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To be alive is to be motivated. At any given moment in time, you have one of two motivating factors influencing you:

1. The pursuit of a reward: Greek philosophers like Aristotle would tell us that there is no such thing as a completely selfless act. Humans ever and always are motivated by the pursuit of their own good. There is really nothing wrong with this. To ignore “The Self” is to cease to exist. When someone says, “I didn’t want to do X, but I did it anyway,” they are deceiving themselves. The reality is that they did want to do X, but their statement acknowledges the fact that it was not for the direct pleasure but a reward beyond the pain. This is an important concept to understand if you are going to understand what motivates you in life. Many people endure painful experiences in the hope that it will produce something positive in the end. When we do stupid stuff, we are acknowledging ahead of time that the end result will not be good, but we are willing to sacrifice the future for the immediate pleasure of the moment.

 
2. The avoidance of pain: No one likes to hurt. Even people that intentionally cut on themselves or engage in some self-destructive activity are ultimately attempting to avoid pain. The truth is they subject themselves to a lesser pain to avoid something they imagine would be unbearable. For instance, individuals who struggle with eating disorders will often say that their malnutrition and hunger pains allow them to avoid a sense of helplessness or lack of control. It is the lack of control that is unbearable to them, not the sense of starvation!

 
This is the logic behind The Death Drive, a concept articulated by Freud, but named byWilhelm Stekel using the greek word, Thanatos. Thanatos in Greek mythology was the God of Death. In psychological terms, it is the counterintuitive urge within us to destroy. Think about why when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or on the top of the Empire State Building you are both compelled and repulsed by the possibility of jumping. Imagine a child building a sand castle on an ocean shore. When they have completed it, their next action is often to stomp all over it! As humans, we are fascinated by that moment when all things come to an end.

 

I believe there are two reasons for this destructive urge within us:

 
1. Aggressive Power: The first reason humans do stupid stuff is to foster an innate desire to assert power and control over a situation, even if that means destruction. “Because I can” is a phrase repeated by many an individual who willing engages in a destructive act. In essence, the action becomes an adolescent-like retort to every parent of society: “You can’t tell me what to do!!” Sometimes we speed, steal, lie, cheat, get drunk, curse, or fight simply because someone tells us not to. We want freedom, even if we are restricted to the freedom of self-destruction.

 

2. Immediate Redemption: The second reason people often choose to do stupid stuff is to experience immediate redemption. Everybody enjoys the do-over, the mulligan, the clean slate, or the false start. We all need a second chance, but when things get messy, we find it easier to change plans, locations, relationships, jobs, and all other circumstances to avoid ongoing suffering. Unfortunately, Redemption’s road is often long and arduous and the people who look for the quick fix or escape often find themselves repeating the same struggles over and over again.

The Death drive can be channeled in two directions:

 

1. An Inward Focus:We see this inwardly destructive tendency in those who consciously or unconsciously enter abusive relationships similar to those of their past. They find some sense of power in the familiarity of the situation, even if it is self-destructive in nature. They also hope for a do-over, a chance to fix a problem that has surfaced in a current relationship with the same old solutions they tried in a previous one.

 
2. An Outward Focus: The outwardly focused death-drive becomes a means of asserting power aggressively over others. Abusers often act on this drive. The 90’s rock band, Nickleback, had a song wherein the lead singer describes his love of all the degrading things his girlfriend does during their sexual encounters only to conclude in the chorus that the challenge of “figuring her out” was not as difficult as he thought it would be. Ironically, the last verse of the song twists his love for her into hatred. The implication is that he is now on to the next conquest, thus feeding his inner desire for the do-over, a new opportunity to assert his control and assuage his own helplessness and shame by inflicting it on others.

