I hit on the idea of using the letters
PRAISE to illustrate these essentially psychological concepts for
the simple reason that it was the first word I thought of that
incorporated the starting initials of the themes I wanted to
explore. Given that praise “carts off” so much of our emotional
baggage, it is perhaps a more fitting title than it at first
Once again, I hope you will find the opening quotations an inspiring
way to begin unpacking the inevitably somewhat heavy material. A
moment’s additional reflection can only be a blessing!
P The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
I Identification and Idolatry
S Shame and Suppression
T Tensions (The Neurosis of Grief )
S Substitution and Sublimination
Grief that never seems to fade, and conflicts that never resolve may
be pointers to the fact that we have developed strongly entrenched
protective mechanisms. When trouble threatens, or someone comes too
close, these spring into action, causing us to react in ways that
enable us to cope, but that others might consider inappropriate,
because they distort the “reality” of the situation.
This begs a difficult question. Is it better, in absolute terms, to
be somewhat eccentric but emotionally secure, or to be so acutely
aware of all the dynamics involved in a situation that we live on an
emotional cliff-edge? The answer lies, perhaps, in the degree to
which these “protective” mechanisms skew us away from reality. A
typical example would be the person (or couple) who knows deep down
how serious a health issue is, but who nevertheless determines to
act as though they are sure to get better.
Life is so precious that we find it hard to fully embrace the
thought that everlasting life will be still more wonderful. When
husbands and wives know deep down that death is imminent, yet choose
to keep up the pretence that it is not going to happen in order to
spare each other’s feelings, it often leaves the survivor with a
host of unresolved matters to deal with afterwards.
We saw earlier how the “Divine Anaesthetic” holds certain griefs at
bay until we are strong enough to bear them. There is a balance to
maintain here, however. As surely as some members of the medical
profession are frankly brutal in the way they communicate bad news
to people, others are inclined to disguise the seriousness of
peoples’ conditions until the very last minute – by which time their
drug-induced condition may render it too late for them to face up to
The balance favours honesty, in order to make the most of the
remaining time. I came across a most moving testimony the other day
of a prominent minister who declared that although thousands had
been praying for his wife to recover, they had come to an assurance
that she was not going to be healed. This has obviously been an
immensely distressing time for them, but they made it their explicit
aim not to look inwards – and be overwhelmed – but to focus on
loving God and serving others. Testimonies like this, that are
written in the midst of some great ordeal, somehow seem a great deal
more authentic than those which present a neatly “finished” story
because they draw the reader in to be part of the pilgrimage.
Don’t all good stories do the same? My seven-year-old son and I
recently watched Because of Winn-Dixie. The film is a
sensitive demonstration of how the power of love can pierce people’s
protective mechanisms and bring their hearts to life again.
Newly arrived in the small township of Naomi, a preacher and his
ten-year-old daughter find it a far more dispiriting place than its
pleasant name suggests. The names are ironically chosen. The
landlord of the home they rent in “Friendly” Corner is far from
friendly, and the “Open Arms Fellowship” by no means lives up to its
name. Everyone, in fact, leads miserable and lonely lives in Naomi.
No wonder, then, that the girl prays to make some friends. The
answers start when she persuades her reluctant father to adopt a
stray dog, who she came across wreaking havoc in the local
As the girl reaches out into the steely-hearted community to
overcome people’s sense of isolation, the turning point comes when
she organises a party for the community. Friendships are formed and
the village is transformed. Best of all, her father, who his
daughter had consistently referred to until now as “the preacher,”
once again becomes her “daddy.”
Keep the tissues handy but take heart from the truths this film is
pointing to: God sees our helplessness and hears our prayers – and
the power of love can reach through our protective mechanisms to
make new beginnings possible.
The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
||Once you accept the fact
that you’re not perfect, then you develop some confidence.
