Psychiatrist Murray Bowen coined the term “emotional field” to describe powerful systemic forces – something akin to electromagnetic fields. We all know how magnets attract iron particles, and how reversing poles of magnets causes them to repel. The more powerful the magnet, the more “stuck” the particles and the more powerful the repulsion. Although emotional fields are invisible, the ways they influence persons are quite knowable and predictable.
Predictable features of anxious emotional fields
Anxious emotional fields have predictable features. I offer the most salient ones with the hope of articulating their influence on relationships. In anxious emotional fields, anxiety is both contagious and palpable. You can both feel and “catch” anxiety from others. When anxiety increases, there is an increased desire for information or data. This desire often results in increased phone calls, texts or emails. As anxiety causes persons to regress and behave less maturely, secrets, blaming, gossip, rash decisions and parking lot meetings increase. When anxiety escalates, so does the need for togetherness and herd mentality. Homeostatic forces push to return things to “how they used to be.” Church leaders often overtly or covertly hear: “Change back – or else!”
Attempts by leaders to define themselves clearly and take a stand usually increase conflict. An increase in sabotage and other passive-aggressive behaviors are also common. There is often a heightened need for quick fixes, coupled with an intense desire for technical rather than adaptive solutions. Ron Heifertz of the Harvard Business School distinguishes between technical problems and solutions and adaptive ones. For Heifertz, an example of a technical problem being solved with a technical solution is teaching a pilot to land a plane. A far more adaptive problem, however, is how a Captain Sully can learn to remain calm, rational and focused enough to land a jet in the Hudson River. The capacity to employ technical solutions to technical problems does not require a high level of mature differentiation of self, but imagining and implementing adaptive solutions to adaptive problems does. Immature persons can be trained to replace broken parts on a car (technical), but they may not have the capacity to deal with an irate customer disputing the cost of the repair (adaptive).
The intense, immature need to blame generally results in the loss of imagination and vision. Anxious persons focus more on blaming others than on their own functioning and responsibility, which results in a loss of effective mission and mature vision. Anxiety causes people to forget or abdicate their core values and principles. As calm and rational thinking decreases, rash and reactive behavior increases. Anxious persons expect leaders to do for them, rather than maturely lead them. As deadly seriousness increases, playfulness, creativity, imagination, adventure and humor dissipate.
Creative tips for responding maturely to anxious emotional fields
Allow me to offer some creative tips on how to remain relatively free of anxious emotional fields and their powerful homeostatic forces by remaining more self-focused.
Edwin Friedman said, “The best way to unravel the knots of anxiety in any system is to learn to be playful, devilish and irreverent.” Henry Ward Beecher once received a letter from one of his angry parishioners that had only one word: “Fool!” Beecher, known for his quick wit, said from the pulpit: “I have known many a man who wrote a letter and forgot to sign his name. This week I received a letter where a man signed his name but forgot to write the letter.” Beecher understood the power of reframing conflict and reversing systemic polarity by doing the opposite.
Systems expert Ron Richardson recommends finding routine ways to get in and get out of intense emotional fields in order to gain more emotional objectivity. Brief, focused encounters are more productive than prolonged ones because the longer you stay in any emotional field, the more anxiety you absorb which often causes you to acquiesce or abdicate your true self or core beliefs to systemic pressure.
One of my favorite TV shows is “River Monsters.” In one episode, host Jeremy Wade received permission to fish the radioactive contaminated cooling ponds in Chernobyl. I never quite understood why he wanted to fish in such toxic places, but then I equally do not understand why some pastors choose to remain in equally toxic churches. Ukrainian officials required Wade to wear an instrument that measured the amount of radiation he absorbed in his week-long fishing trip. It was equipped with an alarm that sounded when he reached the limit of toxic radiation. Sure enough, it went off one day and he rushed from the pond to a special decontamination shower.
I have always thought that pastors ought to be given one of these instruments upon graduation from seminary to measure the cumulative toxic influence we have absorbed from the years of exposure to all the unhealthy “emotional fields” of our collective ministry settings. Scott Allen Seefeldt, a doctoral student of mine, says he ascribes to the Kenny Rogers philosophy of pastoral self-care when dealing with toxic emotional fields: “You got to know when to hold them; know when to fold them; know when to walk away – know when to run!”
Bowen coined the phrase “person-to-person relating” to describe persons who are mature enough to talk intentionally about what is really going on between them, and remain in hard conversations without becoming reactive or cutting off. In the words of Lutheran theologian Gordon Lathrop: “Pay attention.” Learn to be more systemically observant and aware. Learn to be intentionally “dumb smart” or confused like Lieutenant Columbo. Learn to become a researcher or archaeologist rather than an expert or fixer. Learn to become a duck – letting water roll off your back while you maintain a non-anxious presence, calmly skimming across the water even if your feet are paddling like crazy under the water. Learn to be systemically flexible rather than having to be right. Get a coach outside of your particular emotional field to help you learn to backwash anxiety to its source. Find new and creative ways to foster more openness in the system. Find ways to break through the sound barrier of systemic stuckness or resistance.
