I once sat in a priesthood ordination in which the bishop asked: “Would those ‘worthy’ brethren asked to participate please come forward”. I recall feeling like crawling under the table because I was not ‘worthy’. I probably wouldn’t have felt so embarrassed and ashamed had it not been my son’s ordination. I was unworthy and all those other men were worthy. Have you ever thought about what that word means in Mormon culture? An even more fundamental question is why do Mormons continue to use that word? Why couldn’t the bishop have asked for ‘participant’ to come forward? The implications were (are) more than the immediate transaction. How many people pretend to be worthy or at least conform to expected behaviors to compete for ‘worthiness currency’? Yes, it does become about competition at some level. My son took note and was not happy about the insensitive, mindless way the situation was handled. Perhaps there are some readers who say: “Well, you weren’t worthy, so just deal with it”. That’s the all too typical response I used to have as well. Behaviors have a way of leading to unintended consequences. Labels minimize individuals and are not based on potential; they can also be self-fulfilling. Many viewed that meeting as uncomfortable and it was left a very bitter taste in my son’s mouth – without me saying anything!
Reality always includes some form of AND – I behaved worthily in some ways and unworthily in other ways but I was NOT unworthy! Either/or leads many to conclude that they are flawed; this is the root of a shame-based identity, which leads individuals to make some very desperate and destructive choices!
Like many of you, I’ve had conversations about playing the role of victim vs. taking personal responsibility for our circumstances. My experiences within the Mormon culture conditioned me to see situations, relationships, and worthiness issues as black or white; either/or; the bishop is right, I’m wrong. This limited view of reality caused a great deal of anxiety for me and served as fertile cognitive soil for the growth of perfectionism, a very unhealthy way of seeing, being, and relating. The problem with this either/or thinking is that challenges are often grounded in complex intrapersonal and interpersonal realities.
How We See Problems
One example is moral struggles, along with the guilt and stress attached. I don’t believe the majority of people want to sin for its own sake. I’m aware of many members (friends and others) who have struggled with the law of chastity due to deep loneliness, shame, self-doubt, severe anxiety, and grief over losses of all kinds. I’m not condoning the behaviors but I most definitely want to understand the underlying emotional pain; constructive solutions are always better than destructive solutions. If we want to help these individuals, we have to see the problem in its totality. I’m a strong proponent of systems theory, which views everything in context to sub-systems and larger systems. This means that we look at a ‘moral problem’ as a symptom of many potential causes. Readers who understand addictions are familiar with negative reinforcement (i.e., temporary relief of a negative consequence like shame); temporary escape behaviors that bring immediate relief but add to the problem(s) at hand.
Too many of us put ourselves on neurotic (unhealthy) guilt trips. If we had the frequent flyer miles for all these trips we’d never pay for another ticket! We ‘have to’ attend the temple monthly. We ‘have to’ think only good thoughts. We ‘have to’ be polite and kind, which some believe means we don’t express anger or frustration! Are we so unaware of the cultural values and norms that we’ve internalized that we’ve become self-alienated from our own consciences? Are we centered on Christ or the LDS Church? They are not the same! One can be a great member of a ward and far from the spirit of God. Conversely, one can have a great relationship with Christ and struggle with organizational life within a ward. One who is centered on the church, for example, will care more about how members view behaviors, honest self-expression, language, and clothing than how Christ views his/her character. Let’s seek to understand problems and delay judgment (i.e., labeling and condemning). Some who appear to ‘have it all together’ might have more inner turmoil than the person with messy hair and no scriptures!
The church teaches us that we have agency, the freedom to choose, and I agree that we have some level of freedom to choose. As simple as this sounds, however, it can also be too simplistic. First, freedom is an inner condition that differs for individuals. Second, individual responses (choices) should be viewed within past and current contexts. Wards, families, and personal experiences are just a few examples. Some leaders seem to assume we are purely cognitive beings, with healthy emotions, physiology, neurology, and mental coping strategies. Based on my experiences, many local and general leaders lack understanding of social conditioning, neuropsychology, developmental psychology, personality psychology, and abnormal psychology. I’m not saying this to fault them, I’m saying this because it impacts their views and approaches to healing. Many leaders reduce situations to moral issues and choices.
If I had to select one of the most important concepts I’ve learned as a marketing (and leadership) professor, it would be ‘market segmentation’ – the ability to see sub-groups of people with different needs, resources, wants, values, lifestyles, problems, preferences, opinions, capacities, etc. Seeing members as sinners or saints, only through a moral lens, doesn’t describe the larger reality operating below social awareness. It’s an incomplete map.
Maps Get Better with Information and Experience (AND)
We are all in the ‘map-making’ business. We learn through direct experiences, observations, research, science, and the collective knowledge accumulated and refined throughout history. In short, we want to have a map of California when in California. A map of Utah in California would lead us down the wrong streets. We may smile because ‘that’s what we do around here’, show a positive attitude, obey, and exercise extraordinary willpower; but we are still lost without the right map.
