I wrote some in my last post about my unhealthy desire to seek approval from certain influencers in my life. Though those unhealthy attachments had a great deal to do with my lack of ability to embrace reality, essentially, they represented my issues with emotional capacity.
Dr. John Townsend calls this issue “the adulthood character structure.” Others may simply call it maturity. I also refer to it as emotional capacity. Truthfully, however, as adults, we have the freedom to make our own decisions without permission from other adults. We can judge our own abilities. We can choose what we value. We can have opinions of our own. We can disagree with other people, including people who are important to us and those we respect. We also have the responsibility to approach other adults with the same mutual respect and freedom.
Why can we do all of these things? Here’s the simple answer: We’re adults. I think you would be shocked at how many people struggle with this particular part of their character. I hope this post really opens your eyes to some important aspects of emotional capacity.
As children, we’re extremely dependent on our parents and caretakers to provide for us and give us guidance in just about everything that we do. It’s a “one-up and one-down” relationship. We look up to our parents and caretakers. They guide us in decision making and life in general.
Hopefully, as we grow, we become less dependent on others. I think about my eleven-year-old son, Neil. His capacity now is more than it was five years ago. He's capable of doing so much more now than he used to be able to do, but he’s still not capable of doing some of the things that my fourteen-year-old daughter, Olivia, is capable of. Even Olivia has a capacity limitation at fourteen years old.
To become an adult, we have to constantly move through the process of growth in those early years. It’s a physical, mental, and emotional developmental process until we ultimately move out of the “one-up and one-down” parental relationship and eventually move into mutual peer relationships with other adults, including our parents and the other influencers in our lives. We may respect and honor their positions, but we become mutual adults with them, having the same potential capacity and the same responsibilities.
Genesis 1:27 tells us, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” We were created in the image of God; and if we’re going to operate in the image of God, we have to walk in the authority and dominion that the Lord has given us over our own lives. This includes being able to step up and do all that He asks of us. I also need to say this: He has either equipped you or He will equip you for whatever He may ask of you. The Lord has never called a person to something that He has not prepared them for. When we embrace this call and responsibility, we are truly able to submit to God and others in healthy and productive ways.
Occasionally, individuals get stuck in the developmental process of adulthood. Sometimes, people never actually “grow up,” so they feel one-down to others; or out of a defensive posture, they take the role of one-up to others. They may even become rebellious in some way. Any of these responses are unhealthy responses, and this topic can get complicated. A person may struggle with small aspects of relational issues; they may act appropriate at home with their spouse and kids, but at work, when they’re around certain people, problems arise. These problems can manifest in different ways for different people or seep into other areas of a person’s life.
In adulthood, we should submit to God; He’s our heavenly father. Every other adult in our life, including those who may hold a position higher than ours, we are equal to. They are our siblings, our brothers and sisters. Now, this doesn’t mean that we don’t submit to people in authority over us. I’m absolutely going to submit to my pastor or my boss or the other leaders in my life. I’m going to submit to whoever is in organizational authority over me. It doesn’t matter if they’re older than me or younger than me; that’s irrelevant. I’ll submit to organizational and spiritual authority.However, we are still mutual adults, and I can be confident in who I am and what the Lord has called me to do. I have a voice. I have an opinion, and I even have a responsibility to exercise my voice and opinion in my life.
Dr. Cloud, in his book Changes That Heal points out through scripture that Jesus calls us out of the one-down relationship to other people, but at the same time encourages us to have respect for those in authority (Matt. 23:2-5, 7-10). Here’s the bottom line: If you're an adult, you don’t need permission from anyone else to think, feel particular emotions, or even act. As adults, we have the freedom to do those things; and more importantly, we have the God-given responsibility to think, feel, and act individually.
I was working with a client not too long ago who was struggling with the responsibilities of adulthood and his emotional capacity. His father had been a hardworking, prayerful man. He had good morals, went to church, did all the "right" things. He loved his family, but just didn't show it much. Emotionally, his father had been a hard man, especially when he worked all day and came home tired at night. He expected his kids to wait on him hand and foot. He barked orders from his recliner; and when the kids did just as he expected, he showed approval and love. When they slacked a little and acted like normal children, he would become angry and punish them.
As my client grew older, he developed an unhealthy need to please people in authority. In fact, this approval addiction and unhealthy desire to please affected many parts of his life, including his relationships with his spouse, the leaders in his life, and even the people he led. This made it amazingly hard for him to tell people difficult things. He hated even healthy confrontation, and he struggled to voice his opinions and personal desires to people in authority. These issues produced enormous challenges as he progressed in leadership, creating blind-spots that hindered his growth. Thankfully, we were able to illuminate what was happening and even develop tactics to make significant progress in growing his assertiveness and building his adulthood character structure.
Adulthood character structure is multidimensional. Many times, the issues we face are deeply rooted in the challenges of our past. To simplify, I’m going to give you the three most common ways in which this aspect of character can impact a leader.
Some people take a one-down approach with authority. This is an unhealthy form of submission in which people view those in authority positions as superior.
Some people develop a one-up approach with authority. This is an egotistical or "better than" approach to authority in which people feel that they are superior to both those they lead and authority figures.
Some people develop a rebellious or defiant approach to authority. In this approach people often take on a defensive posture in their relationships or feel victimized by others.
If you're struggling with one of these aspects of emotional capacity in your life, having an awareness and acceptance that you are struggling in this area will help in a tremendous way. Awareness is a powerful thing, but there are also some actions that you can take to help in your development. I want to give you some steps that can help you begin moving in the right direction.
Let's talk about the one-down approach. If you're feeling one-down to certain adults in your life, here's some things you can apply to help you grow in this area. First, realize that your opinion does matter and begin to express that opinion to the safe authority figures in your life. Also, you need to begin making a few safe decisions beyond what you would normally do without seeking the approval from someone in authority.
I realize that this may sound a bit simple, but if you are struggling in this area, these are easy steps to push you out of your comfort zone and create growth. You need small steps in the right direction to get you started.
For those of you who revert to the one-up mentality, here are some simple suggestions you can apply to your relationships. First, be aware of how you're talking to the people you lead. Lead them with care and empathy rather than telling them what they "should do" or shaming them for not doing a task as well as you think they should. Also, recognize that you too have limits. Admit that you need other people to make a complete and productive team.
When you have conversations with authority figures, unlike with the one-down mentality, you may need to actually back down a little with your demands. Be aware of your tone of voice and body language, and be willing to submit to the authority in your life.
Finally, let’s discuss the rebellious or defiant approach. One of the biggest challenges for those who struggle with this mentality is recognizing that you’re struggling. You must also realize that you can’t do everything, that you do have limits, and that it's okay to submit to authority. Remember that not everyone is out to wound or take advantage of you. It may be helpful to find someone with whom you regularly push limits and purposely submit to that person no matter what they request of you. Follow through with their request, purposely yielding to authority rather than pushing against what they ask of you.
Although everything I’ve told you may sound simple, there's nothing easy about overcoming any one of these three relational problems. It takes work, and it usually requires seeking help in some way. I realize that I'm covering a very complicated topic in a very short post, but I do hope I've at least opened your eyes the subject. Again, these things are extremely difficult to process, but they’re important if you truly desire to grow your emotional capacity and ultimately grow your character. The Lord designed you for a specific purpose on this earth. It is possible for you to have confidence in who you are and why you exist.
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