You Say Faith Crisis, I Say Faith Journey – Understanding Both Sides of the Fence of Faith


Tony shares new information from a recent speaking event addressing the challenges of navigating a faith journey. He talks about how difficult it is to understand any experience in life until you have gone through something similar; how hard-wired we are only to see things through our lens; how “non-violent communication” impacts our ability to separate an observation we have of someone else’s behavior from our judgment; our strong desire to avoid feelings of anxiety and discomfort; and how James Fowler’s Stages of Faith can provide a framework to understand ones own faith journey, as well as put others struggle with someone close experiencing a faith journey. 

And follow Tony on the Virtual Couch YouTube channel to see a sneak preview of his upcoming podcast “Murder on the Couch,” where True Crime meets therapy, co-hosted with his daughter Sydney. You can watch a pre-release clip here https://youtu.be/-RkRq8SrQy0

Subscribe to Tony’s latest podcast, “Waking Up to Narcissism Q&A – Premium Podcast,” on the Apple Podcast App. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/waking-up-to-narcissism-q-a/id1667287384

Go to http://tonyoverbay.com/workshop to sign up for Tony’s “Magnetize Your Marriage” virtual workshop. The cost is only $19, and you’ll learn the top 3 things you can do NOW to create a Magnetic Marriage. 

You can learn more about Tony’s pornography recovery program, The Path Back, by visiting http://pathbackrecovery.com And visit http://tonyoverbay.com and sign up to receive updates on upcoming programs and podcasts.

Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the “uh’s” and “um’s” that, in his words, “must be created by wizards and magic!” because it’s that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ

Virtual Couch Episode 358 Transcript 

Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 358 of the Virtual Couch. I am your host, Tony Overbay. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of another podcast Waking Up to Narcissism. And this week I just released the premium edition, Waking Up to Narcissism Questions and Answers, the premium podcast. So look for what is called the zero episode out there. I’ll put the link in the show notes, and that is a paid subscription podcast where the proceeds are going to a nonprofit that helps people with the things that they need, if they find themselves in emotionally abusive or narcissistic relationships, whether it’s with counseling, legal fees, psychoeducational work. 

But take a look at that and then also Murder on the Couch. This is now a thing. It’s a podcast that I have done with my daughter Sydney. And there is a sneak preview that is over on my YouTube channel. And I’ll have the link to that in the show notes as well. Just go check that out. It’s about a minute and a half, and I think you’ll get a flavor or feel a vibe for what that podcast is going to be. It is fun. We have several episodes recorded. She is hilarious. I try to throw a therapy spin on true crime cases. And it’s something that she and I are both fascinated by. And I just, I really can’t wait. That is going to be released for for real in about a week or two, but you can go get a sneak preview on the YouTube channel and just sign up for my newsletter, go to tonyoverbay.com and then I’ll fill you in on everything else, because there’s still so many exciting things that are happening. 

But today’s topic is something that I have wanted to talk about for a little while. And I think if I look back at Virtual Couch podcasts in the past, I think it’s about every 50, 60 episodes or so, which unfortunately is about every year, I will talk about navigating a faith journey or a faith crisis. I’ve worked with a lot of people that are religious people that have had some certainty in their life or what has felt like certainty of what their beliefs look like and what they mean to them and how that fits into their whole family system and dynamic. And then because of life experiences and all kinds of things that can change. And that type of change can be a little bit scary and unnerving. And so I had an opportunity over the weekend to speak at a, it’s called a fireside, where there actually isn’t a fireplace involved, but, I think you can get the sentiment where it was just me and about three or 400 of my friends that gathered together and I was asked to present about navigating faith journeys. We used to just call them faith crisis, but crisis does sound like a very dramatic term. And in essence, as people are going about life, they are truly on a journey of faith. And that takes a lot of different forms and shapes. So I really do like navigating a faith journey, a faith adventure, you can call it whatever you would like. If you feel like it is a crisis, then I’ll meet you right there. And it is a faith crisis. But there are some really helpful tools, I think, to really understand what has maybe led someone to this journey of faith. So if you’re someone who has someone in your life that has been struggling with their faith, or if you are somebody who has been really starting to go down that “what’s wrong with me?” path, why am I thinking this way, or finding yourself frustrated with your faith community or finding yourself scared of maybe starting to distance yourself from your faith community. 

Well, this episode is for you, and this is something I am very passionate about. And this is a topic that I would say a decade or so ago, I might see once or twice a week in my office, and now it is on a daily basis. And that is not said with ominous music in the background, but it is work that I love helping people navigate. So I want to in essence give you a little flavor of what I talked about at this fireside on Sunday. And then just having not talked about this topic in a year or so, there’s just a lot of other thoughts I have. So I’ve got a lot of notes queued up, so I’m probably going to go in a lot of different directions. But let me start with how I started Sunday evening. And I told a story about my daughter, Alex, who, it’s almost been a year now, got in a, just a horrific car accident. And the funny thing here is Alex has been editing the podcast. So there was even a part of me that feels like I don’t want her to feel bad if I start to talk about this. But it’s something that Alex has been living with on a minute by minute basis for almost a year. But the reason I brought this up at this fireside was because prior to Alex’s accident, if I passed by a go-fund me or any kind of, something that somebody would post where they’re saying, hey, we’ve had this horrific event happen in our family and we need help. We could use some help, whether it’s, I’m asking for prayers, or finances, or food, or you name it. But it’s not that I was some cold heartless person that would just pass right by. But sometimes if I had other things going on, I would just give a little cursory glance or if I knew the family well, then I might stop and take the time to read and donate. 

