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I heard this illustration many years ago but never went to the source of all knowledge—the Internet—to verify. My lack of due diligence did not stop me from using it as an illustration in counseling. It sounded plausible, and I didn’t want the truth to interfere with a good example. Then I thought about putting my trained flea illustration in print, so I Googled it and sure enough, it’s true. This one-minute video should inspire and inform you regarding the art of flea training. (You are free to use this illustration in your care of others.)
Mable lived with a discouraging and critical dad during her childhood years. Though she has left the Mason jar of her childhood, she is still a trained flea. She craves approval, which has led her to several lousy relationship choices. Biff’s dad was similar to Mable’s as far as being overbearing. His dad was a self-sufficient perfectionist who demanded the best from his children. Today, Biff is a passive perfectionist who is afraid to take a risk. He can maintain his perfection by never doing anything. It drives his wife nuts. He’s a trained flea.
Buster, on the other hand, is a driven, omnicompetent man. His passive father reared him, and his mother was a nitpicking nag. Buster made a pact with himself to never be like his dad or come under the thumb of a woman. He’s a trained flea too. Marge’s dad left the family when she was nine years old. She did not know how to respond to the men in her life and lived in fear that people would reject her. She’s twenty-seven years old and obsesses about her appearance. She craves to be significant around the opposite sex. She’s a trained flea.
To one degree or another, we’re all trained fleas. Our fallenness places all of us in the jar with the lid screwed shut. For different reasons, we have succumbed to the control of other people. Mable, Biff, Buster, and Marge are representatives of all of us. Their stories may be different from ours, but the effect is the same—we’ve been to “Flea Training School” and other people’s opinions control us. We’re not free fleas. We’re not free fleas.
The irony is there is no lid on the jar of the Christian. Christ came to set us free, and we are free indeed (John 8:36). Even though Jesus unscrewed the lid that was on our lives, we still live as though there is a lid on our lives. If you are helping to free a flea, here are a few questions you should discern about the individual:
Though you can respond to those questions in different ways, the answers run along the lines of her desire to be loved and accepted (or not rejected). These desires dominate her thinking and are part of what it means to be human. She has learned, by the process of being repeatedly hit in the head by the lid, not to get hit anymore. To be hit in the head is to be hurt. Not getting hurt means living a life that is less than what she wants.
The “hitting in the head” typically means she lives in a conditional love relationship. Too many children are “hit” by their parent’s conditional love, and, in time, these children learn how to “duck” so that they don’t experience the pain of the “hit” again. The hitting is most often unkind words from a parent. Harshness, criticalness, withholding affection, lack of parental repentance, and impatience are other means to train a flea by creating a ducking effect (trying to keep from being hit by the lid).
This “ducking” process binds the child’s mind. Paul called it a stronghold in the memory (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). This fortress captures the mind and keeps her from enjoying the freedom God has called her to possess. To fear being hit becomes a comfortable mindset. If someone repeatedly criticized, mocked, made fun of, put down, or was frustrated with me, it would not take long for me to begin “ducking” to keep from being hit.
Though an adult in this type of negative environment may tell the verbal abuser to go jump in the lake, a child does not have this luxury—not until she becomes a teenager. Of course, that is too late; when she is a teenager, her flea training is in full effect. Even though she may get away from her abuser, she is still captive. There is a stronghold already erected in her mind, and it will influence all of her relationship decisions for the rest of her life. For example, she will think she is free by getting a boyfriend. She will say something like, “He loves me.”
She will feel a form of care and affection that she has craved. She won’t discern how her flea training controls her cravings. What she believes to be free is false idolatry. She won’t realize how she is in bondage to her cravings even after this relationship goes bankrupt. She’ll be devastated, confused, and angry but not able to see the truth about her heart. She may even conclude that she does not know how to pick men or that all men are horrible. She becomes a distant critic of the male population. All the while, her young life’s shaping influences still hold her in captivity by controlling her relationship decisions.
