The hidden anguish of emotional disconnection
My father passed away in 1969 when I was three years old, leaving behind me and my younger brother. In 1999, I reflected back on my childhood and discovered something I had never noticed before. For 18 years my mom cooked dinner for me and my brother Troy and we would sit at the dining room table, talk, and have fun. But during those 18 years my mom never sat at the dining room table with us. She would take her food and sit in the bedroom or living room and watch TV. In 1999 I wanted to know why my mom never sat with us, so in a roundabout way, I visited my mom and asked, “Hey mom, tell me about how life was growing up with Pop Pop?” (my grandfather and her dad).
She revealed to me he was a mean man with anger issues, and he never built a relationship with any of his 5 children. He emotionally neglected his children and wife. Now of course none of his 12 grandchildren ever saw this side of him.
As my mom told me more stories, I began to realize why she never sat down at the dinner table. My mom is not good at emotionally connecting with people and when you sit at the table with your boys, a normal question is “How was your day?” To avoid hearing any emotional distress, my mom just avoided “real” conversation.
After understanding my mom, I was able to understand why it was so hard for me to emotionally connect with people. I had to learn how to open myself up to people in order to connect with them. I had to learn how to be vulnerable about my past and present. Now I understood why I was so quiet, soft spoken, and really enjoyed listening. My calling as a psychotherapist came out of who I am. Being introspective and not opening up, eventually became being introspective and opening up to nearly everyone.
Walker’s book, “Leading out of Who You Are,” is basically about ‘self-aware leadership’, in that it encourages the leader to be deeply aware of himself, his background and his relationships with others. Typical leaders are ‘defended’ in the sense that they try to preserve their power and influence, especially by controlling what they allow others to see of themselves. Their defensiveness is entrenched through the idealization of followers; their own idealistic vision; and their unmet emotional needs. For Walker, deeper, ‘truer’ leadership must be ‘undefended’ by not grasping for power or seeking colleagues’ approval. Instead, freedom to lead comes from “our attachment to another”  who offers “unconditional regard” . Walker’s thesis is echoed by Peter Scazzero, when he writes, “pretending is safer than honesty and vulnerability.” .
There was a time when I was not honest and vulnerable. According to Walker I was actually living in my backstage, “We hold back…we protect ourselves and secure a deeper attachment from those we allow backstage.” . When this happens, ‘we ensure that we present and promote the right signs, props, evidence and script to win approval or success.” . With this in mind, Walker contends that, rather than situations or even behavior, leadership is fundamentally “about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have” . Camacho heartily agrees with this, “The Holy Spirit does the work of refining. He brings forth the gold.” . I had blocked the Spirit of God from refining me and I wasn’t even aware of it. I hid my true self and thought I was actually leading just fine. But way down deep I knew I wasn’t just fine. In fact, I even had a little shame. I had learned in my childhood, the very act of having a feeling felt shameful and wrong. Negative feelings were a burden and my mom had inadvertently given me the message that feelings are not be expressed. Negative emotions need to stay in the backstage. I will have more power and control in life if I don’t allow others to see me. “Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to simply put it out of your mind and not worry about taking on those battles?” . It’s always more comfortable not dealing with the issues and staying backstage.
After years of hard work, intense counseling, excellent intimate friendships, and the working of the Holy Spirit I am more of an authentic leader. “The secret of effective leadership is the freedom to live an undefended life.” . An undefended leader according to Walker is someone who has the freedom to fail and the freedom to give away. Give away trust, be vulnerable, take risks, being free to receive or not receive. So many times, I have sat at my desk, preached a sermon, taught a workshop, counseled a client and said, “It sure feels good to be free.” Now I can humbly say, “It sure feels good to be an undefended leader.”
 Simon P. Walker, Leading Out Of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd., 2007). 3.
 Ibid, 5.
 Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. (Grand Rapids, MI: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017). 12.
 Simon P. Walker, Leading Out Of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd., 2007). 25
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 5.
 Tom Camacho, Mining for Gold: Developing Kingdom Leaders through Coaching. (London, England: Intervarsity Press, 2019). 93.
 Jonice Webb, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. (New York, Morgan James, 2014). 119.
 Simon P. Walker, Leading Out Of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd., 2007). 103.
16 responses to “The hidden anguish of emotional disconnection”
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Todd, thank you for allowing others to peer into part of your story. I’m curious. For those you encounter who might struggle to either a) be vulnerable or b) ask questions around a dinner table that promote healthy levels of honesty/vulnerability (I’m thinking of the part of your post where you mention the normalcy of asking “How was your day?” with family at the table)…do you have a list of good questions to ask? Questions that promote conversations that move past a veneer of “success” or “everything is fine”? Questions that might help a group get past wanting to answer in a way feeds into unmet needs or wanting to receive approval from others around the table?
Hey Terrific Travis, I love your deep thinking, man. This may not answer your question but here are a few questions I have used with my family at the dinner table, in the car, or in the bedrooms.
