13. GRIEF AND ANXIETY: HOW THEY REFORMAT OUR LEADERSHIP
Have you ever had a trusted friend betray you?
Have you ever had a dream goal that never came to fruition?
Have you ever felt that at any moment everything is going to come crashing down?
Have you ever had ALL of the above happen in close proximity of time?
If so, you have experienced grief! And grief reformats our brain functions from the collections of “loss stories” that spread across our lifetimes.
Grief is what we emotionally experience when we have a deep yearning for someone or something, fused with a heightened frustration, knowing it is unlikely or absolutely impossible to happen.
Grief doesn’t exist in isolation; grief loves to partner with anxiety. While grief focuses emotions to our past losses, chronic anxiety leverages grief memories for predicting the future. Grief and anxiety work hand in hand. It isn’t until we understand grief processing, and grief’s relationship to anxiety, will we be able to move our leadership healthfully into the future.
When we aggregate all our painful, grievous experiences compiled together, our brain builds a “grief profile”. This grief profile is a battery containing emotional energy to predict, map out and react to any future perceived threat. Sometimes these threats are merely imaginary, yet are tormenting none the less. Sometimes these threats are real, but the exaggerations create emotional intensity that is hard to throttle back. And in turn, grief intoxicates our leadership experiences with anxiety.
We become emotionally flooded when feedback is given.
We fantasize grandiose success to escape our fears of being average, or less than average.
We try to control teammates, or outcomes, exhausting and invalidating those we lead.
We avoid people we lead, avoiding bonds that build trust, to protect ourselves from rejection.
We sidestep holding others accountable or giving feedback, because we hold onto past stories of teammates feeling hurt by our presentation.
We shut down when the vision goals aren’t met, emotionally numbing for the next season.
We say we want innovations from our teammates, but we are fearful they will create more problems by their trial and error, so we dampen their energy.
We manage activities rather than developing people, because we assess that activities can be controlled, while people are painful.
We can’t experience past griefs without them energizing how we process and emote for the future, altering how we manage our vision goals, our teams and ultimately our organizations.
Grief includes, but is not limited to: the normal experiences of the loss of a loved one to death, divorce or distance. Grief is not just a feeling that we feel in our present moment after loss. Our brains build grief memory banks and predictive themes, networking with other parts of the brain to prevent future losses and suffering.
Grief is like file folders holding multiple documents. Each document within the folder represents individual losses. Each loss evolves into clusters of unresolved griefs, from childhood to today. Each file is produced from each of our relational injuries, parental neglect, abuses, natural disasters, accidents, disappointed dreams, and more.
GRIEF AND THE “NEED” TO ACHIEVE
As leaders we often “need” to achieve goals. There is a difference in “wanting” or “desiring” the goal to be achieved, and emotionally “needing” to achieve the goal. When we “need” the goal achievement for emotional regulation, this driver is energized from our grief profile. Our past griefs fuse with anxiety for the future. This neurochemical cocktail drives us to chase something in hopes of masking our identity, the emotional way we see and relate to Self. This is because our past losses, sorrows and sufferings have filled up our brain’s memory folders with grief files, then charged up our grief batteries, electrifying and driving us to secure our hope for survival and belonging.
Many leaders think they are just visionaries. They think they are big dreamers. They may assess themselves as simply being a big personality, with big energy and influence. Yet many leaders have never slowed down, or done the work of x-raying their brains for historical markers, and the grief/anxiety drivers that have made them who they are.
Leaders may not realize the dream goal isn’t about freedom to do what God has called them into, the simple joy of partnering and exploring opportunities with God. The dreams are often driven by griefs that have wounded their sense of Self. Success is their false hope for finally being able to feel good about themselves. Success then is escaping the anxiety of failure.
When we lead without knowing our histories contribution to our vision, performance and personality, we build with massive assumptions. We assume our dream is God’s dream. We assume our “needs” are God’s “needs.” We even see our “giftings” as purely divine. Yet often what is a more credible reality is that our giftings are a combination of divine impartations along with God’s redeeming work, as He molds our past griefs, losses and traumas into a meaningful resume. We often never stop to notice the relationship of grief and anxiety to our leadership processes.