According to my illustration, the solution is not just taking the lid off the jar. Removing the ceiling does not free the flea. For women like Mable or Marge, being out of the home, which eliminates the lid problem, still does not remove the bondage. There is a high chance they will pass their fears on to their children. They must understand this problem. A venue change is not the solution. It may be a good start, but it’s not all they need. The bondage is in their minds, not in their contexts.
We know this to be true because the typically trained flea will have slept with many men (or had many boyfriends), been married more than once (or has a dysfunctional marriage), and a slave to people-pleasing. She may have left her daddy, but the damage is residual. There will be other common themes in her life that will be vital information if you want to help her be set free. Here are a few of these things you will need to bring to her attention, and she will need to respond if she wants emancipation.
Identity – What happened to her will consume here. Her past narrative will be what she talks about or thinks about the most. Her story is her identity, which will be how she perceives herself. If you ask her, she will talk about what happened and how she is always afraid, anxious, and discouraged. (Some women who have had an abortion, for example, won’t talk about it, but it is what controls their thinking.)
Gospel – She will talk less about and be less affected by what Christ has done for her through the gospel. The work of Christ will be more theoretical than practical. She may be a Christian, but Christ and His work (the gospel) are not what dominates her thinking.
Change – Her wrong identity and a muted gospel will keep her from seeing the hidden idolatries of her heart, which will keep her in a frustrated state. She may present having it all together, but it’s a self-reliant facade that hides her weakness. Identity confusion and gospel impotence will keep her from changing.
The three most significant prohibitions to overcoming identity, and fear of man problems are (1) personal deception regarding the real problem, (2) an unwillingness to adequately address the real issue, and (3) competent friends to walk a person through the real problems. These inhibitors will keep the flea in bondage. Getting to know such a person to help her will be a challenge. The corrections, observations, and adjustments you must bring to her will feel what she fears the most—personal criticism.
Though you are not criticizing her, it will be difficult for her to unhook from her past and interpret your care biblically. She has only one interpretive grid. It’s like caring for someone with a sunburn. You have to put the lotion on her skin, but to touch her is to hurt her. To help an insecure person is to compassionately, carefully, and competently correct her, and you can feel the tension. It’s imperative that she senses, experiences, and understands your care. You will have to be patient with her as you walk her through her heart idolatry.
The challenge for you will be how to stay out of the ditches of compromising the truth while not coming across as harsh or impatient. You will need to maintain a Spirit-led balance of courageous and grace-filled compassion. You will have to explore with her what is going on in her heart. She needs to see how the shaping influences that motivate her desire for a human relationship control her thinking. This envisioning should not be hard to do if you understand the problem and are willing to be patient with her. But please know that it will take time.
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Your goal is to lead her to Christ—the gospel. Be clear on this objective. Christ (the gospel) is the only person who can set her free. She needs to understand how the sole opinion that should control her life is His opinion, and His opinion of her is nothing but love, acceptance, and approval. The only kind of relationship she probably knows is a conditional one. Her dad loved her when she met his expectations. Her boyfriends liked her when she gave them sex. Her children loved her when they got what they wanted.
Christ is a radical departure from anything she has ever experienced. Though she can intellectually sign off on this kind of gospel teaching, she will not understand it as far as applying it to her day-to-day functional life. The truth is we’re all working on learning how to live out the gospel in our daily lives functionally. Though we are all in the process, imagine how a person who has never known anything but conditional relationships will struggle with practically applying the gospel to her life.
We also offer free and private forums for you to chat with us. You can learn about becoming a free or supporting member here. Read Mark Grant’s book, Identity Crisis. If you are working with someone who struggles with these problems, we would love to come alongside you as you help them. For perspective’s sake, it takes a lifetime to work through these issues. And truthfully, we won’t be completely free from flea training until we meet Jesus. But you can mature through this problem.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).