“Hey Joe – How ya doin’ – you doin’ good- right? Hi Nancy- You’re okay – uh?”
This was how the group leader greeted folks as they came into the Zoom room. I may have embarrassed him when I pointed out that since the topic of conversation was exhaustion, we didn’t need to start with the assumption that everyone was “okay.” In fact, I knew from the pre-session survey that the participants were not okay. Instead, they had named their feelings as “frustrated, annoyed, and disoriented.”
We are in a moment. We are emotionally worn out and many of us are willing to admit it. Now what? This blog is in two parts: this part focuses on a couple of biological and social realities that complicate our ability to say, “I’m not okay.” while Part 2 will demonstrate how we can build on this moment to help one another.
Before we start; a reminder that we don’t go into this uncomfortable place alone. In Romans 8:38 Paul reminds us that “neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” With that assurance, we enter the depths of this moment.
The dominant social culture in America is obsessed with positive thinking. Things are always either GREAT or going to get better. Barbara Ehrenreich almost exhausts this topic in her book, “Bright-sided; How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.” Corporate America rewards upbeat positive folks and holds downbeat folks back. Many believe that the Universe functions under the “Law of Attraction” which dictates that positive thoughts cause positive things to happen, while negative thoughts bring about negative outcomes. Many motivational speakers and self-help/personal growth books offer advice on how to purge negative thoughts, so they don’t become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Yet biology maintains that our brains respond more quickly to threats than to rewards. We were designed to watch out for Wooly Mammoths, Sabretooth Tigers, and anything else that might hurt us. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says that our brains are Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. It’s part of our survival instinct. Since positive experiences can’t kill you – there’s no need to remember much about them. Negative experiences get locked in.
The combination of these two realities left me wondering how we developed such a bright-sided social culture when biologically our brains’ natural bias is toward negativity. Is our positive outlook a reaction to our natural negativity? With that conundrum in mind, I asked several groups of church leaders to share what positive thinking as a reaction to a negative experience sounds like in their congregations. Most of what they relayed:
“It will be alright – this COVID scare is overrated – folks need to calm down.”
“Faith over fear.”
“No one I know has died – it’s just the flu – we need to get back to normal.”
“We are allowed to gather -- how come everyone isn’t back? Why are they still afraid?”
What these church leaders shared isn’t just positive thinking. There’s something else in the mix and it sounds a lot like one of our favorite defense mechanisms: denial. We know things are bad and we see threats everywhere, but we also consider that the situation might not be as bad as our brain is telling us. After all, we haven’t seen a Wooley mammoth or a saber-tooth tiger – EVER. Smaller tigers, some that turned out to be paper, but actual large tigers are extremely rare. We don’t want to live in fear, so we let denial defend us against our negative bias and calm ourselves with comforting, positive thoughts.
Perhaps our emotional math looks something like this: Negativity bias + Denial defense mechanism = Positive Thinking.
Not that denial isn’t an essential coping mechanism! If we didn’t use it all the horrible things that continually go on in our lives and around the world would paralyze us. But maybe we are overdoing it. Since defense mechanisms aren’t conscious choices, but intuitive reactions to experience, we need to consciously choose to listen and accept some bad news, rather than deny it. One way to start this process is to pay attention to what we are feeling.
Part 2 will expand on this idea of naming our emotions and asking questions that will take us into their depths. My work with Appreciative Inquiry has taught me to value stories and to pay attention to the words people use. Recent reading has encouraged me to be especially in tune with the emotions behind and within the words. Emotions have scale and energy and can be channeled to constructive outcomes but, more on that in part 2.
If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, these books may interest you:
Marc Brackett. 2022. “Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves and Our Society Thrive.” Celadon: New York.
Brene Brown. 2021. “Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience.” Random House: New York.
Barbara Ehrenreich. 2009. “Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.” Picador/Henry Holt: New York.
Leonard Mlodinow. 2022. “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking.” Pantheon: New York.
Bessel van der Kolk. 2014.“The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In the Healing of Trauma.” Penguin Books: New York.
If you would like to host a Finding Hope in Exhaustion conversation, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.