 
Feodor Dostoyevsky, the brilliant Russian novelist who wrote Crime and Punishment, provides a powerful description, if not explanation, of the death drive in action through his character, Nastasya Filipovna, in his novel, The Idiot. Though loved and proposed to by the purest and most noble character in the story, Prince Myshkin, she chooses instead to debase herself with the vilest individuals in society. Dostoevsky reflects on her behavior through Myshkin’s character:
“She ran away from me. Do you know what for? Simply to show me that she was a degraded creature. But the most awful thing is that perhaps she didn’t even know herself that she only wanted to prove that to me, but ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say, to herself at once, ‘There, you’ve done something shameful again, so you’re a degraded creature!’ …Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful, unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on some one.”

So how do we fight against the death drive?

 
1. Confront your rage: People who do stupid things to themselves or to others usually harbor a deep-seated anger. Counseling can help to uproot this anger and begin to address it in a healthy way. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. The only way you will be able to stop punishing yourself or someone else is to acknowledge and be aware of the source of your anger and begin the process of managing it successfully.

 
2. Commit to the long-haul: There is no quick fix. Slow down and accept some of the momentary suffering that you may be experiencing. Some of the stupidest things we do are actions taken to relieve immediate suffering without taking the time to consider what our current pain might be teaching us for the long-term successes waiting for us.

 
Question: What about you? Where does the death drive rear its ugly head in your life? What solutions have you found for overcoming our human tendency to do stupid stuff in the moment? I hope you remember that there is always redemption to be had. It just might be a little farther down the road than you originally thought. I hope you can say that it is worth the wait!

Tonight on For Christ and Culture, I interview Dr. Matthew Stanford, neuropsychologist, author and co-founder of the Mental Health Grace Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping those who feel stuck in the “treatment box” discover the true process of recovery. They provide personal assistance to navigate professional care and improve personal life management (mental health recovery). Their Mental Illness Recovery Program (THRIVE) and support groups reinforce professional care, reducing symptoms, building recovery and improving personal faith.

Dr. Stanford was one of the plenary speakers at Rick Warren’s Mental Health and the Church Conference at Saddleback Church in California. On today’s program we discuss some key factors necessary to help people understand the nature of mental illness and how best to approach treatment. Here are a few key points to remember:

  1. Recovery vs. Cure: Many people diagnosed with mental illness ask, “Can I be cured?” Unfortunately, this is a very black and white way of viewing mental illness that sets people up for certain discouragement and failure. If the cause of mental illness was as simple as identifying a bacteria that could be eradicated with an antibiotic, we might used the word cure. However, mental illness usually falls within the spectrum of disorders that require ongoing management of symptoms and signs. Similar disorders would include Diabetes, Parkinson’s syndrome, Heart Disease, and Lupus. When you consider the nature of mental illness, we use the diathesis/stress model. A diathesis is a predisposing factor that makes the acquiring of a disorder more likely. When we use this term, we are usually referring to a person’s genetics or heritability. The stress or stresses are the environmental factors that precipitate and perpetuate a bout of the disorder. These environmental factors include diet, exercise, traumatic life events, upbringing, belief systems, and relationships that generate the “perfect storm” so to speak. It is important to remember that these factors are always in flux and can either exacerbate or improve symptoms depending on the individual’s handling of them. Recovery comes when a person’s symptoms abate and/or the stressors are diminished.
  2. Resiliency vs. Avoidance: No one can completely escape the pain of life. That is why the second goal of treatment is called resiliency. Our goal is to help clients develop strength to overcome day to day challenges that before might have precipitated or exacerbated the symptoms of their mental illness. Just as diet and exercise enable an individual to overcome obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other such disorders, treatments for mental illness can do the same. Medications are one tool out of a host of options that provide this strengthening. They are not cures and they do have side effects. That is why a holistic approach to treatment that includes talk-therapy, group accountability and social support, diet, exercise, spiritual practices, and educational advancement is vital.
  3. Reminders vs. Results: Sometimes clients get focused on results and need reminders of how far they have come in treatment. “I feel worse today” is a common statement I hear. It is natural to have ebbs and flows of emotion. At any given moment, we might feel worse and it seems like we are taking steps backward. The encouraging part of what I do is to point out those subtle changes that I’ve noticed occurring in peoples’ relationships and daily life tasks, being a witness to the strength that clients demonstrate during very challenging times. We all need to be reminded that life is hard and full of surprises, but as our endurance builds, we rise to meet those challenges. We can have confidence in ourselves, looking back at some of the hurtles we’ve already jumped, knowing that the ones to come can be taken in stride using the tools we are continually acquiring.