In October 1947, test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier by reaching supersonic speed. He afterwards observed something amazing. Right before reaching Mach 1 (the speed of sound), the plane felt like it was going to split at the seams. After breaking through the sound barrier’s resistance and turbulence, however, Yeager reported remarkable peace and stability. At the very juncture where other test pilots backed off, Yeager gave it the gas and pushed through the turbulence and got out ahead of it. Far too many pastors and churches cave in to conflict and never push though it in order to get to the other side of it.
Learn creative ways to defect in place. In the movie “Dead Poets Society,” Robin Williams plays a first-year teacher who returns to his alma mater, a prestigious New England prep school, to teach English. The prep school is what Bowen describes as a closed system. The boys are held hostage by entrenched traditions, strict rules and rigid instruction. Williams is far too open and creative for this school and he is ultimately fired, in part for teaching the boys to think for themselves. The movie ends with his entire class responding to his dismissal by standing defiantly on top of their classroom chairs, refusing to sit down. They are defecting in place. The Freedom Riders of the 1960s non-violently defected in place at segregated Southern lunch counters.
Relevant and accurate information can lower anxiety. In the movie “Hoosiers,” a small-town basketball team unexpectedly competes for the state championship in the University of Indiana arena. The rural farm boys are noticeably anxious in the daunting university arena. The coach hands a tape measure to the team’s captain, telling him to measure the court. As the boys discover the court is exactly the same size as their rural high school court, their anxiety decreases. Good information can lower anxiety.
Be mindful, however, that the forces of health should ordinarily be equal to or greater than the dysfunctional or pathological forces you seek to address (e.g., do not go to a gun fight with a knife). In “Fishing for Barracuda,” Joel Bergman suggests we learn to employ systemic jujitsu by diverting the force of aggressive persons coming at you by flipping them away from you. Learn to get several steps ahead of your opposition by finding creative ways to reframe problems and solutions.
Learn to outfox the great manipulators. Don’t take the bait, but rather put out your own bait. Learn to answer questions with questions. In Matthew 21:23-27, Jesus is in the temple having his authority questioned by the scribes. Actually it is more pernicious than that; they seek to entrap him with a clever question. Not to be seduced by this calculated tactic, Jesus says: “I will answer your question if you first answer my question. Is the baptism of John from Heaven or from men?” Jesus artfully puts them in a double-bind. They do not want to answer. After a brief meeting, they cowardly acquiesce by replying, “We do not know.” Jesus calmly replies, “Then neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Checkmate!
Learn the art of detriangulation, the process of refusing to get hooked into others’ anxiety. Pastors routinely get triangulated (there is a reason that triangulated rhymes with strangulated) by those who complain to us about others. I have found these two questions to be without equal: Have you raised your concerns directly with this person? How can I help you minister to this person?
Focus on solutions rather than on problems. In the movie “Apollo 13,” Houston engineers rush against the clock to design an oxygen filter for the stranded astronauts from materials that are only found on their disabled command module. The engineers do not have time to focus on the problem. They succeed because they focus on the solution.
Learn the art of timing and judgment. This is what Friedman calls “choosing different differences, with different people, at different times.” Choose your battles wisely. Use the core constructs of differentiation of self as lenses to assess and discern how to respond to particular persons, in particular situations, at particular times. When dealing with anxious emotional fields, one size does not fit all.
Demonstrate humility by embracing non-entitled, servant leadership. Stay connected to all in the system, but especially to the most mature. Do not focus on the proverbial squeaky wheel. Rather, learn to focus on your own functioning in the system and not on others. Explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men lost their ship and were stranded on a desolate ice flow. Yet, each morning Shackleton personally awakened his freezing, starving men by bringing them hot cups of tea because he understood the importance of staying connected to his followers. The old adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” still rings true. Shackleton put the leaders of a mutiny in his own tent.
Routinely review your family of origin genogram to remind yourself of what you learned in and absorbed from your family regarding anger, conflict, asking difficult questions, peace-keeping, connectivity, intense emotions and leadership. Ask questions that generate higher brain functioning (such as: What is our best wisdom on addressing this problem?).
Learn to distinguish between content and process, and always focus on process. Bowen understood content to be “all the various interconnecting pieces of information” in a system, whereas process describes how those pieces of information react systemically with each other. I once had a church member who was furious over the color of the new carpet the church board chose for the sanctuary (content). After processing her anger with me more deeply, however, she finally admitted the “color choice wasn’t all that bad.” What she was really angry about was that no one asked her opinion on the carpet color (process). Content is the tip of the proverbial iceberg; process is the mass of emotions hidden beneath the water.
In conclusion, one of the greatest skills of exceptional leaders is their capacity to anticipate and discern powerful homeostatic forces brewing in emotional fields and simultaneously develop effective strategies to remain free of their seductive pull. Our Lord was the Master of this, and the Gospels are replete with examples of his artful leadership. He surely had anxious emotional fields in mind when he counseled us to “be as wise as serpents – and gentle as doves.”
David Lee Jones is a fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and previous director of Austin Seminary’s doctor of ministry program. He currently serves as affiliate professor of pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.