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"Knives": The Things That Hurt Us Most

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 83

 

A Hypothetical Letter
 
Dear Ministry Health,
 
Recently a senior staff member in our church betrayed me and others on the staff. When I found out what this person had done, I could not believe how intense my reaction of anger became inside me.  I've never been this angry. In fact, I tend to be a very patient, even-keeled person. Even after several months, I can still feel the hair rising on the back of my neck whenever I see him. I am sure that he notices whenever I see him how I turn red with rage.  It took me two hours to settle back down.
 
Are there any explanations for my intense, uncontrollable emotions?

+ + + + +

Dear Partner in Ministry,

Yes, there are several explanations for your emotions.  One of many possible keys to your unexplained and anger, feelings of betrayal and the hurt from being cut off may be related to childhood developmental issues.
 
It is not uncommon for the kind of anger you are feeling to be a virtually unconscious reaction to the deprivation of some of you significant childhood needs including the needs for approval, trust, acceptance, competency, recognition, value, and so forth...

Your unexpected and extreme emotional reaction to the current situation may be evidence that the so-called "inner child" phenomenon is very real in your life, too. When inner child needs surface--as they can in traumatic situations--they can virtually immobilize and cut into the deepest part of one's heart... just like knives. The intense pain and the virtually uncontrollable emotional "bleeding" these knives cause demand immediate and most urgent attention....
 
Blessings To You And Your Ministry,
 
Tom
 
Ministry Health
+        +        +

Those Knives
"Knives," as used by psychologist Dr. Peter Alsop, refers to the painful reactive response experienced when our basic, existential security needs, are deprived. As described in the letter above, knives can unexpectedly hurt and traumatize us during difficult ministry or life situations.
 
When trauma occurs, knives remind us that there is some unfinished work in our psyche. The emotional pain beckons individuals to give intense attention to those deep, unresolved   self-esteem and developmental issues which form the basis of our personality.
 
Indeed, knives move us to reconsider the basis for our  feelings of competency, acceptance, security and other basic existential building blocks of our self-esteem.
 
Knives: Some Examples
 
What are knives? How does one get them? What are they? How does one get them? Here's some examples of knives and their origin.
 

* If your parents were very withdrawn, you missed being nurtured. Thus, when people abandon you, "knives" start working in your heart.

* If your family was violent, you missed living without fear. When you see violence or conflict, it twists those painful knives deep in your soul.

* If you lived with ridicule, you missed being accepted. The resulting knife might be a deep, painful cutting of a very, very lonely heart whenever you feel you are being ridiculed, humiliated, or not taken seriously.

* If you were ignored or overlooked in favor of other family members, you missed being unconditionally loved. When people ignore or disrespect you, the scars of the hearts are pierced by the knife of rejection.

* If you were constantly criticized and punished for not doing everything perfectly, you missed self-acceptance. Each time you make a mistake, the knife stabs with the painful stab of inferiority, ugliness and worthlessness.

* In order to be accepted by your family, you always did everything you were asked to do. Feeling that you would be loved it you did tasks perfectly, you missed unconditional love. Each time you fall short of perfection--in your eyes or others--the unquenchable angst of worthlessness and uselessness stabs the most central basis part of your self-esteem.

* If you were handicapped, you may have felt you were inferior and unacceptable to others. In response, you did everything possible to prove you were more competent than anyone else. Each time you are criticized, or when you experience failure, the knives of inferiority and unacceptability leave you feeling intense anger, loneliness, and an overwhelming sense of worthlessness.

Knives: We All Have Them
 
Each of us has certain knives in our emotional "backs". When the right people manipulate them at the right time, they can have devastating effects on our self-esteem, our confidence, our faith, and our desire to live. The more the knives are twisted, turned, and stabbed into us, the greater emotional pain and bleeding.
 
"Knives" are most "sharply" felt during personal or family crises, trauma, or during times of church conflict. These, and other events, may cause such existential pain as to make it difficult to proceed with our leadership, to follow-through on plans, to hold up under severe criticism, and to maintain a sense of confidence in God's calling to us.
 
Knives can be the proverbial straw that can break--and shatter--the camel's back. Unchecked, one may find themselves in the deep, wrenching pain of mental illness.
 
Erikson And Knives
 
Erik Erikson's "Eight Stages Of Development" describe how individuals go through various stages of development during their growth as children, adolescents, and adults.
 
Each stage represents a wresting between two conflicting areas of emotional development. How one fares in each of these conflicts, theorized Erikson, determines and shapes ones' responses to conflict and coping with difficulties.

Erikson's Stages Of Development
And Their Accompanying Knives*

Stage 1: Trust Versus Mistrust
Knife: You Can't Be Trusted

This most basic level of development is the one in which we learn either that people can or cannot be trusted. It is also where we deal with issues of how far--and to what degree--we can trust other people and whether we can trust ourselves.

Stage 2: Autonomy Versus Shame And Doubt
Knife: You Can't Control Or Exert Power

The conflict presented for resolution in this level of development is that of trying to gain a healthy balance between autonomy and belonging. Children must learn that they can do things for themselves and not be overly controlled when guidance is given. Here the basic issue is that of control. At this stage a child learns whether he can maintain control in an uncontrollable situation or if they can't. If they can't, a child begins developing the knife of shame, doubt, and feelings of inability to control their lives.

