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

On Exhaustion, Fear, and Defensive Posturing

Written by: on March 9, 2021

I’ve been working toward advanced educational degrees for seven years. Life has changed in many ways. My daughter was 14 and my son was 10 when I began my seminary journey. With a large measure of God’s grace, my daughter is now 21 and in her last year of college; my son is 17 and just starting to think about college. My husband has worked for three different companies, I’ve started a spiritual direction practice, and we now have a really big dog. Whereas I once was deeply entrenched in a faith community, I am now three years in the wilderness still trying to find my way, trusting God to lead. More often than not, I barely perceive God’s presence. My theological perspectives have shifted from fundamentalist/conservative to generous/curious. I’ve spent the bulk of the past seven years in counseling and spiritual direction, examining the dark recesses of my soul and experiencing some measure of healing. I’ve awakened to, wrestled with, and am now learning to befriend my ego. The more closely I abide in Jesus, the less compelled I am to conform to the “good Christian” way of living that I once embraced. While I experience a greater degree of freedom in this open space, it comes with a large measure of disorientation, discomfort, and exhaustion. Dying to self is painful and hard.

Simon P. Walker includes all people in his leadership spectrum in The Undefended Leader trilogy. From the stay-at-home parent to the corporate CEO, Walker invites individuals to lead in an undefended way. Doing this takes intentionality and perseverance, courage and grit. It also takes a copious amount of time and patience, as transforming into an undefended way of existence doesn’t happen overnight or by checking off “to-dos” on a list.

In The Undefended Leader: Leading Out of Who You Are, Walker highlights three primary defense strategies leaders employ: front/back stage presence, power, and control.[1] As I read through these defenses, I noted ways I have learned to lay these defenses down. When I’m in a healthy space (mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually) my backstage and front stage personas are more integrated, power is gained through relational trust and wielded with love and open hands, and control is relinquished to embrace freedom and welcome collaboration.

Over the past two months, I’ve noticed the more tired I am, the more fear creeps in, and the more I employ these defenses in my daily interactions. The saddest part is the ones I love most reap the negative effects of my defensive posturing. One particular area of concern is my son’s present and future educational endeavors. Our straight A, even-tempered, extroverted student-athlete has struggled in his virtual learning classes. His grades have declined while gaming time increases.[2] As gaming time increases, so does tension and conflict in our home.

In my tired state, my fears surface. Will he pass his classes? Will he ever leave our home? Will he become destitute, living outside under a bridge? To counter the fears, defenses kick in. My front stage personality gets big while my backstage personality just wants to curl up in a corner. I wield power through threats of computer removal. I nag him to complete his player profile on an athlete recruiting site, research schools, and study for the SAT. I investigate colleges for him and feed him information. I take him on field trips to check out local college campuses so he can gain perspective and motivation about his next steps. I make sure to let him know the importance of reading his emails, maintain his planner, and keeping up with all the things teens need to do to eventually go off into the big world. In short, I have bound him in chains and pulled him into my little cage of exhaustion induced fear and anxiety. With introspection, my fears and anxiety actually have less to do with fears of his success, as they do with my fear of failures. For under the surface fears for him, lie deeper fears of not being a competent parent, good enough mom, or worthy human being.

Shame is the steel that forms the cage and bonds that hold me captive.

I can’t simply think my way out of shame though. I have to feel my way through it, while embracing and befriending the ego that seeks to control chaos. I do this by visiting with my spiritual director who helps bring my shame into the Light. I do this by reaching out and inviting people who love me well into my exhausted struggle. I do this by giving myself permission to get off the grid, be unproductive, and rest. I do this by taking off my mask and being honest in safe places about who I am as a leader, a student, a Christ-follower, a human. I do this so I can be increasingly undefended and free, realizing the weight of the world’s, my son’s, or even my own salvation is not on my shoulders. Thankfully, Jesus already carried that weight. And it is finished.

 

 

[1] Simon P. Walker. The Undefended Leader: Leading Out of Who You Are. (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, Ltd., 2010) 27-52.

[2] I believe we all have a drug of choice (DOC) to cope in chaos. Gaming hours upon hours (even during class) with friends is my son’s DOC.

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

12 responses to “On Exhaustion, Fear, and Defensive Posturing”

  1. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Thank you for your vulnerability here. I’m especially drawn to your observation of how your fear-based behaviors have invited/trapped your son into the cage with you. Rarely do we consider how our fear generates anxiety in another. You’ve written this piece so beautifully. I wonder what impact it has had (or may have) for you to express these confessional thoughts to your son.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Jer,
      I’ll definitely be visiting with him about this. I have to pick my words carefully, making sure to be succinct. He glazes over if I talk too much;) My son doesn’t often experience anxiety, so he may not even realize what’s been going on, except that he’s tired of hearing his parents talk to him over and over again. Some of that is normal. For me, it’s that deeper layer of concern. Interesting though, I was listening to him talk to a friend. He shared how we went to look at college campuses last weekend. It sounded like it was actually a helpful and positive experience. So maybe he’s figured out a way to cut through all my momma junk and just see the good in things?