When we don’t assess for our grief and anxiety templates, we are set up for leadership disorders. Maybe we become narcissistic, authoritarian, critical or distant. Maybe we become manic-depressive, alienating friends and colleagues. Maybe we build organizations that idealize our executives, due to their big personalities and sense of confident power.
The bottom line, when we don’t know our own stories, there will be unforeseen consequences. We will lead with a limp, and our teams will reorganize to accommodate and replicate our limp.
When we don’t know our own back stories, we won’t know what drives our wack stories.
DIMINISHING OUR OWN STORIES
Having worked with many leaders over the years, it is common to hear people sincerely believe that their back stories are not very significant. “I had a great family growing up,” they say. Or “I’ve never had any tragic issue happen to me.” Or “I don’t know why I have anxiety like I do, and the compulsive problems I do, because I had it pretty good my whole life.”
Comparison compels us to see other people who had alcoholic parents, accosting siblings, have had sexual abuse, repeated verbal assaults and humiliation, as “worthy” of grief and anxiety. This seems to make us think that our own griefs of “lessor significance” are really of “no significance.” In other words, comparison reframes our own grief experiences as being unqualified, or unworthy, of being legitimized because our stories aren’t qualitatively what someone else’s is.
It is important to know that our brains don’t have the capacity to compare first, then validate permission to grieve. Our brains simply feel deeply our losses, even when they are qualitatively different than others. Sometimes we subconsciously assume that if we compare our grief stories to other’s stories that it will dilute the grief in our own stories. However, comparing never does a good job of diffusing the grief energy that drives us. Our brains simply know that stories of unattended nurture, negligence, perpetration, and even abuse have created pain circuits that today predict probable threats for future griefs.
HEALTHY GRIEF AS A GIFT FROM GOD
Healthy grief is a gift from God. While God is never the cause of our grief, He knew that we would encounter traumatic experiences. Healthy grief is intended to be a metabolizing tool to help us deal with losses and trauma. This is why the Bible teaches us to mourn with those that mourn. This is why Jesus wants us to feel his heart towards us, as he is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Grief is a process-tool to help us move through a “system” of recovery and reprocessing.
Unfortunately, many people get stuck without processing through grief. When we process grief healthfully, we move toward recovery and growth. The reason why we get stuck is that grief can only be healthfully processed by leaning into it, properly feeling it and exploring its meaning. Our instincts protest this. To lean into this, to explore and to properly validate the feelings of grief seems threatening to us so the process is counter intuitive. Our typical, subconscious strategy is to resist, repress or suppress the surfacing feelings of grief. Sometimes we speed up our lives to escape the feelings. Sometimes we numb out to not feel grief. Or sometimes we engage self-medicating activities to avoid facing it.
Again, our subconscious instincts will typically protest and suppress feelings of grief. We tend to want to avoid feelings of grief at all costs. As an illustration, when we cry, we express, “I’m so sorry I’m crying.” However, we never stop to ask ourselves why we are sorry for crying. Is crying bad? Is it evil? Is it one of the deadly sins? No. Reality is that we are experiencing a grief protest. Our inner world is objecting even having grief. When we grieve we emotionally feel out of control. And when we don’t feel we have control, we engage circuits of panic. We aren’t sorry for crying; we are sorry for the vulnerability and anxiety we feel when we feel we are completely out of control.
GRIEF AND PANIC
Many people don’t realize that our brains are pre-wired to protest grief-experiencing. Grief fires up survival networks that flood our heads with panic. This experience is fundamentally about survival. It is instinctual. In other words, it happens long before our rational brain can register it. And when the brain’s emotional networks flood, it slows down blood flow to the rational brain, making us feel an elevated threat of helplessness, being out of control, and electrified with panic. 8:05
As a leader, what exactly do we fear? We fear loss! We fear loss of control. Loss of opportunity. Loss of wealth. Loss of belonging. Loss of status. Loss of fruitfulness. Loss of freedom. Loss of progress. Loss of sustainability. Loss of trust. Loss of ______ (anything you want to put in the blank)
THE GREAT COMMANDMENT AND WHOLENESS
God’s answer to a chronic fear of loss begins with experiences of love, or intimacy; sharing life and experiences with other trusted relationships.