But I’m almost embarrassed to say that if I felt like I didn’t have time to really take a look at what that family had been going through, that I might have the best of intentions, I’ll get to it later. And then oftentimes not. But then in going through what Alex went through and putting her go-fund me account together, it took just a tremendous amount of time and effort and courage and vulnerability to put that together. And even when we hit publish, then it was still these feelings of man, it feels almost bad to say, hey, we need some help, even though we desperately did need that help. And there were people that kind of came out of the woodwork, so to speak, and just donated because they said we’ve been there and we’ve had to create these GoFund me accounts. And so enough said, I don’t even have to finish reading your story. If you’re at that place, then I see you. And I can’t imagine how hard this is for you. And some of those messages, I think, were the ones that touched me the most. And so now, I’m that guy. So if I see a go-fund me, then it’s going to be something that I just, I know how much went into that and what that family must be going through. And so it is something that absolutely we’re going to spend time with and I’m going to, I want to send the money, want to send the prayers. I want to do whatever I can there. And the reason I lay that out when I was talking about a faith crisis or a faith journey, fireside or talk is because I thought that really illustrated this concept of it’s something that you never anticipate even understanding what goes on behind the scenes of something that then you eventually see this outward appearance. 

And so I think so often of somebody that’s going through a faith journey that’s been their experience, that it wasn’t something that they ever planned on doing. My daughter, Alex, did not plan on getting in a wreck and having the last year of her life completely turned upside down. But it happened. And so oftentimes I feel like people that are navigating their faith, their faith journey, or starting to have questions, or starting to really question their place in their faith community is something that has happened gradually over time, there was something that they did not want to happen. They didn’t sign up for that to happen, but it’s happened. 

And so for somebody who has never been through that, just like I would pass by a GoFundMe page, or I would give it a little bit of notice if I really knew the person or had some interest there, but I would, I would read something about it, but I still didn’t really understand the depths of what that family was going through. And so much the same when somebody is going through, again, this journey of faith. That if somebody has been through that journey of faith and now they see someone else experiencing that, they are going to have a tremendous amount of more empathy for them. But if somebody that has not experienced that, this is one of those, forgive them for they know not what they do, where they really don’t even understand how they’re showing up for that person that is going through the faith journey or the faith crisis. And so from there, I really want to slowly lay out some steps that I think come into play when somebody is starting to interact with someone who is going through this faith journey. I quoted the author, David Foster Wallace. And this is from his speech “This is Water” and I’ve done an entire episode on that. It’s an amazing speech. If you haven’t looked that up, I will try to get that in the show notes as well. 

But David Foster Wallace once said, “Here’s just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of.” He said, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” And he said, “We rarely think about this sort of natural basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive.” But he said, “It’s pretty much the same for all of us, it’s our default setting, it’s hardwired into our boards at birth.” And he said, “Think about it. There is no experience that you’ve had, that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experienced it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or the right of you. It’s on your TV, your monitor,” I’ve added, there on your phone, “and so on. So other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate and so urgent and so real.” And David Foster Wallace went on to say that learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. And he said, “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Now that last line in particular, I think is profound. How you choose to construct meaning from experience because each one of you listening, me communicating, have our own experiences. I cannot say this enough, but you are this amalgamation, this compilation, this cornucopia of nature and nurture, birth order, DNA, abandonment, rejection, hopes, fears, and dreams. And everything that goes into making you, you. So those are the things that lead to your experience. 

Now let me pull from the book, The Buddha Brain, the neuroscience of happiness, the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom by Rick Hanson. So let’s talk about that. So, how you construct meaning from experience. And Rick Hanson says, “Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences that you have. So this flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind. Now, some of the results can be explicitly recalled.” He says, “This is what I did last summer. That is how I felt when I was in love. But most of the shaping of your mind remains forever unconscious.” And he says this is called implicit memory and here’s where it gets really interesting. It includes your expectations, your models of relationships, your emotional tendencies, and your general outlook. So implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind, or what it feels like to be you, based on the slowly accumulating residue of lived experience. So, when we talk about that you truly are the absolute center of your own universe, and that is not said to be negative. It just is the reality of things. So everything that you are seeing and taking in is coming through your filter, your lens. And then what it feels like to be you is based off of the slow, accumulating residue of lived experience. Now in that book, The Buddha Brain, Rick Hanson says, “Here’s the problem. Your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences.” 

