- Written by Margaret Bernhart
Everything is turned upside down. Life is the opposite from what it should be — what we deeply long for. We are catapulted from the secure, soothing cadence of a mother’s heartbeat to startled breath, bright lights and cold air. By design we adjust to our new environment with insatiable curiosity, exploration, wonder and awe. Moments are magical, days longer than 24 hours, dreams so profuse it would be easier to capture all the stars in the sky. Imagination turns clouds into animals, raindrops into pearls and sunbeams into rays of tiny dancing ballerinas. For the child the simple becomes sacred. Fairy tales, magic wands and ruby slippers speak of the hope, dreams and desires that live inside each of us – a sacred hope that lies beyond this world.
Within a few short years the drama of the playground begins to rival fairy tales with not so happy endings. We are not chosen for a team because of our looks. We are bullied and picked on for no apparent reason. Our best friend rejects us or, worse, betrays our secret confidences. Emotionally, most of us are not that far from elementary school and life has not changed since those impressionable years on the playground. To survive the painful realities of a broken heart, we grow up becoming polished with an aplomb that exudes confidence, yet less penetrable, less honest, more chameleon-like and superficial. And sadly, we extinguish the dreams and wonder of childhood. The desire to rest in relationships, a hunger for acceptance and a longing to be transparent are seen as the naive musings of a child. And because of the dilemma of living in a diabolical world, we choose a variety of approaches that satisfy our illusion that we can control life and thus evade the pain of desiring, hoping and risking. Would it not be fair to say that we become less than human?
There is, however, a secret hidden in our less-than-human management of life and it reveals something about our true nature and our Creator-God. I categorize these unhealthy attempts at handling life as the Regulator, Stoic, Peacekeeper, Perfectionist and Martyr.
Refusing to acknowledge their inadequacy to manage a tumultuous world, they in turn try to control all that is in their sphere of influence including people, things and even the emotional atmosphere. They may take charge in subtle or overt ways by giving advice without it being requested, taking over conversations and situations, monitoring others feelings and inappropriately taking charge of change in others lives. They feel responsible (and this is the key) for most everything and everyone. Failure within their sphere of influence is a reflection upon themselves. The illusion of control and burden of responsibility defends them against feeling the pain of others and a sense of helplessness in effecting change. With this orientation Regulators tend to worry and struggle with going off duty. Often in childhood they had to fill a vacuum for parental lack in supervision, structure or role. The result is a childhood lost and an inability to learn rest in the safe confines of parental love, nurture and structure. Because of this, they often see God as smaller than themselves or not on duty at all. However, in their longing to eliminate chaos and create order, they actually reflect God’s sovereignty (His rule over all creation) – what we will experience when perfect order reigns.
Skeptical and unemotional, this individual is difficult to read, yet often strong and stable in a crisis. They may have a heart of gold, but their calm, cool demeanor feels more detached and distant, then warm and involved. Less empathetic and more logical, the Stoic protects his heart from pain by avoiding relationships of substance and sacrificial involvement. It is a dreadful risk to express what their heart desires most. Though they may accumulate knowledge, the Stoic is often unable to make it work in their own life because there is a deep schism between their heart and head. Their childhood is often devoid of nurture. The development of person hood is impeded because tasks are stressed over relationship. Emotions were not generally esteemed. Stoics often see God as distant and unengaged. Relationship with God focuses more on duty than on intimate friendship. They mirror God’s strength, immutability (unchanging nature) and silence.
Their diplomatic nature is an asset in working with others and promoting reconciliation, yet they often compromise doing what is right for the sake of peace. Peacekeepers are merciful and sensitive to others, yet offer subtle control through rescuing to palliate the suffering of others and thus themselves. They are your typical “nice guy or gal” who moves out of guilt to meet others expectations and thus avoid conflict. Setting boundaries and saying “no” can be agonizing. In their anger at an unjust and painful world, they refuse to see how struggle is implicit in the growth of others and themselves. A Peacekeeper can actually retard the growth of their children as their smothering causes their children to rely upon them rather than take responsibility for their own actions. The childhood of a Peacekeeper has been marred with conflict and they have often felt in the middle of two warring factions. They have seen how being “good” eliminates conflict by allowing them to be invisible in the family. Peacekeepers focus on the compassion of the gospel and may feel closer to Jesus than the other members of the Trinity. They can be uncomfortable with God’s strength and justice and may feel He appears unfair. Their longing for peace in relationships gives us a glimpse of God’s reconciling nature and tender mercy.
