You Are Not a Victim, Overcome Your Situation – Spiritual Transcendence

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There was an interesting study done by a psychologist named Martin Seligman that explored the impact feeling helpless has on one’s sense of well-being.  Seligman took three groups of dogs and ran them through a set of experiments.  The first group was harnessed for a period of time and then released with nothing else done to them.  A second group was harnessed like the first group, however this group received an electric shock at random times which they could only stop by pressing a lever.  A third group was intentionally yoked to the second group so the shocks felt by the dogs in group two were also experienced by the dogs in group three.  The one difference between the two groups was the dogs in group three didn’t have access to a lever to stop the shocks from coming.  For all intensive purposes the dogs in group three had no control over their situation.

The second part of the experiment is probably the more interesting.  Seligman changed the situation to give all the dogs a chance to avoid being shocked.  He placed the dogs from group one, two, and three into a cage where one side was wired for shocks and the other was considered “safe”; a place where shocks could be avoided.  The dogs simply had to jump over the partition to the safe side to avoid being shocked.  The dogs from group one that were merely harnessed in the previous experiment immediately jumped over the partition to avoid being shocked.  The dogs from group two who in the previous experiment were able to escape from being shocked through the use of a lever did the same as group one in this experiment.  They had little trouble recognizing they had a way to avoid being shocked by simply jumping over the partition in their cage to the safe area.  What about the dogs who were yoked to the second group in the first experiment having no control over whether or not the shocking stopped?  Well, they did nothing.  They simply laid there taking shock after shock, abuse after abuse, demonstrating they felt no sense of empowerment to overcome their situation.

The experiment above and others like it demonstrate something interesting not just about dogs, but about us as well.  When we’re placed in a disempowering situation for a prolonged period of time we feel stuck.  We feel like we can’t do anything about our situation so we just lay there and take whatever is thrown at us.  This learned helplessness is something I frequently address with clients in therapy and in spiritual direction.  We easily buy into the lie we’re victims of our situation and can do nothing about it.  We’re like the dogs in Seligman’s third group who’ve simply found other people control whether or not we get shocked so we may as well just give up.  That’s a powerful lie that some people perpetuate just to keep us from being empowered.  Evil at its heart is a voice in our head constantly  saying, “Just lay down and take it, you can’t change your situation anyway.”
We can always change our situation.  We’re always in control of at least some factor in our environment, we just need to be creative enough to find it and use it for change.  God created us to transcend our situation in ways no other creature can!  To do so requires we ignore the evil lie keeping us from exercising that transcendent power.  If there’s any spiritual strength you need to be convinced of it’s that you are by the grace of God a person who doesn’t need to remain stuck in your current situation and can choose to do something to move forward and become the person you were intended to be.  You deserve to know love and to have the opportunity to share love with others.  If you’ve been in an environment too long telling you otherwise, change the environment.  I’ve often wondered what it’s like to see ourselves as God does instead of the way sin shapes our self-perception.  No matter how good we have it now we were created to be so much more.  Unfortunately many of us buy  into the spiritual lie that we have to be content with where we are, take abuse from others, and remain stuck in our current situation.  Grace is God’s answer to this skewed picture of life.  Grace says no matter how stuck you feel there’s a way out.  Grace says no matter how unloved you’ve been made to feel, there’s an ocean of love to receive.  Grace says no matter how marred and ugly you feel, there’s another who sees you for the beautiful person you are.  Don’t allow the sin in the world to leave you laying in that cage taking the shocks of evil over and over again.  Know that there is Grace in this life to encourage you to leap over that barrier and find the peace each of us deserves.  Love is powerful, just believe you’re worth it and allow that power to help you transcend whatever situation you find yourself in.

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Are You Running Away From Intimacy?

January 25, 2007. Madrid, Spain. The writer Jose Saramago during the presentation of his new book in spanish 'Las pequenas memorias' In the image, the wife and translator of Saramago, Pilar del Rio, holds the hand of the writer.

People run from intimacy.  Most of us don’t realize we’re doing it, but in a very unconscious way we all run from it.  Intimacy is scary because it requires us to love other people unconditionally and in a way requiring us to disclose the very person we are without any masks or fronts.  Love means being vulnerable and sharing some of the most personal and “naked” elements of our being with another person.  Too often we associate intimacy with sexual behavior.  While sexual behaviors are most powerful when we share an intimate relationship with the person we make love to, intimacy does not require sexual relationships.  In fact, sex can be one of the many ways we avoid intimacy.

