Fixation

“What you give your attention to is the person you become. Put another way: the mind is the portal to the soul, and what you fill your mind with will shape the trajectory of your character. In the end, your life is no more than the sum of what you gave your attention to.”

-John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

I tend to fixate on things.

This can show up in positive ways  for me. For example, I love to nerd out about topics of interest and can spend hours researching about anything and everything. I am a learner who loves to understand every facet of a topic.

However, this also can be a challenging part of my personality. When I’m wrestling with anxiety, I tend to fixate on my fears about the future. I analyze everything that could possibly go wrong. I obsess about the problems in my life, including difficult relationships or challenging work situations. When I become absorbed in problems and anxieties, I miss all of the beautiful gifts that are right around me. And the Enemy steals my joy.

At the same time, I think the opposite is also possible. The Enemy can also distort our good and beautiful desires. Sometimes I fixate so intently on the blessings in life— on things like my job, my family, and other meaningful relationships. This can be a problem, especially when I start to view these things as necessary to my happiness, safety, or security. Good desires become ultimate desires. And that’s the definition of idolatry.

As a result, I was deeply impacted when I read the above quote by John Mark Comer.

Our attention is one of the most powerful resources we have. And the things we give our attention to really do define who we become.

Recently I was talking to someone about my tendency to fixate. While they agreed that fixation can be dangerous, they reminded me that it’s always safe to fixate on the Lord. In fact, He’s the answer to all of our other fixations.

When I fixate on the Lord, my anxieties and problems seem to melt away. I gain His big picture perspective and realize how much energy I’m wasting trying to analyze and control my own life.

And when I fixate on Him, I become less attached to the good things in life that I think I need to be happy. I realize that He’s the only thing that will every fully satisfy the deepest needs of my heart.

I’m reminded of Hebrews 12:2 which says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…”

Jesus is the only thing worthy of our fixation. And if it’s true that our fixations shape who we become, I want Jesus to be my heart’s fixation above all others.

Anxiety and Technology

The past couple of years, I have been considering how technology affects my anxiety. As I’ve become more mindful of my phone use, I’ve noticed a strong correlation between my anxiety level and the amount of time I spend online.

As I’ve pondered this, I’ve realized that we live in a culture characterized by information overload. There is so much digital content created every day and it can feel overwhelming to keep up with all of it. At the click of a button, we can learn about any news event happening anywhere in the world. On social media, we know intimate details about people we barely know in real life. And the amount of entertainment available at our fingertips is seemingly endless. As someone who struggles with anxiety, too much time online causes my already overactive brain to feel even more stressed and frenetic. Even more importantly, I’ve realized that an unhealthy relationship with technology hinders me from living life to the fullest in the real world.

As a result, I was deeply impacted by the following sermon by John Mark Comer from Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon. You can listen to it here:

The Case for a Digital Asceticism

I highly recommend his message. Honestly, he’s the only pastor I’ve heard dive deep into this issue. His message is so timely and relevant.

One of my greatest takeaways from John Mark’s sermon was the importance of developing a “digital rule of life”. Basically he suggests creating a set of rules and practices around technology in order to use it in a healthier way.

These are some practical steps that I’ve been taking to create my own “digital rule of life”:

Deleting unessential apps: First, I went through my phone and deleted many of my apps. I focused on the ones that regularly waste my time. YouTube was the first to go. I find that if I don’t have the app on my phone, I’m much less likely to spend time on the website. And if I do decide to intentionally spend time on sites like YouTube, I can use my laptop instead of my phone. I also consolidated my apps into a few simple categories so that my home screen is simple and less cluttered.

Putting boundaries around social media: I’ll be honest that I still struggle in this area. However, I’ve found it helpful to set time limits on my phone for social media apps (you can do this on the iPhone, but I’m not sure about other phones). I set a specific time limit for social media each day and then my phone turns off the app when I reach that limit. I’ve also found it helpful to take intentional breaks from social media when I notice that my soul needs it.

Turing off my phone: Sometimes I like to power off my phone completely. For example, when I’m at church or spending intentional time with God, it’s helpful to completely turn my phone off. When I’m spending one-on-one time with a friend or family member, I try to leave my phone in my purse so that I can be fully present with them.

I also love John Mark’s idea of “parenting your phone”. This means putting it to bed in another room each night and turning it back on the next morning only after spending time with the Lord. I recently bought an old fashioned alarm clock to wake me up (so I’m not dependent on my phone’s alarm). I’m excited to make this a part of my daily practice.