Flawless personal behavior and high morals is their response to a chaotic universe, often berating themselves for the standards they can’t meet. Driven, anxious and prone to edit their speech to obscure their humanity, Perfectionists have difficulty distinguishing between excellence and perfection. No project is ever good enough and no one can execute as well as them. Unrealistic standards and criticalness of others leads to their inability to delegate. Life and relationships carry pressure as they have to live up to certain unobtainable ideals. It is as if they are always standing at attention. Relaxation and transparency are oxymorons for a Perfectionist, because their weaknesses and inadequacies will be exposed. Their childhood is often fraught with never being able to please a critical parent whose standards are beyond what is appropriate for a child. An environment of conditional love is prominent and love is withheld as a form of punishment. Anger is common in a Perfectionist’s home, causing them to perform in order to avoid conflict at the expense of relationships. Their relationship with God mirrors their family message as they feel unrealistic expectations from Him more than they can embrace the gift of forgiveness and unconditional love. This leads to arrogance either cocky in nature or chastising oneself, both predicated on the illusion of perfection and actually cover for great insecurity. The Perfectionist loses sight that their very nature is flawed and that they will never live up to God’s exacting holiness. They are trapped for they can’t acknowledge their great need for forgiveness without letting the walls of polished illusion crumble, exposing their depraved humanity. They imitate God’s holiness in their attempts to be as perfect as God.
We think of a martyr as a historic figure who was persecuted and suffered the loss of their life for their convictions. In the same way that the previous four approaches seek to fill a void left by an unmanageable world, the Martyr follows suit by using passivity and self motivated sacrifice as a disguise for control. They refuse to make decisions and choices, leaving them helpless victims to the consequences of their lethargy. By having decisions made for them they can avoid responsibility and ultimately failure. Forfeiting their self and the opportunity for growth, their identity becomes tied to what others think (again to blame someone else for their inaction). Living life for others and using manipulative sacrifice to secure relationship, their relational dance mimics a bloodsucking leech who gains their sustenance from a living host. They offer few boundaries as they allow others to take up the cause of saving their life. Martyrs seem to always be just surviving having little hope and few plans for the future. The family environment for the Martyr replicates the powerlessness they exude with either an overbearing parent that took responsibility away from them or with an angry and abuse parent that massacres their soul. Often their life had episodes of victimization and trauma. Their view of God is one who doesn’t protect, doesn’t have a purpose for their life and thus they feel lost in the universe. Sacrifice of self and kindness to ingratiate, though inappropriate, models God’s perfect sacrificial love on our behalf.
Desperate attempts at playing God mark the approach of the five types as we try to regulate what can’t be managed (a sphere for only God to govern). Our striving masks a sacred hope that we were made for something more – the freedom to be forgiven and accepted, to know rest in the deepest sense, to offer extravagant love that costs us something. Confronting our inadequacy and compulsion to control can lead us to repentant brokenness, where we have an opportunity to be captured by the glory and tender embrace of the gospel. Larry Crabb summarizes the freedom to live:
Beyond wanting an anorexic to eat well again and an obsessive to stop washing his hands so often…science has no way to decide what constitutes a healthy soul or psychological normalcy, I agree. Soul health is a matter to be explored by theology. Augustine defined abnormality as a soul “caved in on itself.” Paul consistently likened spiritual maturity to the manner in which Jesus conducted Himself. I’ve hung my hat on the following definition: people are normal to the degree that they are happily ruled by the internal disposition toward radical other-centeredness, just like the three Persons of the Trinity. Whatever gets in the way is pathological. Therefore, psychopathology is coterminous with falleness, not with specific sins, but with the disposition to cave in on oneself. It is abnormal to be ruled by a drive that uses others for our own well-being. Whenever that disposition is in control, whether in anorexia or an entrepreneurial spirit, it is evidence of a soul pathology. And it’s a spiritual problem that will yield only to a spiritual solution, one that centers on the death of Christ. The solution is salvation, which is far more than escape from hell; it is the freedom to live (AACC Journal 2002, vol. 10 #4).
The good news of freedom from God’s righteous judgement sets us on a journey to tear off the protective layers and to become more human, recovering our childlike hunger for relationship, transparency and acceptance and to once again hope, laugh and wonder. Our deepest longings are a road map telling us we were made for a better place where fairy tales do come true.