Pathways to change
Somewhere during my journey to becoming a Christian counselor, I was told of an old minister who approached all counseling with: Let’s figure out which of the Ten Commandments you’re breaking and then-- stop doing it.” I don’t doubt that’s effective diagnosis and treatment for some people. Yet we all have two centers of gravity or motivation battling within us—our transcendent spirit and our creaturely self which is affected by our physical and emotional needs. (Read Galatians 5) In counseling we may need to figure out which “acts/works of the flesh” you’re caught up in, renounce the hold those ways of doing life have on you, and seek instead the fruits of the spirit. That redirection is the heart of progressive sanctification, “putting on the mind of Christ”, being “transformed by the renewal of our minds”. It’s a process of the spiritual God-centered and God-connected core of our nature taking the lead over the creaturely excessively self-centered part of our nature.
It would be great if we could just identify the commandment and stop breaking it, like the old pastor advised. It would be equally great if we could just identify which “works/acts of the flesh” we indulge in and walk away from them.
There are many straightforward spiritual approaches to eliminating traits in ourselves once recognize them as ungodly, stop shifting the focus to “the other person’s offenses” and choose to “remove the log in our own eye.” One of them looks like this:
React (notice this ungodly reaction when something happens)
Restrain (your reaction to it)
Repent / Renounce (that reaction as ungodly)
Release (the situation that prompted it –to God)
Refocus (on a spiritual fruit God is growing in you)
I encourage you to identify an “act/work of the flesh” you know in your soul God wants you to eliminate and seek His help by practicing this approach.
If you find you’re not getting very far and you’re convinced God doesn’t want you to keep giving in to that ungodly way of being, you might wonder what ore you can do to loosen its hold on you. In my work with clients I speak two languages: the language of scripture and Christian tradition and the language of psychology (which has many dialects!). Because we have those two competing centers of gravity or motivation within us—transcendent spirit and biological creature—it helps to speak the language of both.
There’s an approach based in Cognitive Behavioral Theory and Therapy that might help. CBT starts with recognizing the “ABC” at work in a particular feature of our personality, a triangle with 3 points:
· Activating event. Followed by a
· Belief or beliefs about that event, and those beliefs have
· Consequences: emotions and/or actions
CBT says that if you find the consequences --the emotions or the actions/behaviors – unhelpful in your life and relationships and want to change them, the best way is to challenge and change the “automatic thoughts” that come right after an unwanted event. If you’ve identified “a log in your own eye” you want to get rid of, let your conversation with God about it happen in the form of a journal in which you note the times that particular negative consequence happens—that flare-up of emotion you seem stuck with and/or those behaviors you know God wants you to get rid of.
CBT’s Seven Step Dysfunctional Thought Record that can help you with this. I can promise you this process will be most effective if you invite God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit to be right there beside you, keeping you honest, especially with steps 5 and 6! Some people like to make a chart; others don’t bother with that.
Here are the 7 things to identify:
2-Feelings/emotions (rate 0-100) (also body sensations)
4-Facts that support the unhelpful thought
5-Facts that provide evidence against the unhelpful thought
6-Alternative, more realistic and balanced perspective
7-Outcome (re-rate emotion)
I know this looks time-consuming and it is. Tackling the habits of a lifetime isn’t quick and easy. It’s work. You have to ask yourself if you truly want to cooperate with God in this project of becoming who He wants you to be—or not.
Here’s a link to the 7 column DTR in chart form, including many useful questions to help you with it!
If your unwanted reactions still retain their grip on you in spite of your sincere efforts by these two approaches , you may be in the situation Paul describes in Roman’s 7:21ff “For I delight in law of God in my inmost self (ie, my soul has made this commitment to get rid of this bad fruit) but I see in my members another law, at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” In other words, some part of your will is holding out against these efforts of your soul. You haven’t yet been able to bring this deeper rebellious part of yourself to the Lord, either because you didn’t even know the Lord when you were the age that way of being took shape in you or because that part of self, that “way of being you”, simply refuses to give it up for what it believes to be very good reasons.
“Wretched embattled person that I am, who can save me from this mess?” asks Paul. The One who created you in your mother’s womb (ps 139) and was around when those engrained ways of thinking, feeling, and acting came into being in your personality. God through Christ and the Holy Spirit is truth and light that can penetrate the tangled mess and clear a pathway out. And sometimes He/They use instruments like therapists.
There are dozens of ego state theories and therapies and my approach uses a ideas from several of them, all with the goal of pealing back the layers to get to the wounds (often in early family relationships) and the coping strategies you developed to cope with those difficulties as best you could at the time. In 1 Cor 13: 11 Paul recognizes we all have ways of speaking, thinking, reasoning and acting in childhood that we need to leave behind as we become adults. Ego state approaches can help us do that.
