By Aaron Mitchum
Attachment theory says from birth we have relational needs. And at the center of those needs, according to Susan Johnson (2005), is the question “will you be there for me?” When as a young child we put that question out there through relational bids and our attachment figure says “no” we receive back the sense that we are helpless and we are alone. Humans cannot live that way. So we get creative.
When that response is received enough times with out another source of healthy nurture we interpret the basic human need of “will you be there for me” as bad. We also are not able to handle our attachment figure as being bad (because then we would be alone and we already know we can’t handle that) so we create a belief that “I must be bad for having that need”. Therefore in the future when that need arises in us we dissociate ourselves from that need in order to avoid the pain of being bad. Dissociation can take many forms. The outline I just gave is the basic one for addiction from a psychoanalytic position. Dissociation can be through the promise of power (instead of the vulnerability of “will you be there for me”) in pornography. It can be in the numbing of alcohol or drugs as well as many other things. However, I believe there is an “addiction” that is not often spoken of, the addiction of religion.
It is of no doubt to me that God is the perfect attachment figure who never denies our need of “will you be there for me”. However, when we avoid the experience of the here and now by “going vertical” we are dividing our self and rejecting the part that instigated the need that by this point we are sure won’t get met “horizontally”. I believe this dissociation of worship can be perpetuated by the content of our songs.
My supervisor, Beth, recently said that judging our emotional responses to our felt need is a step before dissociation. When we judge our emotions as unacceptable we deny the need that precedes those emotions. This is the process of what Heinz Kohut would call a disavowal of a part of the self. I have sat before many people who talk about the guilt they have for their jealousy or their anger or their sadness or their clinginess. Often this guilt is even stronger; it is a disapproval of or anger at their self. How often does this happen in worship?
Our content is usually largely about the strength of God (First of all this is truth and right to focus on in worship. Secondly it is a great thing to focus on because it increases feelings of safety with God; he is strong enough to answer yes to my question of “will you be there for me”). However we usually jump from there to repentance or denial of self in order to follow God. I rarely hear songs that engage in the vulnerability of our needs with out labeling them as weakness or sin! Either we are “conquerors in Christ” or “God is Strong” or “we are sinners” or “we promise to do better”. None of those are wrong, at all. BUT they are incomplete with out the songs of God’s own vulnerability and our very own un-judged vulnerability. With out those components we risk enabling the dissociation of worship, an act that decreases people’s ability to be human with God, self and one another.
In his final year of the MA in counseling program at Mid-America Nazarene University Aaron is a clinical intern at Resonate Relationship Clinic and a counseling intern at Serenity Life Resource Center. A veteran worship leader, he currently leads at Trinity Lutheran Church in Shawnee, KS. He lives with his family in urban Kansas City, KS.
Visit his blog here.
Johnson, S. M. (2005). Emotionally focused couple therapy with trauma survivors: strengthening attachment bonds. New York: Guilford Press.
Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self; a systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. New York: International Universities Press.