Fawning Over the Flock: trauma response in ministry

Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash

It’s the little things:

  • Sometimes when I would sing certain hymns I don’t believe in, I’d separate just a little, like I’m watching myself sing instead of actually singing. It hurt. It also felt like nothing.
  • Sometimes when I would leave meetings in which I’d been particularly rational in the face of conflict, I’d get home and wonder what actually happened and why I’m not okay.
  • Sometimes after a conversation with a congregant that I thought went well, I would get this twisting in my stomach and wouldn’t be able to concentrate for the rest of the day.
  • On some particularly “good” Sundays, I’d come home feeling like I was great at my job, then wake up the next morning and not be able to move from overwhelming anxiety and depression.

Things like this kept happening for months as I was pastoring until I felt it was normal to be constantly exhausted, unmotivated, and foggy brained. Within a year of this new “normal,” I assumed my anxiety, depression, and inability to focus were all my fault.

It wasn’t until I spent some time away on sabbatical and read about fawning that I realized I was in a semi-constant traumatic response. Pete Walker describes the fog I called “normal life” as an emotional flashback.

Emotional flashbacks were a new concept for me. I was familiar with the typical simple PTSD symptoms of visual flashbacks and nightmares. Emotional flashbacks are different. They don’t have to involve visual elements at all. They are a replaying of the emotional memories of abandonment and rejection from emotional abuse and neglect.

Because these flashbacks can be purely emotional, they can be subtle. I don’t notice that I’ve been transferred to another time and place. I think I’m responding to the current moment. And because C-PTSD comes with an inner monologue of toxic criticism, it’s easy to attribute the feelings of abandonment, anxiety, and depression to being inherently defective instead of recognizing them as trauma symptoms.

If you took a look into my pastor thoughts as I was in a flashback this is what you’d find:

I don’t believe what I’m supposed to and that’s why everything is failing. I’m a bad pastor. I’m selfish and am just trying to do what works for me instead of caring for others. I’m crazy. I shouldn’t be responding to life this severely. It’s because I’m a drama queen and need attention. I’m such a horrible person. I can’t make good decisions. I can’t trust my thoughts. The world would be better off if I wasn’t taking up so much space in it. And on and on and on.

The fog of these toxic thoughts is the flashback. It’s as if the traumatic experience is happening all over again. When humans experience trauma, including flashbacks, they head straight into survival mode and respond accordingly. We typically hear about fight, flight, and freeze as trauma responses. Pete Walker adds another to the list that can be particularly helpful for survival in C-PTSD-inducing environments: fawn.

Walker describes it this way, “As a toddler, [a child] learns quickly that protesting abuse leads to even more frightening parental retaliation, and so she relinquishes the fight response, deleting “no” from her vocabulary and never developing the language skills of healthy assertiveness…Servitude, ingratiation, and forfeiture of any needs that might inconvenience and ire the parent become the most important survival strategies available. Boundaries of every kind are surrendered to mollify the parent…”

When God is the abusive parent, fawning looks like good Christian devotion: constantly praising and adoring God, feeling guilty for getting angry or doubtful toward God, surrendering critical thinking skills in pursuit of believing correct doctrine, trading individual sense of purpose for “being used by God,” and submitting to the belief that anything about you that doesn’t fit the prescribed script demanded by your religious group (sexuality, thoughts, lifestyle choices, experiences, etc.) is your fault and requires self-loathing as penance.

Fawning is a well-loved trait in pastors. Beyond the above seemingly good Christian traits, people who fawn are excellent listeners, constantly open for suggestion and criticism, willing to sacrifice their own health in order to appease others, and ripe for burnout. But ultimately, fawning only makes initial wounds deeper and unhealthy habits harder to break.

As I recognized my own fawning patterns as a pastor, I realized that, for me, just participating in the Christian tradition triggered regular emotional flashbacks. The inevitable expectations and demands of congregants exacerbated old wounds and opened me up for fresh wounding as I surrendered my identity, my thinking, and my self-advocacy to whatever the Church “needed.” When I felt confused, exhausted, or angry because of what I had given up to make things work, I guilted myself for it and got lost in the fog of a flashback again and again.

I love/d the Church and the Christian tradition. I studied hard my entire life to figure out how to be a good Christian and a good pastor. It is only now that I am able to step back and ask myself, Was it because I loved it or because I needed to survive? Who am I when I’m not trying to appease the God and the tradition that wounded me?

The questions sound dire, but they are the pathway to healing. They can be joyful questions, questions that open whole worlds to be explored and offer much-needed space for rebuilding a healthy sense of self. This is where the journey out of abusive religion and into healthy spirituality begins.

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