Caring for the Heart Series (Part 4): Doing the Work
(this is a continuation of Part 3: Why Message Ministers Are Poor Counsellors)
My Last Months Doing Counseling in the Message
In the months following my visit to Caring for the Heart, I spent many hours counselling several members of my congregation and other churches using these methods. I was new to it, and lacked experience; so I never will claim to have been as good of a counselor as I hoped. It’s something that needs to be practiced to develop. I feel like it was just the beginning of something that could really support people in the message.
Church members were cautiously uncertain that counselling was “good” when, preferably, we had “the message” as a better absolute for all answers. I was challenged to overcome the stigma that rehashing the past was foolishness; afterall, past things were best buried in Christ and covered by His blood in forgiveness and the tossed in the sea of forgetfulness.
Yet, for those who came to me, they came for a good reason. They were hurting. They were carrying a load of pain, and it never seemed to be dealt with by spiritual platitudes. They were in marriages where the promise of a “happily ever after” was mired in a reality that was much different. They fought, they distanced, they couldn’t talk, they hurt each other. They suffered. They feared for their future, and for their children. They were tired of pretending it was okay, or feeling guilty for what felt like defeat and lack of faith for failing to overcome.
It was eye-opening exploring what was happening inside their hearts. I counselled with several couples and many single people who were harboring real pain. In some cases, the stories were shocking. Better said, it often was utterly shocking.
People I had gone to church with for years had silently carried ugly stories of neglect and abuse and had suffered for most of their lives trying to carry it. Some sat with me sobbing uncontrollably – speaking words they had never spoken aloud concerning events in their past.
It led me to believe this was more needed than I ever imagined. I was dealing with a small group of people in my circle (which was a very good church, in comparison to many others); just how many people in the message were suffering?
So How Does it Work?
The Invitation and Building of Safety & Trust
The premise is actually simple. It is the act of inviting someone into a place of absolute judgement-free care; and helping to introduce them to the little boy or little girl within who learned to barricade from the sources of hurt. Once that inner child emerges, you begin working to care for and heal the junctures where damage was done. It’s a work of ‘care’.
On one hand, as the counsellor – I am inviting them into the process. But the truth is, the invitation comes from them. It’s their heart…and I’m standing at the door. If that invitation is made from them, they will begin to open their heart and from it will pour areas of a person’s experience which have never been shared. Untold stories, unheard words, unfiltered pain. With care and listening, there’s an opportunity to find understanding, connection and healing.
As a counsellor, if I am let inside, my job is not to touch, fix or rearrange anything (which is contrary to Message thinking; they want to put things in “church order” – “here’s a quote from the prophet________ , and the bible says ________”).
As I am a guest inside of that individual’s secret place (their heart), I only come in with the warmest of intentions. I just want to see what’s going on. It is a process that cannot be forced or rushed. It might take days. Pressure won’t help. Trying to interject my opinions won’t help. Applying doctrine or quick-fix instruction is tone-deaf. It’s just listening, and asking to learn more about something that may have been disclosed.
As the trust grows, the invitation become more intimate. Where I might only be welcomed into the living room and kitchen in the beginning, I soon might be invited into the bathroom, and then the guest room, and then the bedroom. With time, maybe inside the closet where secret things are. Or into the drawers, where the most personal memories are kept. No judgement. No pressure. Just observing. Just listening.
Consider if I were talking to a couple. With the invitation to explore – the spouse will also become a guest to observe their partner. Their role is just to listen and observe the emotions that come to the surface. Often, many couples never really learn how to communicate or create safety enough to encourage fearless conversation. Even though they may have been married for years, they could be walking into rooms they’ve never been invited.
It may sound like a straightforward process, but the challenge I would face as a counsellor is that certain “rooms” are often so heavily barricaded, that it’s almost impossible for an individual to open the door. They may have allowed someone in before, and that person was not careful and mishandled that sacred invitation. They may have simply experienced such a lack of ‘care’ that they assume no one can offer the kind of unconditional, non-judging care that they need.
There’s no apparent key in simply asking to be let in. The individual may even WANT to let you in, but simply cannot. Similar to a real life situation when something happens and you can’t just flip off your anger, fear, anxiety, defensiveness, aggressiveness or any number of emotional reaction; the feeling so strong that it feels involuntary. If that door is barricaded, how can anyone get in?
Often, with a spouse sitting there, there’s significant fear. Emotions might become overwhelming. Why? Because either intentionally or unintentionally, that spouse has contributed to the reasons why that area of the heart is locked.
This is where the process takes on the work of “Caring for the Heart”.
