Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Not to Sabotage Your Efforts

One of the objectives of the class I'm taking this summer is to develop a personal awareness of the ways one is most likely to sabotage relationships. Well, specifically, cross-cultural relationships with people who happen to be Muslims. Seems a lot of us get a little touchy when others - Muslims, or anyone - look at the world very differently than we do, open their mouths and talk about what they think and feel, and reject or even criticize things about how we think and feel. We think we're being attacked. We may have the same reactions in marriage, or getting along with our coworkers, or being riled up about things on the evening news or passed around on Facebook.

One of our books includes a chapter called "How Not to Sabotage Your Efforts to Reach Muslims." As the author points out, Christian books about reaching Muslims tend to externalize the tension we feel, as if Muslims are the problem, and if they just wouldn't be so Muslim we wouldn't be so upset about things. But if Muslims are just being themselves, do we have to get ourselves upset about it?

It shouldn't surprise us that people sabotage their efforts to reach Muslims the same way they - or should I say we - sabotage all kinds of efforts and relationships. If we are upset, likely our communication and behavior is going to be effected. And underneath that agitation are unhelpful thought patterns like these:
  • Demandingness: absolute shoulds, oughts, musts, “have to’s”, and needs (I need to be perfect, people have to listen to me, they shouldn't reject me if I tell the truth, etc.) 
  • Awfulizing: believing that something is terrible, horrible, or awful (maybe dwelling on and inflating something negative and being unable to accept or let go of it).
  • Low frustration tolerance: believing that you can’t stand something, that it is too much, or intolerable. (thus increasing your own sense of psychic pain - you think it's more than you can take and will make you explode or crumble or something).
  • Self-downing: believing that the self is no good, beyond hope or redemption.
  • Other-downing: believing that someone else or a group of others is no good, beyond hope or redemption.
  • Overgeneralization: believing about a situation, person, or group that it will always be a particular way or will never change.
Source: Reaching Muslims with Love and Logic, by Matthew Stone.

I don't know about you, but I recognize those thoughts as pretty familiar ones. And they sabotage me in life, generally, and especially in relationships.

When our emotions are those of anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, and fear - rooted in such thought patterns - we then engage in unhelpful behaviors like defensiveness, blame, aggression, avoidance, rudeness, and dwelling on the negative. Those kind of emotions and behaviors may be normal and seem justified, but they don't help build relationships, do they? So we need to find a way to deal with those emotions and behaviors - and the thoughts that lie beneath them - if our goal is to build effective relationships or have a "ministry."

I found it helpful to hear my professor, who is a practicing psychologist, talk about "upsetting ourselves" instead of "being upset." That kind of language helps me take responsibility for my own emotions and emotional reactions - I have to acknowledge that nobody is forcing me to be upset, to worry, to be stressed out. Those things are not mandatory.

One problem, he said, is that we don't have an effective theory of emotions. Most people believe that circumstances, people, or the way we are raised are the causes of our emotions, despite the fact that research and other sources of authority (e.g., the Bible) do not support this theory. So our instructor offered us what he called the "ABC model of emotions." This is easy. I think I remember it. And, in digging a little deeper, I see it comes from cognitive behavioral therapy.

A = Activating event, or trigger. The situation or experience (past, current, or anticipated).
B = Beliefs about that event. Thoughts we have when the situation or experience happens.
C = Consequences. Our responses, both emotions and behavior.

Most people believe A causes C. (e.g., that situation frustrates me; that person makes me mad, etc). But A triggers B, and B causes C. Our emotions and behaviors are largely caused by our thoughts and beliefs about the way things are supposed to be. And that is good news, because we can't change other people and often cannot change our situation. While changing our thinking is difficult, it can be done if we're honest with ourselves about what we think, willing to work at thinking differently, and ask for God's help in doing so.

So, how can we avoid sabotaging our relationships and other efforts? Stop and consider what things are getting us upset - or, more precisely, what things we are upsetting ourselves about. What are our unhelpful responses when we are upset? What are we thinking? Is what we are thinking true? Is there another way to think about it or something else we can focus on that might be more productive?

Note: I've queued up several more posts on significant ideas from my latest grad school class - come back tomorrow for the next one. 

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