Feeling Lost

The feeling of being lost is an extremely common one for people who are experiencing stress, depression or emotional turmoil. Yet it is a very interesting description of human feelings. It appears to relate to a sense of rootedness that one has previously felt, a sense of solidity which has since been shaken. Having done much work with people who feel lost, it has become apparent that the description is a very potent and valuable one for a situation in which people are experiencing a division in their perceptions of themselves. Suddenly aware of a multiplicity of differing options, they feel lost between different parts of their characters that have been divided through their circumstances. 

Leadership is one very specific (but not exclusive) situation in which divisions in the self can exacerbate the feeling of lostness. The generation of a secondary identity through the perceptions of others is common to all people but perhaps Christian leaders feel it particularly strongly. In this secondary identity, which I call 'The Saintly Projection', the individual takes on all of the projected assumptions of the people around them, particularly congregation members, these will always include a vision of the holiness of the leader which is untenable, maybe various other virtues and saintly attributes. Congregants will also project onto their leader the things that they would not like him or her to be. For example they may say, 'Our leader is never angry, he is always available, she is always there for you'. As flattering as these things may appear, they can affect the leaders mental wellbeing. These are the projected expectations and assumptions of other people. This set of characteristics can become a primary identity for the external life of a leader as he or she tries to meet the expectations of the people in their care.

Of course the result is to create a second division in the self. Interiorly the leader recognises that they are far from the exterior assumptions made about them by the group. Their internal and private lives do not express the saintliness or holiness that the congregation or other group assume of them. The greater the apparent disparity between these two divisions, the more concrete they become. This second division in the self I call, 'The False Reality'. The False Reality is the strong belief that the reality of the leader is of deeply internal failing, flaws, evil, hypocrisy or falseness. There is such a strong polarity between the projected goodness and the individual?s perceived badness that all moderation is lost and a very absolute view of the self is created. Some leaders who have discussed these feelings with me, admit to fearing exposure on the front of tabloid newspapers, outing them as frauds or admonishing them for some minor peccadillo committed in their teens. Some leaders commonly reminisce fondly of when they were 'just a sinner saved by grace sitting in the pews'. It is clear that a huge amount of emotional discomfort is created by the existence of these two 'other selves', and that neither of them realistically or fairly represent the individual.

It is not surprising that the feeling of lostness is used to describe circumstances in which such divisions have taken place. After all, the individual is lost between three different identity views, 'The True Self,' who he or she really is. 'The Saintly Projection,' who others believe him or her to be. 'The False Reality,' who he or she really believes them self to be.

These sort of divisions can really take their toll on our emotional wellbeing and be in themselves a cause of depressive and despairing feelings.

The great news is that an awareness of such divisions can immediately put us on the road to home. Home being the integrated 'True Self', the person that God created, and the person who he knows and loves, warts and all. The journey to wholeness is a complex one that needs our constant application and determination but it is filled with hope and the knowledge that Jesus has the full image of our true selves.

There is little hope in attempting to alter 'The Saintly Projection.' I have tried this in my own preaching, by revealing more of my own failings and flaws. To my horror this only furthers the projections of holiness, by adding, distinguished humility and vulnerability to an already unattainable list. It is far better not to engage with these projections in anyway than to attempt to dispel or fulfil them.

The hard work comes in rejecting ?The False Reality?. It is very easy to build up a very convincing bleak picture of ones inner life. As Christians we are under no illusion about our sinful natures, however, we can be very graceless and fail to forgive ourselves. We must treat ourselves kindly and compassionately, as Jesus would have us treat others, keeping no record of wrongs. The reality that we must work towards is one that recognises our faults and failings, as well as our gifts and virtues. We all need a healthy, balanced and realistic view of ourselves. If it is all bleak it is not true.

Hopefully I will be able to write some more on this journey to the 'True Self'. In the meantime I pray that you will find more of yourself as God sees you. Psalm 139 is a great place to start.

Will van Der Hart, 15/11/2006