DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How Much Emotional Safety is Too Much?

Written by: on May 16, 2019

The book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, was very interesting and rather entertaining and concerning all at the same time. The authors wrote the book out of concern for our youth and to dispel the following three untruths they propose are being taught in today’s society: “The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.” Also, the authors specify that “in order to be classified as a Great Untruth, an idea must meet three criteria: It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures). It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.”[1] This was a very provocative intro to the book and definitely sparked my interest, especially when the authors referenced what I deal with on a daily basis in my therapy office, by saying “many parents, K-12 teachers, professors, and university administrators have been unknowingly teaching a generation of students to engage in the mental habits commonly seen in people who suffer from anxiety and depression.”[2] At this point I was engaged and needed to figure out what this book was all about. Although I don’t think all people who suffer from anxiety and depression engage in these poor mental habits, I can see how our society has fed into some anxiety-ridden, weak-minded habits that have debilitated many young adults today.

 

Ironically, one of the tools I offer my clients who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and various other issues is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps clients understand the connection their cognitive thoughts have with their emotions, which often trigger their undesirable behaviors. I often talk about this process in terms of dominoes, the first domino being our thoughts, that knocks over the second domino, our feelings, which knocks over the third domino, our behaviors. The story I tell to illustrate this process is: If I was walking down a path and saw a curvy stick up ahead and THOUGHT it was a snake, it would generate FEELINGS of fear and anxiety, and cause the BEHAVIOR of me running the other direction (yes, snakes are repulsive to me, after all they do represent Satan). This is considered a cognitive distortion, or what I like to refer to as believing a lie (for Mike…Who is the Father of Lies and wants to steal, kill and destroy us?) The way CBT theory goes is once the lie is replaced with the truth (for instance: the curvy stick is only a stick) then the feelings and behaviors that resulted from believing the lie are immediately eliminated. This can be incredibly effective for people who have lived with faulty thinking (or cognitive distortions) their whole lives that have in-turn wreaked havoc on their emotions and created undesirable behaviors. This is what the authors are referring to as a solution to this Untruth epidemic when they point out that “millions of others around the world had found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was the most effective solution. CBT teaches you to notice when you are engaging in various “cognitive distortions,” such as “catastrophizing” (If I fail this quiz, I’ll fail the class and be kicked out of school, and then I’ll never get a job . . .) and “negative filtering” (only paying attention to negative feedback instead of noticing praise as well).”[3]

 

Another irony I came across in the reading had to do with this idea of being emotionally safe. Every day I’m working with people who feel some type of lack of emotional safety or who have experienced some emotional damage from someone in their life. My job is to help them regain their emotional strength and stability so they can be ready for the next emotional blow that is sure to come at some point. The authors state, “A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”[4] Yes, difficulty in life will definitely help us learn to be overcomers and build resilience, but this doesn’t apply to all scenarios. If someone experiences severe emotional trauma to the point of creating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they can often experience rather dramatic physical symptoms in their body that have no other medical explanation other than their emotions. I also understand what the authors are getting at when they are talking about what we have created with young people when it comes to this fragility concept and the extreme lack of resilience in this generation. To address this, progressive activist Van Jones, offered the following advice for college students: “He rejected the Untruth of Fragility and turned safetyism on its head: I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”[5] Although my work is about helping people regain their emotional safety, I am also helping them become less emotionally fragile and be able to THINK differently so they can FEEL and BEHAVE differently. I also appreciated this quote by Hanna Holborn Gray, “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.”[6]

 

Of course, I couldn’t let this blog go without highlighting a part of the book that supports my research topic. Kathryn Pauly Morgan, a professor of philosophy who specializes in the concept of intersectionality at the University of Toronto, made the following profound statement: “Girls and women are effectively a “colonized population.” They make up a majority of all students but are forced to live and learn within ideas and institutions structured by white men.”[7] Mic drop!

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            [1] Greg Lukianoff, and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure, Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 4.

            [2] Ibid., 10.

            [3] Ibid., 7-8.

            [4] Ibid., 29.

            [5] Ibid., 96-97.

            [6] Ibid., 50.

            [7] Ibid., 69.

About the Author

mm

Jake Dean-Hill

Currently a Marriage & Family Therapist in private practice. Ordained minister with 10 years of prior full-time church ministry experience and currently volunteering with a local church plant. Also working with companies as a Corporate Leadership Coach.