And he says, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. So consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber the negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories partially grows faster. So then the background feeling of what it feels like to be, you can become undeservedly glum and pessimistic.” Now, this is a podcast for another day, but he says the remedy is not to suppress negative experiences when they happen. They happen. Rather it’s to foster the positive experiences in particular, take them in so they become a permanent part of you. So I feel like now we’ve established that you really don’t know what an experience is like until you’ve been in a similar experience. The example that I give with the GoFund me. And now we talk about how everything that’s coming in is coming into you. And you are the absolute center of your universe. And so it takes effort to be able to have someone else’s feelings or thoughts or emotions communicated to you. Now, take a look at what it feels like to be you or this implicit memory which is based on the slow accumulating residue of your lived experience and your lived experience. It’s not something that someone else can tell you what you felt or thought or did as much as people like to do, which if you really step back and just listen to people communicate with each other. I think it almost, I don’t know if I’m going to the world of confirmation bias now, but I think it’s hard to not hear people say, well, what you’re doing is, or what you don’t understand is, or what I think or what you’re not even aware of. And those are all really fascinating sentiments. And that leads to this next point that I shared. And I talked about nonviolent communication. 

And this is a concept coined by Marshall Rosenberg and he talks about nonviolent communication. And, I’m pulling from a site that is fourminutebooks.com. So I’m going to be very honest about that. There’s an amazing site called the Center for Nonviolent Communication, or CNVC.org, which goes into great detail of nonviolent communication. And on CNVC.org, it says nonviolent communication or NVC is based on the principles of nonviolence, the natural state of compassion. When no violence is present in the heart, NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies, and here’s the key, whether verbal or physical are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture. So a nonviolent communication assumes that we all share the same basic human needs and that all actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs. And what I love about these concepts around nonviolent communication is when I go into my four pillars of a connected conversation, which I feel are true gold, the first pillar is to assume good intentions or no one wakes up in the morning and thinks, what can I do to sabotage myself or to hurt someone else? Now, there’s a part B to that pillar one. So we’ve got assume good intentions, but when somebody is showing up and they’re not being very kind, part B is, or there’s a reason why someone is acting, saying, or behaving the way that they do. And I feel like if you look at this nonviolent communication website it assumes we all share the same basic human needs and that all actions are strategies to meet one or more of those needs. 

That when people are showing up and they aren’t being very nice or they are being violent with their verbal, emotional or physical self, that that’s coming from a deep wounding where they feel like that’s the only way that they can be heard or understood. Now it does not mean that with that information that you need to sit in there and just take it. But I feel like that does play into the assumption of good intentions. Is there a reason why somebody does what they do? And even if it’s coming across in a not very helpful or productive way, so judgment, and this is where I think nonviolent communication gets so good and I call it the pre four pillars. Well, let me take a step back from the site fourminutebooks.com. The author is Pamela Hobart and Pamela in a one sentence summary says, “Nonviolent communication explains how focusing on people’s underlying needs and making observations instead of judgments can revolutionize the way you interact with anybody, even your worst enemy.” So in that summary, in that sentence, making observations instead of judgments is one of the keys I think of really understanding nonviolent communication. 

So, Pamela says, “Free speech advocates commonly argue the speech is the opposite of violence. That words can offend us, but they don’t do actual harm.” So she says, “From this point of view, nonviolent communication is practically an oxymoron.” But communication expert, Marshall Rosenberg begs to differ. So according to him, most people’s default manner of speaking to others is highly violent. That is if you consider violence to include attempts at cutting others down to size and coercing them into doing what we want. And I think that’s where you start to see where people communicate violently. And yes, it may sound dramatic, but when you really look at where Marshall is going with this, it does start to make a lot of sense. Pamela goes on to say whether or not most ordinary speakers are consistently committing literal acts of violence or not, most of us can see this potential benefit and learning to communicate more effectively. So one of the key lessons learned in nonviolent communication is separating observation from judgment, but that’s one of the first steps toward reducing needless conflict. So back to this fireside on Sunday. When I was talking about this, I went with some pretty easy examples.

One of those is the concept of if one says, “My kid doesn’t do their homework because they’re lazy.” The observation is that the kid isn’t doing their homework, the judgment is that they’re lazy. And again, I’m trying to probably be humorous. I shared at the fireside because it can’t be because I stopped helping them in fifth grade when I could no longer keep up with their math, which is a very true story. Or it can’t be because I passed along this hillbilly DNA or it can’t be because I just didn’t spend enough time with my kid. It has to be because they’re lazy. So then if you ask your kid, “Hey champ, why aren’t you doing your homework?” And they don’t say, “You know, it’s because I’m very lazy.” Anything that they’re saying, other than that, then, you’ve already made this observation and judgment. So now you get to even say to yourself, they’re not even being honest with themselves. So that can just be such a difficult place to operate from. So now, if I am observing and judging what I’m trying to communicate with somebody, I’m taking everything in through my own lens, because I am the absolute center of my own universe. Then you can start to see where it is more difficult than we think to really hear and understand somebody else’s experience, which it’s going to have a great effect when we start talking about how to even communicate about navigating a faith journey or a faith crisis. 