Question: What has given you endurance to keep pushing forward, even when life gets tough?

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I have been doing a series of radio broadcasts on 90.9 KCBI through Criswell College’s “For Christ and Culture” spot on the topic of depression.

This week I further discussed some of the treatments that we use to help people who are depressed. As I have said often, there is a difficult tension between how much we should “let go and let God” and/or “work out our own salvation…” (I use that verse figuratively of course :)) I have firmly stated that I am unwilling to go to one extreme or another on the matter, even though it would be easier to do so. With each individual, I must wrestle with all aspects of their humanity: biologically, psychologically, and spiritually. With that understanding, what are the most common psychological and biological treatments offered to help those suffering from depression?

1.       Psychotherapy (Talk therapy):

  1. Solution-focused therapy (SFT) – many individuals come to counseling with a specific problem that they would like professional help to address. It may be a specific conflict with a spouse, child, friend or coworker. It may be an educational or occupational decision that must be made. Whatever the specific problem, the therapist works with the client to generate solutions, test the solutions, and then see what worked and what did not. This can be just as valuable an experience as meeting with a lawyer to get legal counseling, a CPA to get financial counseling, or a pastor to get spiritual counseling. The appointments are usually limited to between 5 to 10 sessions.
  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – the practice of this form of talk therapy is very much in line with Christian principles. In fact, many Christian counselors use the practical methods of this therapy in their counseling office, whether they realize it or not. Formal CBT is very structured and involves active engagement of both the therapist and client in session as well as ongoing homework for the client between sessions. Because of its structured and formalized nature, it is easier to study scientifically than other forms of therapy, and by all reports, it is an effective means of treating depression. In this therapy, the counselor works with the client not just on solutions to specific problems (although this can certainly be incorporated) but more on analyzing the clients thoughts, emotions, and behaviors during an array of problematic situations. The goal is to change faulty patterns of thinking that negatively impact the client’s life.
  3. Insight-oriented or Psychodynamic Therapy – In this form of therapy, clients engage in a kind of “thought-behind-the-thought” analysis. It goes beyond simply challenging and changing faulty beliefs to deepening the client’s understanding of where and how they developed these thoughts. It addresses issues of psychological defensiveness (ways we protect ourselves from negative urges or emotions), personality styles, and past relationships and experiences that have solidified our view of ourselves and our world. This form of therapy can be very time intensive and requires a certain level of psychological-mindedness on the part of the client, but can still be extremely helpful to someone dealing with chronic depression.
  4. I will touch on medical treatment modalities in Part II.

My point in describing these various treatments is to give hope to individuals who are suffering. Science has come a long way in helping people who suffer from depression. My caveat, however, is this: suffering is a part of life. We will never find the magic pill to take away all pain and suffering. We seek to enjoy this life as much as possible while realizing that this was not the real life we were made for. Sometimes it feels like we are playing an endless game of “Whac-a-Mole.” Having just beaten down one problem, others surface for us to beat down. It is helpful in times like these to remember that we are called to praise God for the suffering He relieves (through whatever means including medical treatments) and trust Him with the suffering we continue to endure.

Question: What about you? What is your view on medical, psychological and spiritual treatments for depression?

We have come to the last “P” in our series on the four P’s of Conflict. As a reminder, the previous three are Power, Preservation, and Purpose. The last is PERCEPTION.  Have you ever had a misunderstanding? Conflicts of perception result in two ways. The first is when two people entrenched on opposing sides of an issue fail to understand intellectually and empathically the positions of their opponent. The second is when we question or misperceive the intentions and/or character of the individuals involved.

