Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Threshold Failure

Written by: on February 21, 2024

It’s been over ten years now since I served at Metanoia Community Development Corporation.  I started as Director of Elementary Leadership program just after coming back to the United States from South Korea. I’d spent a year teaching at a Christian school in Incheon, and wanted to continue working in a faith based environment.  The best part of this role was the freedom to be five-years-old again.  It was actually my job to play with children.  I loved it!  More, I respected and admired the leadership style of my supervisor, Reverend Bill Stanfield. He modeled servant leadership with authentic humility and it was through him that I learned what grace looked like in action and how to see others through the eyes of God.

We had weekly meetings every Wednesday and alternated each meeting with the business of the organization and the process of being a leader within the organization.  The process meetings included book discussions which is where I came to understand and appreciate self-differentiation as discussed by Edwin H. Friedman in A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.  Friedman’s systems perspective on leadership impacted me differently a decade later. For one, I’m not currently serving in a leadership role so I’m not reading to boost my leadership development skills as an employee. Instead, I am currently living in crisis mode so my pain threshold is at a different level, testing how much leadership skill I have developed.  I’m sorry to say that during this particular season, I don’t feel very differentiated. I feel like I’m failing, my nerves are shot and I am full of anxiety because I know there is no quick fix.  

I grew up in a dysfunctional family.  I tried my best to make sure my children did not experience the same, but Friedman showed me that I didn’t do so well with my son.  Looking at the five characteristics of a dysfunctional group, I nailed three on the head: [1]

Reactivity: I entered into vicious cycles of intense reactions when dealing with my son’s behavior.  I took it personal, interpreting his actions as a direct attack on me, which broke the connection.  My emotional baggage and his childhood trauma crashed into each other, deepening both our wounds.

A quick-fix mentality: To numb the emotions, we’d each retreat to our corners for a day or two, both latching onto technology to distract our thoughts and soothe our emotions.  This isolation gave quick relief but added depth to the divide, leaving the disconnection open wide.  Unresolved anger made the pain easy to enflame, and lowered my threshold to feel it.  Each behavioral episode was met with less tolerance and greater indifference.  The dysfunction became normal. Rather than seek fundamental change, we decided, “That’s just what he does. Deal with it.”

Lack of well-differentiated leadership – Fear froze the emotional process of regulating my own anxiety. The fear of not being able to fix his behavior and the fear of what might happen to him if I don’t fix it hardened how I saw him, how I saw myself.  I was afraid of how his behavior reflected on me. I confused the line between where I end and he begins.

I thought about calling Reverend Bill to talk through my family’s situation.  He and his wife had adopted two of their own children and understood the challenges.  I wanted to tell him about my decision, get his thoughts and prayers, but mostly I just wanted to hear affirmation:  It’s going to be okay.  You can do this. I have faith in you.  I haven’t yet called because what I want would mean being vulnerable and admitting my failure to be a well-differentiated leader.  I’d have to concede that I can’t do this alone anymore. Friedman identifies this as a major limitation. “It is more than a fear of criticism. It is anxiety at being alone, of being in a position where one can rely little on others, a position that puts one’s own resources to the test, a position where one will have to take total responsibility for one’s own response to the environment. Leaders must not only not be afraid of that position; they must come to love it.”[2] Right now this “love” that Friedman speaks of feels a bit masochistic.  

I am not loving the emotional pain and mental anguish.  I am drunk with dread having “imbided” on data that reflect possible negative impacts of my decision. [3] Yet, Friedman suggests we cozy right up to the dread and anguish if we want to be free. “Whether we are considering a toothache, a tumor, a relational bind, a technical problem, crime, or the economy, most individuals and most social systems, irrespective of their culture, gender, or ethnic background, will “naturally” choose or revert to chronic conditions of bearable pain rather than face the temporarily more intense anguish of acute conditions that are the gateway to becoming free.” [4]  I did choose to adopt my son as a single parent, knowing it would be painful at times, but bearable.  Reverend Bill would confirm this about me: I have a tendency to take on difficult challenges even though I know it will cause pain.  So am I masochist or am I unconsciously building gateways to build freedom?  Freedom from what?