Someone once wrote, “that
which is written without effort is usually read without
pleasure.” High standards and hard work are essential for
turning promising starts into something truly worthwhile. If
grief hooks into perfectionist tendencies in the wrong way,
however, we can end up ensnared in an entirely false model,
striving to achieve higher standards than God is actually
asking of us. This is not only a certain recipe for
frustration, it stops us from being able to enjoy what we
already have. It can also cause us to project onto others
our dislike of things that we despise in ourselves. As Bill
Lemley reminds us,
||When nobody around you
seems to measure up, it’s time to check your yardstick.
The following excerpt, taken
from Wikipedia under Perfectionism (Psychology), will help
us to make the all-important distinction between “normal”
and “neurotic” perfectionism.
||Normal perfectionists derive
a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a
painstaking effort, while neurotic perfectionists are unable
to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never
seem to do things well enough to warrant that feeling . . .
[“Neurotic”] perfectionists are people who strain
compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals, and
who measure their own worth entirely in terms of
productivity and accomplishment. [“Normal”] perfectionism
can drive people to great accomplishments and provide the
motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and
obstacles . . .
The meticulous attention to detail necessary for scientific
investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep
working until the music realises the glorious sounds playing
in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great
artists at their easels until their creation matches their
conception all result from perfectionism.
High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show
signs of perfectionism. For example, Michaelangelo’s
perfectionism spurred him to create masterpieces such as the
statue David and the [ceiling of] the Sistine Chapel.1
As surely as we should praise
God for the skill and persistence which enable us to keep
going until our work is fully formed, it is as well to be
aware that neurotic perfectionism can lead to
procrastination – that is, putting things off because our
efforts never feel quite good enough to risk showing to
others. This is especially likely to be the case if our self
esteem is already on the low side, in which case we may be
gripped by the fear of failure and the need to earn
approval.2 These are issues that require specific prayer.
You may find these insights a helpful starting point.
||Striving for excellence
striving for perfection is demoralizing.
A man would do nothing if he waited
until he could do it so well
that no one could find fault.
Ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering,
there is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.
||The little screaming fact
that sounds through all history: repression works only to
strengthen and knit the repressed. John Steinbeck
Think of repression and we
normally associate it with the forcible subjugation of
others. Here, however, we are concerned with the specific
defence mechanism whereby people push anxious thoughts and
desires down into the depths of their subconscious.
We saw in the section on “Resisting excessive self
consciousness” that most of us are skilful at projecting the
image of themselves that we wish to convey. When enough
people mock our aspirations, however, we may choose to bury
our hurt and put on some form of a mask to keep up
appearances – rather like the actors in ancient Greek plays,
who wore masks to indicate the type of role that they were
Since our quest throughout this book has been to reach a
place of greater emotional honesty, a major part of our
efforts need to be directed towards bringing these repressed
hurts and hopes into the light of the Lord’s loving gaze –
if possible, in the company of someone with whom we feel
free to take off our mask.
One telling indication that repeated repression has caused
something to go profoundly wrong in our subconscious is when
we find ourselves deflecting attention away from ourselves
by becoming increasingly critical of others.
In acute cases, the harrowing traumas we have pushed down
resurface in our dreams, or when we are away from our usual
routines and are hence more vulnerable. So far from fearing
these “exposing” times, we are wise if we welcome them as an
opportunity to do serious business with the Lord. Human
nature being what it is, we are often tempted to skim over
issues that we find too painful to address – but specific
prayer for these situations may be required to enable us to
live an integrated life.3
It is worth being aware that the source of some people’s
grief may not lie where we expect it to. For example, the
person who sheds bitter tears in the aftermath of a divorce
or bereavement may be lamenting what had been missing in the
relationship (particularly if it had been a violent or
abusive one) rather than just missing the person who is no
If these people had been keeping most of the knowledge of
this abuse to themselves, it is only to be expected that
they experience a sharp reaction now that there is no longer
any time left in which to put things right. To avoid
descending into depression (and to risk repeating this
pattern in future relationships) it is important to
recognise what is going on. This is all part of taking the
mask off in order to get to the root of issues that have
long been repressed.
||Every form of addiction
is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or
morphine or idealism.
