Thursday, April 9, 2009

Church on the Couch: Does the Church Need Therapy?

I’m reading an interesting book entitled, “Church on the Couch: Does the Church Need Therapy?” The author, Elaine Martens Hamilton, thinks so. She concludes saying, “We need to tell the truth about who we really are and the struggles we face” in order to become an emotionally healthy community.

I’d like to share some of the insights from my reading. To begin with, though, I’m going to let you get a taste of a larger portion of the opening chapter to set the stage. I hope Elaine’s insights will cause you to think about yourself and challenge you as they are challenging me.


We keep saying to ourselves, “Don’t tell people who you really are because the fake you is easier to deal with.” We shut down or shut out parts of ourselves that don’t fit the picture of who we think we’re supposed to be.

We learn to filter what and how much to share in order to protect ourselves from disapproval or rejection.


Children aren't born with an impostor self. They have to learn to create one. Think about the young children you know and how they function. They don't screen their feelings or reactions. They just respond. They emote and express indiscriminately, without even thinking about it. When they are happy, they're giddy, silly, grinning from ear to ear. When they are sad, they're devastated. They sob and beg and scream. But over time, the adults in their lives teach them to respond more appropriately. Children learn that people don't want them around if they are having big feelings. So they learn to tone them down, to pull themselves together, to get over it or put a lid on it. Sound familiar?

Of course, this process of shutting down emotionally doesn't end in childhood. Most of us are still experiencing life intensely in high school. Remember how passionate you felt about things then? Causes you wanted to fight for, wrongs you wanted to right, friends you went out on a limb for, the first love you were willing to give up everything for? But over time, we learned to temper our range of emotional experience, to live less passionately, to minimize the intensity, to squash it down into this small margin of acceptable expression. By the time we're in our twenties and thirties most of us have joined the ranks of grownups who are pretending they are fine when they are really upset, pretending that it doesn't really hurt when they are rejected or ignored, and pretending their hopes and dreams no longer matter. We've learned to deny our internal experiences in order to fit in. We've become so socially acceptable, we are emotionally dead!

I'm not suggesting that emotional restraint is all bad. Learning to control your emotions and behave appropriately is important. Certainly it is not useful or healthy to throw yourself on the floor at Starbucks when your latte isn't hot enough, or scream at your family when you've had a hard day. But it seems that what most of us learned was less about dealing with our feelings in a healthy way and more about hiding them or ignoring them till they go away.

Now we are stuck in patterns of relating we have developed to keep us safe. And while they do keep us safe (no one can reject the real us if they never see it), these patterns are killing our souls. We live mired in self-protectiveness, unable to grow, create, or experience real intimacy with God or those around us. We've begun to believe our own game and embraced our pretend self as if that's all there is to us.


Tragically, when we come together in our faith communities, we bring these coping strategies with us. We gather because we long to be known, to grow and connect with one another, but many of us are so numb and disconnected that we end up circling around each other, never quite managing to create the authentic, life-giving relationships we came for. We have gotten used to being stuck and afraid together and have little or no expectation that we will experience authentic, transforming conversations with others in our faith community.

What are your thoughts?


  1. Unfortunatley I have to agree with you that we just don't share ourselves with our faith communities openly enough. Why? Fear of judgement! I as you know, am usually an open book. But I have been closed tight so many times in recent years by my fellow "sheep" that I find myself becoming harder and harder to open up. Perhaps I need to read this book you're reading.

  2. Another area of interest, keeping on the same theme...
    The development of a false-self is a very common practice in managing the emotions of teenagers today. Young people who rebel against authority figures have become increasingly diagnosed with mental illness & needlessly medicated with psychotropic drugs (paxil, prozac, celexa, etc.). It has been shown that 1 in 10 office visits leads to a prescription for mood altering medication. These medications keep people from thinking, creating and expressing their god-given talents. This form of chemical lobotimization damages individuals physically, emotionally and spiritually; thus, disconnecting oneself with others. These drugs keep one from being who they ‘really’ are, all in an effort to conform to social norms and maintain the status–quo of acceptable behavior.
    Bryan Reid

  3. I also feel there are so many of us who are living a lie. Afraid to be the person that God truly wants us to be. Afraid to live truly alive. Our feelings of false success have caused us to live for what the world thinks we should be and we have lost touch with who we were really meant to be. I call them my "Jerry McGuire moments" when I am so full of passion and conviction. I used to be ashamed of these moments usually apologizing for what I may have said or written, but now I feel that during these times it is when God is speaking to me the loudest and I am finally listening, not afraid of what others may think or say, truly living with passion. I think the world has allot of Christians but we need more Christ followers. Men and women who aren't afraid to be the person God made them to be. Men who live for making a difference not for making a profit. I think when we are truly living alive then we can really see people for who they are and begin to truly love one another. We can have a life that really is full of passion not of the false selfs and doubts that the enemy has put in us. I am not afraid to say that I once lived with all of these doubts and fears and to some point still do, but now I am trying to truly live from the heart that God has given me. To have the faith of a child before the world came in and .... well you know the rest. First we must Truly be honest with ourselves. To see the false selfs and fears that we have developed and realize, like the song says, "We were meant to live for so much more". Sorry having another Jerry McGuire moment, but I hope I can continue to live with the honesty and passion for life that I think God wants us to have. It is a great feeling but each and every day we must wake up and decide on how we want to live our life, for the world or "Fully Alive."

  4. Greg said ...

    I think that the "false self" is often developed as a conditioned survival technique. Somehow by late adolescence people often become net consumers of other people (e.g. the focus is "what can I extract from you") as opposed to "what can I give to you". The survival technique keeps a person from being completely consumed and insulates a person ... Read Morefrom situations where "what can I give" is an issue. The situation is so common almost no one sees it as a problem. I guess those that do feel the loss and then write books.

  5. I think it doesn't matter how we developed the false self. The real question is "what do we do with it?" Obviously, we need to be real with one another, but maybe that's too hard sometimes. After all, our own hearts deceive us - "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) So the bottom line is that we need help to be real. The Bible says that God helps us--"I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind . . ."(Jer. 17:10a) God knows what's truly under our mask or "false self." And He uses lots of ways to help us discover that, but I think one of the best ways is through my small group! So bring it on, groupies!

  6. well unfortunetly, I have opened up to quite a few in our church family...but no one really wants to hear it seems. I'll pray for ya and I'm thinking of ya just doesn't cut it. I have had a situation for a few years now and honestly no one in our church has stepped up to help...but it's ok..I'll get through and not really hate, cause we are all just human. But we really need to face the fact that when the problem is a hard one NOT many people want to get involved