Example 1: The perception – “Man, she is so pushy. I just don’t get why she makes such a big deal about politics. I mean, really! Is God in control or isn’t He?” The response: “Why does he refuse to pull his head out of the sand?! If we don’t stand up for what is right, who will?” The conflict: activism vs. passivism. Note that both sides probably have valid experiences that shaped their philosophies. Their emotions flare because they can’t or won’t understand the other.

Example 2: The perception – “That guys house is lavish! He must be one of those shallow socialites who have to one up everybody else!” The response – “Oh no, it’s one of those “holier than thou” vow-of-poverty types who relishes condemning others for enjoying a few of life’s modern comforts.” The conflict: Theology of stewardship. Here, both individuals are in the wrong because of their misperception of each other.

Think about how often our mistaken perceptions of the ideas and character of others create disunity and confrontation in our relationships. “He’s just lazy, she’s just stubborn, they are selfish, snobby, etc.” The rifts that result have damaged our families, our schools, our churches, our businesses and more. But even if our perceptions are correct, we fall short of resolving conflict if we do not seek to understand what has made each of us the way we are and work to empower each other to change. This being said, I’d like to give a few tips on dealing with conflicts of perception:

Regarding Cues: Clarify what’s communicated. We communicate verbally and nonverbally. Both are susceptible to misperception. Effective conflict resolution requires identifying and clarifying social cues. Fritz Pearls, the father of Gestalt therapy, was a master at picking up on the nonverbal cues in conversations. He would often ask clients to exaggerate certain shifts in body position to heighten clients’ awareness of hidden emotions. We certainly don’t need to be this confrontational in our everyday relationships, but we can ask for clarification when the messages we are receiving don’t add up: “You say you’ve forgiven me, but you cringe when I try to touch you. Is there something more you’ve not told me?” “I notice it’s been hard for you to make eye contact during our conversation. Is there something I can do to make you more comfortable?” Understand that some people will chose to remain unengaged. They will resist such attempts for transparency, but don’t be deterred. Your attempts at clarifying will serve you well in the long run.

Regarding the Past: Know but Don’t Go!  As human beings, we like to categorize people and situations. This mental referencing is a natural way to improve our efficiency in dealing with common situations. You might think of it like the autocorrect on your phone when you text. But sometimes we make initial assumptions based on past experiences that are incorrect. We must stay judgment and give people the benefit of the doubt if we are to resolve conflict. Know your past experiences, but avoid drawing conclusions from them until you have all the facts from the current situation!

Regarding Motives: Trust but verify! We all know the passage in the Bible that says, “People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) This is certainly true during conflict. We can never really know the motives of others, but to engage in conflict effectively, we must have some faith in people. Otherwise, why bother? If you have trust issues in a particular relationship, deal with that first. Then address the specifics of the conflict. If the pattern of someone’s behavior points to an overriding desire for Power or Preservation, then seek outside help from a counselor or trusted mutual friend. If you’ve been burned in the past, bring healing to your wounds by acknowledging and learning from the pain. Don’t surrender to a life of isolation!

Questions: How has your perception of a particular problem affected your relationship with people in your life? What happened when you took the time to clarify your misperceptions? Did it help to resolve the conflict?

What happens when a vacationing family prays for sunshine while a farming family is praying for rain? What about when two charities are vying for the same patron? Or when a young lawyer is torn between staying late at the office to make partner and getting home in time to help his children with their homework? The answer for these examples and many like them is that a conflict of PURPOSE arises. In addressing the sources of conflict, we have already covered two of the four: Power and Preservation. The third is equally important. If you believe that life is more than just chance, that you are here for a reason, then you will acknowledge that your life has purpose: an overarching purpose (to love one another, to glorify God…), a contextual purpose (as a spouse, member of a church, worker, parent, friend, etc.), and a pragmatic or immediate purpose (pick up the kids from soccer practice, pay bills, handle crises…). We engage in conflict when one purpose appears to oppose another. This happens on two planes: 1. when an immediate purpose collides with an overarching purpose and 2. when our contextual purposes pull us in different directions.

