealthy, especially if there are not huge red flags (and sometimes when there are huge red flags like abuse we simply dismiss it as something in the past that is unpleasant to think about).
-Early experiences of trauma: A quick definition of trauma - [from Diagnostic statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)] - it involves any direct experience of “actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one's physical integrity” The diagnostic manual has also included instances in which hearing about an event happening to someone close to you as being a sort of ‘secondary trauma.’ We also talk about “big T” trauma - a single event that is traumatic (i.e. being involved in a horrific car accident), or “little t” trauma - several smaller events happening over a long period of time (i.e. being verbally abused in subtle ways over many years). This is important to understand because a lot of us in the Church have this reaction that trauma is only experienced by those in combat, or people who have been physically/sexually abused. When trauma hits, our bodies enter fight or flight mode - for some this means shutting down, others it means acting ‘against’ the trauma. This makes intuitive sense if you consider someone who has a gun to their head...but what about the person who spends their entire lives in a marriage where they are being told they aren’t worth it? What about the person who was picked on from elementary school through college for not being ‘normal’ like the other kids? That fight or flight response is going to look a lot more complex...a lot more nuanced...a lot more developed. More on this in a minute…
-Beliefs: This falls in line with both family of origin dynamics and trauma experiences - there is a commonality in all of us to internalize what we are experiencing in hopes of it making sense of our limited view of the world. Consider a 10 year old who witnesses his dad hit his mom in a fit of anger. Maybe the parents aren’t even aware that this child was watching so it is never discussed - what are things that kid could come to believe? It’s ok to lash out in anger...it’s never ok to be angry...maybe mom and dad were fighting because of what I did today so this is my fault...maybe I have to protect mom...dad is someone to be feared...Each of these can have an element of truth, but when they go unchallenged they become entrenched in our minds and hearts as absolute truth. I have listened to people in their 60’s and 70’s talk about something that happened when they were 6 and you can still hear the belief that has dug its claws into their hearts and remained unchallenged, poisoning their interactions and view of themselves their entire life.
-Biological/Genetic factors: There are a lot of pieces of our hardwiring that are passed down to us. Genetic predispositions for addictions like alcoholism, certain genes that might prevent (or cause an excess) of certain hormones, genes that cause a synaptic misfire in our brains leading to specific disorders. It is not 100% determinism, but it is important to understand that there are biological functions that contribute to who we are, and these differences can cause very real problems. If you have a genetic problem with neurotransmitters like serotonin, depression might manifest itself much differently than if you were depressed over chronic abuse you suffered as a child.
This is boiling down human experience into four factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors - is it oversimplified? Of course. But here’s the point: we can come into the truth of the Gospel and be transformed without ever considering how we got to where we are in the first place. Some of you may read that sentence and say “so?” The point is that the Gospel is the power to change and I am being changed and renewed by the truth that has set me free!
I would argue that real lasting change comes more fully when you know what you are changing from - and not only just what you are changing from, but how you got to the point of needing change.
You may come to Christ and realize your anger toward your spouse is not righteous and needs to be put to death, so you begin working on that anger. You begin speaking to your spouse differently, there are less blow-ups, less fights...but you have essentially done surgery that only cut out the top part of the cancer. Even if you feel differently about your anger I would argue it still lurks in the shadows hoping to not be excised.
This is the work that is done in introspection. The speaking of things in the dark. The bringing to surface the full ugliness and beginning the process of understanding when and where it was planted.
As you consider the work of introspection, you can ask yourself some questions to start identifying what is hidden. Below are some suggestions of where to get started - this is by no means an exhaustive list and will not magically produce insight on the spot, but it should be helpful in beginning the process.
Family of Origin Dynamics: -What did I learn about _______ (anger, sadness, communication, etc) from my parents? -What areas of my family relating to each other make me uncomfortable? -Where do I commonly feel minimized or not heard by my family? -Where have I ignored/run from/refused to acknowledge certain parts of my family?
Trauma: -What experiences happened to me that I try not to think about? -What continual experiences have contributed to an overall negative view of myself/others/the world/God? -What situations do I find myself unable to handle or cope being around?
Beliefs: -What things do I say about myself commonly that may not be true? -When I tell myself something is true/untrue whose voice is really saying that to me? -When I express emotion about a person or idea, who am I really expressing that about? -When I am hurt/sad/angry because of a certain situation/person - who/what does that remind me of? -What assumptions do I make about myself when I walk into a room full of people?
Biological/Genetic Factors: -What common medical/psychological stories have I heard about my family? (i.e. “your great aunt had depression, so did you grandmother”). -What current medical conditions can also be comorbid with psychological or emotional problems? (i.e. thyroid problems that can manifest as low energy/depression).
This is a process you can start on your own but I encourage you to invite others into it with you. That might be with a trained professional counselor, and I would certainly argue that counselors understand how to help you cut through the years of complexities and find what makes you who you are...but you can also benefit from bringing in this kind of awareness with your spouse, friends who know you well, etc.
I’ll end with this: the further I get into the field of counseling and psychology the more I realize the human condition is filled with pain and ugliness. The victory of the cross means that this is not the final word, but it does not negate that it is, in part, a very loud word. Instead of pretending that we are churches filled with people who have no wounds, we need to start the uncomfortable, painful process of looking deeper and opening up about where we came from and how we got here. Understandably, this is a difficult process because we are not always completely sure of what we will uncover. My hope is that we join together, with the promise of the Gospel that no darkness is too dark, no story too painful, and no person too far-gone for redemption.
As you may have noticed, these posts will now be longer since this newsletter now comes out monthly. I am hoping to invest more into research and bringing together newer material in order to provide you with a deeper and more relevant look at what it means to live authentically. Over the next few months I will be working on defining a ‘theology of emotions’ - why we have them, what purpose they serve, and how to acknowledge and use them.
As always, your feedback/questions/wrestlings are welcomed! I enjoy the dialogue that comes from challenging one another toward truth.