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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

The Danger of Focusing on People’s Motives

Years ago, I read C. Ellis Nelson’s Don’t Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide ( New York: Paulist Press 1978). At the time, it was a counterintuitive challenge to a commonly held belief that we should let our conscience be our guide.

Nelson sought to show that conscience is an unreliable guide to the Christian faith because it is formed during infant and child socialization. He outlined a theory of how the conscience is formed that recognized the importance of both the “negative conscience” (with guilt as a central orientation) and the “positive conscience” (consisting of an ego ideal).

Nelson challenged an uncritical belief, namely, that one’s conscience provides a reliable moral center. For example, there is a point of intersection between one’s emotional maturity, capacity for self-differentiation, and spiritual maturity. False piety is the last refuge of the willful, and the content of spiritual language often masks many sins.

Knowing how to discern the difference between the content of speech and behaviors and one’s function in relationships allows us to respond better to those whose relationship with the church is too wrapped up in issues of pseudo-self or unresolved family-of-origin problems they are trying to work out in the congregational system.

Because religion and beliefs do not trump biology, questioning people’s motives is not very helpful. Regardless of our desire to believe otherwise, most of us are driven more by our emotions than our rationality.

The brain’s “Job 1” is survival, physical, and then existential. The amygdala is the first organ in the brain to develop fully at birth and is the only organ in the brain not connected to the cortex. This walnut-sized organ at the base of our brain (just behind the eyeballs) generates emotions associated with memories and experiences (fear, anger, threat (fight/flight), etc.).

However, because it is not directly connected to the parts of our brain that process cognition, it is challenging to connect thinking with feeling when anxious. 

During times of acute anxiety, reflecting on what we are experiencing and how it influences our functioning is almost impossible. This is, by design, a good thing.

In the face of threat, we want our amygdala to induce alertness, get the adrenaline pumping, and startle us into flight rather than allow our frontal lobe to engage in analysis or become fascinated or enthralled with the drama of whatever we are facing.

Most people are not aware enough of the cause (the internal emotional process) of their behaviors, feelings, or actions to understand their motivation. Some years ago, I heard one of the most mature, educated, and rational church members say to me, after getting caught up in the passions of a church crisis, “I don’t know what happened to me. I just went crazy.” 

Focusing on guessing people’s motives becomes a form of mindreading. Most of us aren’t smart enough to know what motivates us to do the things we do, either.

So, focusing on how a person functions is more helpful than what he or she says. In other words, focus on emotional process and functioning in context, not on content (what people say or how they behave), and allow people their right to go crazy every once in a while.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Dr. G. & Friends