Last fall, I was part of a group supervisory session with a counselor who does a lot of work at City Church. For two days, those of us who do some form of counseling ministry at City Church did group work with Lottie Hillard, a counselor who teaches at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. In the course of helping us process our stories, a continuum emerged that I had not thought of before.
As each of us took our turn, this continuum became more obvious. Some have a tendency to deny their pain, while others tend to wallow in it. Neither response is healthy. Here’s what it looks like:I think where one resides on the continuum depends on another continuum, the dimension of thinker versus feeler in the Myers Briggs Personality Style (here is a post on the Myers Briggs if you are not familiar). Thinkers process things logically, and make decisions that way. Feelers process things emotionally, and make decisions based on their impact on people.
On that scale, I am way over on the thinking side. There is hardly a feeler bone in my body. My tendency is to deny pain, to stuff it and move on. I’ve gone through significant drama in my life, and most true learning seems to involve some degree of pain for me. My old VP of Sales used to say, in a self-deprecating manner, about his own challenges, “if you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.” That always resonated with me, because I can see how I had significant role in causing much of my pain.
Often in my early career, things would blow up at work because I was making decisions logically and did not see the impact on the people. I would be blindsided when people reacted poorly to logical decisions. My reaction to the pain was to gut it out. Push through and then reflect on what happened. Finally, I learned to appreciate personality style, and after that, I depended on the feelers on our team to give me a heads up when I was about to do some logical, but dumb thing.
As I hit the wall on my Lutheran church project (details in the book), I encountered a lot of disappointment, some betrayal, and numerous messages devaluing my leadership and gifts. I kept stuffing this pain for five years. Then, just as the milestone we had all waited years to see happened, I was hitting the wall. I had a heart condition show up, blew out a knee, went down in the back, and had two impacted teeth all at the time I should have been celebrating.
What followed was a time in the spiritual desert, as my health failed, the project foundered, and I was a train wreck. At that time, I started therapy with an old friend who had gone back to get his Psychology PhD and was beginning counseling work. He told me, in an early session, “Gregg, you are mentally a very sophisticated thinker, and spiritually very mature. You don’t allow yourself to feel anger, bitterness and pain coming from these situations. You are stuffing your emotions, and they lodge in your gut until they express themselves in stress-related illness. You need to start processing your emotions. You are still holding stuff in from the business failure a decade ago. You need to find ways to bring those emotions up from your gut into your heart, so you can process them and let them go.”
When I got off the phone, I told Genie that I needed to start “processing my emotions.” My wife of nearly 40 years said, “I wonder what that would look like.” Might we be seeing a pattern emerge?
Indeed I was denying my pain, not allowing myself to feel such things, trying too hard to ‘turn the other cheek’ and act like a Christian. And, I nearly destroyed my health in doing so. I had a month to think and pray about this while I lay on my back in pain, trying to regain mobility a couple of years ago when my back crashed. I realized the depth of damage I had done to myself by residing at the ‘denial’ end of this continuum. My ENTJ Myers Briggs style is very future oriented. So, I am constantly moving on from today and looking to tomorrow. Unfortunately, I needed to process some of the things in my past and present in able to move forward to a healthy future.
Myers Briggs feelers, on the other hand, are more focused on the present and past then the future. I suspect that their focus on emotions rather than logic creates a tendency to live at the other end of the continuum, where one can wallow in pain. If your orientation is towards having harmonious relationships as a feeler, and are also oriented towards the past, letting go of hurts can be difficult. My wife is as much of a feeler as I am a thinker, and when a deep wound is inflicted in relationship, it does not heal easily or quickly.
Sometimes people react to the painful circumstances in their lives by becoming a victim. As bad things happen, they pile up and seem like they are overpowering. A sense of helplessness emerges. I think that condition may reflect what happens when we wallow in our pain. It is hard to process learning when the pain is bad. I often have to put some distance between myself and deep pain to see what God was saying to me through the experience.
If you can’t move on from the pain, seeing the lesson and gaining the wisdom God offers might be difficult. So, I can see how Lottie could describe both ends of this continuum being unhealthy. I am working consciously to process my emotions and not deny my pain going forward. I’m trying to move towards the middle of the continuum.
I pray that you will deal with your pain, not deny it, or wallow in it, so God can help you move to a healthier place where you can learn the life lessons that will help you not repeat the pain over and over again. You see, we sometimes have structures in our lives that repeat in unhealthy ways. I think this continuum can help us break out of unhealthy cycles of life. May it be so with you.