Emotional Pain Words
The first session is just a time of listening and trust-building. It’s emotionally exhausting and sometimes overwhelming for people who are not accustom to opening up in this way. In order to continue the process, I would leave them with a little homework. Sometimes, I would do it right then – in the first session – to get a very raw and spontaneous result.
I would hand them a sheet full of “emotional pain words”, and their task would be to assign a number from 0 to 10 measuring how intensely that word inspires a painful emotional response. The lower the number, the less the emotional response; the higher the number the more pain associated with it.
Here is what the words might look like:
- all my fault
- always wrong
- can’t do anything right
- can’t trust anyone
- conspired against
- cut off
- desires were rejected
- didn’t belong
- didn’t measure up
- good for nothing
- hate myself
- insensitive to my need
- left out
- lied to
- made fun of
- no good
- not being affirmed
- not cared for
- not cherished
- not deserving to live
- not listened to
- not measuring up
- not valued
- opinions not valued
- out of control
- pressure to perform
- publicly shamed
- taken advantage of
- unable to communicate
- uncared for
- unfairly judged
- unfairly treated
I found this exercise to be extremely enlightening. In one session, I had a newly married couple fill it out. She was energetic, open and ready to roll. He was subdued, guarded and quiet. She filled her sheet in mere minutes. He sat for a long time, struggling to assign numbers. I had known them both for a long time, so this was not surprising. She was a spark plug, and he was always well composed and stoic; I thought he might struggle. Unexpectedly, during that exercise, he burst into tears. Uncontrollable sobbing.
He kept apologizing for crying; he didn’t understand his emotional outburst and inability to stop. With a little time, I asked him what words were causing the reaction. He could hardly speak them, it aroused such strong emotion.
Often, people don’t put words to their feelings. They are just containing, coping and managing the inner emotions, subduing or emoting them, and using their mechanisms to get by. When identifying them by name, it’s amazing how exposing it can be. Especially when the heart opens, even just a little, and you find yourself pierced with a word like “worthless”, or “not cherished”, or “can’t do anything right”. Memories rush to the surface, and there you are as a little boy/girl, standing in front of someone who you trust (a parent, a family member, a pastor?) and re-living the raw feelings. The pain get re-experienced. Emotions erupt. Tears may flow. The desire to lock-down becomes hard to resist.
On this exercise, some people who were in deep emotional distress would recognize pain everywhere (high numbers associated with dozens of words). Others would find it hard to feel anything at all – which could indicate a strong disconnection from self. (Note: sometimes further in the process, if they repeated this exercise, the numbers could change dramatically as they experience ‘breakthroughs’).
Most often, people would have pain patterns. There were some clear areas of pain/distress. My role would be to isolate the words which the evoked the strongest pain response, and group ones which were associated to each other (indicating a ‘pattern of pain’). These would almost become emotional fingerprints of traumatic experience. In further counselling, these patterns would begin to show up in the stories and experiences of the individual. We could begin to work on these areas very specifically.
As an example, a person might have assigned a number of 7 or higher to these words: abandoned, alone, inadequate, left out, rejected, trash, uncared for, neglected.
Seeing all of these, I could categorize them together as signs of abandonment, neglect, rejection, and disownment. The stories I would anticipate seeing would begin from childhood – of a young boy or girl who was somehow made to feel like they were or would be or deserved to be left alone. By whom? Why? When? What were the circumstances? As a outcome, what were the defensive mechanism(s) the developed to self-protect and cope?
This is where the work would continue.
Uncovering the Pain Patterns
While the process continues, the individual/spouses keep coming back to our place of created safety. As observers – counsellor and partner/spouse – we continue to offer attentiveness, care, love and no judgement for anything that may come. We just watch as the stories are told, and the heart becomes open. There is encouragement to observe the places where tears may fall, and pain becomes unbearable.
These are junctures where one notes that the damage is real, and healing is needed.
To go back into childhood, and listen to stories of little ones – full of trust, in complete dependency and need, and seeking approval from their first caregivers (parents) – some people experience things that cause great damage. The goal is not to blame; it’s to acknowledge and allow space to be spoken.
In my times of counselling, I heard stories where children were threatened and abused verbally, physically, sexually and spiritually. I heard children who were ignored, placed under intense expectations, made to feel like they were an embarrassment, a mistake, and an inconvenience. Mistakes were sometimes met with shaming, with physical intimidation, and in anger, with physical abuse. In their mind, it begins to erode any sense of safety, self-worth and trust.
Pressure/Abuse Produces Emotion
This creates emotional reactions in the mind of the child that are involuntary; they’re the result of abuse and pressure. Feelings of being abandoned, neglected, unwanted, humiliated, despised/hated, betrayed – and ultimately, leaving them feeling emotionally drained.
Emotions turn into Behavioral Dysfunctions / Coping Mechanisms
Emotions like these don’t just sit idle; they need an outlet for release. These emotional responses begin to turn into issues of the heart/spirit, and take the form of bitterness, temporal/material values, rebellion/defiance, pride, negative thoughts, “moral” failures, hypocrisy, and even spiritual malpractice/occultism.
The pain either go inward or outward. It may go inward to bury emotions, and to become quiet/voiceless and compliant – seeking to avoid more trauma (leading to bitterness, hypocrisy, secret moral failure, negative thoughts/depression). Others can’t contain their emotions – they go outward. These are seen as dysfunctional behaviors, and blame gets placed on the children for “acting out”. The effort to understand “why” is sometimes never investigated from parental self-reflection. Unconsidered (or maybe they know it, but can’t help it), the parents are acting out of their own dysfunction – and projecting it onto their children. For them to recognize and challenge their own patterns of dysfunction is an enormous feat.
Instead, what often happens, is the patterns of abuse and pressure increase as a solution to control/fix the dysfunction they see in their children, thus causing more damage.
It’s not only parents that inflict damage, though likely that is where the damage begins. Clearly we all encounter other people through life in families, friendships, social settings, schools, workplaces, and more. Things which impacted our sense of self at home can be experienced elsewhere, and our pain-points can be further triggered in these relationships. Wherever there are people, we will be hurt from time to time.
The result of all of this dysfunction is a “Damaged” or “Locked Heart”. As the child grows into adulthood, they develop strongholds to protect themselves from pain, that they lose the ability to act in a healthy way. When their pain is triggered, they end up manifesting behaviors of abuse and pressure. In essence, they become perpetrators of the behaviors that impacted and harmed them; which they hated.
See the following chart, which shows the process of damage.
1 - Abuse/Pressure
Forms of Abuse
Forms of Pressure
- Highly Expressive
- Not Talked To
- Focus on Self
- Critical Judgement
2 - Emotional Issues
- Feeling of Abandonment
- Rejected / Unwanted
- Despised / Hated
- Emotionally Drained
3 - Spiritual/Behavior Issues
Forms of Dysfunction
- Temporal / Material Values
- Rebellion & Defiance
- Negative Thoughts
- Moral Failure
4 - Damaged (Locked) Heart
What is a Damaged Heart?
A damaged heart comes in many forms. After years & patterns of abuse, feeling emotional pain, stumbling through the result spiritual
turmoil and unrest, the heart suffers in brokenness. Automatic & unmoving walls and defences are formed inside to protect itself from more pain.
It affects the ability of a person to love & to receive love, to relate to other people, to express, to feel and to know liberty. Without experiencing healing, it most often leads to an individual who repeats the cycle; and unintentionally, they begin to inflict forms of abuse and pressure they despised. In other words, the abused becomes the abuser.
An Example: Breaking Down a Scenario
For sake of demonstration, the following is a completely fabricated story but shows the how the pain patterns take shape and impact a boy, who grows into adulthood carrying emotional trauma.
1 - Abuse/Pressure
A little boy wakes up each morning to the sound of his mother screaming at his father. His father doesn’t fight back; he just silently takes it. Mother always seems angry. She’s impatient, high-tempered, often yelling at everyone, including the boy. She’ll remind him often of his inadequacies, never doing his chores well enough, and that he’s ‘stupid’ compared to his siblings.
His dad seems to come home late, and spends a lot of time on his computer or in the garage. There is very little positive interaction between the parents, and every time the little boy asks to spend time with his parents, they dismiss him.
Yet, they drive to church every Sunday morning and worship God with a smile on their face and act like everything is great.
Possible Patterns of Abuse & Pressure: Verbal abuse, Spiritual abuse, performance expectations, dominance, not talked to, focus on self, anger, critical judgement
2 - Emotional Issues
With the dynamic in the home, the boy is constantly feeling like his parents are in fragile state within their marriage. The instability makes him worry that everything might fall apart, and he’ll be abandoned. All he wants is to be loved, but his efforts to connect with either parent is met with a feeling of unwanted rejection.
He wonders if his parents hate him at times, or if he’s done something wrong to deserve the neglect. Much of his time is spent playing alone. His mom is always making him feel like he’s not good enough based on his performance in school or chores, and he feels useless and stupid compared to his siblings. At times he feels humiliated when his mom puts him down in front of everyone. His dad seems distant and otherwise focused on work much of the time.
Church feels like a mirror of the home. Lots of noise and emotion and doing what you’re told – but never feeling like God is there or, if he is there, that He doesn’t care.
Possible Emotional Issues: abandonment, neglect, rejection, unwanted, humiliated, despised/hated, emotionally drained
3 - Spiritual/Behavior Issues
As the years pass, the young boy grows into a man who distances himself from his home. He is very compliant but nervous. He always feels like he’s going to disappoint or be in trouble. He discovers the best way to keep people away is to just do what they want. He is impersonal, superficial, rarely attempting to have a meaningful conversations.
He likes to be alone. Privately, he struggles with pornography. He loses interest in school (though he does well), feeling inadequate and unmotivated. When he’s encouraged and told he’s full of potential, he dismisses compliments feeling like he’s being mocked.
He finds himself secretly running with friends who accept him, and who demonstrate little ambition besides mindless fun. Church represents hypocrisy to him. He plays the game well, blending into the crowd. But in his heart, he feels nothing toward God.
Possible Emotional Issues: Rebellion, negative thoughts, moral failure, hypocrisy
4 - Damaged (Locked) Heart
As an adult, he marries. He hates the feeling of pressure and responsibility, and lacks confidence, motivation and self-worth. He marries someone who is more responsible than him. He is a poor communicator, always trying to comply on the surface – but never allowing people (especially his wife) to approach his deep thoughts and feelings.
Emotionally, he doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings. When his wife asks for action, it feels like pressure to him and he retreats further inside himself. He tries to do what people want him to do so they will leave him alone. His heart is guarded and locked towards questions and criticism. When they have children, he struggles to emotionally connect with them.
He resents when his wife corrects or disciplines them. Yet he verbal criticizes them and expects them to be obedient, stay out of his space. He can’t seem to escape the pattern of silent struggle with pornography, wanting to be alone, and he silently endures the pressure and boredom of church for the sake of the family. While in church, he pressures his children to behave and obey for the sake of performing to the standard of the church. He strives for spiritual approval – yet always feels inadequate and insufficient.
The Locked Heart: Can’t handle pressure, responds with distance. Can’t express feelings, responds with silence or compliance. Can’t give his opinion, responds by just doing whatever is required. Can’t accept positivity directed to him, responds with feeling undeserving.
The Danger of Cycling the Abuse/Pressure: Verbal/Spiritual Abuse, Pressure to Perform, high expectations, focus on self, not talking and being critical/judgemental
Caring Brings Connection
The work of healing begins and ends with “care”. To really care about someone is to really connect with them. In the absence of connection, the walls grow higher, the defenses entrench deeper, the emotional/behavioral dysfunction thrives. The condition of a locked-heart is demoralizing and renders a person helpless.
When a person is able to feel unjudged for who they are, even as they become ’emotionally naked’ and exposed in all the scary places of their own life – it does something amazing to open the locks. There can be conversations that occur that maybe have never happened for the individuals. A husband/wife may, for the first time, hear about how their spouse was harmed in various, profound ways. It can begin to help them understand, and care, for one another in ways they couldn’t. When walls come down – tears will fall. Hearts will flood with overwhelm – and opportunity arises to rush in with pure, selfless, unjudging love.
When communication opens within this kind of safety, together, it’s possible to deconstruct patterns and emotional roadblocks. It opens up ways of “caring” in those moments when pain rises to the surface, and words/actions become hurtful (to yourself and/or others). It’s a way of staying present in the midst of situations that would have derailed into a destructive pattern. One by one, moments of trauma can be met with intense listening, unbridled caring and unjudging understanding of what took place. It can be replaced with a new openness to vulnerability and a readiness to grow away from dysfunctional reactions – and to replace shame with overwhelming love, courage and presence.
In the Caring For The Heart model, being Christian-based, John Regier introduces a pathway for reconnecting with God. He uses scriptures exclusively to demonstrate how there is wisdom in the text to speak to issues of the heart, so as to dismiss the notion that scripture doesn’t speak to human issues. It also places emphasis on confronting the issues of the heart through prayer and understanding that God cares, receives, listens and connects in this same manner. This is often in contrast to the ways learned via a performance-based church where time was not taken to specifically care. In a church that cares for it’s people, there ought to be a place of safety available to be open, to seek connection and healing, that goes WAY FURTHER than quotes and spiritual platitudes.
The Toolset for Individuals, Couples and Families
Through the process of Caring for the Heart, the ideal conclusion is not to create a dependency on the ministry/counsellor. The objective is to teach people what real connection feels like in action – and how to do it – so that they can do it themselves and with each other. It may sound absurd, but many (if not most) people do not know how to care and connect with one another to such a radical depth that it changes things. It can completely transform the quality of relationship you have with yourself, with your spouse, with your family/children – but it takes work.