So following up with this nonviolent communication, if we can learn to separate the observation and the judgment, when it comes to somebody’s struggling with their faith or their faith community, then often it’s as blatant as somebody saying, “Well, that person left our faith community or that person left the church because obviously they want to sin.” But in reality, the observation is they have maybe pulled away or left our faith community. But the judgment is they must want to sin. And so if you look at why we make that judgment with the observation, I feel like often it’s to ease or manage our own anxiety or it’s to try to make sense of the world through our own lens. Because in that scenario of someone leaving a faith community, it couldn’t possibly be because they’re having their own experience. It couldn’t possibly because they feel judged by our faith community. Or it couldn’t possibly be because there may be more than one path to heaven. Because if that’s the case, then all of a sudden it might make us feel uncomfortable because we’ve been doubling down on, this is the only way. And I must convince you of this way. So when you start looking at that observation and judgment, you can see that it really can get in the way of really trying to hear and understand what someone else has experienced. And what comes next is we really do not like to sit with any discomfort. And so when people start to communicate and people have different experiences, this is where all of the sudden we have these immediate reactions to calm our own anxiety. So when somebody brings up something that we maybe haven’t thought about or something that might challenge what our view of life is, that makes us uncomfortable and one of the immediate ways that we can get rid of that discomfort is to tell them that they’re wrong or to tell them, “you don’t even know what you’re saying”, or “you don’t understand”, or “I know better than you”. So if you look at it from that way, that is the, I observed this person having their own experience. Then I make a judgment that they’re wrong. And sometimes it’s to manage my own anxiety. So I feel like all of these things are these precursors trying to set the table to have healthy, emotionally mature conversations around someone’s faith, faith experience or what it feels like to be them based on their implicit memory. 

So where that led next is I love talking about Fowler’s stages of faith and I haven’t talked about these on the podcast in a while, so let’s, let’s dig in. Who was James Fowler? He was an American theologian who was a professor of theology and human development at Emory University. He was born in 1940, died in 2015. He was director of both the center for research on faith and moral development and the center for ethics until he retired in 2005. And he was a minister in the United Methodist church, but he’s perhaps best known for his developmental model based on faith, which he wrote about in his book Stages of Faith, The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. So, according to James Fowler, he broke down the stages of faith. He actually had a stage zero, which I don’t talk very often about, which is the pre-development, but he starts at stage one faith and then goes up through stage six faith. Those stages, he puts them in this context. And it’s similar to Kohlberg’s stages of development. But let me walk through these and I’m going to try to spend a little time with each one, some little more time than others. So stage one faith is called intuitive or projective, and this is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. However, during this stage, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents or society. So I often look at that stage one faith, I believe it’s typically zero to three years old and intuitive and projected projective. The kids are playing on the floor and a parent says, “Hey kids, there’s a God.” And so a kid will make note of that and continue to play with their toys on the floor. But if you go back to that implicit memory or what it feels like to be them based off of this, slow residue of lived experience, you can see that the stages of faith are significant because if someone has never heard of anything to do with religion, God, faith, the faith community, what the “right” answers are, then this would be a completely different conversation. So when it comes to someone’s faith community, it does start with this stage one, intuitive or projective fate. 

So then we go into stage two, mythic and literal. This one’s pretty fascinating. When children become school age, they start understanding the world in more logical ways. And they generally accept the stories told to them by their faith community. But they tend to understand them in very literal ways. And Fowler said, a few people remain in this stage through adulthood. And for some reason, I go immediately to Lenny from Of Mice and Men. So maybe someone that is a little more simple. But the mythic and literal is typically this three to 12 year old age range. and everything becomes mythic and literal. So here’s where I talk about all of a sudden in the mythic and literal phase, we’ve got the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, Jesus, the stories of the Bible. These things are big. They are mythic and they’re literal. And the reason I think that’s interesting is that over time we do start to slowly debunk a lot of those now. Heads up. If somebody who’s listening with a little kids in the car, which I don’t imagine that would necessarily be the case. But, you know, but eventually we kind of learned that maybe there isn’t Santa Claus. I am so sorry. I think my wife still wants to preserve that Christmas magic. But as we start to knock those down, we still say though that some of the mythic and literal characters are real so I believe that that part is in there. This mythic and literal stage, because it’s just interesting to make note of what someone’s implicit memory is or what it feels like to be them that at times, they’re led to believe that this thing is absolutely true until it’s not. 