 Example 1: Your friend really wants you to spend the night out with her to celebrate her birthday (Immediate purpose: celebrate, make a memory, encourage your friend), but you have a deadline at the office the next day which could jeopardize your job if not completed (overarching purpose: provide for your family, maintain stability emotionally and socially). So which do you chose?

 Example 2: Your church is in the middle of a fundraising campaign for an orphanage in Sudan. Because of your business experience, they would really like you to help out. Unfortunately, you’d be spending a lot of late nights trying to do event planning. You know it would be a strain on your marriage and kids, but it’s for God and the orphans, right? What do you do? (Contextual purposes: Parent and Spouse vs. Minister and Philanthropist)

 Let’s face it. You may think you have an easy solution for the two scenarios above, but I guarantee you that real life gets very complicated. Whenever you find yourself asking the question, “What should I do here?” you are questioning your purpose. Let me give you a few tips as you struggle with the subsequent conflict:

 1.      Put Your Purpose on Paper – When you write a mission statement, you are essentially asking, “Why do I exist?” Can you articulate it in a sentence or two? How does this overarching purpose trickle down to your contextual and pragmatic purposes each day? Writing out a mission statement for your life can help bring clarity to the choices you make on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. You will be far more equipped to avoid unnecessary conflict and overcome the unavoidable conflict in your life if you have something tangible to which you can refer. There are two important questions to ask when writing your mission statement: 1. Who do I want to be? and 2. What do I want to do? Remember, that your purpose is essentially relational, so in writing a mission statement it is helpful to use your context to guide you: 1. Who do I want to be in relation to God, my family, my friends, my coworkers and boss? and 2. What do I want to do as a creation of God, a member of my family, a friend, coworker etc? When conflict arises, ask yourself how well you are living up to whom you want to be and what you want to do as outlined.

 2.      Clear away the Clutter – What are you willing to give up in pursuit of your purpose? Conflict of purpose is about making sacrifices and drawing boundaries. As a finite individual, you must choose what you will do and not do. This will inevitably (and usually temporarily) hurt others in your life who would like you to do or to be what they want you to do or be. It takes a certain resolve to stand up to these challenges, staying single-minded and entering commitments and obligations with eyes open and counting the cost. My rule of thumb is “When in doubt, think it over.” Don’t say yes or no unless you are willing to “let your yes be yes and your no be no!” (Matthew 5:37)

 3.      Clarify Expectations – No one can cover every angle, but as a rule, clarify the expectations of those whose purpose you choose to fulfill. Try to have the facts before making commitments. Don’t be afraid to clarify expectations along the way. It can also be helpful to set a time limit to reevaluate your circumstances. Once you have committed, give the task your all and see it to completion. Trust that God led you to this place with the knowledge you had at the time and He will give you the strength to see it through. If you feel discouraged, share those feelings with someone you can trust, someone who will empower you to keep moving forward.

  4.      Maximize through Compromise – When our purposes conflict, compromise can help align our goals. Compromise is not a dirty word. There is more “gray” to life than you might think. If you are willing to compromise when appropriate, then people will respect you more during those times when you must take a stand and refuse to back down.

 5.      Concede to the Higher Purpose – When you face a conflict of Purpose that cannot be resolved through the above means, always concede to the higher purpose. As a kid, my dad had a saying. “If your friends want you to do something with which you don’t feel comfortable, feel free to blame me!” Essentially, he was saying, your purpose as a son supersedes your purpose as a friend. As adults, we too, need a higher purpose to “blame” for the choices we make. Others may not agree with the decision, but they will understand if we live out our choices with integrity, submitting to our ultimate purpose of glorifying God.

 Question: What conflicts of purpose are you experiencing? What tough decisions have you had to make and what was the outcome?

Relationships are full of conflict. If you have managed to avoid it this far in your life, I guarantee you that you have also managed to avoid people. Avoiding conflict is not the answer, although we can certainly try to steer clear of meaningless squabbles and debates. The true sign of a healthy relationship is one that navigates the stormy seas of conflict with intentionality and precision. The only way to do this is to first understand why and how conflict tends to arise. We discussed the first source of conflict in the previous post: POWER. The second source of Conflict is Power’s mirror image: Preservation.