With the levels of gambling
and alcoholism ever on the rise, who could even begin to
estimate the grief these addictions cause? Addictions
incline people to crave for love, and to feel abandoned when
life gets tough. But where someone indulges an addiction, it
often induces a “co-dependent” reaction in other people
(usually family members) who try to “manage” the problem. In
the long run, this rarely makes it easier for the person
affected to take responsibility for their problem.
When people become over-dependent on each other, they often
begin to have considerable difficulty in considering their
own feelings in isolation from each other. Where people
constantly have to make adjustments and allowances to work
around the mood of someone with addictive tendencies, they
are sure to suppress a large measure of their own
personality in their quest to hold the family together.
This is true not only for wives and husbands, but also for
their children, who are highly likely to become ultra
sensitive in such an unpredictable and volatile atmosphere.
Deprived of anything approaching a “normal” childhood,
whilst all the time absorbing harmful influences, a large
percentage of the young people who work so hard to mitigate
the effects of alcoholic parents end up drinking too much
themselves – or indulging in what at first appears to be
“safer” options, such as an addiction to sex, shopping or
When people are tempted to conceal their activities, it is
often a warning sign that something is more seriously out of
balance than they may have wished to acknowledge. The first
safeguard is to be aware of the quantity of alcohol they are
consuming, the money they are spending, or the time they are
devoting to certain pursuits.
As we saw “Fallout for Children”, this may have left them
filling roles that children should not be expected to be
responsible for: maintaining the home and caring for the
other siblings, as well as covering up for the behaviour of
the addicted one. There is every possibility that these
victims of parental inversion may become what John Sandford
calls “peacemakers in the flesh,” – their profound
insecurity compelling them to try to make peace at any cost.
Addressing addictive behaviour is too big an issue for us to
be able to do anything here but scratch the surface. One
simple but essential safeguard for those who are caring for
people with addictive tendencies is to be sure that they
recognise their own needs, as we saw in the section “Caring
for the Carers”.
Identification and Idolatry
||Men should be what they
One of the stock situations
that great comic genius P.G. Wodehouse used in his writings
is when people impersonate someone else in order to intrude
into the hallowed portals of the fictional mansion he
created in Shropshire: Blandings Castle. Wodehouse uses this
for comic effect, and in order to further promising
In real life it nearly always causes
grief when people pretend to be other than who they really are.
I have witnessed men and women acting one way in courtship, only to
reveal entirely different aspects to their personality once they
consider themselves to be within a “safe” and established
relationship. The heartache and disappointment this causes is one
reason the more to pray to avoid becoming a hypocrite!
Identifying with what other people are going through is fundamental
to going deeper with the Lord in prayer, but the flip side of such
identification is when people seek to bolster their own sense of
well being by living vicariously through others. This nearly always
involves a degree of idolisation – typically parents, Christian
leaders, or someone else whom they have placed on an unrealistic
When something happens to lower this excessively high regard,
nothing good comes from pushing these fallen idols off the pedestal
we made the mistake of mounting them on. Beware what I call the
pedestal back flip! A much healthier response is to respond, as one
dear friend did twenty five years ago when she said, “I’m determined
not to put you on a pedestal so that we can be friends!”
Dysfunctional and controlling people do not always have a scowl on
their face. Certain people may seem only too willing to take care of
us – but the “fruit” of their so-called concern is to suffocate and
restrict us.4 There is a time for insisting on proper boundaries.
May the Lord keep us on the right side of the boundaries between
freedom and friendship on the one hand and idolatry and
co-dependency on the other.
Shame and Suppression
||A man should never be
ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong – which is but
saying that he is wiser today than yesterday. Jonathan Swift
Whereas many people may not
know what they are doing when they repress certain emotions,
some people choose to suppress them as a deliberate attempt
to keep unacceptable feelings in check. For example, if
somebody has caused you grief, you may, in turn, be
disinclined to show them any kindness. You may also choose
to not think through the implications of certain things
which are sure to have unfortunate consequences for them.
