In the last blog, I talked about what it looks like in real life when one or more essential relational brain skills are missing and how that played out in one family. I described the rule of thumb that when our brain does not have the skill of returning to joy from one or more emotions, then we will do almost anything to avoid that feeling.
Michelle was a highly sensitive burden bearer, who had been made the family scapegoat. There are three ironies in making her the scapegoat.
Irony One: Michelle who was accused of intending to be harsh to her dying mother, was the family scapegoat precisely because she was the most tender hearted in her family of origin. Michelle’s heart was very tender. Being highly sensitive, she was actually the safest family member. She would cause the least amount of pain because when she did inflict pain, she felt it and sooner or later that caused her to stop. Increasingly, she learned to trust Jesus and worked to use her sensitivity to avoid inflicting pain in the first place. Some evidence of Michelle being the safest one in her family was that when family members could not avoid feeling hurt, they went to Michelle and confided in her.
Irony Two: Michelle was angrily accused of being mean but she was the main person, aside from the father, who helped her family learn the way back to joy from anger. He also kept the mother’s alcoholism under control.
You see, the one who was the kindest, the one who worked the hardest to make things better, the one who was the most apt to forgive made it possible for angry siblings to become less angry, calm down, and even return to being glad to be together. Things may not have been allowed to be talked through to resolution, yet Michelle’s ability to be a sponge and absorb without always dishing back in kind, made it possible for emotions to settle down.
If Michelle was as mean to others as they were to her, they would never have learned a way out of anger. If Michelle was as angry and mean as the accuser said, none of them would have ever learned a way out of anger. It was her kindness and her sensitivity that found a way to forgive and be glad to be together again.
Irony Three: Michelle’s love was characterized as meanness. She loved people, including her family even more than she loved the comfort of their alliance. Linda, who characterized herself as loving actually loved the comfort she gained from having Mom as an ally more than she loved Mom.
You can see this dynamic in Jesus with the rich ruler in Luke 18:18. Jesus loved the rich young ruler and he loved him enough to caringly confront that man with his need to sell all he had so he could own things instead of things owning him. If Jesus had loved being admired by the man more than he loved the man, he would have been “nice” and enabled the man to stay in denial rather than say anything that would upset him. Even a loving correction can hurt like a wound. The truth is that Jesus loved the man enough to risk losing him and sure enough when Jesus told him the truth with love, the man walked away. He walked away sad rather than angry, but still he walked away. The Bible calls what Jesus did “an open rebuke”, a wound that “can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:5-6). There are times and places to do that with love.
Let me say it again with the brain skill. If someone’s brain doesn’t know the way back to joy from sadness or fear, then they cannot make a loving open rebuke—a faithful correction. They could still make a correction from their anger, but that will be for self or from being out of control. It wouldn’t be for the sake of the other. If someone’s brain knows the way back to joy from sadness or fear, then they can risk losing the relationship for a time or even risk losing it permanently. They can risk giving a loving correction and risk being seen and talked about as being a mean person because they love the other person even more than they love the comfort that comes from the relationship, like Jesus.
Michelle would have loved for her mother to reconcile and acknowledge the harm caused by her narcissism. There was a long list of hurtful actions that the mother had not acknowledged. However, Michelle knew that her mother was probably incapable of apologizing for what she had done. It would have had to be a miracle from God. She would NEVER demand her mother’s acknowledgement—especially when she was weak and dying.
Michelle’s heart was to be loving, to make the mother’s passing as peaceful as possible. “Linda’s” story was a figment of her imagination—a way to distract and avoid the painful emotion of fear and the sadness of loss. She ran from these feelings to a familiar sanctuary (anger) because anger made her feel powerful. Fear made her feel powerless but anger made her feel powerful.
Like every person actively serving God, Michelle was a work in progress. She gave credit to God for continuing to renew her mind, for her husband’s love and support. She was involved in a small group whose members possessed these brain skills to varying degrees, though none felt they had arrived. She learned about burden bearing and through her group learned a larger understanding of the dynamic of being the family scapegoat. That alone was profoundly healing. The Lord used Jim Wilder’s ministry to give understanding of the importance of learning how to return to joy from painful emotions . She was learning the healing power of truth with love.
Take Away Lesson: It takes time to build new connections in the brain and it takes time for the heart to heal from old hurts when ongoing behaviors create more wounds. But it is possible and vitally important to learn brain skills that were missing in the family dynamic. Learning the skills makes it possible to stop the hurtful patterns from repeating in successive generations.
May your joy be full,
Chris & Carol
Chris Coursey, MA Theology — Author, Speaker and Thrive Trainer, www.thrivetoday.org
Twitter – @coursey_chris
p.s. Last 2014 Thrive Training to learn these brain skills: