CCD Spotlight Blog

What Does Emotional Health in Individuals and Churches Look Like?

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BY TRAVIS JEFFORDS |

Raising our emotional and mental health brings peace and clarity to ourselves, as well as the families and churches we are a part of.

First – here’s what emotional and mental health doesn’t look like in a church:

-Extremely emotionally reactive to one another

-Share an extreme sense of togetherness

-Don’t allow a healthy sense of individuality

-Triangulate with one another in order to deal with their anxiety and tension, and in an effort to control other members of the group.

So if that’s what it isn’t, what are the signs of mental and emotional health in an individual in a church? The fancy word that family systems psychiatrist Murray Bowen came up with 60+ years ago for this mental and emotional heath is ‘Self-Differentiation’, and here are 7 Signs of it.

7 Signs of Self-Differentiation

1.Can differentiate between a feeling and a thought, and utilizes both

Self-differentiation is where someone is aware of their emotions, and aware of their thoughts, and aware of the difference between the two.

Over-intellectualizing is frequently a trauma response – we retreat into our head when it feels unsafe to exist in our body and in our emotions.

Existing only in feelings can make us too reactive and groundless, existing only in thinking leaves us “cold and unfeeling”.

Knowing how to differentiate between a thought and feeling, and utilizing both is a sign of self-differentiation. 

2. Gives up allusions about how a group or others are supposed to act

I recognize this allusion frequently in church groups as individuals who feel that they have to try to hold the church to extreme, unsustainable, unrealistic expectations out of a sense of duty, obligation, or a romantic idealism.

The “dogmatic person” to use a Bowenian term, holds the church to an unachievable or naive goal out of a sense of shame or idealism. This is not self-differentiated.

It’s possible to work towards issues of justice, and to create real change that the church can get behind and believe in and be a part of, and to be more balanced and integrate both thinking and feeling as stated above.

3. Does not try to control others (actively or passively)

A self-differentiated person doesn’t need others in the system to act a certain way to ease their own anxiety, or serve their own ego needs.

When we attempt to control others, actively or passively, it is an attempt to ease our own anxiety.   

The self-differentiated leader of the group is calm, curious, and open to the outcome, as opposed to trying to secretly control others because of their own agenda.

This self-differentiation lowers the temperature in the room, lets people feel a sense of togetherness and individuality simultaneously, and gives a cue for others as to how they should interact with each other.

The group may still have to make difficult decisions that not everyone agrees with, but there will not be the same divisiveness and hostility during, or after, the decision the group has to make if leaders and members do not try to control others.

4. Can face criticism or approval and remain emotionally grounded

I heard a story once, of a young man interested in becoming a rabbi.  He goes to the rabbi, an older man, and expresses his interest and sense of call, and the rabbi tells him to go outside to the cemetery and to spend all day cursing the graves.  So, the young man goes and all day long he shouts at the graves, and curses the people in their graves in any way he can think of.

When he comes back the next day , the rabbi tells him to go to the cemetery and praise the graves.  So the young man goes and spends the whole day giving praise to the people in their graves.

The next day, the young man comes back and asks him why the rabbi had made him do this.  The old rabbi looks at him and says, when you can react to someone cursing you and someone praising you, as those graves reacted to you…then…you will be ready to be a rabbi.

I can’t, for the life of me, remember where this story comes from. And, honestly, it may have been a pastor and not a rabbi…I really can’t remember.  But – something about this story has stuck with me long after the source left my mind…and it fits well with #4.

Furthermore, it leads right into number 5:

5. Acts out of a deep sense of their own carefully considered convictions

Self-differentiated people know who they are, what they are about, and what they believe.  

They don’t change their position to gain the short term approval of others (this is what is negatively associated with politicians, and why people dislike politicians so much…)

Self-differentiated people aren’t afraid to speak their truth.

Not in an arrogant way,

not in an aggressive way,

not out of a need to tell others off,

not in a need to be self-assertive.

But out of a desire to be true to themselves, and recognizing that their voice has a special place in the group, as does everyone elses.

Contrast this with compliance, an emotional reaction where people are afraid to express themselves authentically because they want to avoid creating emotional tension within the group.

A compliant person isn’t truly easy going or relaxed, though it may seem that way…they’re simply conflict avoidant out of their own anxiety.

6. Focuses on self (in relationship) rather than others in the church

The truth of a church (or family, or any other system), is the same thing that any couples therapy counselor will tell you  – we can only change ourselves.

Yet in changing ourselves, paradoxically, we can change the church.

7. Remain Calm, Curious, and Open in an Emotional group 

When groups are emotionally fused, enmeshed, reactive and volatile, it only takes a single person to change the self-differentiation level of the overall group. A self-differentiated individual  can remain calm, curious, and open. They focus on maintaining that calm and curious in themselves no matter what happens within the group. If they’re able to maintain that state, while also articulating their own values, others will eventually notice it, and eventually, be able to raise their own self-differentiation as well.

Focus on self is not the same thing as being cold, distant, overly-intellectual, or uncaring

Focus on self is about learning to be curious about what is happening within yourself, and others, and letting that curiosity replace emotional reactivity.


About the author

Photo of Travis Jeffords

Travis Jeffords is a Counselor at Sanctuary Counseling Group in Winston-Salem. He writes on the intersection of church and mental health at travisjeffords.substack.com. Email Travis at [email protected].


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