Limiting TV and movies: About a year ago, I stopped regularly watching TV. And it’s been one of the best decisions of my life. I discovered that TV was probably the biggest time-waster in my life. I hated the restless feeling I had after binge-watching a TV show. I also noticed that the twisted perspectives and worldviews of many TV shows were affecting me more than I realized. So I just decided to stop.

At this point, I’ll occasionally watch a movie or a single episode of a quality show. But I’m much more selective about what I watch. And if I do watch something, I try to include a friend or family member so that we can discuss what we’re watching together.

Keeping beneficial technology: I want to be clear that I don’t think all technology is harmful. In fact, I’ve found that certain types of technology actually enrich my life. For example, I absolutely love streaming music on Spotify.  I also get so much value from podcasts and listen to them daily. I use WordPress to express my thoughts creatively and to read the writing of others. I’m also a big fan of Pinterest. I regularly use it research topics of interest and find new and creative ideas. And I don’t know how I’d survive without the maps app on my phone!

We are all so different and so finding a healthy relationship with technology may look very different for each of us. What is beneficial for you, may be unhealthy for me. And what is life-giving for me, may not be helpful to you.

Therefore, I would encourage you to simply ask the Lord about your relationship with technology and be open to trying what He says.

Since I am very in process with this, I would love to hear from any of you. Have you noticed a correlation between technology and anxiety? What are some practical ways that you put healthy boundaries around technology?

Obedience

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with my mom about my social anxiety. At that point, my anxiety was at it’s worst and I felt profoundly aware of how much it was limiting my life. As I talked to her, a startling thought came to my mind:

I realized that my world was shrinking.

I was missing out on opportunities because of fear and my world was getting smaller and smaller.

Recently I was thanking the Lord for His healing in my life. Although social anxiety is still a struggle for me, it no longer defines my life. As I was thanking God for this, I realized that my world is no longer shrinking. In fact, it is expanding day by day.

I considered what brought about this change and I realized a key component. God has been teaching me the importance of practical action.

As someone who wrestles with anxiety, it is so easy to get lost in my head analyzing, wondering, and planning. I can have great thoughts and ideas. However, if I never act on them, I get stuck.

The last couple of years, I have been on a journey of learning to simply obey what God asks me to do. And honestly, it hasn’t gone perfectly. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned some things the hard way.

However, I’m realizing that each small step of practical action builds upon itself. Every time I try to do what God says, even if it scares me, I become a bit braver.

And I’m more ready to say yes the next time He asks me to do something.

The Danger of Comparison

“Stay in your own lane.”

A mentor of mine gave me this advice a couple of years ago when I was wrestling with comparison. Her wise words come to mind whenever I’m tempted to compare myself to others. I think that to some extent, everyone struggles with comparison. After all, it’s just a natural part of being human. However, as someone who wrestles with social anxiety, I have to be especially on guard against comparison.

It amazes me how quickly and easily comparison creeps into my heart.  And comparison has the potential to wreak havoc on my relationships. Instead of rejoicing in the strengths of others, I am threatened by their abilities and gifts. Instead of focusing on my unique journey with the Lord, I waste time analyzing how my progress measures up to others.

I am becoming more and more confident that the comparison game is a complete waste of time. And it is a game I will never win. There will always be someone more connected, more adventurous, more attractive, and more successful. It doesn’t matter the marker I use to compare myself. I will always come up short to somebody.

So how do we get out of this deadly trap once and for all? These are some ideas for avoiding comparison that I’ve found to be helpful in my own life:

Staying in my own lane: This is a lot harder than it sounds. For me, staying in my own lane means knowing my comparison triggers and avoiding them. Sometimes this means taking a break from social media and limiting the amount of time I spend online. Other times I need to cut out TV shows or movies that give me a false view of reality and cause me to feel discontent with my own life. At work, I need to focus my attention on my own classroom rather than comparing myself to my fellow teachers. And in my personal life, I need to be careful when conversations with friends or family take a competitive turn.

Practicing gratitude: Gratitude is key. There is so much power in thanking God for all that is good in my life. Gratitude destroys pride because it reminds me that every good thing in my life is a gift from God. Gratitude also opens my eyes to all of the gifts in my life that I take for granted when I compare myself to others.

Lately God has been challenging me to take gratitude a step further. Instead of thanking Him solely for the good in my life, He wants me to also thank Him for the good in other people’s lives. This includes their gifts, strengths, and blessings. It’s hard to be threatened by the good in others when I view those things as an evidence of God’s grace.