Preservation. Preservation of self is a natural response when we feel we are being manipulated, mistreated, overlooked, or attacked. Our physical bodies even generate responses that alert us to potential threats. Our heart rate increases, our face flushes, our eyes dilate, and our muscles tense. This does not just happen when we feel physically threatened, but emotionally threatened as well. Unfortunately, we can become super-sensitized to possible threats in our relationships, especially if we have been hurt before. If we are not careful, we can perceive threats where there are none. It takes a great deal of intentionality and persistence to recalibrate our system and raise the “conflict threshold” in our minds. So how can we manage our sense of self-preservation as we engage in conflict?

1.      Consider the threat. What has been done to you that has caused you pain? Was it intentional or unintentional? If unintentional, can you let it go? (1 Peter 4:8) If it was intentional, what was the motive? Sometimes people hurt us for good reason. No one likes criticism but sometimes there is truth in what people say. If they were simply being hateful, then what about their actions or words penetrated and threatened your sense of self? We need to take time to consider the threat before we can effectively deal with it.

 2.      Bandage fresh wounds. The Vikings had great warriors called Berserkers who would psych themselves into a frenzied rage before charging into battle. Once they started, there was no stopping them. These soldiers would fight to exhaustion, often ignoring their wounds until they bled to death in the heat of battle. I know too many people who fight like this when they feel attacked. We forget that it’s okay to call timeout. Step back, look at where you have been hurt, and do some damage control before you confront someone. Maybe you need to meet with a trusted friend or advisor to sure up your sense of self. Maybe you need to pray and ask God to give you wisdom and discernment moving forward. Words can penetrate deep into our soul and taking time to heal a little before we jump into a conflict will allow you to resolve it more effectively. If not, you just might cut deeper wounds and bleed all over everyone around you. What a mess!

 3.      Hide yourself in Christ. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run into it and are safe.” (Proverbs 18:10). What does it mean to “run into the name of the Lord like a strong tower?” In regard to our relationships, it means that our identity becomes so wrapped up in who He is, that people can’t see us anymore. They see Christ.  This, then, becomes our truest source of protection. The more we are like Christ, the more He is being attacked and not us. He will fight our battles, the more we place our identity in him. Then, we can worry less about preservation and more about resolving the conflict and strengthening our relationships.

Question: What has helped you in situations where you feel attacked by others?

Conflict is inevitable. The end result is not. How we handle conflict can make or break our careers, our friendships, our families, and our relationship with God. Knowing why we engage in conflict can help us to determine the purpose for it and the way to address it. I have found four overarching causes of conflict, what I call the 4 P’s: Power, Preservation, Purpose and Perception. I’d like to explore each one of these in the next several posts. 

Power. Power is our desire to control people and circumstances. Because we all have a will, the assertion of our will eventually infringes on the will of others. This is not necessarily a problem if two people are focused on the issue that must be resolved. Our wills become a problem, however, when we are unwilling to sacrifice them, when we make the fulfillment of our desires the ultimate goal rather than the resolution of the conflict at hand. There are times that we should stand strong, refuse to back down, and assert ourselves for a just cause. All too often, however, the assertion of our wills is over “who should do the dishes this time” or “I don’t like my bosses way of filing performance evaluations.” Many of us just don’t like to be wrong and we will avoid admitting it at all costs.

 So how can we address the first P (Power): 