1.When do you feel most connected in our family? How can we strengthen our family?
2.When do you feel emotionally connected to your parents/siblings?
3.Tell me about a challenge you’ve had in your life. What are you most grateful for, as a result of experiencing that hardship, and what did you learn?
4.What have you been interested in or learning about lately?
5.What is your favorite color and why?
6.What is your favorite memory of mom, dad, JT, Moriah, Noel, Micah?
7.When do you feel respected by your parents/siblings?
8.What frustrated you about school today? Have mom or dad frustrated you in the same way in the past?
9.What did you enjoy about school today? Have any of your siblings brought the same joy to you?
10.What are 2 things you would like for your family to know about you? Why those two things?
11.What is something I do that makes you feel loved the most?
12.What friend do you like the most and why?
13.What teacher do you like the most and why?
14.What have you been afraid to ask me because you know I will most likely avoid the question, which means your topic will get swept under the rug again?
15.What is the most powerful lesson you have learned from your grandparents?
16.What actor or actress do you relate to and why?
17.What does your dad do or say that bothers you?
18.What makes you laugh?
19.What can I do to show you I am there for you when you need me?
Travis, I wanted to make sure the conversation around our home and diner table was lively, fun, uncomfortable, and life changing.
Wow, Todd, thank you for your vulnerability. Your story seems like a pretty perfect illustration of what Walker is talking about. Your own childhood experience of attachment deeply affected who you became. But what a gift you received (and what courage it took!) when you asked and your mom shared from her past.
I’m glad you mentioned Scazzero. The bit of his work that I’ve read seems a bit more approachable than Walker, even though it’s getting at many of the same ideas.
So, as you know, for me all roads lead back to parenting. Clearly you were going through counseling and working hard on your emotional health. I’m guessing, though, that didn’t automatically transfer to emotionally healthy parenting? I would imagine that it took a ton of intentionality to break those generational patterns that you grew up with? Feel free to comment, but only to the extent that you feel comfortable, of course.
Hey Kim, thanks for mentioning about receiving a gift from my mom. I never referred to it that way but I will now and in the future. Your insight is a blessing!
Kim, it’s kinda weird because even as a single young man, I always wanted to intimately love my future wife and children. So long before I was married I read many books on marriage and parenting. I’m one of those guys that loves playing with my kids and I love acting like a “kid” by having fun. As a single guy I had no idea I was actually growing emotionally by reading books and asking other godly men to mentor me. (See my response to Travis on this post).
Kim, it’s kinda weird or should I say divine but I was the only one born in the Henley family between 1941 and 1994 without an angry personality, dislike of people, and avoidance of spiritual matters. Being an opposite of the big 3 also helped to be the parent God wanted me to be. I hope this answers your questions. If not, please let me know!
Todd, you are one of the most undefended leaders I know. Thank you for doing the work to make yourself, yourself. I appreciate your authenticity and humility.
Your story about your mother not wanting to emotionally engage with her young boys is making me think of my own parenting. While I think I am pretty decent at emotionally engaging, I know there are times when I am not. I’ve been noticing lately that it happens when I am in a bad mood, tired, distracted by work/school, not wanting to be interrupted, especially with two of my kids – probably the two who most need me to be emotionally engaged. It’s not all the time but I’m tired and distracted enough of the time (😝) that I need to be aware of how I am interacting with them.
Thank you again for your thoughtful, vulnerable post.
Hey Kally. After being in youth ministry for 23 years and a psychotherapist for 5 years, I can definitely say you are emotionally engaged as a parent. Those few times you are not engaged are normal and expected. The fact that you recognize it is proof of your emotional healthiness, deep love, and sacrifice for your children, especially the two you feel need it the most.
Kally, you are more aware of those disconnecting times than you realize. That’s what makes you such an engaging parent. You’ll see as your kids get older they will express their heart-felt appreciation to and for you…especially when they get married!
Finally, you said, you were pretty decent at emotionally engaging. I know another person who was pretty decent at emotionally engaging too. He was from the town of Nazareth!😊
Amazing post Todd….thank you! And great questions in response to Travis….I’m using those! Hearing your story in Cape Town, and now reading this post, gives me hope that I can continue to grow in spiritual, emotional, and relational health…as can everyone else! You’ve had a more difficult childhood than many of us, and you’ve done the tough and vulnerable journey into health and increasing wholeness…well done! Thanks for inspiring me by sharing your journey!
Hey my brother Scott! Thanks for your encouragement. I really appreciate it! Ooohhh, yes, you will definitely keep growing emotionally, spiritually, and relationally…it’s in your blood!
