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Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours: recognising and responding

Do you know someone who seems to have drama and problems constantly appear around them? Whenever you relate to this person, perhaps you find yourself feeling vaguely guilty, or uncomfortable, or put down, or obligated to affirm them? Do you often feel like you’re questioning yourself and your actions because of what they say and do? You don’t feel the same way around other people; it’s just this individual who seems to attract these dramas and give rise to these feelings in you. If that’s the case, the chances are it’s not you who is the problem. It’s quite possible that the person you’re thinking of is exhibiting a pattern of behaviours that can be significantly detrimental to you and to others. This pattern of behaviours is hard to pin down; it doesn’t seem too serious in the short term, and indeed it might appear quite normal to a casual acquaintance. However, over the long term, it can cause serious problems for you and others. That’s especially true in close-knit communities, like families, churches and other Christian ministries.

This paper is a reflection on our personal experience with a small handful of people—some of whom we know well, and some of whom we know less well. Some of these people have been leaders or influential figures in various Christian ministries, which is why we believe it is especially important for us to share this (though please note that none of them are people that either of us have ever worked with in a paid capacity). This small handful of people have each exhibited a pattern of behaviours that we have chosen to call slow-burn crazy-making behaviours (SBCMB).

Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours (SBCMB) is a term that we’ve made up ourselves. That’s quite deliberate, because we’re not writing as experts, and we’re not psychological practitioners. While we believe that psychological expertise can be greatly beneficial (see, for example, the courses available at the Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute), we believe there is also a place for personal stories and reflections. The latter is what we’re doing here: giving some reflections from our personal experience in Christian ministry and other relationships on recognising and responding to a particular pattern of behaviour that we have identified.[1]

Why have we chosen to use this label “slow-burn crazy-making behaviours”? Firstly, we want to focus on the behaviours, not diagnose anybody with anything.[2] We’re writing this to help you to identify behaviours that may be at work in interactions with people you are in relationship with, and to describe some strategies that we have found helpful in responding to those behaviours. We want to help you to act in a way that is rightly loving both to the person exhibiting the pattern of behaviours and also (importantly) to those people whom their behaviours may be harming.

We’re calling it crazy-making because we want to focus here primarily on the negative effects of these behaviours on you and others, and how to deal with those effects. In our experience, people who exhibit SBCMB can end up causing a great deal of confusion, emotional turmoil and pain to those who are in their spheres of influence. This can lead to particularly damaging consequences, especially when the person exhibiting SBCMB is a leader or influential figure in a Christian ministry context (which is why we feel it particularly important to write this).

(Note: Help for survivors (and their supporters) of complex or childhood trauma is beyond the scope of this paper, but is available at the Blue Knot Foundation).

We’re calling this pattern of behaviours slow-burn because the behaviours can seem harmless at first, but have significant detrimental consequences over the long term. It normally takes some time for the confusion, turmoil and pain to come to light. As we have tried to deal with—and help others deal with—the problems that keep surfacing in interactions with the small handful of people we are thinking of, we and others have experienced significant emotional dissonance and confusion. We have also prayed and reflected in great depth. Through this, we have been able to employ strategies of responding to the behaviours that, while not always easy, have been effective at limiting the damage both to ourselves and to others, and which we want to share here.

Please note that we are not trying here to provide a solution for all relational problems. We recognise there is an implicit danger in writing this paper. The label we have created here (SBCMB) could be illegitimately and indiscriminately weaponised. That is, it’s possible to wrongly apply the label SBCMB to anyone who has you caused you pain and difficulty. But this is not what we intend. The pattern of behaviours consists of a set of specific and observable features, and only applies to a small handful of people we know. If somebody you know fits just one or two of the features we outline here, or if they seem to fit the pattern only occasionally(e.g. when under high stress), they are not the kind of people we are describing here.

We are also not trying to publicly “cancel” individuals (in the modern sense of boycotting, publicly shaming, or withdrawing support from them). In fact, it would probably be impossible even if we wanted to “cancel” such people. That is because, in our experience, when those who exhibit SBCMB are criticised or challenged, they tend to devote so much energy to portraying themselves as being unfairly victimised that the effects of their behaviours just become worse and more widespread. So our primary aim here is to provide advice for you to personally recognise and respond to this pattern of behaviours.

Having said this, we understand that it is possible that some (not all) people who exhibit the kinds of behaviours we will describe here may be engaging in abuse. Such actions need to be stopped and exposed, for the sake of protecting victims. Thus, we hope and pray that if enough people are aware of this pattern of behaviours, any particularly destructive (i.e. abusive) instances might be able to be more easily recognised more publicly and called to account where necessary.[3]

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[1] We’re deeply grateful to various psychological and ministry practitioners, and others, who have provided valuable insights on prior drafts of this paper.

[2] Psychological practitioners who have seen prior drafts of this paper have identified a diverse range of possible causes for this behaviour, which we understand will be different for different people. The possible causes include such things as complex trauma, childhood trauma, borderline personality disorder (which itself can be caused by complex/childhood trauma), and the “vulnerable/sensitive” manifestation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, among others.

[3] The importance of doing this has been recently highlighted by cases of high-profile Christian leaders who have displayed truly abusive patterns of behaviour that went unacknowledged for a significant period of time because of an inability or unwillingness of others to recognise and name the issues (Jonathan Fletcher; Steve Timmis; Ravi Zacharias). We are not here claiming that these individuals exhibited what we are calling SBCMB; we are simply highlighting the fact that it is important for Christians to recognise destructive patterns of behaviour, including SBCMB, and deal with them appropriately.

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