The Next Step

As someone who struggles with anxiety, I regularly get overwhelmed with the big picture in life.  Especially in seasons of uncertainty, I find myself over analyzing and over thinking. Sometimes I feel paralyzed to take action because there are so many potential outcomes and possibilities.

Recently my pastor shared some simple advice that I can’t get out of my head:

“When you’re not sure what do next, simply obey the last thing God told you to do.”

What a simple but profound thought.

God doesn’t need me to analyze every possible outcome. He doesn’t want me to waste time worrying about the things I can’t control. Instead, He invites me to listen to His voice and simply obey the last thing He told me to do.

Sometimes trying to understand the big picture in life is just to much. And it causes me to become overwhelmed and weary. In times like these, God reminds me that He is God and I am not. He has the big picture of my life under control.

I don’t need to worry about the mountain that rises before me.

I simply need to take the next small step that is right in front of me.

The Link Between Anxiety and Control

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.”

– Psalm 37:7a

I’ve always been a careful planner. I like to know what to expect. As a result, I love organizing things, making lists, and creating plans. Although these are good qualities, I think that sometimes control is actually a coping mechanism for my anxiety.

There are so many unpredictable things that happen in life. And I feel safest when I try to control what I can.

My desire for control affects the way I plan my week. I’ve noticed that I can be fairly inflexible about my daily and weekly schedule because routines make me feel safe. As a teacher, this also impacts my classroom. I spend too much time over preparing for lessons and often miss out on spontaneous moments of fun with my students. Control impacts my relationships as well. I regularly rehearse difficult conversations with people in an effort to be prepared for any possible outcome. My desire for control even affects my relationship with God. I struggle to just be quiet and let God speak to me whatever He wants to say.

I can say from personal experience that controlling my own life is exhausting. It leaves me tired, weary, and discouraged since I’m living out of my own strength.

However, I’m learning that God doesn’t call me to control and manipulate situations just so that I can feel better.

He calls me to be still.

He reminds me that He is God and I am not.

He invites me to surrender control because His ways are so much higher than mine.

He helps me to open my fists and let go of the things that I think will make me happy so that He can show me true joy.

I’ve been discovering that solitude is a powerful tool for releasing control. This can be as simple as taking just 10 minutes a day to be quiet before God. During this time, I don’t bring my own agenda or questions. Instead, I ask God to speak to me whatever He wants to say. Sometimes He encourages me to pursue an activity that I hadn’t planned for that day. Other times He invites me to reach out to someone in my life. And most of the time He simply reminds me of who He is and who I am.

In these times I feel truly secure in the love of my Father.

And I remember that out of control is actually the best place to be.

Vulnerability and Courage

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

-Brene’ Brown, Rising Strong 

In an earlier post I wrote about vulnerability and how it has been an important tool in fighting my social anxiety.  However, the more I practice vulnerability, the more I realize how much courage it takes to be truly known by people. I’m learning that vulnerability is risky business and that practicing vulnerability carries no guarantees.

Vulnerability often begets deeper connection, empathy, and intimacy.

However, vulnerability can also result in rejection, disappointment, and pain.

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with what to do when I risk vulnerability and it doesn’t work out.

I think that for people with social anxiety, experiences of rejection are especially painful. In moments of rejection, it’s so tempting to shut down the heart and vow not to risk vulnerability again.

However, I know that this isn’t the way God intends for us to live.

God intends for us to live in community with others— to know and be known. Although relationships can lead to hurt and disappointment, they are also one of the most powerful ways that God brings healing to our lives. Vulnerability is truly worth the risk.

It takes courage to get back up after a disappointment. 

But I’m determined to keep practicing vulnerability, even when it’s painful.

Think on These Things

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

-Philippians 4:8

As someone who is no stranger to anxiety, I’ve discovered just how important it is to guard my mind.  I think that everyone struggles with negative thoughts from time to time. However, for people with anxiety, this battle can be especially intense.

In an earlier post, I wrote about strategies I use to fight the battle for my mind. In this post, I want to share some specific ways that God is teaching me to combat negative thoughts. 