Now let’s move on to stage three, which Fowler called synthetic and conventional. And this is where I think things get really interesting. So most people move on to the stage as teenagers. And at this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there’s a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all encompassing belief system. However at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside of their box and they don’t recognize that they are inside of a belief system. So at this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs. And Fowler said that this is the stage in which many people remain. Now I want to introduce them as this concept of a box and not in a negative way, but just as a matter of a framework. So when he says, at this stage, people have a hard time seeing outside of their box, that in that box is an all encompassing belief system. And I believe when Fowler did this work, it wasn’t necessarily specific belief systems, but it was just faith and belief systems in general. So you can plug in your Judaism, Catholicism, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormonism, any all-encompassing belief system that in that box you have from the preexistence all the way through the attorneys here is the way life works. It fits in the box. And then authority is placed in individuals or groups that represent one’s beliefs, whether it’s your pastors, your bishops, your reverend’s, your ministers, whatever that looks like. It can all fit in a box and it can make sense for people. And when Fowler says this is the stage in which many people remain, then there are people that fully live a life in this stage three faith. And what I brought up on Sunday night is, I almost wish I could go back and re categorize these instead of having stages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, because we’re just conditioned that when we hear numbers and they go linearly, that there’s an assumption that then if there’s a stage three, then four must be better than three and five must be better than four. And so I would love to suspend that belief. And just talk about these in the context of a framework. So in this stage three, if that works for someone, it works for someone and there is no need or desire for somebody to try to pull somebody out of their box. Because again, if that works, then who am I, because of my experience to tell them that what their life or their situation is, is incorrect? But here’s where I start to throw, let’s throw some therapy in here. 

So there are a lot of people that find comfort in the box until they don’t. And that is because they go through these life experiences. Go back to this beginning when I talk about, I didn’t know about the depth of pain that a family must be going through by the time that something hits a go-fund me stage. And much the same when somebody starts to ask the “what’s wrong with me” question. So for some, that stage three box that states free life can just be very comfortable and things are relatively easy for them. Granted, everybody has their struggles and their problems. But what I often find are the people that really struggle in that stage three box where this may be because of the infidelity of a spouse, it might be because they struggle with addiction, it might be because they happen to be in a position or a situation where the information that they are surrounded by causes them to question and doubt their faith. When I was getting my intern hours, I actually was trained and focused for my church on helping people navigate faith crises and faith journeys. And at the time, which only makes sense that it led to an absolute faith crisis and faith journey of my own because the more that you’re taking in, the more you’re reading, the more you recognize the things that you know that you didn’t know and so on, that now I say, oh, it absolutely, it comes with a built-in faith crisis to the point where everything makes sense and then absolutely nothing makes sense. There must be a God to there isn’t a God. And so for somebody that has navigated those waters, then they’re going to have a lot more empathy and compassion for others that are in that similar position. But if somebody is still in the stage three box, and again, not saying that in a negative way, and they haven’t been on that pendulum or on that ride, then if somebody else is telling them about their experience, it can feel scary. And if it feels scary, then somebody can say, I really don’t, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I don’t, you know, I just don’t think you should have done that. And that’s easily said when somebody that hasn’t experienced that faith journey or that faith crisis. But what that can lead to then, as I like to say that when people are continually trying to fit into the box and they feel like they don’t fit in the box, they start to bounce around that the sides of the box, all of a sudden there, they pop their head out of the box because they start to feel like what is wrong with me? And nothing. You’re a human being and you’re going through experiences, but it’s very easy for people in more of a judgmental place, in that stage three box, to say, “Hey, just have faith. Just read your scriptures. Just pray more.” And that’s the part that can be maddening for the person that has absolutely been trying to do that for years. And it is years that goes into someone finally getting to the point where they are really experiencing an outward crisis of faith or really being open about their faith journey. 

That then can lead to stage four. And I would say, these are the majority of people that then come into my office. No one is coming into my office in the stage three version of faith and saying I’m struggling with my faith, because if they’re in stage three, they don’t even know they’re in stage three. They’re just living and doing and vibing and things make sense to them. And what it feels like to be them, is this makes sense. And it’s comfortable. Stage four, Fowler said, this is a tough stage. Often begun in young adulthood. When people start seeing outside of the box and realizing that there are other boxes. And they begin to critically examine their beliefs on their own, and they often become disillusioned with their former faith. Now here’s the irony. He says stage three people usually think that stage four people have become backsliders when in reality stage four people feel like they have finally moved forward. And so I feel like I often see the stage three and stage four battle of sorts. For the stage three people, they know what they know and they may feel somewhat comfortable and they may still continue to share this narrative of just pray and read your scriptures and have faith. And so a stage four feels absolutely unheard and dismissed because they tried that for as long as they can try that to the point of where some start to feel suicidal or feel like what is wrong with me. I don’t even know if I want to live anymore. And so then they look outside of the box and they almost can breathe this fresh air of relief and then I, and this is where I think these are all my opinions, but our brain is just so wired to this just all or nothing, black or white thinking that too often, then I feel like there’s this just break in that stage three and stage four experience where all of a sudden everything about my former faith community is all bad. 