Either/or is an inaccurate map. When we look at the larger reality, we use the word AND! Brother Smith doesn’t attend church and he has an anxiety condition, and he’s dealing with a divorce, and his wife cheated on him, and he’s very hurt about being released from a calling because the bishop was more concerned about performance than the growth and development of Brother Smith!
One tool (theory) that has helped me to understand the balance (AND) between personal responsibility and the behavior of others is Attribution Theory, which explains how people explain causes of events or behaviors.
An internal attribution says characteristics of the person led to the behavior. Sister Franker missed church because she’s lazy. An external attribution says something about the situation caused the person’s behavior. Sister Smith missed church because she’s exhausted from raising 20 children and didn’t have support from her husband.
Three factors influence whether an attribution is external or internal:
- Distinctiveness. If the behavior is unusual for that person, the perceiver will make an external attribution. Bishop Harris was a bit impatient today, that’s not like him; he must be under a lot of stress (external situations).
- Consistency. If the person being observed has a history of behaving in the same way, people make internal attributions about behavior. Example: Brother Brown always helps everyone in need; he’s a charitable man.
- Consensus. If others respond to similar situations the same way, a person will make an external attribution. Brother Brown answers the Sunday School history questions about polyandry in an agreeable manner, just like everyone else; he’ going along with the church culture (norms).
Can you see the problem with either/or thinking? Suppose Brother Ule B. Sorry speaks up in Sunday School about an issue related to history such as Joseph Smith marrying women already married to other living men (polyandry). Brother Sorry was seriously bothered and seeks feedback and understanding from the group; he is generally quiet and goes along to get along. Because his behavior is distinct and inconsistent with his normal ways, some might attribute the problem to external causes such as the Internet and ‘anti-literature’. If others in the class respond as usual by asking safe questions and not expressing their authentic emotions, there is a lack of consensus – Brother Sorry must have the ‘spirit of apostasy’ growing within his heart (internal attribution due to lack of consensus in response to polyandry).
Bad Brother Sorry!
Some might rush in and tell Brother Sorry to stop reading history (truth), that it’s good/bad, loyal/disloyal, etc. Others might throw down the ‘responsibility card’ and counsel Brother Sorry that he is choosing to read the wrong literature. Actually, Brother Sorry is following the counsel of top LDS leaders but his peers in the Sunday School class have not exercised their agency in learning about their church! Here’s what apostles have said:
“Latter-day Saints are not asked to blindly accept everything they hear. We are encouraged to think and discover truth for ourselves. We are expected to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to a personal knowledge of the truth. Brigham Young said: ‘I am … afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security. … Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates.'” Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “What Is Truth?” CES Devotional. Jan. 2013.
“We have heard stories where someone asking honest questions about our history, doctrine, or practice were treated as though they were faithless. This is not the Lord’s way… We need to do better in responding to honest questions. Although we may not be able to answer every question about the cosmos or about our history, practices, or doctrine, we can provide many answers to those who are sincere.” President M. Russell Ballard, “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.” Address CES Religious Educators. Salt Lake Tabernacle. Salt Lake City, UT. 26 Feb. 2016.
Inside and Outside
I’d like to suggest that life is a balance between working on ‘what’s out there’ and ‘what’s going on inside of me’. I used to believe that I had to take responsibility for everything and that meant accepting ‘what’s out there’ (i.e., church policies, leader’s behaviors) and adjusting my attitude. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, said there are two kinds of people who need help. Those who blame themselves for everything take too much responsibility; he called this neurosis. Those who blame everyone else for their problems take very little (if any) responsibility; he called this a character disorder (a personality disorder in the DSM – V). What I wasn’t seeing was the opportunity to influence ‘what’s out there’ AND change my attitudes to be constructive, helpful, and loving. I can be assertive, have difficult conversations, ask unconventional questions AND be considerate of others.
Here are two common biases to consider when we making attributions:
- Fundamental attribution error: we underestimate the influence of external factors and overestimate internal factors. Leaders focus on choices and minimize externalities. Ignoring or minimizing new information is one example. Blaming members for ‘being offended’ is another example.
- Self-serving bias: people give themselves too much credit for what they do well and give external forces too much blame when they fail. When temple attendance is high, the bishop takes credit; when temple attendance is low, he blames members, Satan’s influence, the Internet, etc.
We can start where we are, with step one, no matter how small. We can stop blaming ourselves for being different, not conforming to norms. God gave us unique talents and personalities to share, not hide. Conformity is the enemy of personal greatness and organizational excellence. I say that with extreme confidence having studies organizations across many industries including manufacturing, healthcare, services, retail, technology, and even government agencies.
In summary either/or maps lead to biases when making attributions. The way to knowledge and positive change is through relationships, including the most difficult individuals who evoke powerful emotional reactions. The next time someone invites you on a guilt trip or blames you for seeing things differently, remember AND!