Focusing on the heart: I’ve noticed that comparison is usually focused on externals. We compare our outward appearance, relationships, jobs, and other successes. I think that we tend to compare external qualities because they are measurable and observable. However, I know from personal experience that my externals can look polished to others while my interior life is dangerously suffering. In times like this, God graciously reminds me that He cares most about my heart. When I focus on the quality of my inner life, comparison seems to fade away.

Choosing to be inspired: This is a newer perspective for me. Rather than being threatened by success in other people lives, I can allow it to inspire me. For example, rather than being threatened by another teacher’s success, I can be inspired to pursue the same excellence in my own teaching. Rather than envying someone else’s relationship, I can gain a vision of the type of relationship I want to one day have. This simple shift in thinking gives me greater hope for my future and the potential that I have to grow and change.

Asking for God’s perspective:  I think that this is the real game changer. In order to truly let go of comparison, I need to see myself the way God sees me. Recently God challenged me to ask Him what He loves about me. At first I struggled to receive His affirmation of me. However, with time, this exercise has been so powerful in removing insecurity from my life.

God has made each of us so uniquely.

And He doesn’t just love us.

He likes us too.

God wants to reveal to each of us His deep delight in us. And when we are confident that God delights in us, we can be confident that He delights in the people around us.

This puts us all on an even playing field.

And there is no need to compare.

Knowing Ourselves

“I truly believe that the greatest gift we can give the world is our true self living in loving union with God. In fact, how can we affirm other people’s unique identities when we don’t affirm our own? Can we really love neighbors well without loving ourselves?” 

-Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. In Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazerro emphasizes the importance of knowing ourselves in order to know God. He suggests that one of the biggest traps we can fall into is living out of a false self, rather than living out of our God-given identities.

For years, social anxiety has been a “false self” that has shaped the way I’ve made decisions and have seen myself. Honestly, I’ve had almost a bit of an identity crisis as I’ve started to experience God’s freedom. It’s almost like I don’t know who I am anymore without the burden of fear and anxiety on my shoulders. While that feeling is a bit disorienting, it is also exciting. I want to discover who God has made to me to be, fully free from social anxiety.

So I’ve started to ask Him to show me what my true self is like. These are some questions that are helpful to me:

What did God design for me to do in the world that only I can do? 

What desires has God placed in my heart that I’ve rejected because of anxiety? 

How does God see me? 

What does He love about me? 

Who am I becoming?

That last question is especially helpful. God’s perspective on each of us is so beautiful. He doesn’t focus on the broken or sinful parts of who we currently are. He doesn’t identify us by our flaws and struggles.

Instead He sees our true selves, free from all of the constraints the Enemy has tried to lay on us.

He sees the whole and complete person that we are becoming.

The Desert

Lately I have been reading the book Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. I have been deeply impacted by this powerful story. It is an allegory about the Christian life in which a fearful girl named Much Afraid journeys with her Shepherd towards the High Places in search of a new identity and a deeper understanding of His love.

Along the way, the Shepherd leads Much Afraid to the desert. He gently explains the importance of this detour saying:

“All of my servants on the way to the High Places have had to make their detour through the desert…Here they have learned many things which otherwise they would have known nothing about.”

Much Afraid is joined by two friends, Sorrow and Suffering, who surprisingly strengthen her by their presence. As she makes her way through the desert, she finds that the desert is actually full of important gifts and lessons.

This insightful book has gotten me thinking about the way I view “deserts” in my life. In the Christian life, deserts are inevitable— be it a disappointment, the loss of a loved one, struggles with mental health, the death of a dream, a season of loneliness, a delayed hope, or even a season of dryness in one’s faith. I think that our human tendency is to pass through the desert as quickly and painlessly as possible. However, as this book suggests, it takes time to fully accept the gifts of the desert.

As I think back on different “desert seasons” in my life, I can see the gifts that come out of dark times.

Gratitude: In my experience, painful seasons give us a renewed appreciation for all that is. We have eyes to see simple gifts in life—the changing seasons, moments of connection with the people we love, and even our capacity to feel sadness or other emotions.

Intimacy with Lord: My closest times with Jesus seem to always be in the desert. When life is easy and simple, I find myself depending on my own strength and finding satisfaction in trivial things. In painful times, I am especially aware of my need for the Lord and His unconditional love. This is such a gift.