Once again, I am humbled to know you and feel you are one of the most authentic people I’ve met, and with the story you shared of your own parent and how you worked through that it’s evident that you’ve done the work of undefended leadership. In my work I am constantly running into families who have never done this work, as children (now in their 60’s or so) are being triggered as if they are still the wounded 10 year old as they care for their parent at the end of life. It’s as if I have to rush them through healing to get to transformative healing. Almost never happens as it’s too late. You could write a whole book on your journey and I’d read it and use it!. One of the articles I read was called scarred by struggle, transformed by hope. This is your story. I think a key part of this is where you started, by not going back to your mom highlighting the deficiency you felt she had in her parenting, but being curious about her childhood! This brings about so much empathy when we can move to curiosity and wondering. How do you find the patience to have your own journey and being further down the road and turning around and going back to walk the journey with others? What sustains you going further in your own walk of leadership, and how do you know when you are headed toward compassion fatigue?
Ooooohhh Jana, I love your insight about 60 year old people being triggered as if they are still the wounded 10 year old. That’s truly understanding people and a good leadership quality!
I definitely plan to write a book someday. I just keep putting it off. Someday!
Thank you for bringing out how you saw empathy in the way I approached my mom. I didn’t see it that way but now I do. And those words of yours: “curiosity and wondering” WOW! I appreciate your perceptiveness!
How do I find the patience? It’s because of the calling. I once had my own train wreck. When there’s a train wreck, glass, blood, mangled chairs, and dead bodies are all over the place. I was able to crawl out of my wreck to heal and recover. Now as an Executive Director/psychotherapist I intentionally go back into the train wrecks to bring out people who were just like me. When I finally sit down with them for our first session I tend to say, “WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS! I will walk with you and when I have to I will crawl with you through this.” Jana, my adrenaline really pumps when I have clients in my office, no matter how deep their pain is. I get excited because I know the Lord is going to use me to bring healing to the traumatized and emotionally broken. Once again, it’s all about the calling…I am where I belong!
What sustains me? Cycling 2 or 3 times a week, photography as a hobby, getting the right amount of sleep each week, eating well, talking to close friends and my wife about how I’m really doing.
But there are two things that let me know when I’m getting emotional/spiritual/compassion fatigue. It’s when I say to myself, “Another phone call or text” or “I’m tired of listening to people’s pain.” When this happens I let someone else know and rest, cycle, or spend time with the kiddos. I also have to keep reminding myself, “Todd, you need people too. So keep sharing where your are spiritually and emotionally so others can comfort or encourage you.” Any other insights will be joyfully welcomed! 😊
Fantastic conclusion! May we all be able to call ourselves an “Undefended Leaders!” Like Scott, I remember parts of your story from our day in Cape Town but I really appreciated reading it in this setting and reflecting on how you have fought for your freedom, character, and family! One question I have for you since we are in a Global Leadership Doctoral Program is what might be one practice churches, organizations, universities, medical institutions could implement for emerging leaders to help keep defenses down while developing as leaders? I am so thankful for your story!
Hey Pam, if you could definite the word “defenses” then I will be able to answer the question. Intellectually, I am not on your level so if you could make the words a little simpler for me, I should be able to understand your question. 😊
Todd, I am sorry! I didn’t mean to sound confusing. All I am asking is how emerging leaders cannot build walls around themselves as they develop as leaders.
OOOOOoooohhhhh! Pam! This is such a deep and necessary question. In fact, I’m going to steal this question from you and use in my training today.
I feel it’s important for emerging leaders to be able to share with their spouse and children about issues they struggle with. Of course appropriately with the children. When we can share our issues with our immediately family there is a bonding that happens through the Spirit of God. It also communicates vulnerability as we build a legacy.
Next, it’s important to have trusted friends (2-4) we can deeply share with. This will keep us accountable and humble.
After this, it’s important for the leader to lead with authenticity with his team/board/staff, etc This also includes sharing certain struggles from the pulpit or in a workshop, etc. We all say we are not perfect. Emerging leaders need top prove this by sharing times when they have failed or when they have just struggled with their own humaness.
By doing this, it will help to keep those walls down as we emerge as global leaders. Let’s keep this dialogue going. Your thoughts young lady?
What I hear you detailing is pyramid structure for accountability for leaders of all stages and ages:
A) Appropriate Openness with Family that creates a bonding
B) Appropriate Vulnerability with Close Friends that creates a humility
C) Appropriate Authenticity with Trusted Board Members or Business Coaches that creates Fluidity
This leaves me with a question about the most important place for Openness, Vulnerability and Authenticity: Our Intimacy with God the Father. How or where do you see this coming into your “thoughts” or “Structure?” I don’t love the word structure but maybe we call it a model?
Hey Pam! Good question. I see this coming into play with our relationship with the Lord in a casual way. As we go about life and struggles just simply sharing our struggles, victories, pain, deceit, shame, concerns, etc. We share with the Lord just like we breathe. It’s an ongoing every day occurrence as it happens. This is the measuring stick. As open as we are with God, we will be as open with others. BUT I see openess, vulnerability, and authenticity as a way of life and not just something we do.