Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/29/24

I Shouldn't Feel This Way: Name What’s Hard, Tame Your Guilt, and Transform Self-Sabotage into Brave ActionThe Best of You
What happens when you run out of cheeks? With the best of intentions, Christians and others are often taught that good people turn the other cheek, focus on the needs of others, and deny their own needs. We all want to give the best of ourselves to others – but what happens when others take advantage of our sincere desire to be good people? It’s a question that has implications for our personal lives and for society in general and one that seems worth considering as Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close.

Dr. Alison Cook is a therapist and host of the popular self-empowerment podcast The Best of You.  The Wyoming native received her BA from Dartmouth College, her MA from Denver Seminary and her PhD from the University of Denver. She is widely recognized as an expert on the intersection of faith and psychology. In her new book I Shouldn’t Feel This Way: Name What’s Hard, Tame Your Guilt, and Transform Self-Sabotage into Brave Action she focuses on helping people heal from past wounds, develop a strong sense of self and forge healthy relationships.

JWK: You’re book is called I shouldn’t Feel This Way. What inspired the book and the title?

Dr. Alison Cook: It came right out of my own life – as well as the women in particular, but all people, that I work with. We tend to beat ourselves up for the different feelings that we have – really normal feelings like like anger, like guilt, like sadness, often conflicting feelings. When we beat ourselves up, when we tell ourselves “I shouldn’t feel this way!”, we only add to the pressure and tighten up the knots inside of us. So, that is a cue. I shouldn’t feel this way is actually a cue to get curious. I do feel this way. I wonder what that feeling is about.

JWK: You talk about how good qualities – like a sense of responsibility, empathy and kindness – can sometimes be twisted to create relationship problems.

AC: Exactly. I think people who are really caring, people who really internalize the messages of being good to other people, of loving others – the messages of Jesus – can sometimes forget the flip side especially when we look at Jesus’ own life. Jesus also was really honest. Where he saw boundary violations, where he saw toxicity, he wasn’t a doormat. He stood up for Himself. He stood up for people who were hurting. For those of us who are high in empathy – who are always worried about other people’s feelings – we can feel really guilty when, in fact, maybe that anger is there for a reason. Maybe that feeling of frustration is there for a reason and there’s an invitation for us to be brave with that feeling, to do something constructive with that feeling, to step out in courage as a result of that feeling.

JWK: Taking them one at a time, how can a sense of responsibility – which, of course, is good – sometimes become a negative for us?

AC: When we take responsibility for things that are not our responsibility, when we take responsibility for someone else’s feeling when we actually haven’t done anything wrong. Maybe we disappointed someone because we are limited or we can’t be available in the way that they want us to be available. We can’t take responsibility for that. We have to release that to God. It’s hard. We don’t like disappointing other people but hyper-responsibility sometimes can (cause us to try to) do the work for other people that was never ours to do. It’s actually that other person’s responsibility to do that work.

JWK: Sometimes you hear that phrase “If not me, who?” I guess there’s a certain amount of wisdom to that but also people can sometimes take that too literally. Sometimes you’re not the person who needs to deal with that.

AC: That’s right. For people who are high in responsibility that phrase “If not me, who?” can become a trap. In fact, in a lot of this book I talk about reframing those messages. For people who are high in responsibility there needs to be a new internalized message of “Every need is not my call to serve.” To be discerning before God, (we should ask) “Which needs are You calling me to meet? Because I can’t meet all of them.” We are not, in fact, God. Especially (for) those of us who are high in responsibility, that can be just a huge weight off people’s shoulders. Take a minute to reframe those messages we’ve internalized.

JWK: Empathy is good too but how can that sometimes be twisted to work against us?

AC: For example, if someone’s in a relationship with someone that’s abusive or using toxic strategies, someone that’s high in empathy will be able to empathize with the pain in that person’s past that is causing them to misbehave. So, it will make it hard for that person to set the healthy boundaries they need to set because they’re aware of the shame, they’re aware of the pain, that’s underneath that person’s toxic strategies. For those people that are empathetic, you have to reframe that message. Listen you can feel empathetic for the person and also set boundaries with toxic behaviors to protect yourself. Two things can be true.

JWK: Kindness is sort of similar, I guess.

AC: Yeah, very similar. We can be kind but we’re kind to others without doing harm to ourselves. If someone’s taking advantage of that kindness, twisting that kindness, it’s no longer really kindness. Sometimes it’s kind to say the hard thing or to set the healthy boundary. Sometimes that’s the kindest thing we can do.

JWK: Sometimes you’re not really helping the person by trying too hard to be nice.

AC: That’s right. Enabling toxic behaviors, enabling people to take advantage of us is not actually kind.

