Truisms in an Anxious System
May 22, 2018—All systems experience episodes of acute anxiety but systems manifest it differently. Relatively stable, resilient and high-functioning systems seem able to respond to episodes of acute anxiety. In contrast chronically anxious systems which lack resilience will tend to be reactive in the face of acute anxiety. That is, they have little tolerance for challenges, lack capacity for self-regulation or for imaginative responses to handle times of acute anxiety.
Chronically anxious systems share the following characteristics:
(1) They make someone in the system responsible for someone else’s functioning
(2) They are structured to inhibit the effectiveness of its leaders
(3) They develop reactive, rigid, and predictable patterns for dealing with anxiety
(4) They tend toward patterns of triangulation.
While it is more helpful to assess the emotional process at work at the systemic level it can also be helpful to observe how symptomology is being played out in the individuals in the system. When facing reactivity at the systemic level congregational leaders will need to respond to how it affects the individuals in the system. Needless to say, those individuals in the system who have a low capacity for self-differentiation and for managing their own anxiety will tend to be the most symptomatic (i.e., the ones who “act out”).
Symptomology in Anxious Systems
Here are some truisms worth remembering when dealing with reactive individuals in a system going through acute anxiety:
- Some people just need to be mad. They want their pain.
- It’s a waste of time to try to dialogue with a person in the midst of a tantrum.
- Some people just need to be “right,” regardless of the cost, and even if they are wrong.
- A chronically anxious system in the grips of acute anxiety has a tremendous capacity for self-sabotage. There will be no lack of volunteers willing to lead the way.
- Anxiety spawns triangles—even over distances.
- Anxious people lose the capacity to practice grace and will assume the worst of others.
- Persons who are “stuck” will believe what they want to believe. No amount of earnestness or data will convince them otherwise.
- It only takes one willful anxious person to kick up the reactivity in an anxious system if the healthier ones in the system do not respond with mature and principled interventions.
- A leadership vacuum leaves a system with little resources for self-regulation or vision.
- Anxiety spreads like a virus in a system that lacks immunity provided by leadership.
- During times of acute anxiety emotionality trumps rationality, even in a system full of “smart” people.
- Immature people will take any opportunity to work out their unresolved issues if given a forum.
- Trust is a gossamer thread; once severed it’s almost impossible to regain.
- Systems that are in reactivity tend to lack a capacity to hear the vision or follow the leaders it needs.
- People are hooked on the myth of information—the notion that if one has all the information it will make a difference to what needs to be done; or that more data will bring insight.
- While information reduces anxiety, for anxious people, so will misinformation.
- Chronically anxious systems facilitate regression if unchecked.
- No matter how hard you think you’ve tried to communicate process, most people will not hear most of it.
- When people give in to paranoia, guilt by association carries more weight than observable facts.
- When people lack data, they’ll fill in the blanks.
- Perception is people’s reality. And most people will see things only from their frame of reference and from their position in the system.
The job of a leader in a system caught up in acute anxiety is twofold: first, self-regulation, and second, being attentive to the emotional process in the system and providing the function it needs of its leader. Depending on the circumstance, the function of the leader can be anything from providing a corrective to acting out behavior; re-framing the issues from a principled, values, and missional perspective; empowering the calmer, more mature, more centered persons in the system; or merely providing the presence of the leader in the system (staying visible and emotionally connected).
The good news is that acute anxiety, and the reactivity it engenders is episodic. Its shelf life is as long as the length of the crisis. Leaders can be encouraged, also, by the fact that every system has some elements of health and maturity even in the midst of acute anxiety and crises. When the leader is able to focus on those, she or he can be surprised at the capacity for some in the system to step up to leadership or be a resource to the system.
To learn more about systems theory as a resource for ministry leadership attend the Leadership in Ministry workshops, part of the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.