Is it Really Necessary for Leaders to Process Pain?
I had read books about soul care, emotional healing, and counseling. I had heard stories of people going through counseling, listened to counselors pitch the concept of process work, and yet I was still resistant. As a leader, I had encouraged many people to seek out a counselor for help but, I was too afraid and ashamed to talk with a counselor myself. I had several layers of resistance:
- Theologically, I didn’t understand why I needed to look back. I wanted to “press on toward the prize” and focus on being a “new creation” because “the old has passed away.”
- People who were into counseling seemed to be stuck in counseling for months or years.
- Some people seemed to use their past to excuse their poor performance.
- I didn’t see the value in discussing things that happened 20 plus years ago.
- I for sure didn’t want to relive the $%#@ I had been through. Why torture myself?
- I wanted to have a respectful positive view of the people who had wronged me, and it felt unloving and unforgiving to recount the wrongs.
- My pain wasn’t as bad as so many others, so it felt wimpy to say I was hurt by it.
- It didn’t seem manly to be in counseling and discuss feelings.
- I prefer to stay in control of my emotions, and a counselor might cause me to lose that control.
What I didn’t understand was that my unprocessed past was hindering my present relationships and my future potential. It was having a direct impact on my leadership. My unprocessed pain was functioning like shackles that hindered my ability to relate to people, have a clear mind in various situations, and it made me blind to triggers that had a negative effect on me. I had learned to cope with pain, but the coping was a simple way of managing it and doing my best to keep it away. Freedom and peace were a constant pursuit, but they weren’t part of my current reality.
It wasn’t until my marriage had some tension that I initially looked back at my past. I did some good work then (ten years ago) but after several counseling sessions, I figured I was good to go. Ten years later, someone encouraged me to go to a week-long leadership conference that included about twenty-five hours of a process group. This is the place where I was practically forced to go back and feel the pain of my childhood situations. My parents were well intentioned, but my home was volatile and unpredictable. Emotional neglect and verbal abuse were normalized in our home, and those things had a huge impact on all of us kids.
As an adult, my relationship with my dad was up and down. My dad still struggled with anger and as an adult, I didn’t have the tools necessary to navigate his anger or my own. Once I had processed my pain, which took a few months of individual work with a counselor, I was able to experience some inner healing and set some healthy boundaries with him. The pain of my past lost so much of its power, and it allowed me to understand how it had negatively impacted me and my relationships.
I can now handle tension better, identify and verbalize feelings in a healthier way, and the pain is remembered but not felt as much. I learned that unprocessed pain will continue to have great influence and power until it is fully felt and addressed. Ignoring it or pushing it aside simply feeds its power. Once it is fully felt and processed, it shifts to a different part of our brain. That is when our pain loses so much of its power. Galatians 5:1 says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…” Freedom is a big theme in scripture and though we live in a fallen world that has so many opportunities for entrapment, we can experience freedom from this fallen world and the pain that comes with it.
This short summary is extremely brief, and it only hits the major points on my journey over the last couple of years, but I wanted to put it out there in case you as a leader have present pain due to past experiences. Abuse, losses, disappointments, and failures can cripple us on the inside while we can still look like we have it together on the outside. Also, as leaders, we are the ones who people expect to have it together, so we rarely give ourselves permission to feel and heal. I wouldn’t have done it without my current reality forcing me to do it. I am a stubborn person, and the people who know me well will attest to that. Let me encourage you to be open to looking back and processing your past. It is worth every minute, every dollar, and every relationship. My wife and kids will be glad to attest to that.