When people go a long way out of their way to avoid a
particular person or topic, it is often because a root of
shame has taken hold in their lives. Shame (“Pride’s cloak”
as William Blake tellingly termed it) is a crippling and
intimidating emotion, and whose wiles we need to be alert
to. I have written about it in more detail elsewhere, and it
is available on our web site.5 Look out in particular for
the three D’s that it can engender:
Denial, Deferral and Dismissing things that really do need
facing up to.
Shame is a profoundly negative influence that we need
setting free from, but one person, at least, found a way to
see something positive about certain aspects of it:
||The shame that arises
from praise which we do not deserve often makes us do things
we should otherwise never have attempted.
On another, and altogether
more dangerous level, Islamic militants regard shame and
humiliation as legitimate justification for resorting to
violence. Patrick Sookdheo shows in Global Jihad that
“gaining dignity is placed on a par with spreading Islamic
power as fuel for the spirit of jihad.”6 The whole world is
reeling under the impact of militants who are attempting to
take revenge for the real or imagined humiliation
perpetrated against them.
At a personal level, however, we are wise if we ask the Lord
to show us where shame has caused us to “swallow” emotions
that would be much better brought out into the open and
confessed, so that we can respond to present challenges
without being crippled by influences from the past. You may
wish to pray into these matters right away, for your soul
and spirit to be washed clean of the taint of suppressed
||Anyone desperate enough
for suicide should also be desperate enough to go to
extremes to find solutions to their problems. Richard Bach
One way in which the
subconscious adapts to lessen the pain of grief and loss is
to adopt various coping mechanisms that involve constant
repetition. Typical examples of what is commonly known as
“obsessive-compulsive behaviour” include feeling the need to
constantly wash hands, or to check that the cooker is turned
off before leaving the house.
The roots of these compulsions – which tend to make life
miserable for all concerned – often lie in an extreme form
of perfectionism. As surely as being conscientious is a good
thing, over-conscientiousness can lead to depression
and anxiety. People may be prone to such things not only
through genetic inheritance and childhood experiences, but
also as a consequence of shock (in which case it may be
temporary) or as the onset of a mental illness (in which
case clinical treatment may well be appropriate).
Mountaineers expect to experience extreme weather on high
places, and when we come across strange behavioural
tendencies – in ourselves or others – we need considerable
skill as well as courage to negotiate the descent from Mount
Extremism. Whilst fervent prayer and counsel may
occasionally set people free at one fell swoop from certain
“excesses”, the following are possible indicators that grief
has become a neurological and chemical imbalance for which
professional treatment is required.
- Excessive elation in the
aftermath of loss, alternating with major downward
spirals into an agitated depressive state. (This is
entirely different from the authentic grace that the
Lord pours out during the initial “divine anaesthetic”
- A prolonged listlessness
that causes relationships with friends and relatives to
deteriorate, and risks turning into serious depression.
- A continuing sense of
hollowness that makes people feel as though they are
acting a part rather than really “living.”
- A pronounced tendency to
blame other people for everything that is going wrong in
their lives. This often stems from having lost all
confidence in themselves. The ensuing suspiciousness,
and even hostility, can as easily be directed against
themselves as others. This, of course, inclines them to
say or do things that cause people to reject and isolate
them still more.
- A strong tendency to
harm themselves, sometimes as the result of self hatred,
but sometimes as a complicated attempt to punish others.
- Other forms of
unpredictable behaviour that range from the mildly
eccentric to the genuinely unacceptable. This may
sometimes manifest itself in acts of disproportionate
generosity, or, alternatively, extreme miserliness.
- Taking on the symptoms
or characteristics of people they are closely identified
- Exhibiting a constant
desire for sympathy, but being unable or unwilling to
- An increased likelihood
of developing diseases such as colitis and diabetes.
||Since we are exposed to
inevitable sorrows, wisdom is the art of finding
Duc le Levis
We looked earlier at some of
the ways in which people compensate against grief. To some
extent, this is a normal part of the give and take of life.
