For all those who have hung in with me through this long and deep series- thank you! I had hoped to get to the more practical side of things sooner, but the topic also took on a life of its own. This is the segment where we dig a little deeper and hopefully expose some of the covert flesh.
As a reminder, the flesh is the shadow side or disowned parts of ourselves, not a single part or aspect of ourselves. The flesh is a category of thoughts, feelings, and experiences that have been disowned due to shame or anxiety. These parts of our self that we cut off then begin to take on a life of their own. This installment will be taking a look at the different ways in which the flesh forms and influences. This isn’t an exhaustive list but it is a few of the major categories.
Unacceptable Thoughts and Feelings
Our first category is probably the most significant and actually believed to be the source of much of people’s pain and dysfunction. As I pointed out in the last blog, when we cannot accept the darker parts of ourselves we are forced to deny and repress them.
Ruth explains that often Christians demonstrate a propensity to view emotions as having moral value. In other words, some emotions are acceptable and others aren’t which means that the natural occurring “unacceptable” emotions must be repressed and denied.
Allender and Longman argued that emotions are the cry of our soul and if we fail to listen to them we are cutting ourselves off from critical information about ourselves and our relationship to God. “Therefore, we must view the ups and downs of our emotional life not as a problem to be resolved, but as a cry to be heard…”
I’ll never forget one of my first clients. She was getting married in a few months and found that she was having lustful thoughts toward other men. She said that it would get at its worst on Sunday mornings and felt it was an attack from the enemy. Her response was to fiercely rebuke these thoughts and pray to God to protect her from these attacks. I had met with her once before a while back and knew she was both prone to shame and had a great many experiences and emotions that were categorized as “unacceptable.” For a variety of reasons I was convinced that this was not an attack from Satan but a manifestation of her doubts about marriage and a surfacing of some common feelings of attraction to other men that were amplified by these doubts.
Having these thoughts on Sunday was particularly shameful to her and it became a bit of an obsession to fend them off. Her anxiety over the “lustful thoughts” and the focus she was placing on them was causing them to manifest and stick around even more strongly- the more you focus on something the more it will stay in your mind.
I didn’t think she was ready to hear my appraisal. But I did think if I could inject a little grace into her life and help her understand that doubts about marriage were normal that it would go a long way in helping her, even if she didn’t know why. Without explaining my rationale, I encouraged her that the appearance of those intrusive thoughts was not as important as what she did with them and we talked about the anxiety that often comes with getting married. As this became normalized, she was able to recognize that she was anxious, something she denied before, and seemed comforted by the idea that many people go through this. After that session, she didn’t experience the “lustful thoughts” on Sunday mornings again.
Bad core beliefs
Core beliefs about who we are develop very early on in life. They are often, though not necessarily, a reflection of how we experience our caregivers’ experience of us. A bad core belief is generally a belief that “I am not good enough” or “I am easily rejectable.” This belief grows and takes on a life of its own. It resists God’s grace and unconditional love, often finding expression in legalism. People with these beliefs often develop a performance based worth that manifests as perfectionism, people-pleasing, co-dependency, and a host of other harmful coping strategies.
Because we are wired to be relational and these beliefs often come from interactions with our caregivers, the critical voice that we hear often feels as if it is coming from outside ourselves. As if the high standards or criticism reflects what others think rather than understanding that the origin of those beliefs is of our own making. I often refer to the experience as an imaginary jury that we carry around with us.
So do we own our negative attitudes toward ourselves? Yes and no. This part of ourselves must be owned in order to be confronted. Until we recognize that the jury is our own creation it has too much power and autonomy. When we recognize it as a rogue part of ourselves we can begin to challenge its validity.
In all my years as a therapist I never encountered such a powerful critical voice as I did with Robert. It was on the verge of being almost audible to him, experienced as not part of himself and very abusive- using crude language and insults from his childhood that would wound him deeply. Tragically, Robert had viewed this voice as God for years- it was God’s displeasure in his sin. He was a leader in the church and understood all the verses about God’s love and taught about it regularly. The critical voice had become such a part of his life, resulting from a core belief of shame that he never questioned God being hurtful, punitive, and abusive. After many sessions of exploring grace and his own performance based worth, he was able to see God for who He truly was and the voices disappeared, only returning on rare occasions when under a significant distress.
Racism, sexism, and bias of all kinds are the “flesh.” They are precisely the things that prompt us to do what we do not want to do, as Paul says.
People say that there is some truth in every stereotype, that’s why they exist. The problem is that the more we saturate ourselves with stereotype the more they become unconscious heuristics for making judgments and decisions. Even if the stereotype is 90% true, that doesn’t tell you about the individual in front of you, but it will inform you on an unconscious level if you are saturated in that stereotype.
There is a stereotype that Asians are better at math, suppose that began to inform hiring decisions. Any position that required extensive math skills, Asians were given priority. Imagine that this went on without anyone consciously making that decision. If you aren’t Asian, I imagine that would be very troubling, but this is what happens with stereotypes.
There is clear evidence that implicit bias exists regarding women and people of color. Let’s go back to my Asian example, if you aren’t Asian and really want an engineering job how would you feel? How would you feel if you knew the odds were stacked against you in spite of your ability, imagine that this is something clearly seen yet you are deemed crazy for talking about it. Would you become angry? Would you become despondent? What’s worse, facing this invisible wall or being told your crazy for running into it?
Our expectations affect our perceptions. If I told you to glance at the faces in the picture above, you’d most likely see faces, but if I asked you to look at the vase, you’d likely see a face. There are thousands of this kinds of “priming” exercises. When we expect something we often see it.
How we speak, even in jest affects how we think. When our language reflects bias, it impacts how we think, feel, and see the world. Language matters, whenever my clients come in and tell me “everyone” thinks I’m stupid or “everyone” laughed at my idea, I immediately ask who “everyone” is. The difference between saying everyone or my two friends has a world of difference and it actually feels significantly different when spoken. Language impacts our emotions and perceptions. Studies have indicated that our thoughts not only reflect our language but our language actually shapes our thoughts.
Zinker states that “Every person is pregnant with projections…In pathological projection, the impotent person colors the world as castrating, the angry person colors it destructive, the cruel person colors it sadistic…every person colors the world with his inner life.” It’s this coloring that creates or assists in our conscious and unconscious adoption of bias beliefs.
Bias often unconsciously prompts us to act in very unloving ways.
Next week we will take a look at how we combat these parts of ourselves that have gone rogue as a result of shame and the Fall.
**** If you’re interested in discovering some of your own implicit bias, there is a great free online research project that utilizes a very reliable and researched method of identifying unconscious bias- https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
Next Wednesday: Fighting the Flesh (Flesh Series Part 5)