Being wise about entertainment: The honest truth is that for much of my life I didn’t give enough thought to the media that I consumed. However, several years ago, the Lord challenged me that the TV and movies I watched were affecting me more than I realized. I asked God to make me more sensitive in this area and I quickly realized that most media focuses on things that are completely opposite of Philippians 4:8. Rather than filling my mind with lovely, pure, and peaceful things, I was consuming negativity, impurity, and anxiety. Now I’m not saying that I think that all movies and TV shows are evil. I think that film can be a powerful tool for conveying important stories and messages. However, I do believe that as Christians we need to be a lot more careful about what we’re consuming and the way that the things we watch affect our minds. Although, I definitely still watch movies and TV shows from time to time, I am much more careful about what I’m consuming. And this has done wonders for decreasing my anxiety.

Reading/listening to uplifting content: While I’ve found that many TV shows and movies are harmful to my thought life, there are other types of content that support good thoughts. I’ve always loved reading, especially books about faith, psychology, and personal development. Reading opens my minds to enriching ideas and perspectives which have such a positive impact on my life. The same is true about listening to podcasts and sermons. Over the past few years I’ve become a bit of a podcast junkie. 🙂 I always feel so encouraged and inspired by my favorite podcasts. I’ve found that this is a much more positive and productive way to spend my time than on other forms of media.

Limiting social media: I have such a love-hate relationship with social media. On the one hand, I love the way that it connects me to dear people in my life, especially people that live far away. At the same time, I’ve noticed that when I spend too much time online, I end up feeling discontent, self-critical, and restless. I think that for people who struggle with social anxiety, social media magnifies our sense of unworthiness. Seeing the “highlight reel” of everyone else’s lives quickly causes me to feel like not enough—not social enough, not pretty enough, not busy enough, not successful enough— and this is a very unhealthy place for me to dwell. Additionally, social media is such an inauthentic representation of reality. Social media fails to show the mundane, ordinary, and unexciting parts of life that we all experience. Therefore, I’ve realized that in seasons of anxiety, it’s helpful to limit my social media use or take a break completely. It’s amazing how much more peaceful and comfortable with myself I feel. And I also have more time and energy to invest in meaningful relationships with the people around me.

Spending time with uplifting people: This one is so important. As someone who tends to take on the feelings and emotions of others, I am very impacted by the people around me. Although I strongly value having ministry relationships in my life where I can pour into others, I’ve realized that it is vital to also prioritize mutual, life-giving relationships. I need time with gracious and compassionate friends who will listen and seek to understand. I need to be surrounded by people who are also pursuing peace and joy in their lives. Finding this balance is challenging, but so critical in maintaining a positive perspective.

Prioritizing beauty: Spending time in God’s creation does wonders for my anxiety. There’s something powerful about getting away from the day to day worries of life and soaking up the beauty that God has made. In these times I gain new perspective about the things I’m worried about. I also have such a profound sense of peace and rest. The same is true about listening to beautiful music, reading a well-written story, or watching a beloved movie. God’s world is overflowing with beauty and it is such a healing remedy for my mind.

Practicing gratitude: Although I mentioned this in an earlier post, I think it’s worth mentioning again. Having a daily (or at least weekly) practice of gratitude has revolutionized my thought life. It’s so much easier to focus on what is true and lovely when I’m operating out of a posture of thankfulness. It’s almost impossible to be self-critical or anxious when I’m thanking God for all that is good in the world.

Spending daily time with the Lord: This is by far the most important way that I combat negative thoughts. I believe that daily time with God is a necessity for all Christians. However, as someone who struggles with anxiety, solitude with the Lord is absolutely vital. In the quiet place, I remember who I am and how God sees me. I gain God’s big picture perspective on life and get out of my self-centered orbit. And my soul finds true rest. Honestly, in seasons of busyness and stress, daily time with God seems to be the first thing to go. However, I’m realizing that during these times, it is all the more essential! I am definitely still a work in progress on this one. However, I’m slowly discovering that daily time in prayer and in God’s Word radically transforms my thought life.

I’d love to hear from you! What are some practical ways that you fight negative thoughts?

Weakness

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

-2 Corinthians 2:9 & 10

I think that the reason I am so hesitant to share about my social anxiety is that it feels like the weakest thing about me. As humans, we prefer to share our strengths with others— the areas where we have things figured out. It’s so much harder to talk about areas of our life that are works in progress.