JWK: You say you’ve struggled with these issues in your own life. I also can totally relate. Do you care to talk about how you have dealt with these things yourself?

AC: All of this comes out of my own experience loving God, having a strong relationship with Christ and really wanting to help others. I’m a therapist. I went into this as a profession because I wanted to help others. I still want to help others but I had to learn the flip side of Jesus’ command “Love others as yourself.” He’s assuming you have a healthy relationship with yourself. We see that in Jesus’ own life. Jesus does honor Himself. He takes space for Himself. He takes time for Himself. For me, that part of the equation was the hardest for me to learn. (I thought) “Oh, my gosh! If I take some space that I need to care for my own soul, I’m gonna be letting this other person down.” I had to learn to release that to God. It’s like a muscle you have to learn to develop. You have to practice it. It’s hard.

JWK: There’s this biblical quote that I guess I kind of reframed in my own mind recently – when Jesus says “First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” I always took that to mean don’t judge people because I’m far from perfect myself – which is true. On another level though, I think it says something about taking care of yourself first so that you can even be in a position to help someone else with the log in their eye. If you’re gonna help other people you have to, to a degree, take care of yourself first.

AC: That’s exactly right. Sometimes – especially for those high in responsibility, high in empathy or a super-sensitive to the needs of others – the log in our own eye is we’re not treating ourselves very well. We’re actually doing harm to ourselves. Now, paradoxically, if we’re doing harm to ourselves we’re also not helping others – probably more enabling. Yeah, sometimes the log in our own eye is “Wait a minute. What do I need to learn here? Do I need to grow in being able to tolerate when someone else is disappointed with me?” Because it’s not my job to please. God doesn’t call us to be pleasers. He calls us to be obedient. I think of First Samuel: “To obey is better than to sacrifice.” Sometimes the log in my own eye is “Well, it’s easier for me to lay myself down than to sometimes be obedient (when) God is saying ‘I don’t want you to solve this problem for this person.” That’s sometimes the log in our eye for those of us who are high in empathy and high in responsibility.

JWK: Sometimes I think people can also look at the concept of obedience to God and think it must be in contradiction to what you want to be. For example, someone with a God-given talent that they love could get it into their head that “Oh, maybe I should be a missionary” when maybe obedience is developing that passion within you for the good of yourself and others.

AC: Exactly – because that’s also part of obedience. We’re not doing God any favors, we’re not doing the world any favors, by burying our own talent in the service of others. So often, as we struggle with people pleasing, we have to ask ourselves “Am I doing this out of love and out of obedience to God or am I doing this because I cannot bear the thought of someone not liking me. That’s a really tough thing for a lot of us to really begin to work through inside of ourselves in partnership with God’s Spirit.

JWK: Again, all these things – responsibility, empathy, kindness – are good. It seems to me that what you’re talking about is finding balance between one end of the spectrum and the other.

AC: That’s right. It’s a balance…Jesus talks about the seed that gets buried in the ground so that you can become more of the true person that God made you to become. You have to guide yourself in order become your true self in Christ. That true self is definitely not being selfish. Selfish is saying “It’s all about me.” That’s not what it is. It’s also not necessarily always selflessness. Selflessness is saying “It’s never about me.” That is not the example we see in Jesus. That true self – that God-created self – is that balance. It is about you and it’s also about me. In any relationship you have a perspective that matters. You have needs. I have needs and a perspective. In order to be healthy we have to honor both.

JWK: You say “God didn’t design us to be doormats.” What do you mean by that?

AC: That is very much the topic of The Best of You, my last book, which is this idea that Jesus…was not a doormat. In His love for other people, in His willingness to lay down His life, He also had boundaries. He also showed up with anger when He needed to show up with anger. He also called out toxicity. So, that act of laying down His life was rooted in a strong sense of a higher calling and purpose. It wasn’t being a doormat. It wasn’t “Nothing matters. I’ll just do what everybody else wants me to do.” It was strength. Jesus laid down His life from a position of strength. He knew what He was doing. He also, throughout His life, had lots of examples of calling out things that needed to be called out. So, we see that example in Jesus. When we are rooted in God and showing up in the fullness of who we are, we’ll have some authority in other people’s lives, some power in other people’s lives. Even if and when it is time to lay down our lives it will be from a position of strength, not from a position of being a victim or letting somebody else take advantage of us. Jesus laid down His life from a position of strength.

JWK: I think a lot of people interpret “Turn the other cheek” as “Hit me again.” To me, what that means is don’t be drawn into stupid fights. Have the strength to walk away – but it doesn’t mean that you should allow yourself to be beaten up.