2 TIMOTHY 1:7 NKJV [Paul said] For God has not given us a SPIRIT OF FEAR, but of POWER and of LOVE and of a SOUND MIND.
1 JOHN 4:18 NKJV [John said] There is no FEAR in LOVE; but PERFECT LOVE casts out FEAR, because FEAR INVOLVES TORMENT. But he who FEARS has not been made perfect in LOVE.
Love is a relational term. The best way to process grief is in a trusted, intimate community of therapeutic or emotionally intelligent people. Invite friends to absorb the grief with us by sitting in the shared experience with us. A healthy therapeutic relationship won’t try to fix it, or speed past it with their own emotional intolerance, but will simply explore the feelings with connected empathy.
ROMANS 12:15-16 NKJV Rejoice with those who rejoice, and WEEP with those who WEEP. 16 Be of the SAME MIND TOWARD ONE ANOTHER. Do not set your mind on high things, but ASSOCIATE WITH THE HUMBLE. Do not be wise in your own opinion.
Why did God put tear ducts in our eyes? Why did He not put them under our arm, or under our feet, or in other places?
Tears flush the pain out. Tears do this through our friends looking into our eyes. Ultimately, this is one function of the “mind of Christ.” If the “body of Christ” is all individual believers living in community, then the “mind of Christ” must have an aspect of borrowing other people’s love, heart and minds to digest down the griefs that life brings.
Love is an experiential term. Love is the standard of health. Love requires giving and receiving in relationships.
The Great Commandment is Jesus’ modality for human health. The Great Commandment is to love God, then love others as we love ourselves.
MATTHEW 22:36-39 NKJV (A lawyer asked Jesus), "Teacher, which [is] the GREAT COMMANDMENT in the law?" 37 Jesus said to him, "'You shall LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 "This is [the] FIRST and GREAT COMMANDMENT. 39 "And [the] second [is] like it: 'You shall LOVE your NEIGHBOR as YOURSELF.'”
When we love God, we open ourselves to feel God’s love. When we love ourselves – or have radical acceptance of ourselves – we feel self-affection, empathy and compassion to ourselves. When we love our neighbor, we open the possibility to feel our neighbor’s love to us. This is the Greatest Commandment because it positions us for health by addressing both our griefs and our fears. 10:15
THE BRAIN ON BOTH GOOD AND PROBLEMATIC FEAR
If grief escalates our feelings of panic, fogging our leadership perspectives with toxic instincts, then what exactly is this chronic fear?
First, we should clarify that there is a godly fear, or a God-given purpose for healthy fear. God designed our brains to recognize impending threats, then appropriately address them with solutions. The neurochemical cocktail that does this is fundamentally known in our emotional framework as fear, or anxiety. This healthy fear helps us tackle problems within our organizations. It helps us have resolve to win the day. It motivates our movement forward.
Again, fear in a healthy or manageable form, is a gift from God. Without our brain’s fear circuits, we wouldn’t have the motivation to address threats, innovate, or find solutions. However, when fear moves from a healthy, manageable state, to chronically exaggerating threats with energies from our imagination, we move into a spirit of fear, or problematic anxiety, or panic.
Often we perceive imagined or potential threats at a great distance away, let’s say metaphorically about 100 miles away. Due to our grief-memories, grief-file folders, or grief history batteries, our brains map out the imagined or potential threat as a predator growling in attack about 5 feet away.
We are emotionally intensified with heightened stress and distress. This happens in our nervous system even though the threat is simply imagined or is only a potential. When this imagined or potential threat assessment happens, our rational brain is not able to appropriately modulate the emotional brain. In turn we suffer the distress of being in a hand-to-hand combat with something that isn’t really even happening yet.