That’s a question for my therapist. “But what is clear about pain universally is this: To the extent that we are motivated to get on with life, we seem to be able to tolerate more pain; in other words, our threshold seems to increase. Conversely, to the extent that we are unmotivated to get out of our chair, our threshold seems to go down.” [5] I’m not sure that my threshold has leveled-up to higher limits, or I have simply reached my limit. I also don’t like what this hints at in relation to what I discussed in a previous post about Black women and pain thresholds.  Did I take on this challenge because I’m trying to live up to the “superwoman myth” of Black women? Or did I sabotage myself, trying too hard to build a functional family? Another question to ask at the next session.

There was no way to expect that my child would be well-differentiated and regulate his anxiety.  It was my job to be a non-anxious presence. It was my responsibility to be a well-differentiated leader.  I failed, thus the crisis.   In the interim between now and the coming solution I can better differentiate my identity, and reconnect with him differently.  I think perhaps I’ll try to figure out a way to just play with him. “A major criterion for judging the anxiety level of any society is the loss of its capacity to be playful.” [6] Assuming Friedman is right, maybe remembering how to play will help both of us. Though not what I planned for when I chose to mother to this child, I trust in God’s grace and pray that a simple act of play can help me see my son through His eyes. But first, I think I’ll make that call to Reverend Bill. 

[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007).

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

About the Author

Erica Briggs

14 responses to “Threshold Failure”

  1. Diane Tuttle says:

    Hi Erica, thank you for sharing your personal story in relation to this book. That took courage. one of the things that stood out was at the end when you said you are going to try to find a way to lay with your son. I hope it can happen and that he responds well, even if it takes a number of attempts. I will be praying for both of you.

    • Erica Briggs says:

      Yes, he loves doing anything outdoors and has lots of energy. It’s hard to keep up but we like to pretend we are warriors from an anime show. It’s cheap and easy, we use sticks we find outdoors. Our favorite is slow motion (it’s actually my favorite – I’m not as quick moving and agile as I once was!)

  2. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Hi Erica!
    Obviously I don’t know the details of your son and don’t need to. As I was reading your post, one thing that popped into my head was, “Meet them where they are.” I don’t recall if Freidman ever wrote that in his book, but I think he would agree with that statement when it comes to dealing with people we are leading. It was definitely a part of my success.
    I love that you want to just play with him. Everything about that just feels right. I will be praying for you both, and just go have some fun!

    • Erica Briggs says:

      Honestly,those were the first words that hit deep for me – our society has become so serious. Adults have forgotten how to play and children need play to learn most effectively. It feels like the best medicine in this situation, like laughter, it’s not something I would automatically think of to ease the tension. It’s so obvious now!

  3. Christy Liner says:

    Hi Erica,

    Thank you for your vulnerable post. It sounds like you’re in a tough season right now. If you haven’t read the post by @Elysse yet, you might enjoy it. It’s hard to be a well differentiated leader and as she says, “it takes courage to ask ourselves the question, ‘What are you going to do about it?'”

    • Erica Briggs says:

      I did read (and enjoyed) her post and for me, this has been a ten year struggle trying to figure out what to do about it. It’s only when I reached my limit that I had to reach out for help, for something beyond my capacity to figure out. I hit those limits several times and each time I pushed beyond that limit a bit more. I have to remember that there are no limits with God, only limited thinking.

  4. Julie O'Hara says:

    Hi Erica, Thank you for sharing your sensitive introspection about the state of your relationship with your son. I don’t want to toss thin platitudes but something really stands out, it is the statement that you failed. What would you say to someone else in your situation who has just described some really helpful tools and is learning how to use them? Perhaps failing is only when one walks away from the tools and chooses to cut off instead. What do you think of this quote, “Family problems can often be resolved by having the parents or partners focus on and work at unresolved issues in their families of origin.” Friedman, 52. What is a unresolved issue from your family of origin that Reverend Bill might help you with? (p.s. that feels like an intrusive question, not trying to pry, only to point in that direction so any reply might be very vague.) Praying for your connection with your son to remain strong as you move forward together!

    • Erica Briggs says:

      Yes, Julie, it’s so much easier to be gentle with others, to reframe “failure” as a learning opportunity. That’s what I would say to someone else. Looking from the outside offers a level of objectivity that’s hard to practice when you’re stuck in the house, so to speak. I will say this much, being in a cohort with this program has helped, to have other eyes on the prize so to speak. Thanks for seeing me.