However, God has been showing me the power of embracing my weakness. I would rather Him use the strong areas of my life where I feel confident and able. However, I’m realizing that if I can fully embrace this part of my story, God can use it in the lives of others. Only by journeying through anxiety can I understand the anxiety that others experience.

Even more importantly, God has showed me that my social anxiety is actually in many ways a gift. It reminds me that I’m human and desperately need God’s help. My anxiety forces my normally independent and self-reliant self to depend on other people to help me.

Although I am confident that Jesus wants so much freedom for me (which I am starting to experience) I often wonder if anxiety may continue to be a struggle in my life. Like the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”, my anxiety is a constant reminder of my humanity and need.

Moreover, my anxiety is an opportunity for Christ’s power to be evident in my life.

I’m learning by experience that His strength is made perfect in my weakness.

Beloved

“Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we were spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock time— our brief chronological existence— but by the one who has chosen us with an everlasting love, a love that existed from all eternity and will last through all eternity.”

-Henri Nowen, Life of the Beloved 

I just love this book and the beautiful truth that is described in this quote.

As Christians, we are the beloved of God.

However, I’ve found from personal experience that it is much easier to know this truth than to actually live like I believe it.

I think that one of the greatest roots of my social anxiety is a fear of rejection. In my opinion, rejection is one of the most painful experiences that we can have as humans. We were created by God for love and connection and that is why rejection is so incredibly painful. 

In my research about anxiety, I’ve learned that most people who struggle with social anxiety can pinpoint specific memories (usually in their teenage years) where they felt rejected, excluded, or unwanted.

As I’ve sought healing in my life, God has taken me back to specific memories of rejection and exclusion. I’ve tried to identify the lies I started to believe about myself through those experiences. Sadly, I’ve realized that I’ve allowed fallen human beings to speak my identity over me, rather than my perfect heavenly Father. 

Over the past year or so, God has been taking me on a journey of reclaiming my own belovedness. I’ve set aside a lot of time this year to intentionally focus on scriptures about His unconditional love for me. In the process, God has started to reveal to me my true identity as child, friend, and beloved of God.

Along the way, something surprising has happened. My capacity to love others has increased. There is a strong correlation between the way I view myself and the way that I judge others. It’s hard to truly love others when I’m viewing myself harshly or with self-criticism. As I’ve come to believe that God truly loves me just as I am, regardless of how I perform or measure up, I’ve realized that the same is true about other people too. And this profoundly impacts the way I see and treat the people around me.

Reclaiming my own belovedness frees me to call out the belovedness in others.

What a beautiful gift!

A Freeing Perspective on My Social Anxiety

Recently God gave me a picture to better understand my social anxiety. When I’m filled with anxiety, it’s like I’m carrying a giant mirror into social situations. This mirror causes my normally others-focused personality to become self-absorbed.

In these moments, it is especially difficult for me to be present to what people are truly saying or needing. Instead, my mind is racing with self-focused thoughts and questions. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to keep a conversation going because I’m not truly listening to what the other person is saying. Instead I’m worrying about how they perceive me or what they’re thinking about me. After leaving social situations, the self-analysis gets even stronger. I’ll obsess over stupid things I did or said. Or I’ll be extremely hard on myself about anything that felt awkward or unnatural.

Honestly, this is probably the most frustrating thing about my anxiety. One of my greatest joys in life is connecting with people and trying to understand them and their unique perspectives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt discouraged by how my social anxiety gets in the way of the very thing that brings me so much purpose and life— authentic connection with others.

As God has led me into to deeper freedom, He’s invited me to drop the mirror of self-focus. Instead, the Lord has been encouraging me to approach social situations as though I’m looking through a window. Rather than focusing inward on what people are thinking of me, I’m trying to enter situations with eyes focused outward on the people around me.

What a freeing perspective! When I take my eyes off of myself, I have eyes to see others who are lonely, anxious, or in need. This frees me to truly get to know people and understand their unique stories and personalities. And I find that when I focus on the people around me, I completely forget about my own anxiety.

God doesn’t mean for us to live lives stuck in self-absorption. He wants so much more for us than that.

I’m slowly discovering the freedom and joy that comes from approaching life looking through a window, not a mirror.