Neurobiologically, fear is when our brain’s amygdala releases cortisol, a stress hormone, putting us on urgent alert against a threat. However, God has also designed our brain’s anterior cingulate gyrus to calm the amygdala’s cortisol release by our intentional activation of things like empathy, compassion, gratitude and trust.
When we intentionally activate empathy, compassion, gratitude and trust our brain releases oxytocin (the love hormone), which calms the amygdala, and ultimately triggers dopamine and serotonin in our nucleus accumbens – the pleasure center of the brain. The brain’s system returns us to a calmed, happy, and safe emotional state.
RESETTING THE BRAIN’S FEAR CIRCUITS
In other words, our nervous system is not erratic and random. The nervous system can be studied and known. Its activations are predictable, measurable and repeatable. When chronic fear is trying to control us, we can diffuse its power by activating emotional empathy, compassion and gratitude to God, ourselves and other people. This is the Great Commandment; loving God, and loving others as ourselves.
Spending time in worship with our favorite worship band, or giving time in intensified prayer, allowing ourselves to feel “searched,” “seen,” “felt,” and “loved” by God is huge in returning you to a calmed, happy and safe emotional state.
Also, we can turn towards our Self, letting ourselves feel seen, giving generous empathy for what our life experiences have put into your grief-folder. Allowing ourselves space and time to process through the present season. All of this healthy relating to Self makes a huge difference in our brains.
We can also engage exercises in gratitude. By putting on worship songs to open up our limbic/emotional brain, we can begin writing a list of things we are thankful for from life, our Salvation, spiritual blessings, marriage, family, protection, provision, and so much more. We can line-item our gratitude ideas, reaching for the emotional experiencing that gratitude brings to our consciousness. When we feel gratitude emotionally changing our mood, we know we have hit the necessary threshold of neuro-chemical release in the brain.
We can also move towards other relationships with empathy, compassion, gratitude and trust. This is the loving your neighbor part. In the same way that loving God, and radically accepting Self, loving your neighbor will release the neuro-chemicals that move us to happiness and fulfillment. This is what calms the chronic anxieties that drive us to be crazy.
It isn’t simply serving others, or making a phone call, or going to a party where others will be that creates the emotional reset. It is the intentional and conscious awareness to be present in the moment with others. Feeling what they feel. Seeing what they see. Searching who they are. And leaning into the gratitude that this relational opportunity has been afforded us.
THE RESTORING PURPOSE OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
Fundamentally, this is the divine purpose and design for the local church and church relationships. When we show up to church to “supply” (Eph 4:16), rather than be a consumer of spiritual entertainment, it changes and transforms us deeply. When we show up to serve on teams, where our hearts are present in the moment, engaging gratitude that we get to serve our church vision and relationships, the neuro-processing takes over and we move into an emotional state of calm, happiness and contentment. This is in contrast to how many have approached serving on teams.
Some people serve on teams because they feel guilty for not “doing their part” or taking responsibility for some of the “chores” of the church. So they arrive on Sunday to mark the duty check boxes. Never engaging the emotional circuits that change their lives.
The same with financial giving. Financial tithing, which seems crazy to someone who doesn’t understand the brain or even the spiritual mind, is designed to activate trust and gratitude circuits. When we give God 10% of our income, it was never intended to be an act of paying off religious taxes before God; it was intended to grab our hearts and souls in surrender of great trust, trusting that God is our Source of every material thing. That breakthrough freedom changes the neuro-chemical cocktail that makes life amazing. However, for this brain chemical release to happen, we must be present emotionally to the factors of worship, trust and faith to God, while seeing compassion for those the church will reach.
Those are only two examples of how church life is designed to maximize life’s emotional experiences. These experiences don’t have to be hyper-expressed through extrovert referencing; they can be as simple as the introverted emotional experiencing of empathy, compassion, gratitude and trust.
This is church. This is life and life more abundant. This is living as more than a conqueror.
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