All of us can also probably think of times when, having done
something wrong, we went to great lengths to make amends.
Where this was offered out of a genuine desire to restore
relationships, all well and good. If fear is the driving
force, however, we need to be careful. Our desire to
compensate can lead us into attitudes of flattery and
inappropriate actions. Our goal, as always, is to act
prophetically, as wisdom dictates and the Lord leads us,
rather than to react defensively. Is this not something we
should pray for?
||Cats are dangerous
companions for writers because cat watching is a
near-perfect method of writing avoidance. Dan Greenburg
Those who are in denial often
put off attending to real commitments and responsibilities
in favour of either the self-preservedly mundane or the
seemingly more exciting, A man who is late with his mortgage
payments may end up gambling, initially perhaps in the hope
of winning enough to cover his debts, only to find himself
falling ever further behind. Such is the lure of gambling –
and the in-built bias in all gambling machines!
God honours those who shun delusory quick fixes and stick to
the path of duty. We dare not allow either grief or our
human reluctance to deter us from attending to matters that
really do need dealing with. Giving in to “short cuts” and
temptations merely yields ground to destructive forces that
will make it still harder for us to recover.
||Rationalisation kills the
beauty and charm of things. They are to be enjoyed,
experienced, loved and felt. If you rationalise them, you
will miss the beauty and charm and the feelings they evoke.
Sit by the seashore. Look at it. Feel its vastness. Feel the
rising up and down of the waves. Feel and be amazed at the
creation and the creator of such magnificence. What good
will it do you to rationalise about the ocean? Amma
What do we find immediately
beyond the co-dependency we looked at in “Addictions”, and
the tendency to avoid facing up to certain things that we
have also just considered? Often, the tendency to
rationalise – that is, to come up with plausible reasons to
explain behaviour for which one's real motives are either
different or unconscious.”6
In other words, we make excuses for ourselves in order to
cover up for behaviour which might otherwise appear abnormal
or even threatening. Anything that inclines towards an
opposing point of view we are likely to systematically
oppose or shut down.
When a woman continues to live with the demands of an
abusive husband, for example, her decision may owe less to
loyalty than to fear of the consequences were she to leave
or report him. She therefore goes to great lengths to
justify things that others would regard as being
For the well being of our soul, may the Lord show us where
we are in danger of “papering over cracks” when the “wall”
itself (the fabric of how we approach difficulties and
rationalise problems) needs serious overhaul.
Tension – The Neurosis of Grief
||Everything we think of as
great has come to us from neurotics. It is they and they
alone . . . who create great works of art.
“Neurotic” is the right word
to describe perhaps fifteen to twenty percent of the
population. The word frightens us, but we need not let it do
so. Neurotic people simply experience an above average
degree of inner restlessness that leaves them prone to
Since grief has many ways of flushing such sensitivities to
the surface, it is helpful to realize that there are usually
entirely logical reasons why neurotic people are as they
are. In her PhD thesis, The Highly Sensitive Person,8
Elaine Aron explains that specific physical differences can
be observed amongst the way that those who might rightly be
described as neurotic are “wired.”
Typical indicators of neurosis include an above average
tendency to worry combined with an increased inability to
control impatience and irritability. Fear of illness may be
another pointer, although it must be stressed that most
neurotics are surprisingly well able to cope with life,
despite being unusually prone to inner conflicts, doubts and
depressions, as well as absorbing a high degree of hurts and
“bruises” along life’s way.
Apart from any congenital tendencies towards neurosis, it
can develop as the result of overly critical parents –
teachers or others imposing their control on them as
children. (In many cases, this pattern continues in later
life too). People who have experienced much of this may come
to feel “on edge” whenever they find themselves caught up in
stressful arguments. This becomes so tiring that it can
seriously weaken their ability to handle challenging
situations. This is where more serious forms of neurosis can
set in, which, in turn, greatly increase the chances of them
pressing self-destruct buttons at some later stage.
