We can talk about essential relational brain skills and you can read about them…but what does it actually look like in real life when one or more are missing? How does it play out in the family dynamic?
The general rule of thumb is that when we are missing the brain skills for dealing with even one emotion, like anger or sadness, then we will avoid that emotion at all costs. Avoiding out of wisdom is one thing, but avoiding out of fear can be costly.
When we lack the brain skills to deal with one or more emotions, we will go through all sorts of contortions to avoid feeling those emotions. This includes contorting the truth and even putting others through serious hurt.
What is Needed — We have learned (consciously or unconsciously) that if we feel that emotion, we become lost, or stuck in it. We need to learn how to return to joy when there has been a rupture in our relationships where one or both people are not glad to be together. These brain skills are not something we can learn from a book or lecture. We learn this best through face to face interaction with others who have learned them.
Case Study — In this case a number of essential skills were missing in the matriarch of the family. She fit the profile of being narcissistic. We will look only at the essential relational brain skill of “return to joy from fear and sadness.” Because “Ruth” (fictional name), the matriarch, did not have the skill, none of her children learned it in childhood.
The impending death of the matriarch set off overwhelming fear of loss in one sibling. We will call her “Linda”. I don’t know which was the most painful for Linda, fear or sadness but the fear of loss combines both of them. Since Linda did not know how to find her way back to joy from fear or sadness, those emotions felt unsafe to her. She avoided feeling fear or sadness at all costs.
Anger is often the “go to” emotion to avoid fear—a person may know how to return to joy from anger, but not how to return from fear or sadness. Linda’s mind rescued her from the fear of loss by pulling out bits and pieces of the family history which she wove together with newly imagined “facts” to create a potential scenario which she “knows” to be truth.
She drew on the family dynamic of “Michelle” as the scapegoat of the family. Any family member who did not know how to process an emotional event would conveniently find Michelle and angrily blame her for something real or imagined. After the explosion the family member felt better (self-righteousness is a stronghold in the family line). However, the explosions left Michelle staggering under the load of blame, accusation and shame–even for things she did not do.
Michelle was eldest child, so as well as being the scapegoat, she also had the role of being the responsible one, the one everyone went to when they needed fixing. They were saying, in essence, “Come sister, grab my pain, grab our pain, come and make it better.” They were unconsciously using and abusing Michelle’s high sensitivity, her empathy or as we call it, burden bearing ability. Michelle did this for so long, it was as reflexive as breathing. She began asking the Lord to help her have boundaries for her sensitivity a number of years before her mother’s death.
Fear–As mother’s death approached, Linda’s mind put together the story that Michelle would come to the bedside of her dying mother and make a scene. She would insist the mother apologize for a laundry list of hurts and slights and demand the mother ask forgiveness for a multitude of sins, and break the mother’s heart. Linda spewed horror and outrage that Michelle could be so insensitive and unloving.
The payoff for Linda in creating an uproar was that she could feel justified in her anger and avoid seeing how she was using anger to avoid feeling fear and sadness from the anticipated loss of mother.
Taking Sides–All her life, Linda took sides and insisted that others take sides. She chose mother’s side and made her identity to be “the good daughter who takes care of mother.” When mother died, who would she be? Unfortunately, when she identified so closely with mother, she also picked up the narcissistic behaviors that mother modeled. The mother was capable of causing the most hurt, i.e. she was the most unsafe person in the family. Consciously or unconsciously, Linda found it “wise” to side with the strongest, most dangerous person.
When Mom died, Linda lost her most powerful ally. She felt vulnerable and fearful and attempted to fortify her position. She defaulted to anger to avoid feeling her fear and attempted to recruit everyone to her side leaving Michelle as “the bad guy.”
Michelle and Linda’s brother and Michelle’s son were normally close to Michelle so those alliances were threatening to Linda. She worked to draw both brother and nephew into her vortex. She filled them with her imaginary scenario and her outrage over what Michelle would do. Looking at things through Linda’s eyes, they became offended, outraged, and pulled away from Michelle–even refused to speak to her.
They also tended to avoid feeling fear and sadness and it never had been safe to disagree with Linda, especially when she was angry. It was much safer to be angry at Michelle. She would forgive you and you could find your way back to joy with Michelle, back to being glad to be together.
Take Away Lesson: Missing skills in one generation will have a ripple effect on the following generations within a family. Those who invest in learning these brain skills are investing in the health of their family and future generations.
Next week we will bring you the conclusion of this case study. We hope you will be able to use this and other case studies we write up to help identify the missing skills at the root of problems you encounter in your ministry.
May your joy be full,
Chris & Carol
Chris Coursey, MA Theology — Author, Speaker and Thrive Trainer, www.thrivetoday.org
Twitter – @coursey_chris
Carol Brown, Author of The Mystery of Spiritual Sensitivity and Highly Sensitive www.fromgodsheart.com
p.s. Last 2014 Thrive Training to learn these brain skills: