Navigating a New Anxiety
Through a second and deeper pass at Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, I found myself focused on how self-differentiation manifests in the context of realistic issues that leaders face today. As a quick recap, Friedman’s work is classified within the social science field of psychology and is aimed at empowering leaders of today to embrace self-differentiation as a key leadership tool. By becoming a well-differentiated leader, one is able to guide through various circumstances that are often riddled with anxiety, sabotage, data overload, and dysfunctional emotional systems. In short, Friedman defines differentiation as “the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self,” and “refers more to a process than a goal that can ever be achieved” (194). In digging in deeper to the book this round, two topics emerged in a new light: the chronic and systematic anxiety surrounding a leader and the necessity for a leader to move intentionally from empathy towards responsibility.
While anxiety is nothing new to our society, its prevalence across generations, geographical boundaries, vocational spaces, and family systems has never been so high. Friedman states that this chronic anxiety in society has spurred an “emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership” (59). It has become clear that simply finding solutions to problems does not alleviate the anxiety that exists within institutions across all spectrums (66). Whether from a data overload, need for togetherness over individuality, or individuals having developed within an unregulated family system, I would consider the systematic anxiety that leaders face today to be one of the most significant challenges to navigate.
Likewise, personal responsibility seems to be less emphasized as a necessity for growing adults which then limits the ability for the institution to function at full capacity. Friedman argues that this emphasis on empathy over responsibility is a significant emotional barrier to reorienting leadership today (143). He states that, “the focus on empathy rather than responsibility has contributed to a major misorientation in our society about the nature of what is toxic to life itself” (143). In the desire to connect and identify with all people, we are losing the ability to guide individuals towards taking responsibility for themselves. In doing so, this chronic and systematic anxiety will only continue as it is only after a system is regulated emotionally that true empathy can function in a healthy manner (146). Through the well-intended objective of empathizing, a new system of obstacles is cultivated for an institution in which personal responsibility is taken off the table as a means to contribute towards the collective health. It is when a leader is able to successfully lead individuals towards responsibility that the negative impacts of chronic and systematic anxiety are alleviated.
It is no surprise to me that these two themes have surfaced through this reading as I find myself confronted with them daily working in the field of higher education. I often see how the desire to make students feel understood and known on a deep level, albeit well-intended, can inadvertently provide them with an excuse from learning and/or practicing the necessary skill of personal responsibility. Read any higher education publication and it is full of statistics and examples of how the education system is overloaded with students’ diminishing mental health, increased anxiety, and challenged to navigate even the simplest of processes – even before a global pandemic hit. And at the same time, I recognize that the state of society and the world that I was in during my collegiate days is drastically different from what they experience today and have grown up in. I entered college just a year after 9/11, received my first cell phone as a high school graduation present, Columbine was the only school shooting I can remember over that time period, the internet was still dial-up, and the first social media account (MySpace) was still years from being launched. So I find myself today, now a higher-level leader at an academic institution, wrestling with continuing to become well-differentiated while also trying my best to usher this new generation into the same. As I do so, I find myself asking a few questions:
- What does it look like for me as a Christian leader to equip and empower students towards responsibility, even when that may not appear to look like the ‘loving’ thing to do?
- How do I acknowledge the impacts of this current global anxiety-producing climate these students are navigating while still guiding towards hope, freedom, and stability?
- Within so many unknowns and ‘unprecedented’ changing circumstances, how can I remain differentiated and a non-anxious presence?
Reviewing the other literature we looked at last semester and are diving into these next few months, I am excited to discover more of how Friedman’s work connects to everyone from Poole’s practical leadersmithing concepts to Winchester’s discoveries of the importance of mapping. As with much of what we are reading, Friedman’s encouragement that well-differentiation is a process and not an end goal is what I hope to keep in view as I navigate all that is ahead.
14 responses to “Navigating a New Anxiety”
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Kayli, such a well written post, as usual! Thank you for giving insight into the challenges of differentiation within the educational field. As I reread the book, I thought Friedman would face great challenge and may even considered a “hater” by many today due to his blunt confrontation of anxious systems wherever they exist. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt the need was for personal responsibility for a student but they wanted the toxic kind of empathy you describe in your post? If so, how do you proceed in what sounds like a delicate context to navigate? P.S. praying for healing and strength!!
Hi Roy: How I wish I didn’t face so many situations of empathy vs responsibility in my work, but it is rather consistent. Part of that though is natural in that these students are still growing and changing rapidly. While technically classified as an adult, the amount of change that happens between 18-24 is significant. I have found the best tactic in walking with students is to begin with empathy in hearing their story, fears, anxieties, and history and then holding the mirror up in appropriate places to ask them how they imagine navigating whatever it is their facing. One of the things I start off with during any orientation is to let my students know that I have no problem with letting them make mistakes and fail in their given context & how it is a valuable learning tool. Over time, I have seen how doing just that guides them more towards responsibility than if I had intervened.