14 responses to “How Much Emotional Safety is Too Much?”

  1. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Jake
    Great inclusion of the quotes from Jones and Gray. The idea that we have to learn to navigate through our fears instead of having them paved over is a lost art. Have you seen an increase of younger clients that are dealing with the issues in the books. It is an interesting time to be alive.

    Jason

    • Thanks Jason! Yes young people really struggle to do “hard things” these days. I also think our world is much more anxiety-producing than our generation had it. My clients are definitely needing tools like CBT to help replace their lies with the truth.

  2. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jake! It’s great to learn even more about the tools that you use in your work. Specifically, your illustration for CBT was so accessible and easy to understand. Helpful for me! Thanks brother.

    • Thanks Chris, it was fun to be able to share something that I share with my clients every day. I had to come up with a simple way to explain CBT for myself first, and I knew my clients would benefit as well and be more likely to grab hold of the concept. Glad to hear it helped you as well, you are more than welcome brother.

  3. I was looking forward to reading your response to this book, Jake. I really appreciate your clear description of how CBT works. Do you find that CBT is effective for combatting all three untruths that the authors present?

    • Thanks Jenn, glad my CBT explanation was helpful to you, I had to come up with something that would help my clients grab hold of the concept and use it to replace the lies with the truth in their own lives. Yes, I actually do think CBT can help combat all three untruths, especially since CBT is all about going from untruth to truth.

  4. Jake,

    I also appreciated your highlighting of CBT. It also brought back many memories of my therapist who always asked repeatedly when I was stuck in overly emotional responses, what actually happened? What is truth? Who are you? What does this mean?

    Where I would catastrophize, she would gently and firmly bring me back to the facts, and then help me discover that they are facts but not nightmares. In the morning, in the clear light of day, those facts helped me move ahead and out of my what-if scenarios that plagued me.

    • Thanks Mark, glad CBT has been helpful in your life as well. Living our lives based on destructive lies straight from the pit of hell can be incredibly dysregulating. Living on a foundation of truth definitely has the power to set us free (just like John 8:32 promises). Heres to finding freedom in the truth!

  5. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Jake, I found the CBT presented in this book and the argument about catastrophizing some of the best points. I wasn’t really familiar with CBT before this book, at least I wasnt comfortable enough to have been able to tell someone what it was. I appreciate hearing the confirmation from your perspective about how this could really play out.

    Great point about some damage not causing us to be resilent. At some point the author mentions the benefit of seatbelts, which does proect someone from harm. But not-wearing a seatbelt does not make you more fragile-proof for the next car accident. I think it’s our job to figure out which things is stress that will cause good growth, and which things we need to be protected from entirely.

    • Thanks Kyle, glad this helped you become more versed in CBT, it can be very helpful for people. Yes I agree, we have to teach people to be able to distinguish between things that are trauma producing and resilience producing.

  6. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jake,

    I agree that there are many circumstances that do not fit the premise of this book. Genuine trauma and experiences of abuse are not things to be ignored or meant to produce ‘anti-fragility’. But I wonder how you might deal with younger clients who need the help of CBT but also could use a little resistance training so that they are able to live productive and socially engaged lives by developing some resilience and not constantly running into cognitive distortions.

    I also do not think that this fragility is limited to higher education institutions and believe that the church has yet to fully grasp the changes that are coming with the emerging generations. It will be critical for the church to respond in ways that provide some safety while also challenging them to continue to trust God as they move out of their comfort zones to serve others. Do you think there are some keys to helping churches do this effectively?

    • Thanks Dan for your thoughtful comments. Yes I agree that people need help reframing their cognitive distortions as well as learn how to be more resilient. Good question about how churches can best help people find the balance between safteyism and resilience, I’m gonna have to think about that one. Hope all is well with you my friend.

  7. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Jake! It’s eerie how much we think alike – you would think that we are both therapists lol! Great post and an excellent infusion of CBT and distorted thinking. I found the book to be quite fascinating and wish I had more time to dig into the book further! Thanks for throwing the last quote in there about women! It’s absolutely true – be the majority in an group and yet have the institution created by and for the white man. Big sigh! Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Yes, Jean eerie indeed my fellow MSW therapist! We can’t help focusing on the most important aspects of every book every time. 🙂 Will keep supplying the good material when I can to help in the fight. Blessings friend.

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