We learn to run away from intimacy over a lifetime of hurt.  From the moment we’re born we’re reaching out to other people and sometimes they reject us and hurt us.  Most of the time they do it without intending to but sometimes, because people are people, they do it intentionally.  When we’re old enough to seek deeper relationships, we draw on our past experiences and therefore we hesitate to become intimate with others because of this pattern of rejection and indifference that’s ingrained in our subconscious mind.  In short, we develop mechanisms to keep us from being intimate with others in order to protect ourselves from the pain that comes with rejection.

There are a multitude or ways people avoid intimacy.  Some choose pornography or emotionless sex.  Some choose to drink themselves to the point of numbness, never completely drunk or stoned, but just numb enough to avoid connecting with other people on a deeper level.  Some people will talk a great deal without intention or purpose avoiding deeper matters making their conversation hover at a very shallow level.  As a therapist, I spend a great deal of time helping people recognize much of what they do is merely a coping mechanism which allows them to avoid intimacy.  They need to be aware of this emotional escapism because the truth is we were created to be intimate with each other and when we don’t do that we suffer and struggle to flourish.  We thrive on deep intimate friendships and without them, we cannot function well.

An interesting facet of intimacy avoidance is frequently found in spiritual and religious people.  People will claim a type of spirituality that draws them into themselves and proclaim it as a sort of “gift” in which they come to know the divine in a more profound way.  They avoid people and intimate relationships so they can spend time dwelling in the presence of God.  These hyper spiritual people have forgotten that the greatest way to know and love God is in service to other people; by fostering intimate relationships with other people.  Even more disturbing are those religious people who use moral laws and codes to avoid spending time with people who had or are considering an abortion, dealing with same sex attraction, or going through a divorce.  Instead of being intimately involved with these people they stand at arm’s length from them and dictate laws and moral precepts.  This speaks more about our fear of intimacy with other people than our moral righteousness.

Intimacy continues to be something we avoid.  Through smartphones, Facebook, religion, spirituality, and the myriad of human vices available to us we find ways to run away from intimacy.  However, the most fulfilling experience you can have is to intimately connect with God through other people.  I am convinced you can tell how deeply spiritual a person is based on how they treat other people.  If you can’t make yourself vulnerable to the love of other people you’ll never know the love God desires to share with you.  Don’t run from intimacy through the many human vices available, just find a way to love someone unconditionally.  You may find God more profoundly in that experience than from sitting in a great ancient cathedral separated from other worshipers by the empty distance buffering you from them.

Suffering and Being Present – How to Help Others Overcome Pain

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Struggles are tough.  Sometimes someone we love get sick or dies.  We might lose a job or experience a number of life’s disappointments.  We can be certain that pain, suffering, disappointment, divorce, accidents, and health issues will touch us at some point in this life.  In a sense, to live is to suffer, perhaps not always, but often suffering finds its way into our lives.

Different religions do different things with suffering.  Buddhism professes that suffering isn’t real.  They teach suffering is an illusion we experience because of an inordinate attachment to our self.  Through meditation and contemplation one can escape from the trap of suffering and transcend the cares of this life.  While I know Buddhism is a compassionate religion I often wonder what love looks like if one has no “self” to give to the “other” in the transcendent act of selflessness love requires.  There must be more to suffering than simply writing it off as an illusion.  In fact, for those who suffer (and we all will at some time) it’s a very real experience.  Our emotions have a real impact on our bodies.  We experience emotional suffering physically because our being is holistic; one consisting of body, mind, emotion, relationships, and spirit.  An experience in one part of our being impacts all the others.  This observation brings me to the main point of this short post.  How can we help someone we know who is suffering?  Over many years as a therapist and working in pastoral ministry I’ve found the answer tends to be the most difficult yet simplest thing we can do.

The best thing we can do for one another when suffering is send the clear message, “You’re not alone.”  Those words resonate with the human heart and speak volumes in those situations where nothing else is appropriate.  We believe we need to address the head of our suffering friends by helping them make meaning out of their suffering but the truth is, when we’re suffering it’s usually the heart that needs comforting first not the mind.  The difficulty with comforting the heart is the heart doesn’t speak the language of reason, it only understands the non-verbal experience of “presence.”

I have had the honor of sitting with men and women on their death bed, in their hospital rooms, or in a church pew who are experiencing a great deal of suffering.  While with them I didn’t reason through their painful situation trying to provide deep theological and psychological reasons for their pain.  I merely sat with them, cried with them, listen to them tell their story and let them know, “I hear you, your experience matters to me, and you are not alone.”