Each student is very different and their needs are very different so I’ve learned more than anything to rely on discernment from the Holy Spirit as I walk with a student and not feel the need to fix anything or say more than I feel prompted to. More often than not, they just need a safe place to share and ask questions they have never navigated before.
Kayli: Interesting insights from someone in the world of higher education. You pose good questions about how to best demand students take responsibility for themselves. It’s a line that needs to be walked tactfully as Friedman points out. The need for differentiated leadership is necessary in higher education, business, ministry. . . all segments of society. The one who practices this leadership successfully will stand out in their profession. Since you have been involved in other jobs, do you find your leadership style varies, depending upon the place?
Hi Troy – I’ve just celebrated 9 years in higher education which feels like a lifetime 😉 However, the other vocations I’ve been in have largely been in high-relational contexts (non-profits, recovery, mental health) so I don’t know that I could speak much to a differing leadership style as they feel very similar. I think ultimately who you are as an individual shapes your leadership and while different sectors pose new challenges, we can go back to Walker’s encouragement of it being best to lead out of who we are in any of those situations.
I think you are asking some powerful questions. One of the things I have wondered about this pandemic and this perpetual state of uncertainty and disruption is how many people will continue to live out this pattern in their life even after we are beyond the pandemic. In other words, how long will chronically anxious people continue the characteristics of this pandemic, uncertainty, and disruption, as a normal mode of life even when everyone else has moved on?
And, what is our role as leaders to help people recognize that chronic anxiety and what to do to alleviate it>
Andy, I’d imagine like most things, they will continue to live in patterns and behaviors that may be unhealthy for them until the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.
Well done. I love that you are filtering this reading through your lens of higher education. I can only imagine that your personal circumstances might also further inform you in your engagement with students and considering the questions you posed. It seems to be, from the outside, that you are navigating this season in your life incredibly well. I wonder, have you given consideration to your own story, what paraelles you see to your becoming a differentiated leaders, and what principles may carry over to your students? I can only imagine there are many!
Great questions, Eric. I think part of the reason I enjoy higher education is because that season was so transformational for me. It was the first time in my life that I had stability in terms of not bouncing between parents homes, was given physical space to be out of toxic environments, and had the ability to share and process family of origin impacts without fear of anything I said getting back to family members or being used as a manipulation tool. Because I was challenged, had safe space held for me, and was truly able to start the differentiation process as a young adult, I find such motivation to do the same for this generation. Because of my lived experiences and trauma, I am hard pressed not to be able to identify with something a student shares of their history – and in living openly about such things, I see how that empathy carves out more safe space for them to lean into their own processing.
Kayli, great reflections here. I think Friedman’s work around empathy is one of his greatest contributions. Working in higher education, I see the the tactic of empathy used, not to produce responsibility in students, but to keep the “customer” happy. Friedman later writes, “”The alternative to the empathy approach is one of ‘promoting responsibility for self in another through challenge” (135). Do you feel there is support above you from promoting responsibility and cultivating a culture of challenge?
Hey Michael, The unending challenge of the student/family being the “primary customer” language has crippled some facets of higher education to do what they were designed to do. Fortunately for me, I’m not in a role in which trying to appease the families is crucial. One line I’ve utilized a lot with hovering parents has been “I’d like to partner with you to help develop your student as an adult by….”
While there is a balance of retention goals, I feel very supported in my approach with students and feel comfortable asking for input from others when I have a hard time discerning what may be best in the given situation.
Kayli, thank you for working on synthesizing Friedman with your personal ministry context. Reading your questions caused me to wonder how Friedman’s argument in chapter 8, that in order to bring about “change” in a system the leader must realize he/she cannot exert will on it but instead must remain rooted in his/her own boundaries of self while the system moves, informs the answers to your questions? What are the conflicts of will that may be present and can understanding the power of dopamine help inform a response?
Friedman says, “Leaders function as the immune system of the institutions they lead” (page 245), how might that image inform what it means to be self-differentiated and is it liberating?
Really great questions, Nicole. I wish I had answers to both yours and mine, but I think the beauty is that we can continue to dive into the work and process it all as we go. I will say self-differentiation, the longer you lean into it, becomes more and more liberating.
Kayli I agree that it is a blessing to walk this journey of discovery with each other! And yes….liberating indeed!
Kayli, your emphasis on the empathy portion of Friedman’s work is like sand in this oyster shell. I have struggled with all our efforts to make schools a kinder, friendly place for kids, and have we handicapped them into being perpetual victims? I recently came across an autograph book my mom had in 7th grade. As I read the comments I was appalled. If those same comments had been written in a yearbook in a school, I was a counselor those kids would have been referred to my office. It is almost like we are rescuing people from their struggle, when maybe we should be empowering them to overcome? I am curious what you think?