Overly simplified for our purpose here, let’s just say that we all develop our engrained habits of thinking, feeling and acting in the context of specific times and places, among specific people and life circumstances. If we are wounded by people and circumstances, we tend to develop ways of protecting ourselves as best we can at the time. Picture a piece of shrapnel from an explosion that went deep and got covered over but lies there developing infection. Even a splinter can do that, right? We do things to avoid pressure on it and we react strongly when it gets hit. With emotional/psychological wounds, we develop ways of protecting ourselves, forms of either laying low and escaping or of fighting back. These experiences send down deep roots and give rise to habitual ways of thinking and feeling that shape behaviors. Sound familiar?
A lot of that chatter that goes on in your head is the automatic thoughts rising up from members of an internal “cast of characters” you’ve accumulated as life has gone along, spokespeople for the patterns of thinking and feeling. (Hear echoes of Paul?) Some of them are like movies or holographic files your brain made of significant people in your life—positive and negative ones—and if you think about it, you’ll notice they sound like those people and when the recordings play, you feel like you did in their presence back then. Other cast members are more like “younger you’s”, ie. habitual ways of thinking, feeling and acting in relation to those people. And yet other cast members are the automatic thoughts, feelings and behaviors you developed to cope; these cast members may look like younger versions of you or may look like other people the younger you imitated to solve the problems you faced back then. Or, as time passed, the escaping parts or protecting parts picked up other behaviors from other sources. I have a Russian nesting doll in which each layer is painted a different character (rather than the more typical style of all looking identical except for being smaller) This demonstrates there can be many different presentations of the original and continuing agenda of escaping or protecting the escapee.
Often, if you haven’t been able to release what you’ve told God you want to be rid of, it’s because roots in these wounded or protector habits go deep and hang on, feeding the negative thoughts and arguing against your acceptance of the more acceptable, more balanced thoughts. It helps to think of these as apps you created many years ago that haven’t been updated with new information about you, your capabilities, etc and so you keep handling the people in your life now as if they were the people back then and you were the you from back then. Think of these parts of self as younger editions of you that remain essentially trapped in the past. So take that DTR journal out and let’s take it in some slightly different directions.
After identifying the trigger, emotion, and thoughts, ask yourself: how old did I feel? Did the emotions seem at all out of proportion to the triggering incident? And did the thoughts and images that came up “resurrect” people from other times and places in your life by any chance? Do you recognize any of the emotions as “belonging to” those other times and circumstances?
And after identifying the facts against, and the more balanced perspective, concerning the here and now, ask yourself “what will I loose or what bad thing will happen if I accept this more balanced perspective about the here and now?”
You may notice that releasing that old way of reacting leaves you feeling vulnerable, wide open to being wounded again in ways you think are intolerable or unacceptable. If this happens, you’ve identified that the automatic thoughts are part of a Protector app you created long ago and that some part of you still feels you need it. (Remember to think of these as members of your internal cast of characters whose scripts were written long ago amidst identifiable family of origin and life circumstances).
If your best spiritual efforts so far to repent, release and refocus on cultivating a better fruit haven’t worked, and your efforts to discipline your thoughts to be more realistic and balanced hasn’t worked either, consider the possibility you have parts of self rebelling against the idea that God’s way of love is the better way for you now, in adulthood. These engrained points of view are like cast members who have been living in little off-stage rooms of your mind, getting no new information and just sticking to their scripts when triggered by life events (or even just by memories). Wounded, vulnerable parts of self likely think/feel it’s not smart or safe to give up the “fleshly” way of being which has been an escape of some sort. Protector cast members (ways of thinking/feeling/being) likely view the “flesh-oriented” way of being as still necessary; your goal of responding in a more God-designed way seems pointless, naïve and/or foolhardy in comparison.
Staying with these images, there are ways that sometimes work for getting into those off-stage rooms where parts are just waiting to be triggered and react in their very predictable ways. The approaches I use operate on several decades of evidence that the brain stores experiences differently when we feel unsafe than when our nervous system is feeling calm. Overly-simplified, our wounded, vulnerable cast members are memory networks charged with fear energy or pre-emptive escape energy and our protector cast members are memory networks charged with anger or pre-emptive attack energy. Either way, the repetitive core beliefs that pop up so very often in your life emanate from the off-stage rooms where these parts of self hang out.
Letting in the truth that God really does offer a better way begins by identifying the primary core negative belief that automatically popped up when the event happened and the primary emotion that went with it and what sensations are experienced in the body (sound familiar?). Reprocessing old memories trapped in our nervous system files via EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is based in decades of evidence that the right and left hemispheres of the brain handle things differently and that alternating stimulation to the right and left sides of the body (by right-left sounds, visuals, or tapping) somehow lets information flow more freely between memory networks. Why EMDR works is still largely a mystery, but it can do wonders for getting unstuck from archaic thought processes held rigidly in place by old emotions and old data.
So if you think you want with your whole heart to give up that unattractive and/or damaging feature of your life and haven’t been able to do so even with the first two approaches, you might benefit from EMDR. Here’s a link to a brief YouTube explanation of EMDR, created by the official website:
Remember that with God, all things are possible. And if you want with your whole heart to renounce a way of being you that’s ungodly, God will help you do it.