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Dread and our Troubled Hearts – Part 3


Reviewing our progress so far, in the two previous posts I have argued that dread is a distinct emotional experience closely related to fear and anxiety.  In addition, we explored passages in Deuteronomy and John to highlight instances of dread as being reasonably close to what scripture describes as troubled or faint hearted.  Distinctively human, dread is a stalker feeling, one that loiters in the shadows of experience.  Absent the demanding immediacy of fear and the indeterminate arousal of anxiety, dread emerges as an unarticulated force in the face of something that cant be avoided, postponed maybe, but inevitably certain.


As such, dread is an emotional experience that frequently appears in the psychotherapy or counseling setting.  As clients wrestle with various troubles many find themselves face to face with dread, particularly as they begin to uncover the reasons and context for why they have sought treatment in the first place.  As clients explore their emotional life many discover the losses, traumas, and misfortunes of the past have resulted in the formation of maladaptive pathways of coping and development.  These alternate ways of organizing the world allow one avoid repeating the dangerous situations that have proved so painful in the past.  Many times therapy is involved in helping client’s release these old relational organizing patterns that are no longer needed.  Think for a moment about a client who dreads interpersonal confrontations because of her past experience of violence when she would assert herself in close intimate relationships.  In these circumstances the client may avoid speaking–up or asserting her self because she dreads the humiliating and dangerous outcomes of disagreement and conflict.  Essential to this pattern is a difficulty differentiating between situations that are truly dangerous and conflict that is reasonable and part of normal human interaction.


A variation of this pattern, one that is perhaps more difficult to tease apart, is when clients exhibit distressing behavior, be it repetitive/compulsive or situational, that is not directly tied to the avoidance of distressing pain and may, at times, be painful in and of itself.    It takes time in these circumstances to understand the reasons for these distressing or troublesome behaviors, especially when they have been active for a while.  Consider the client who can’t control his anger when he is disappointed in relationships or when he is unable to achieve the admiration he seeks.   Dreading the humiliation and searing shame of being left alone or unrecognized the client ends up creating the circumstances that will inevitably result in accomplishing that which he most dreads.  In the classic novel Things Fall Apart, African storywriter Chinua Achebe (2008) describes the life of Okonkwo.  An influential clan leader Okonkwo’s whole life is lived in a defensive dread of repeating his father Unoka’s pathetic, squandering, lazy existence that ended in an appalling and life ending illness.  Determined not to repeat his father’s tragic and shameful existence Okonkow tackles life with an almost hysteric ambition to succeed in his village.  Predictably his dominance, pride, and avoidance of weakness lead he and his family to a sorrowful and isolated ending.


I want to suggest that the avoidance or mismanagement of what we and out client’s dread most is often a key aspect of why we find it difficult to change.  Dread indeed causes us to be faint at heart, often unwilling to address aspects of our selves and our circumstances that bind our freedom and cause us pain.  But against treatments that seek to bolster our strength and a “can do” attitude, a Christian psychology advocates the best movement forward in these circumstances is surrender to, even an embracing of, fallibilistic weakness.  Only accomplished in the context of deep trust and relational attunement our task as healer is not to teach, but to connect in profound and intimate ways that allow for one to face dread with courage.  We’ll talk more about the specifics of this process in next week’s blog.



Achebe, C. (2008). Things fall apart (50th anniversary ed.). New York: Anchor Books.




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