Never fall into the trap of believing you can give someone meaning in regards to their suffering.  They need to come to that place on their own.  Suffering is not an illusion, rather it’s a moment of redemption in which the human person comes to terms with the fallen and broken world in which we live recognizing “Things are not as they were meant to be.”  Be present with others and allow for that relationship to be a healing moment in which God makes himself know where “Two or three are gathered.”  The transcendent nature of relationships is a healing bond all on its own.  Be present to one another’s suffering and allow the Holy Spirit to do the healing.

Two Key Psychological Characteristics to Succeed in Anything

successYou hear a great deal in psychology about the ability to be resilient and its impact on living a healthy flourishing life.  Resilience is indeed a powerful asset, particularly when you combine it with a growth mindset.  If you want to be a successful person you need two important psychological characteristics.  First, you need to be growth minded and secondly, you need to be resilient.  If you’re a growth minded resilient person you can do most anything.  Let me enlighten you to why this is the case.

Having a growth mindset is important because it shapes your understanding of failure.  Carol Dweck, a prominent social psychologist at Stanford University has done a great deal of research on what makes some people more successful than others.  There’s a great ted talk she did on the power of believing you can watch here if you like.  The basic idea of her theory is there are two ways we process failure.  The first way of processing failure is referred to as having a fixed mindset.  Someone with a fixed mindset tends to see failure as a judgement about who they are.  If they fail a test that failure isn’t just a judgement about how well they learned the material, it’s a judgement about who they are.  People become fixed mindset oriented because over the course of their life they’ve been told “you’re really smart”, or “You’re a great musician” which psychologically links one’s self-identification with achievement.  Who they are is affirmed by what they do.  If they fail at anything that failure is experienced as a loss of part of themselves, not just an assessment of their ability.

People with a growth mindset view failure in a completely different way.  When they fail they want to know how to do things differently the next time they try to accomplish their goals.  For them failure is one step in learning to do something better.  It’s only one point of data in a lifetime of becoming accomplished at some task.  Sure, they don’t like failing, but they don’t experience failure as a statement about who they are.  Failure is only an assessment of how well they performed something and a potential key to performing it better.  People with a growth mindset have generally been complimented on their work effort.  They’ve been told the work and effort they put into things makes a difference in their performance.  It’s not that these people work harder than those with a fixed mindset, rather they’ve been assured the reason they’re successful isn’t because of who they are but rather how hard they work.  For them, failure isn’t a judgement about who they are but rather the work they’ve done.  Growth mindset people understand failure simply means they need to adjust how and what they do, not become something other than who they are!  If you want to be successful become someone with a growth mindset who recognizes failure is nothing more than a hint on how to do things better the next time.  If you see failure as a step towards success you’re less likely to give up.  Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Fixed mindset people are afraid to try “one more time” because that might be one more time they hear how they’re a failure.  Growth mindset people try “one more time” because it helps them adjust their strategy and get one step closer to succeeding!

Along with a growth mindset, resilience is a key characteristic of successful people.  If you want to be able to get past the adversity of failure you need to be resilient.  Resilience is the process one uses to adapt to and overcome adversity, trauma, tragedy, and any other stressful life event.  Failure is stressful even for growth mindset people.  Resilience isn’t something you’re born with it’s something you develop.  You develop resilience through strong relationships that provide you with a solid emotional support base.  You need to avoid seeing failure as catastrophic, accept that change is a part of life that should be embraced, as well as view life as an opportunity for self-discovery and growth.  Resilient people keep things in perspective, maintain a hopeful outlook on life, and take decisive action.  In short, resilient people are solution focused people not problem focused people.  While life involves pain and suffering, pain and suffering are opportunities to learn, grow, and develop into better people.

So, do you want to be successful in whatever you do?  First, become growth mindset oriented and see every failure as merely an assessment on what you did as well as an opportunity to do something differently.  Secondly, become resilient.  Don’t give up; go after your goal again drawing on the people who make up your support system for help.  Take what you learned about yourself when you failed and apply that knowledge to succeed the next time.  Don’t turn your failure into some big scary monster, look at it realistically and with a solution focused orientation.  Resilience keeps you rebounding and a growth mindset keeps you in the race.  If you can develop these two psychological characteristics you’re on your way to being a successful, flourishing human being.  Try it today.  Set your goal and go after it with passion, resilience, and a growth mindset and see what you can accomplish!