Anxiety Amped Up to “Eleven”
by Chris Waddle, Director of Leadership and Spiritual Life
(March 2021) I thought he was about to hit me! His face was red. His voice was loud. He was invading my personal space. The veins in his neck were even popping out! He said it was because I did not use the pronoun “He” when I talked about God in worship. When I suggested, perhaps I could use both “He” and “She” I thought his head would explode! I decided to refrain from sharing my strong belief that God did not have genitalia.
Still, under mental, emotional, physical, relational, or existential stress, I can feel attacked, insecure, or frightened by other’s anxiety. Today, not so much. Partly because the more I know, the more I am aware of what I do not know. But more importantly, I have learned that people rarely hear me when I come at them emotionally. I know that this is true, because it is also true for me. When people come at me, my natural response is to go into self-defense mode. Fight, flight, or freeze! I was definitely in fight mode in the encounter I just mentioned.
This was not a private encounter. It happened in front of others in the church. I wanted to show folks I could take this guy on, that I could “beat him” and “win” the argument. I did stay calm, and that was good. Still, knowing what I know today, I would have approached him differently. I would not have argued. I would have not explained. I would not have tried to defend myself. I would have done my best to keep calm, stand straight, and let him say everything he wanted to say. I would have clarified that I understood what he was saying as well as the emotion behind it. I would have thanked him for trusting me with his perspective and his feelings. My goal would not have been winning the argument or changing him in any way. My goal would have been modeling to him and to those who are watching a healthy way of engaging with him.
I do not like it when someone gets upset over some little thing and loses all sense of perspective. But do you know what bothers me even more? . . . I know there are times in my life (even this year) that this has been me. I do not like to admit it, but it is true.
I believe I have grown. I believe I am getting better at catching myself and being aware when I feel cornered, attacked, threatened, overwhelmed, or just tired. Still, under mental, emotional, physical, relational, or existential stress, I can, feel attacked, insecure, or frightened by other’s anxiety. I stop listening and feel the need to “defend myself.” My emotional energy goes from being “with” others to trying to “push” others. I might want to push them away or I might want to push then toward something I want them to do or believe. Of course, they usually say “Oh, thank you for pointing out how wrong I am. I just needed you to get angry for me to see your point. I will change now.” . . . no, of course they don’t.
There is a scene in the mocumentary “This is Spinal Tap” where guitarist, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) is showing director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) his custom stage amplifiers that “go to eleven.”
MARTY: Does that mean it’s…louder? Is it any louder?
NIGEL: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most…most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here…all the way up…all the way up….
NIGEL: …all the way up. You’re on ten on your guitar…where can you go from there? Where?
MARTY: I don’t know….
NIGEL: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is if we need that extra.. push over the cliff…you know what we do?
MARTY: Put it up to eleven.
NIGEL: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
MARTY: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top… number… and make that a little louder?
NIGEL: These go to eleven.
If you need a laugh, here is a link to the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOO5S4vxi0o&t=2s
There is a part of me that thinks if I just invest a little more emotional energy, if I just turn it up to “eleven,” I can push you, change you, or even negate you. That’s just silly.
Still, “eleven” is that setting right now in many congregations and a great deal of that anxiety is being focused on clergy. Sometimes it is expressed as anxiety over specific issues or policies. Sometimes it is less direct and expressed as scapegoating of the clergy. Clergy even feel it coming from those who they believe should “have their backs” such as congregational or denominational leaders and even their own family members.
If you are clergy or a congregational leader and you are feeling like you are caught in the crossfire right now, you are not alone.
I also have some good news for you. There are things you can learn and techniques you can practice that will help. None of them require you to change anyone but yourself and none of them require you to crank your amp up to “eleven.”
If you would like to learn more, I invite you to join me for a live webinar: “Leadership in 2021: Ministry Under the Shadow of a Pandemic” with Rev. Bill Selby 9:30 -11:30 a.m. Central time. Cost is only $25 and anyone in the USA may register and attend. For more information or to register please visit: https://dmpcc.org/leadershipin2021/
Your partner in hope and healing.