Blog Post: The Fine Art of Caring Less

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The thought of caring less is a bit misleading. There is a belief that not being filled with anxiety is akin to not caring enough. In other words, “If I’m not sick about it, I must not really care.” The problem is that when I’m full of anxiety, I make poor decisions. I may try to please people rather than to bring healthy resolutions. I may try to protect myself from attack rather than try to stay engaged and move forward. With less anxiety, I’m actually able to care more.

An Example of Jesus Caring Less

In Mark 10, Jesus is approached by an anxious man.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Mark 10:17

Look at the verbs; the man “ran” and “fell”. His question sounds exasperated, too: “What must I do…” Clearly, he is very anxious.

Yet Jesus remains calm. He states the basic answers to the question, of which the man most likely already knew.

You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” – Mark 10:19

Jesus’ answer does not give the man peace, and his response still sounds stressed. He makes a declaration.

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” – Mark 10:20

Let’s pause the story for a moment. When we are approached by anxious people, we often become anxious ourselves and feel like our job is to calm them down, give them some relief, or solve their problem.

If Jesus was absorbing this man’s anxiety, he would have responded in a way to give relief to the man’s anxiety: “If you have kept the commandments, you will inherit eternal life. You don’t need to be anxious about this. You’re in good shape.”

But Jesus does not respond this way. Instead, everyone is surprised, including us, that Jesus challenges the man to go much further.

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” – Mark 10:21b (Note that 21b comes after 21a. We’ll come back to 21a to see why Jesus was motivated to respond with such a challenge.)

We can see in the man’s face that his anxiety spikes when Jesus gives him this incredible challenge.

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. – Mark 10:22

His sadness is more like anxiety. He is sick about it. Jesus’ goal wasn’t to make the man feel worse. His goal was to help the man live his life to the fullest. He didn’t need to be coddled, he needed to be challenged, and Jesus brought challenge for one reason – he loved the man.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. – Mark 10:21a

Here is the proof. Jesus didn’t just love him, he respected him, and he believed in him. Jesus thought this man was capable of going further. This may not be the advice that Jesus would have given to every person asking about eternal life, but it was the advice he needed to give to this man.

Jesus wasn’t worried how his advice might cause more anxiety, nor was he worried that the man might walk away. Jesus wasn’t worried that people might not like him as much because he brought so much challenge. His anxiety remained at a low level, which gave Jesus the freedom to say and do what was needed.

An Example of a Self-Differentiated Person

Cultural anxiety has never been at a higher rate in my lifetime. As a coach and as a leader, people are best served by me if I am not affected by the emotional swirl that many people live in.

Edwin Friedman turned me on to this idea of self-differentiation. In this passage from A Failure of Nerve, he describes the self-differentiated person:

I want to stress that by well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected and, therefore, can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity in response to the automatic reactivity of others and, therefore, be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing. It is not as though some leaders can do this and some cannot. No one does this easily, and most leaders, I have learned, can improve their capacity.

The person who controls a room is either the most anxious person or the least anxious person. Chaos ensues if it is the most anxious person. Clarity of purpose and internal partnership develop if it is the least anxious person. Leaders and coaches should work to become the calmest person in the room.

Resources for Self-Differentiation

Here are resources that I used to help me self-differentiate (become a non-anxious presence):

  1. SteveCussWords.com – There are in fact no cuss words on Steve Cuss’ site, but his creative site title is impossible to forget. He has a lot of resources. The two most helpful to me were his podcasts and his book. Particularly these two podcasts: Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory Part 1. Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory Part 2, and this book: Managing Leadership Anxiety – Yours and Theirs.
  2. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedmana Rabbi who was great at applying Bowen Theory, which encompasses self-differentiation. One leader I know said she was taught in seminary, “In pastoral ministry, Jesus saves your soul, Friedman saves your butt.”
  3. Soul-Metrics.com – Dr. Paul Burns coached me through his GPS assessment. One goal of his work is to help people self-differentiate. Paul was a significant help to me in relieving one of my anxiety inducing triggers.
  4. A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders by Mark Sayers. I just bought this book, which was highly recommended by a wise friend.

Conclusion

The advantage I have gained in the last few years is that I no longer get caught up in people’s anxieties. I do care about outcomes, but I don’t let their anxiety determine my responses. In the process, I have made much better decisions, and people under my care are more likely to thrive.

I now have more capacity as a coach and a leader, I can bring challenge to an organization or to a client, and when their anxiety spikes, I can remain calm and allow them to decide whether to take the challenge or not. I don’t take responsibility for how they respond. By caring less, I can actually care more!

1 thought on “The Fine Art of Caring Less”

  1. This is new learning for me Brian. Thank you. I sought out this blog entry after last Thursday’s online community with Paul Burns. You mentioned self-differentiation and gave some description which intrigued me. Your blog above is a great articulation of this practically working in and through relationships. Linking it to our personal attachments brings some real clarity in an area I need increased awareness and progress in.
    It’s truly encouraging to see your transparency and growth. You are the kind of leader I’m inspired by! Thanks so much!

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