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Darcy, thanks so much for this. On reflection, I can see how your fears have played out in my own family as well. My grandparents have essentially raised my cousin since he was in elementary school and they have a similar hope for him, that he would find some sense of motivation or drive to “so something good with his life.” I can see how my grandmother in particular alternated between a strong front stage personality while also falling into exhaustion as she watches my cousin. It’s definitely caused a lot of tension – particularly since I left for Hong Kong.

    I think a key part of what you’ve mentioned is our hidden motivation behind our actions as leaders. When it comes from a place of health, we act one way while stress, fear, and anxiety causes us to act in the opposite at times (though we may mask ourselves). As you’ve removed mask after mask, how have you found freedom?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      In the removal of masks, I’m learning that I don’t have to live to please people. For so long I existed to make people happy, to help them fix whatever was broken. There’s freedom in saying No and knowing I’m not responsible for their emotional response or the overall outcome of other’s circumstances. I also experience freedom when I allow myself margin for failure. As a perfectionist, I place so many expectations on myself to excel. I visited with a former professor a couple weeks ago about my project. She knows me well and said anyone who knows me knows I give 210% in everything I do. She then gave me permission to give 70% in my project development. I almost cried because it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Freedom also comes by building resiliency to shame and knowing my triggers. I’m able to bounce back much faster than I did before, thus not getting swept down the blackhole of depression.

      As you mentioned, motivation is key. In and of themselves, the things I’m asking/expecting my son to do are all basic life skills. When presented with an even hand and a differentiated-self, its good for me to help him grow. When I’m doing that prompting/training out of fear and shame, its not helpful for either of us.

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    I haven’t considered the link between fatigue and fear. I’m going to chew on that a bit. My syntopical essay is exploring the emotional process of (innovative) change. Perhaps rest (from a nap, to a day, to a sabbatical) needs to be a key part of that formula.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      I don’t know if fatigue leads to fear in all leaders. Some thrive when stretched past their breaking point. But I am a firm believer in rest. I nap daily. Practice sabbath weekly. And take a yearly retreat to simply be. With covid, that retreat hasn’t happened, which I think is part of the reason I’m emotionally done. Plus the reality that the past seven years have been radically transformative- it has absolutely worn me out. I’m going to visit with a DMin alumna tomorrow who also went from her Mdiv straight into the DMin program. I am hoping to gain some insight as to how best navigate the prolonged academic/spiritual/emotional stretching that comes from so many years of school. Walker mentions the importance of community for growth. I agree, it is a must. So I’m calling in the supports.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    Thanks Darcy. The struggle is real. Your post conjured in me the image of a tornado- the swirling winds inflicting chaos and destruction that build upon itself. When we are tired, it seems that everything gets amplified and little things turn into big things in a hurry. This past year has tested everyone to some degree and everyone is processing their own trauma, some more intentionally than others. So many of the leaders I’ve looked at so far this semester had a place and/or a practice that help keep things in perspective. You’re a good enough spiritual director to know how to help others do this. Sometimes our challenge is in making ourselves fill the same prescription.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Agreed. In the storm, I shift into survival mode. The past year has felt like a sustained survival mode. I suppose it would be important to reflect upon what soul care is required when in seasons of sustained survival mode? For me that will likely be a little different than the practices and values that are in my Rule of Life. Example- I definitely need to find ways to inject levity into my days in more intentional ways. Survival mode for me means business, and that’s serious stuff. When I have a hard time laughing at my puppy’s shenanigans, I know I’m not in a good space.

      • mm John McLarty says:

        I think you’re on to something there. Things are already hard enough. When we find joy in little things, we find the load lightened, even if for just a moment, and we’re breathing again.

  5. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy, Thank you for sharing. Shame and condemnation are harsh task masters. I think shame is one of the hardest things to deal with because so many internal and external voices can feed it. For me I have realized that conviction comes from the spirit but shame comes from a place that smells like smoke. Nothing good comes from shame. It took me a while to understand the difference between the two. Shame is debilitating where conviction brings life. For me shame was a strong prison and it took me a long time to break down the prison walls.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Agreed. For me, the walls have been broken down, too. But the shame never really goes away. Over the years I have developed resilience to it, so it is less debilitating. I catch the “smell of smoke” much sooner and make adjustments. Like you, I can definitely tell the difference between the voices. But sadly it doesn’t make the voices go completely away. Continual discernment is key, and having strategies in place to help navigate through those shame spaces.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Darcy, I appreciate the idea of befriending the ego.

    Some can fight with it for so long. Is it a losing battle? or can the ego be conquered?

    So much negativity is attributed to ego. What is on the other side of its annihilation?

    Perhaps if faced right, with care and acceptance, we can find a friend in the ego. There can be some inner communication (spirit/soul stuff) with regards to the place of the ego. It’s good and beneficial place.

    Perhaps, there are areas where we would like the ego to take a step back and consider the movement fo the Spirit of God within us.

    Thanks Darcy. So thankful to hear of your journey and peace-in-the-mix.

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