  1. Examine your motives. Why are you engaging in the conflict? Is this battle really worth fighting? What will be at stake if you lose? Your reputation, your rights, your sense of control? Are you focused on resolution or on winning? Being aware of your motives will help you to gage whether or not you should take your stand.
  2. Be willing to yield. We usually enter conflict thinking that we are in the right. Still, we must maintain a teachable attitude or else we fall back into arguing just to win a fight, not to resolve a difficult situation. Remember, your perspective is only one side of the coin. If you cannot acknowledge that other people might have a different view, one from which you could learn, then you will be missing out on the true value of conflict. Iron sharpens iron.
  3. Acknowledge authority. I think we all struggle with this one. Who is in charge? Ultimately, conflict is resolved by one person submitting to the will of another. This is why we have government, family, church, and business structure. We all answer to someone. If you are ever in doubt, submit to the higher authority. Ex: if your spouse asks you to do something illegal, submit to the society’s rules. If the government wants you to do something immoral, submit to God’s authority. I recently had someone ask me, “So what if I could get in trouble either way.” Well, then decide which side you’d rather get in trouble for following! It is important to note that most people’s final authority is SELF. If this is true for you, remember that in conflict, you might win the battle for SELF, but the casualties of war will leave you all alone with only your SELF. In that sense, you’ve lost either way.
  4. Clean up after yourself. Conflict has a way of leaving a mess of hurt feelings, broken trust, and defeated spirits in its wake. We usually focus on power in the midst of conflict, but we can also have power in the aftermath of conflict by taking the initiative to restore, revitalize, and empower those with whom we have had the conflict. The message must be clear. “I value you, despite our disagreement.” Perhaps you have been beaten up by conflict and that message has not been conveyed. Find another source who can fill you up and let you know that you are loved!

 What have you found to be helpful when dealing with the inevitable power struggles that arise in relationships? How have you handled your own desire for power as it confronts that desire in other?

 

With the recent release of the movie Inception, a film by the brilliant writer and director Christopher Nolan, many people are again begging the question, “How meaningful or important are my dreams?” Though we know little about why sleep is important, we do know the effects that a good or poor night’s sleep can have on us physically and mentally. We also know that dreams (and nightmares) are intimately connected to emotional health. Dreams can either be a symptom or a cause of both emotional distress or wellbeing. For example, people with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) will complain of terrible nightmares in which they relive some form of the trauma they experienced. Some will avoid sleep altogether because of the nightmares. Others feel depressed, overwhelmed or troubled by their dreams. Conversely, dreams can bring to mind positive memories and relationships from your past, stimulate pleasurable drives for sex or food, and even foster creativity.

The real question is, “Can dreams have meaning or give insight to our lives?” The dream world has been explored by many famous theorists including Freud, Jung, and Adler. The Bible gives multiple examples of spiritual truths being revealed to dreamers. So how much emphasis should we place on people’s dreams today? Here are a few important points to consider:

1. The Word of God is supreme. Many people believe they have had special revelations from their dreams that are in direct contrast to the truths in scripture. You can be sure that you are misintepreting the dream if this is the case. God used dreams to reveal spiritual truths during a time when Scripture was incomplete. Now that we have His complete letter to us, we can rely on His Word fully for spiritual guidance.

2. Accuracy vs. Effect. In exploring someone’s dreams, the accuracy of your interpretation is nothing. The importance lies in the actual effect that a dream has on an individual or the meaning they ascribe to it. By allowing someone to dig into the meaning of their dream, we can gain insight into their emotions and thoughts on various subjects. For example, if a client dreams about a monster chasing him, we may find little to it. However, if the client tells you that the monster looks just like his ex-wife and he feels doomed to be consumed by her, well then it might be worth your time to consider the significance of such a nightmare.

3. Stay in the present, not in the past. Memories and dreams are important only when they remain in our conscious awareness. That being said, if you have a dream about your 3rd grade teacher or an aquaintance you knew years ago, it may simply be your brain processing old memories. However, if this memory or dream effects your present reality, then exploring why is important. I do believe that God brings people or events from our past to our minds for a reason, even if just to pray for them. I also believe that unresolved conflicts can manifest themselves in our dreams if we are currently wrestling with them, consciously or unconsciously. Using our memories or dreams from the past as well as our imaginings of the future can help us understand our current struggles and empower us to overcome them.

Question: What about you? Do you think dreams are important? Why or why not?