Stage 3: Initiative Versus Guilt
Knife: Don't Be So Selfish, You're Not Worth The Effort

When children are told to "shut up, you're asking too many questions," they often will be hurt in this stage of development. Such negative messages will convey to children that they are not to be curious, adventuresome, and take risks. Instead, they should feel guilty for ever having suggested that seeking anything for themselves should ever take priority over their parents' or others' needs.

Stage 4: Industry Versus Inferiority
Knife: You're An Incompetent Failure

Parents who repeatedly express disinterest or display disapproval in children's accomplishments teach these children that no matter how hard they try, they are unloved, not valuable, and inferior. Such feelings of rejection can trigger life-long feelings of incompetence and uselessness which will continue to overshadow any of their accomplishments--not matter how great.

Stage 5: Identity Verses Diffusion
Knife: You Don't Belong! Nobody Even Likes You!

A key issue during adolescent development is whether one 'fits in." This desire to belong begins to solidify as one develops a sense of personal identity. If ridiculed, put down, or ignored, individuals in this stage may isolate themselves and pretend they don't need anyone else. Unfortunately, they may remain aloof for the rest of their lives.

Stage 6: Intimacy Versus Isolation
Knife: No Matter What You Do, No One Will Love You Anyway

In this stage, Erikson noted, the adolescent is confront with the two realities of acceptance or rejection, love or abandonment. Individuals who weren't genuinely loved would try to earn others' intimacy by giving too much.

Unfortunately, one of the most notable lessons they learned was that the only way to get something was by somehow earning, working, tricking, or manipulating to get it. A coordinate lesson was that people never do anything for anyone without a hidden agenda. What's one to do? Either live with rejection or risk being misused. Either is excruciatingly painful.

Stage 7: Generativity Versus Self-Absorption

Knife: Everything I Do For Others Hurts Them

The basis of parenting skills, this stage is that in which we learn whether to give beyond ourselves to the next generation. Adults wrestling with this stage are concerned as to whether what they have learned in their own lives will help--or hurt--the next generation.
 
The fear that they might make a mistake and hurt the next generation is that which adults overcome or are overcome by in this stage. Those overcome by this fear will avoid all possible relationships in order to shield themselves from their self-inflicted hurt.

Stage 8: Integrity Versus Disgust
Knife: I'm Irresponsible And Have Nothing Anyone Wants Anyway

This stage is where adults must decide between accepting responsibility for our own lives and actions or blaming others. If successful, individuals will learn to like who they are, what they believe, what they do, and what they represent. If unsuccessful, however, individuals will adopt a toxic self-concept by which they can not love themselves, their looks, their accomplishments, their behaviors, or anything they touch. They might like healthy relationships with others, but they can't because they don't like what they are offering them--their own selves.

What Are Your Knives?

The following questions will help you to identify those knives which affect you in your personal and professional ministry life.
 
1) Do you hesitate to take risks because people might laugh at you?
2) Do you avoid conflict and look for ways to escape it?
3) Are you afraid to be direct with others and, instead, communicate indirectly?
4) Are you afraid to let people see who you really are?
5) Do you accomplish amazing things and still feel it wasn't good enough?
6) Do you find it hard to relax?
7) Can you admit that you're not perfect?
8) Are you too quick to admit all your imperfections?
9) Do you avoid--and are you afraid of--close relationships?
10) Do you feel that you don't deserve recognition?
11) Do you feel that you don't get enough recognition?
12) Do you feel it's more blessed to give...but aren't willing to receive?
13) When people disagree, do you feel a sense of worthlessness?
14) In conflict, do you give up because you don't believe you're worth fighting for?
15) Does what people think make you do things you don't want to do?
16) Are you afraid of what people think?
17) When scared, do your act impulsively instead of patiently looking at the facts?
18) Are you afraid of the facts?
19) Do you have a long list of relationships in which you thought you were used?
20) When you found out you were wrong, were you able to admit fault and ask forgiveness?
The Last Question: Were you able to answer all these questions honestly or did you have to lie on any of them to avoid discomfort?
 
Knives: They Do Affect Us
 
What are your knives? All of us have them. It's part of being a sinner in a sinful, dysfunctional world. But having recognized them, there's several things that may be helpful to remember.
 
First, the ones who often know our knives best are our antagonist. They seem to have a sixth sense for it. They're just waiting to grab a knife and twist and turn it into you for their benefit.
 
Second, the best defense against others' attempts to use our knives is to know our own knives and deal with the issues they represent. Some of these issues may relate to family dysfunction, others may relate to other personal issues. Whatever it takes, your ministry and enjoyment of it will be strengthened when you start pulling out the knives and letting the wounds heal. A good part of the ability to exercise a non-anxious presence arises from such healing.
 
Finally, it's important to see how your knives can and do affect your ministry, your family, yourself, and your ability to trust God's love for you. The more we learn to deal with these knives in forgiveness, absolution, and repentance, the more we will sense God's presence, God's forgiveness, and God's daily strength to minister joyfully and confidently--even in the midst of personal or congregational trauma.
 
Whatever it takes, pull out those knives and let God display His greatness through the invaluable exercise of your ministry gifts to Him and His Church!
 
Thomas F. Fischer
 

Ministry Health Note: Some individuals who grew up in dysfunctional homes (e.g. alcoholism, extreme perfectionism, divorce, extreme religious legalism, handicapped children, et al) may have abnormally sharp and long knives. For some, they may feel more like machete's or emotional chain saws. If such is the case, professional assistance with a qualified therapist is an imperative, essential step toward healing. Don't try to dodge knives; deal with them directly.

* The suggested knives for each stage are not Erikson's. They are suggested by the author.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:17 PM