AC: Exactly. That Scripture is one I talk a lot about in the book and in all my books. It has been misunderstood. When you look back in the historical context, to turn the other cheek is actually a nonviolent way of showing dignity. Essentially it’s saying “Look, you can hit me again if you like but you cannot take away my dignity.” When we interpret it in the modern context it’s not a license to let somebody continue to harm us. It’s saying “I’m not gonna be violent in the same way you’re being violent. I’m gonna keep my dignity intact.” When I do that, when I keep my dignity intact, it keeps the shame that you’re trying to put on me on you. You can’t shame me. You can’t hurt me. It’s a very subtle – but powerful – countermove. I’m not gonna hit you back. I’m not gonna respond to your anger with more anger. I’m not gonna scream louder. I’m not gonna respond to your bullying with more bullying. Instead, I’m going to hold my head up high. I’m going to walk away – but not out of a position of weakness, out of a position of strength.

JWK: I was listening to your podcast. You were talking with your guest Lisa Jo Baker about how nobody – or at least very few – people are entirely psychologically healthy or entirely toxic. Most of us are a mixed bag and struggling to find our way. Everybody – including ourselves and our parents – has their story.

AC: Exactly. It’s a spectrum. Toxic behavior lies on a spectrum. Nobody is entirely healthy. We’re all a work in progress. We try to stay on the healthier side of that spectrum of toxicity. The big key to that is being able to own it when you make a mistake. “I just lied, I just gossiped behind my friends back. I did that. I am so sorry. I repent of that.” That’s really what makes a person healthy versus toxic. On the toxic side, instead of owning mistakes, instead of doing your own work, we’re trying to justify, rationalize, blame others. We’re not doing our own work. So, that’s really the difference between someone who is toxic and someone who is not. Can you own it? Can you grow and change? It’s not that you become perfect.

JWK: You talk about naming behaviors but not people. I guess that amounts to condemning behaviors but not people.

AC: Exactly. I try to shy away from naming people. I try to really help people identify patterns of behaviors. That’s a toxic pattern of behaviors – whether that person is toxic or not. Maybe they are but I find it helpful to get really objective – to just name the behaviors and then back into “Okay, this is someone who is exhibiting these toxic behaviors. How am I going to protect myself from that pattern of behaviors.

JWK: I find it interesting that you really do bring faith into the whole subject of psychology. A lot of psychologists kind of leave faith out of it. I’m not saying that drugs have no place in treating psychological conditions but I sometimes feel that our culture places too much of a reliance on drugs over eternal principles. Maybe if we relied more on the principles, many people could find healing without the drugs.

AC: Yeah. We have minds, hearts and emotions. We have a nervous system. We have bodies. All of those ingredients matter – and we’re spiritual beings. All of those things matter. Secular psychology leaves out the spirituality and that’s a problem. Sometimes Christians can leave out the fact that there are biochemical imbalances, that there is trauma in the nervous system. What I try to do is integrate. Listen, sometimes there is a spiritual root to our problems. Sometimes there is a biochemical imbalance that needs medicine. Sometimes it’s both. We have to think about the whole person. I think Christians are starting to understand this – that we have to think about the whole person. I hope that secular psychology will begin to recognize there is a whole person (including) a spiritual person here. For too long have those two fields been separated when, in fact, I believe they go hand  in hand…We’re in a relationship with God which means we have to bring our whole self into that relationship.

JWK: I don’t want to drift too far into politics but it seems to me that, like individuals, society can also be manipulated – that our cultural desire to be responsible, empathetic and kind can be used against us to promote destructive policies. I’m just curious if you have a comment on that. If you don’t care to get into that, I certainly understand.

AC: I think that culture permeates all aspects of society. (In) a culture of gaslighting and manipulation it’s very hard to get at the truth. I think that this applies to secular culture. I think this can apply to church culture. It can be very hard to get to the truth. We have access to way too much information streaming through our brains – more information than we were designed and equipped to be able to honor in a coherent, logical, healthy way.

So, a lot of what I talk about…is the need to step back. Get out into nature. Get offline. Stop streaming the news. Get off social media. Spend some time with yourself and with God.

Research shows that being in nature without your phone twenty minutes a day, three times a week improves your mental health. That’s how God designed us. We have way too much stuff coming at us for any human to be able to process. So, no wonder we’re confused. We’re stuck. We can’t figure out what’s true. We can’t figure out up from down, right from wrong. We have all this information bombarding us. My answer to that is the best thing we can do is unplug a little more. Spend time with God away from all the noise with the people we love. Become more discerning. Really listen hard. There is a lot swirling around us constantly in our culture that makes it really hard to be people who just practice the Way of Jesus.

End Note: You can connect with Dr. Alison Cooke at

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11


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