Resisting Rivalry Burnout

A wooden chess set.
Three Insights from Dr. Gena St. David

In an era where digital platforms often amplify rivalry and misunderstanding, Dr. Gena St. David offers a beacon of hope and practical wisdom through a unique blend of expertise in theology and neuroscience.

In our most recent unRival Spaces online event, we explored the subtle art of navigating the treacherous waters of online discourse without losing sight of our well-being or the potential for profound, relationship-driven transformation. 

Below, you will find three key takeaways from our conversation to help you turn confrontation into constructive dialogue.

Dr. Gena St. David works as a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, with a specialization in systems, trauma, and brain science. She took part in the inaugural cohort of our Artisans of Peace program and is currently researching commonalities among nonviolent practitioners across global traditions.

1. Our online interactions have a lot more in common with our face-to-face interactions than we think.

Digital distance is often the first thing we blame when we complain about how much less civil our online interactions tend to be. Human beings are designed to do things in person, after all. Our physical proximity has a huge impact in how we hear and interpret one another.

But while it’s true that digital interactions lack some of the important physical cues we experience when face to face, according to Gena, many of our proximity sensors are still active when we’re communicating through our keyboards. Rather than focus on how frustratingly distant we feel online, we can ease this burden by becoming more mindful of the fears we project into the digital asqwz“gap” between ourselves and others. From there, strategies of mirroring, repetition, and question-asking can help clear the air of negative tones and misunderstandings. And of course, moving things to a video chat never hurts!

2. There’s a powerful place for arguments, but only relationships drive change.

Despite widespread perceptions that social media is “toxic,” Gena says she’s actually optimistic about technology’s future impact on human community. And in such a future, there will always be a place for debates that don’t take themselves too seriously. “Sparring with a worthy opponent makes me stronger and smarter and better!” Gena says. 

Arriving at this future, however, requires that each of us develop a more mindful relationship with our own well-being. “When rivalry becomes a problem,” Gena says, “it’s because I perceive that opponent to be a threat to something that I want or need for my wellness, or my loved ones, or my tribe.” Simply noticing that we’ve entered “threat mode” can help us take a step back and recognize that the stakes of any given interaction really aren’t that high.

Sometimes, however, the stakes are high. Sometimes we think our own wellbeing and that of others depends on people we love changing their minds. In such cases, Gena says, online interactions will never effect the change we want to see. Instead, we need to relentlessly love others over a long period of time. Change is hard, and if we’re going to start others down that road we need to be part of the safety net that will catch them when change proves costly.

3. Small, consistent habits help us weather tough conversations while maintaining our well-being.

In any interaction, online or off, we see the sum of our attitudes and assumptions in action. If we feel that too many of our conversations are becoming tough or tense, it might be time for us to change up some of our own habits of engaging.

Here are a few options:

  • As mentioned above, recognize when you feel like your values are being threatened, or when you’re entering “enemy mode.” Take a moment to right-size the stakes of the interaction and refresh your confidence in your own values.


  • While recognizing your own values, try recognizing the other person’s as well. Even if you disagree with the way they’re going about it, if you can pick out some good that they’re defending and name it back to them, you’ve already closed a significant gap.


  • Healthy arguments inevitably require correcting someone else’s misinformation. This can leave us feeling smug and satisfied if we forget that we’re correcting others only for the sake of something greater. Keeping an eye on the big picture helps make us gentler critics.


  • When in doubt, use questions. Questions not only force our verbal “sparring partners” to clarify what they mean, they also keep us flexible, humble, and curious. By signaling that we’re still listening and learning, we also keep our own egos and identities from becoming too involved and entering “enemy mode,” lowering our risk of artificially raising the stakes.
Dr. Gena David’s book, “The Brain and the Spirit.”

To learn more about Gena’s work in theology and neuroscience, we encourage you to visit her website and get a copy of her book, The Brain and the Spirit.

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If you enjoyed this post, consider the following blog posts:

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