I am an educated white clergyman of European descent (half Hungarian with some Transylvanian and Irish thrown in). When I grew up, we didn’t talk at all about feelings in our family, and the patterns of emotional expression were pretty set. For example, my dad was the only one allowed to express anger, even though we all felt angry at times. I remember feeling angry and occasionally expressing my anger and being told in no uncertain terms that it was not okay to be angry. So when I couldn’t be angry, I expressed sadness instead. It didn’t work! Instead of getting some recognition for what I perceived to be a wrong done to me or an injustice I had observed, I was asked, “What are you sad about?” I had no answer. I knew I wasn’t sad, and I also knew I couldn’t say I was angry.
To complicate things as I grew older, I was getting messages from other boys, from TV, and from relatives that “big boys don’t cry.” Pretty soon I found it easier not to express any emotions, except maybe to be mildly content or peaceful—whether I really felt that way or not.
Only much later did I realize I wasn’t alone. As I have conducted classes, retreats, and workshops about the role of emotions in our individual and congregational lives, many people have reported families of origin similar to mine. The types of emotions that were expressly forbidden, or passively allowed, may have varied. The common thread was that most people reported they were patterned or socialized into believing that only some emotions were okay to have or to express.
The messages they received about permissible and forbidden emotional expressions were sometimes overt and sometimes transmitted only by inference. With reflection, people could name the emotional expressions that were rewarded and those that were ignored, discouraged, or punished. With guidance and encouragement they could also uncover and bring to consciousness the feelings they learned to substitute for those that they were told were unacceptable. And like me, people realized that the emotions they had learned to substitute, for survival purposes, didn’t really get them what they needed or wanted. They bought time or brought temporary peace, but always at the cost of being authentic and expressing what felt real and true. We have emotions because we need them. They give us messages about what is happening within us and around us—messages that help us navigate life and make important decisions.
One assumption I, along with a number of theorists, make is that babies naturally express feelings congruent with the stimulus that evokes them. Generally, young infants are startled or frightened when they hear a loud noise. They are angry when their expectation to be fed or have a diaper changed is not met. They are sad when left alone too long or when a comforting parent puts them down. And their parents are generally pretty good at distinguishing the difference between the expressions of these emotions.
Observing this natural congruency is important, because it allows us to see how our emotional software is meant to function when substitution has not tinkered with the stimulus response dynamic. Unfortunately, for many of us, our emotional software was infected early on with viruses that distorted the way we respond to natural stimuli. Most of us, at a very early age, learned to substitute an acceptable feeling for one that was not allowed or valued in our family of origin. Though we may have felt at the time that we had little choice in the substitution, we probably paid a price for not expressing a more authentic feeling—for not showing up as fully as we may have wished. The significant, ongoing cost for us is the unreflective, learned pattern and its lack of usefulness as we grow older.
Fortunately, because patterns of permission, denial, and substitution are a matter of early familial and social conditioning—they were taught or caught—they can be unlearned. As adults we can unlearn these patterned responses and choose to reconnect to our feelings in ways that are more congruent with the realities we experience. When we feel a violation of our boundaries or a major thwarting of our expectations, we can express anger about the situation, rather than substitute sadness, if that is the pattern we learned as children. That is, we can reprogram our emotional software!
I believe God created us as affectively competent beings. The original emotional software that came with our neurological wiring was meant to help us understand our world and to give appropriate signals to people around us about what we are experiencing so that they can choose how to respond. Developing the capacity to notice and read our feelings increases the chances that we will know what we need or want. As we express our feelings more clearly, other people are more likely to respond in ways that are helpful to us, thus enhancing our relationships and the work we might engage together.
In the final analysis, individuals and communities are most healthy, vibrant, and engaging when they have a balance of cognitive, affective, and behavioral competencies—that is, when they are thinking, feeling, and doing things intentionally, transparently, and effectively. The balance is important. All our cognitive, affective, and behavioral capacities are God-given and meant for our own welfare and for the benefit of our human communities, as well as all living beings.
Our life in community would be enriched if we and those around us were as emotionally competent as we are intellectually capable and behaviorally skilled. My dream is that congregations will become learning centers for affective competence. I can even imagine that if they became training centers within their communities for those who long to live enriched affective lives, they might have a vibrant and viable mission in the world at a time when many congregations question why they exist or what they have to contribute.
Adapted from Facing Feelings in Faith Communities by William M. Kondrath, copyright© 2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Facing Feelings in Faith Communities
by William M. Kondrath
Facing Feelings in Faith Communities is based on a simple premise: We have emotions because we need them. God created us as affectively competent beings, William Kondrath argues, to help us understand our world and to give appropriate signals to people around us about what we are experiencing. When we express our feelings clearly, other people can more easily respond in ways that are helpful to us, thus enhancing our relationships and the work we might do together. Kondrath invites us to explore six feelings—fear, anger, sadness, peace, power, and joy—through poetry, meditation on an evocative drawing, as well as through his own analysis of each feeling.
Congregational Effectiveness – Leadership – Professional Development
Now is the time to register for the Alban fall learning event that meets your particular need.
Dealing with Difficult Behavior (a repeat of the February, 2013 event)
September 17-19, 2013, Scottsdale, AZ
Leader: Susan Nienaber, Alban senior consultant
Stepping up to Staffing and Supervision (a repeat of the March, 2013 event)
October 1-3, 2013, Phoenix, AZ
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant
Inside the Large Congregation
October 29-31, 2013, Scottsdale, AZ
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant
Motivating and Equipping Leaders and Volunteers: Understanding Personality Types in Your Congregation
November 12-14, 2013, West Hartford, CT
Leader: Linda Rich, Alban consultant