I recently read The Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes. The book looks at the ways we become lost in life and how we can rediscover a path that brings us alive.
In the chapter on the “Gift of Temptation,” Elnes writes about what he calls the human flaw of pride and shame, “both of which convince us that we are separate from God, either because we are smarter than God or because we are so unworthy of God’s love and therefore must create our own path through life.” (120) It got me thinking about two relationship mechanisms from Bowen Family System’s Theory: overfunction and underfunction.
When anxiety in the family system increases, there are automatic, behavioral mechanisms humans use to manage a rise in tension. As one person becomes uncomfortable with the rising level of tension in the relationship system, they begin to take on more responsibility for the challenge. In other words, they end up doing for others what others can do for themselves.
Most clergy overfunction. As anxiety rises in a congregation, clergy step in and take on more responsibility. It’s an automatic response to the rising tension in the congregation. Why do people do this? Because it reduces their internal level of anxiety. They have picked up the anxiety of the group, and now they have to do something with it. Clergy (or anyone) who overfunction are seen by others in the system as control freaks or too authoritarian. However, we forget that individuals do not overfunction in a vacuum. They are responding to what is going on in the relationship system.
Overfunctioning is half of a reciprocal relationship process. For one person to overfunction, someone else needs to underfunctioning. It’s like a dance. In a marriage, when anxiety rises, one person steps up to be more responsible. The other gives up self (or their level of functioning) so that the one can overfunction. It can also begin when one person’s functioning declines in response to an anxious situation. The other will then step in to take over more responsibility for the relationship. Either way, once the dance has begun, it’s difficult for either partner to change their functioning. They both fear it will create more problems if they change the way they behave.
Most families and congregations have some version of over/under reciprocal functioning in the relationship system. It’s a fact of life. Some manage it better than others. Occasionally, someone will decide to change the way they participate in the dance. They’ll make a move to function differently. It puts everyone in the system into a temporary state of crisis as the fear response (which created the relationship problem in the first place) becomes elevated. But, if one can maintain their new position, without reacting back or going back, the relationship system can adjust for the better.
Those who overfunction in response to anxiety may experience what Elne's calls pride. A feeling of pride is connected to the emotional drive to make things happen, take responsibility for a person or group, or solve other people’s problems. Likewise, those who underfunction may experience what Elne's calls feelings of shame. They may feel like they are not worthy of stepping up and doing better. They may feel that they are less than human. Feelings have a way of locking into place behaviors in the relationship system, convincing everyone in the system that the way we automatically behave is the only way.
It is challenging to step back and become aware of how fear drives this process in the relationship system. When we are afraid, yes, we are tempted to be prideful or feel ashamed. When we are afraid we may automatically move into a position of overfunction or underfunction; not because there is something wrong with us but because of the way the relationship system automatically responds to fear.
When we are able to disrupt the automatic, emotional responses, even for a moment, we expose our fear. When we stop automatically solving other people's problems, we provide ourselves an opportunity to "see" our fear. When we find the motivation to raise our level of functioning, we provide an opportunity to "see" our fear.
From this vantage point, we can think about how our best self can respond to a challenge and not just be reactive. This idea is similar to what Eric Elnes says is the temptation to act before God acts. By toning down the automatic, we are able to discern our next steps forward. It's a time for listening, reflecting, and thinking!
The next time you feel yourself automatically stepping up or shutting down, ask yourself these question:
- What do I need to do to step back at this moment?
- What will it take for me to wait before I respond?
- What is my automatic response to this situation?
- What am I afraid of?
- What will happen if I don’t act or don’t act right now?
- Is that fear real or perceived?
- Who in my family responds the way I do?
- How is their reaction a product of the family system?
- What will it take for me to respond differently?
- How will I preserve in my effort to respond differently despite the pressure from others not to change?