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    I love how you are so vulnerable with your writing. Though you mention that you are in a season of not serving in a leadership role, I would say, but aren’t you? You’re a mother.

    You already walked yourself through some of Friedman’s characteristics given your current context. Though your leadership role might look different, I wonder if you’re a leader with a new perspective.

    I also don’t think you’re a failure. Is it possible you are too hard on yourself? And, trust me, I know those clothes. I hear my husband asking me that regularly.

    Maybe a question for you is, what is your definition of failure? I’m reminded of an Albert Einstein quote, “You never fail until you stop trying.”

    Do you think Friedman’s suggestion for cozying up to the dread (as you say) is a way to walk through it and get a better understanding of self and those around you, including God?

    And, again, I don’t think your awareness of how you might not have handled past situations with your son makes you a failure. I think it makes you vulnerable and self-aware. You now have knowledge (and data) on how you can handle a situation differently.

    Prayers for you, Erica! And may your call to Reverend Bill be a soothing voice in a time of anxiety.

    • Erica Briggs says:

      Great question, thank you. For me the word cozy looks like a comfortable chair by a warm and toasty
      campfire.. Dread is the heavy darkness just outside of the light from the fire. Something could be out there, getting cozy with whatever “it” might be is counterintuitive. But in all that darkness, I am drawn closer to the fire, the Holy Spirit that comforts. And the light from in others sitting around the fire with me – I suppose that makes the dread less heavy. Thanks for helping me lighten the load!

  6. Daren Jaime says:

    Hey Erica! Thank you for sharing. I am touched and greatly admire your willingness to bring your vulnerabilities to the forefront. You would be surprised if we all genuinely decide to unpack; we would share some commonalities that would let you know we all have areas in our journey where we can self-identify with you. Make the call to Reverend Bill and allow yourself space for Grace!

    • Erica Briggs says:

      I appreciate the thought that I’m not the only one. The challenge for me is the cultural rule not to “air your dirty laundry” and to always be that strong, independent woman expected of me. But I also know that the hardest problems are solved in community. And that pride (shame/embarrassment that comes from not being able to handle something on your own) comes before the fall. So the fear of falling is greater than me losing superwoman points by asking for help. That’s why it feels so good to hear God speak through you: I have the grace to get through this space!

  7. Akwése Nkemontoh says:

    Erica, thanks so much for sharing openly, vulnerably, and courageously. I hear the ” in crisis” parts of you speaking, AND I hear the Child of God parts rooted in wisdom, beauty and truth. I love that I can see both and, at the same time, know immediately which is the facade and which is real.

    As a co-journeyer navigating crisis states, I just want to say I see you, and you are not a failure. In fact, you are doing great as you are growing and learning and continuing to show up to life day after day, which is a battle in and of itself. Plus, this post proves something working because you’re showing up and getting it done (beautifully, at that).😉❤️

    In your response to Dianne, you mentioned the play you and your son do. As soon as I read it, I smiled! It sounds just like what you described was so fun about your previous school job. Plus, I love how you adapted the play to meet you where you’re at in this season. I sense there’s something there for you both as you lean into this more…

    I do have a curiosity — in your response to Christy, you shared that part of the struggle was not knowing what to do about the challenges you’ve been experiencing but that you know community is part of the solution… If anything were possible, what would be your ideal support/way forward right now?

  8. Erica Briggs says:

    Great question and I actually have an answer: there’s this cohort for healing rooted in faith for Black and Brown women that started last week. I attended the first meeting, which was virtual, thinking it was precisely what I need – and it is – until I learned the cohort meets in person through June. This commitment suddenly felt like a burden, yet another investment I fear may be beyond my capacity at this time. It feels like just one more thing to do, as opposed to a place where I can just be. I know it is needed, but it means leaving my son alone in the house, and our household is not in a place of trusting the safety in that option. In an ideal world, I would have a place for him so I could spend this time getting myself in a healthier place. The number of folks in my village that can be present for his special care needs are few and far between. I am leaving it up to God to figure out for me; I honestly don’t have the brain power to make the decision at the moment, but imagining the possibility is a fun, playful exercise!

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