We all have struggles between what we know we should do and what we really want to do, how we should think and how we want to think, what we should feel and how we want to feel. Our mind is truly a battlefield of conflicting desires, opposing emotions, and betraying thoughts. So much so, that even the Apostle Paul said in Romans 7:15, “For what I am doing, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” Paul was not describing a period in his life before starting a relationship with Christ. He had met Jesus, was indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and yet his knowledge of his own human behavior was still confusing to him. That should fill us with hope, knowing that we don’t have to have all the answers nor do we need to be perfect in order to be saved from ourselves. Romans 8:1 says “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. PERIOD! (the NU-text omits the rest of this verse)

With this foundation in mind, God has given us revelationary truth that can and should coincide with the Biblical truth we know and understand. Human behavioral, emotional and thought patterns can be studied. Just because someone who was not a Christian discovered them does not mean they should be discredited altogether.

This brings me to the subject of Defense Mechanisms. Ways in which our brain/mind tries to protect itself from seemingly overwhelming conflicts between right and wrong. I will mention just one but there are many that have been studied. 

Projection occurs when individuals push their unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses outward, onto another person. For example, someone denies their own anger but then perceives anger in everyone else. “I’m not mad. You’re the one that keeps losing it!” Another example would be a person who does not like someone, but has the belief that she must like everyone. So she projects onto the person she dislikes the feeling that “he does not like me.” This allows her to avoid him and also to handle her own feelings of dislike.

Examples like this happen all the time. We don’t have to think about them consciously. They just happen. The struggle comes when we try to change these thoughts and discover a new, healthier way of approaching our problems. In the struggle, don’t get discouraged. God is patient with us. As therapists and as people in general, we need to be patient with ourselves.

Question: What real life examples can you come up with that illustrate some of the defense mechanisms we have been studying? Be creative. If you’ve seen a movie clip, read a book, heard a song, or even have a real life example, I’d love to read about it and discuss it.

photo courtesy of www.dennisholmesdesigns.com

The following quote was taken from the first Chapter of the Counseling Theories Textbook we use at Criswell College:

“Counseling is indeed an ambiguous enterprise. It is done by persons who can’t agree on what to call themselves, what credentials are necessary to practice or even what the best way is to practice – whether to deal with feelings, thoughts, or behaviors; whether to be primarily supportive or confrontational; whether to focus on the past or the present. Further, the consumers of counseling services can’t exactly articulate what their concerns are, what counseling can and can’t do for them, or what they want when it’s over.” (Kottler & Brown, 1996.)

The ambiguity described above takes on a new twist when you try to define what is meant by “Christian Counseling.” So many people desire “Christian Counseling” but the task of coalescing thousands of individual perceptions on the subject is like trying to mix oil and water with a candy spoon.

Do Christian counselors pray with every client? Must they open the Bible and quote from it during every session? Should they be evangelistic, calvinistic, optimistic, pessimistic, directive, nondirective, listen to confession, share personal testimonies, be apart of the same denomination as their clients? What mix of faith, psychology, and biology should they espouse in their approach to counseling? What would your answers be?

If I were to even attempt to define Christian Counseling in one sentence it would go something like this:

“A professional interaction between two or more individuals by which a trained expert in human behavior espousing the core doctrines of the Christian faith attempts to guide a willing client/clients toward an accurate understanding of themselves in relation to God and others with the goal of strengthen all three relationships: relation to God, self and others.”

Questions: If you were looking for a Christian Counselor, what kinds of qualities would you seek out? How would you define Christian Counseling in a few sentences?

photo courtesy of www.nycounseling.org

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I am a board certified psychiatrist, author, speaker in private practice with Southwest Clinical and Forensics in Dallas Tx. I also serve as an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have a passion for helping people through painful circumstances, be they physical illnesses of the brain, psychological conditions of the mind, social problems of everyday life, and/or spiritual crises of faith and worldview.

Disclaimer

All information provided is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a professional evaluation or treatment. If you are experiencing emotional distress, please contact a mental health professional. Dr. Henderson cannot respond to inquiries about prescription refills, or medical or psychiatric emergencies over the internet. If you are a patient in need of assistance, please contact Dr. Henderson’s office directly, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

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