Because sometimes our brain, I think, naturally has to go to this black or white, all or nothing thinking to try to make sense of things. So then it’s like, man, I am so grateful to be away from that. It’s all bad. And now, I call it the burn down the village behind me theory, where sometimes in the stage four, because people are angry because they finally feel like they aren’t as crazy as they were starting to think that they were now, sometimes they want to say to the stage three people, you don’t even know what you’re doing or talking about, and I have to rescue you and save you. And that’s where I feel like, man, that stage four, it breaks my heart because it’s a really tough place for people to be, I’m not saying, okay, you have to figure out a way to get back into that stage three box because my personal opinion is that is not happening. And that’s okay. This is all your growth, your development. And that’s okay. That’s what it feels like to be you. I feel like it’s the genie out of the bottle theory and that’s, again, none of this is said to be negative. I just feel like it just is. But then what happens is then the stage four people say again for the stage three people, “you don’t even get it. You don’t know, you were never there for me. You don’t understand.” And a stage three person is seriously saying, “I don’t know what this is. Like, why did you read the things you’re reading? Why did you stop doing the things that worked?” And so those conversations are not going to be helpful. They’re not going to be productive. But if I can get somebody, I feel like, and try to help them in this stage four, anger sense. And that’s where I feel like people can really start to lean into the concepts around things like acceptance and commitment therapy. 

That “what’s wrong with you?” Nothing. You’re a human being. You’re a product of all the things that make you, you, and sometimes in that stage four situation, again, we don’t know what we don’t know until we go through things and then we have to find the right tools. And in that situation is a real time for growth. And it’s time to recognize, okay. If that stage three box did not work for me now, I want to find out who I am, but it’s who I am. It’s not, I just need to be the opposite of who the stage three people want me to be. What an opportunity if you really are working with someone or working on yourself in a way that you now can say, all right, you know what? It is time for me to discover what matters to me and find my values. What matters to me? This is why I talk so much about values work. Because we often just share these values of our faith community or of our parents or of society. And we think that these are the things I’m supposed to care about, and that I’m supposed to do and think and feel. But the process of growing and becoming more emotionally mature is to recognize and find what really matters to you. 

If you even want to put that in a religious context, if we are all children of God with our own unique talents and abilities. I sure feel like that fits right in with this same acceptance and commitment therapy model of PS,you’re the only version of you that’s ever walked the face of the earth. So then part of that awakening or growth process is literally finding out what your God given talents and abilities are, also known as in the ACT world, what are your core values? And then once you find those things, now you can start to act more in alignment with your values and what matters to you because what I love about ACT is if you are not living in accordance with your values, you’re in essence, acting upon these socially compliant goals. Or you’re doing things because you think you’re supposed to, or you’ll let someone, or maybe it’s your faith community, down. And so if those things aren’t really important to you though now that is going to lead to good old experiential avoidance, where I will do anything other than the things that I think I’m supposed to do, because it’s this socially compliant goal. But if you can really start to find what matters to you, now you’re going to be met with some invalidation. And that’s difficult because people want to get you back enmeshed with what they think that you need to be. And this is where I go back to that, bless our heart, our self-centeredness or this nonviolent communication, where if we’re observing that you’re doing something, we make a judgment because we’re trying to manage our own anxiety. 

And so, when people start to step outside of the box and they start to actually feel like, wait a minute, Maybe I am okay. And maybe I am a child of God, and these are my unique talents and abilities, or these are my values. And this starts to feel like something that I feel more of a connection with. Then it can be threatening to the people that have just said, no, you just do what you’re supposed to. And again, if that works for that person, then who am I to say, you don’t even get it? Because this is about you and this is about your journey. And as you’re starting to understand, or you’re starting to get it. Then really start to explore what it feels like to be you. And that is based on the things that you can start to do and do more of. Michael Twohig, a world renowned, acceptance and commitment therapy researcher that was on my podcast a few weeks ago, talked about happy, healthy people spend 80% of their time doing things that are important to them. And again, he is this world renowned ACT researcher and ACT is all about finding out what matters to you, your values, your sense of purpose. And as you take action on those things, you become one of these healthy, happy people. 

So the more time you can spend in self-development, and not trying to argue your way out of the stage three box or in that stage four individuative reflective belief system we move into stage five. Here we go. The promised land. Conjunctive faith. Stage five, Fowler said, at the time, it’s rare for people to reach this stage before midlife. This is the point when people begin to realize the limits of logic and they start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols. But this time without being stuck in a theological box. Emotional maturity in my book is being able to not just have this all or nothing or black or white thinking. And I love how Fowler says, “now we can return to those sacred stories and symbols, but without feeling stuck in a theological box, we can start to find the things that work for us in our faith community.” If that’s something that we want to find because a lot of times, a faith community, it’s our people. And we still have this inherent need to belong to a people or a tribe. And sometimes within our faith community, there lies our social capital. There lies our rights of passage. And so oftentimes, we may want to re-engage with our faith community, because we do feel like that’s our people, there are other times where people may feel like, those are not my people. And so I’m, I want to move on, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still want a person or want this place where you can then have the social capital are these rites of passage. But here’s what I think Fowler said was so profound in this research I believe was done in the eighties or nineties, as he says, “it’s rare for people to reach stage five before midlife.”