Throughout this book I have encouraged prayer as a key
solution for any and every situation. Those with neurotic
tendencies often make exceptional intercessors, their sensitivity
enabling them first to pick up and then to reflect back to
God burdens that others have failed altogether to pick up.
This is precious to the Lord, but it does carry with it the
risk of “overloading” that we looked at in the section of
“Burden bearing in the Spirit.” When those of us with
neurotic tendencies pray about inner compulsions, there is a
risk that it can make us still more obsessive.
A simple technique that has helped many is to wear some sort
of simple wristband, twanging it sharply each time we
realise that our thoughts have gone into an unhelpful
spiral. This can help to jolt our mind out of its obsession
and to restore the flow of faith – providing this does not
become a form of obsession itself of course!
Maybe this would make a novel use for a ‘What would Jesus
Substitution and Sublimination
||I believe the single most
significant decision I can make on a day-to-day basis is my
choice of attitude. It is more important than my past, my
education, my bankroll, my successes or failures, fame or
pain, what other people think of me or say about me, my
circumstances, or my position.
Attitude keeps me going or cripples my progress. It alone
fuels my fire or assaults my hope. When my attitudes are
right, there is no barrier too high, no valley too deep, no
dream too extreme, no challenge too great for me. Charles
Most people find grief
disconcerting because they do not know how long some
particular phase is going to last. We considered in
“The Sacrament of the Present Moment” the importance of
trusting the Lord from day to day to give us the necessary
grace to emerge beyond our grief and wistfulness into
renewed inner freedom.
I discovered the other day that to “sublimate” means not
only “to chemically extract a substance,” but also to
“refine and purify it”. Often when we find ourselves going
through times of great difficulty I pray, “Lord let there be
interest on the trouble. Bring more glory through it than if
it had never occurred!”
Many who have experienced serious loss often succeed in
channelling their energies into public campaigns in order
that others may be spared unnecessary grief. For example, a
mother whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver
launched what has now become a highly influential
organisation: Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD).
What better response can there be than to redirect our
energies towards nobler and more ethical goals?
Discovering where the Lord would have us redirect our
creativity is important both for gaining a new focus in
life, and to avoid focusing our love and attention in
inappropriate places. We looked at positive examples of this
at the start of Part Six, but some men take refuge in their
minds by endowing inanimate objects with erotic qualities.
The technical term for this is fetishism. The word is most
commonly associated in people’s minds with tabloid
revelations of extreme sexual practices, but the roots by
which fetishism acquires a pathological hold in the mind
usually predate any one specific loss.
Psychologists tell us that most of these foci provide a safe
outlet for hostile and depressive emotions, but it is as
well to take into account that once intense and obsessional
yearnings acquire a prominent a place in our hearts, they
are capable of dominating and enslaving our whole way of
Bearing in mind our tendency to become like the thing we
worship, if we allow a substitute image to become more
important to us than “real” relationships, how can this fail
to develop a barrier between the free flow of God’s Spirit
and our inmost heart?
Some bereaved people chide themselves for thinking too much
about the physical act of love, not realising how normal
When one is happily married, the physical act of marriage
falls into place as a part of one’s total life. That is as
it should be. But the soldier lost in the desert can think
only of water . . . What we must not do is to assume that
the only right way to handle the problem of physical longing
is to somehow get rid of it altogether.
Such repression can be a carry-over from an abnormal
Puritanism. . . The solution, at least for a given period of
an individual’s life, may lie in the re-channelling of the
creativity that is sexual energy.9
Some, however, fuelled by the twin desires of avoiding
loneliness, and proving that they can still initiate and
maintain a relationship, plunge into intense new liaisons
before they have recovered enough to be able to sustain it.
Though this is by no means always the case, this longing to
be remarried can, in the first instance, be a “mental
concept” rather than a profound longing to spend the rest of
their life with a specific person. If left unchecked, these
powerful desires can lead to a trail of short-term
relationships that cause more harm than good – a cycle that
is likely to repeat itself until areas of weakness and
woundedness are brought to the Cross.