And so what I think the significance here is, if I’m just looking at it, purely from a, you know, all encompassing belief system or faith community concept, that when somebody has spent numerous years or decades in their stage three box, and it has been a good experience or there have been a lot of good experiences, then they’ve got, you know, years of what it feels like to be them based off of this slow residue of lived experience are some good experiences with their faith community. So it’s easier to then take essence, the good with the bad. But when people hit that stage four and they hit it quickly and they don’t have much of a stage three positive experience go back to then it makes sense where that stage four experience can happen fast and it can be scary and it can feel intense. And then that’s where we all want this external validation. So then we turn to wherever we can find it. I can sound like the old man and say, “on the internet”, you know, which the internet is amazing. There’s so many good things there, but then we can also find these echo chambers of just finding out the, we want validation. We want people to back us up and say, yeah, I agree. 

But what I love about somebody that’s going through and navigating a faith journey is ultimately maybe that I need to find the people that tell me I’m okay, is a place that you can anchor on for a bit. But now what an opportunity to really start to discover who you are. Because oftentimes what I think, in my experience, the people do as they jump out of that stage three box, they are in that stage four and it feels scary underneath. So now we want to immediately jump to find our people and those people might just be a group of people that are not happy with the stage three experience. But that isn’t necessarily the glue that might bind them. So oftentimes we really want to find our people and that might be in the things that we do, the books we read, the belief systems that we have. But then this is our opportunity to really start to find our people. And so when I hit that stage five, I feel like stage five is a place of, if we want to go back to them, you know, maybe the Christian view of it’s Christ like love and empathy. It’s compassionate. It’s patients. It’s kind. It’s charity. And that is a stage five vibe is because I know that I’m the only version of me and this is my journey and we’re all just trying to figure it out. And what if no one really has these answers and we’re all seeking certainty. I have a couple of tabs here. I didn’t know if we would get to on time, but, certainty. The book On Being Certain, which is a book that I’ve really appreciated. It’s Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Not by Robert Burton, MD. And, it’s fairly old, 2009. But my very brief summary is I feel like what the book On Being Certain talks about is that certainty is something that the brain does crave. And there’s a concept that we may feel like, okay, I know certainty. And our brain thinks that certainty, two plus two is four. Whew. Okay. That feels like, that feels good. That feels certain. 

So we may be craving that in everything that we do. But in reality, things like navigating a faith journey or a faith crisis, or trying to understand what it feels like to be me, or even somebody else, we’re not going to find that exact certainty. And that’s where starting to recognize again, that life is full of mystery and paradox. And we can start to just recognize, man. I’m just trying to figure this out. I’m just being and doing, and I can. And I can do a better job of trying to figure out what it feels like to be me, and then just go and do, and those things can change. Life can be fluid and malleable. You know, the neuroplasticity of the brain now we know is there until we die there isn’t this fixed hard wired set. If we’re locked in as who we are at five or 12 or any of those things. So, that stage five becomes a very, very peaceful place over time. At first, I feel like people almost do a, I think of the movie Big and Tom Hanks and he’s jumping around on the piano and sometimes I feel like there’s a piano key that’s on three and four and five and people are just tap dancing between them. You know that I might still have, I might still have some stage three beliefs and maybe a little stage four anger and jump over into a stage five back and forth. But over time eventually, again, your implicit memory or what it feels like to be you, if you’re doing this work, I think can settle into this peaceful place and the stage five conjunctive faith. 

Now there is a stage six universalizing faith. Fowler says few people reach this stage. Those who do, live their lives in the full service of others without real worries or doubts. And I think that’s reserved for people like Jesus and Buddha and Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther king. And these people that just live their life in full service of others. And I know that that’s not somewhere that I think I’m going to see myself anytime soon. But if you put all of these pieces together, though, if we look at that concept of, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And then, we’re all looking at things through our own lens and that by nature, Foster Wallace said it’s hardwired into our boards at birth. That other people’s thoughts and opinions have to be communicated to us. And then we’re still going to view those through our own filters and lenses. And then we look at that concept of nonviolent communication. So even when somebody is just being and doing, we’re observing that we’re throwing a judgment there to manage our own anxiety. So even when we do try to start to talk about things, we have no idea what it feels like to be someone else. You know, I love the concepts around empathy and sympathy, empathy, what it really feels like to be somebody else and get in their shoes and sympathy, oh, man. I’m so sorry you’re going through that. Those are both wonderful traits and qualities. But at the core, while I still support empathy all day long, and I want to be empathetic and I strive for being empathetic in my, in my business, in my office on a daily basis. Reality is if somebody says, I know exactly what you’re going through, they don’t, and that’s why it can feel so dismissive at times. But if somebody is saying, hey, help me understand what you’re going through. Well, that feels a lot better. It really does. But so, at the end of the day, so to speak, we’re navigating these faith journeys and faith crises. And there’s so many of these variables that go into even the pregame before we can even have the conversations and now people are having the conversations and it still brings this feeling of uncertainty or discomfort. 

And then it takes a lot of courage to be able to sit with the discomfort of someone else, sharing their own opinion. And I feel like that is really starting to become what emotional maturity feels like, being able to have your own thoughts and opinions, here comes the concepts around differentiation, and still maintain a relationship with somebody else and not feel like I have to knock down their view of the world or defend my own. That we can be too interdependent, differentiated people, both sharing experiences, because of course they’re different. We’re two different human beings. And when we can let down our guard and realize that’s not as scary as it sounds, then we can really start to grow. And that’s where I feel like we can get back to the one plus one is three kind of a vibe or energy. 

On a podcast I did a long time ago, I think it had something, I think it was called “Why is everybody telling me how I feel or what to do?” I talked about someone that I’d worked with that had had some really intense scrupulosity, which is OCD of religious thought. And OCD attacks what’s important to people. Religious scrupulosity can be incredibly difficult because it’s the very thing that the person cares so much about is their religiosity or their spirituality, which is being continually attacked and questioned. And the person continually thinks, am I doing enough? You know, I just told somebody something, they said you’re okay. But are they sure I’m okay? And so people almost make up things to confess because they really want to make sure that I put everything out there. But the reason I share that is in that scenario, in that episode and that episode has been one that’s probably been downloaded more than most, any episode that I’ve done, I talked about how there was a person that suffered from extreme scrupulosity. It takes a lot of work and time to get that person to go from how on earth do I communicate to God? Almost where they get to a place where, is there a God? But then they rebuild their faith based off of, hey I’m okay. And looking at this stage five view of life and what matters to me, and then they can go back and they can look at some of these spiritual experiences they’ve had and look at them as good, but also recognize, bless their brains heart, it’s trying to make sense of things that maybe don’t make a lot of sense right now. And that’s okay. And it’s okay to sit with that uncertainty and discomfort. And the more that that is done, the more over time, what it feels like to be them is somebody that can sit with that discomfort and uncertainty. But here’s the key. The reason I bring this episode up is in that episode, I believe what I shared was, but as this person now starts to do and be, and find out the things that matter to them, they felt like, oh, there was God the whole time. And turns out, God’s pretty cool. And, you know, God is this God of love and it turns out I’m okay. But when I was trying to make sense of things that maybe didn’t make as much sense. And I was trying to get external validation from people that were trying to tell me how I’m supposed to think, feel, or do. 

It almost feels like that whole thing is a mess. But when I can start to just unburden myself from feeling like I have to perform, or I need this validation from somebody else, or when they tell me how I’m feeling. And I don’t really feel that way that I guess they must be right. And I don’t even know. So that’s where I feel like navigating a faith journey or going through a faith crisis or whatever it looks like can absolutely be one of the, you know, in hindsight, one of the greatest things that can happen to somebody and it’s because that is 100% my experience. That I went from thinking everything made sense. And there was all this certainty to this despair of doom and wondering about, you know, to just curl up in a corner halfway, or sometimes when I’m in a session and somebody starts talking about. These things to the point now, where , what a joy to be able to work with somebody who’s trying to process their faith journey or faith crisis. And trying to make sense of things that maybe don’t make as much sense. But then letting go of that need to try to make sense of things and just start to be, and do, and start to figure out your own God given talents and abilities or your own values and what it feels like to be you all of a sudden starts to be pretty enjoyable, pretty productive. Now there’s still a bunch of stuff that goes on in life that is not very pleasant.

But the goal of life starts to become living a sense of purpose and not just trying to find joy in small moments or avoid discomfort, because discomfort comes with part of the human experience. And when we can really lean into that and accept that, then we’re no longer trying to argue why, why is this happening? It just, it happens. These things happen now, what am I going to do about them? And it’s much easier to do things that matter to you. And then again, whether that’s what it feels like to know deity, to make sense of the universe, to find God, that is something that I feel like sounds really scary at the beginning of a faith journey or a faith crisis. But in the end, it is one of the most powerful and liberating things that you can experience. Because at the end of that journey, you find out that it turns out you’re okay. And you are the only version of you. And of course you have your own thoughts and feelings and emotions and behaviors because why wouldn’t you? And we really learned to lean in and embrace that and not need everybody else to tell you how you feel and what you’re thinking and how you’re doing. And you don’t even have to tell them that’s ridiculous. Bless their heart. They don’t know what they don’t know. It really starts to feel good. And you start to feel like this connection with whether it’s God, the universe, you know, your sense of self. And that is when you can let your light so shine so that you can lift others around you.

I think in that Marianne Williamson poem, she says, “Who am I to play small so that others around me won’t feel insecure or bad”, because you are this amazing being, this human being that turns out to be enough. And as you lean into that, that’s how you can change the world, whether it’s even just your own world or the world in your family, or why not the entire world. 

So, I’d love your thoughts. If you have questions or anything else that came up in this episode, please reach out to contact@tonyoverbay.com. Or if you see this post on Instagram, at Tony Overbay underscore LMFT or on Facebook, then let me know your thoughts in the comments. And maybe we can do a follow-up episode and really start to talk about what it feels like to be you or what has helped you navigate your own faith journey or crisis. I would love to answer some questions on the areas that you may feel stuck. So thanks for joining me and we will see you next time on the Virtual Couch, taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented, Aurora Florence with her song, “It’s wonderful”. 

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