Learning to hear God’s Voice: The desert is a quiet place. And it seems to me that the quiet is the best place to hear God’s voice. In the desert, I am stripped of other voices and distractions and can better hear what God is saying.

Empathy and Compassion: I think that the desert has the potential to enlarge our heart if we’ll let it. It always amazes me how God uses our pain to minister to the pain that others experience. However, in order to minister to someone else’s pain, we must be willing to first walk though it our self.

Surrendering Control: This is the hardest one for me. However, I find that in the desert, God consistently invites me to surrender to His will and His ways. In the desert, I recognize the stubbornness of my heart and my insistence on my own plan for my life. However, God graciously invites me into the mystery of not knowing all of the answers and instead trusting Him.

I recognize that 3 days before Christmas might seem like an odd time to write about the desert. However, I am becoming more and more aware that the Christmas season can be such a mixed experience for people. It can be filled with great joy and happiness for many people, but can also be a time of pain and sadness for others. In a season where everyone is rejoicing, the desert can feel even more pronounced.

However, the gift of Christmas is God’s presence.

The God of the universe came to earth and took on human form.

He is Emmanuel, God with us.

This means that we never walk through the desert alone.

I wanted to close by sharing one of my favorite songs by JJ Heller. I can’t seem to get this song out of my head lately. I love how she suggests that the desert isn’t something to be avoided, but rather God’s gift to us. I hope it encourages you!

God is Still Here, by: JJ Heller

Social Anxiety and Community

This is something I’ve wanted to write about since I started this blog. However, I just now feel like I can put my experience into words. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, finding a place in Christian community has always been challenging for me.

A couple of years ago, when my anxiety was at its worst, I became sporadic about attending church. I wanted to be at church so badly. In fact, I remember multiple Sundays when I drove myself to church, but just couldn’t get myself to go inside. This was a really dark and isolating season for me. I felt a lot of shame and as a result, I isolated myself even more from people.

God graciously brought me out of that dark place and has freed me from the bondage of social anxiety. I am now a part of a church once again and that has been such a blessing.

However, finding community is something that I still wrestle with. I want to share with you some of the ways that the Lord has helped me in this process. If you struggle with social anxiety, I pray that some of these ideas might encourage you. And even if this is not a struggle for you, I hope that my story might open your eyes to people in your own community that struggle in this area. May you be equipped to see those people and support them.

Asking God for his perspective: This was definitely the most foundational step for me. I think that one of the reasons community has been hard for me is that I’ve had painful experiences of rejection and exclusion by other Christians. As a result, for many years I had a negative association with the word “community”. At one point, God challenged me to ask for His perspective on this.

He reminded me of the beautiful, self-sacrificing love shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are the true model of what perfect community looks like. Since I am made in the image of God, I desperately need community — to know and be known by others. Community is a beautiful gift as God originally created it.

However, God also reminded me that because of the Fall, community is far from what it should be. Since we are fallen human beings, sometimes we hurt one another. Sometimes we fail to see each other’s needs. Sometimes we exclude and leave each other out. I know that I’ve been guilty of each of these sins in my own life. God challenged me that my frustration wasn’t with community, but with the way that we as humans have messed it up.

Now this doesn’t mean that I just reject the whole concept of community and isolate myself. Rather I need to adjust my expectations of what community looks like here on earth. I need to give people grace to be human and mess up.  I also need to give myself grace when I hurt the people around me. Therefore, I’ve consciously decided to not allow my disappointment or disillusionment to get in the way of embracing the beauty to be found in community with others.

Focusing on God’s presence: This idea might sound strange, but when I’m walking into church, I like to visualize God’s presence entering with me. Sometimes I feel lonely attending church as a single person with my family living far away. I think that this is a common experience for many people. This feeling of loneliness is often heightened seeing so many people sitting with their families. Therefore, it’s helpful to remember that I’m not alone. God’s presence is always with me and supporting me.

Getting my eyes off myself: This is huge. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, I can be way too self-focused. When I enter a group of people (especially people I don’t know well), I become very aware of myself. I worry about being awkward or knowing the right things to say.

God has graciously showed me the freedom of getting my eyes off of myself. When I enter a social situation, I’ll ask for God to give me special “appointments” with people. I think God has blessed me with an acute sensitivity to people who feel lonely or are on the fringes. I actively look for those people and see how I can bless them or make them feel welcome.

God also has encouraged me to find ways to serve. About a year ago, I started teaching Sunday School at my church and that has been so life-giving for me. Although I can feel anxious leading adults, I am incredibly comfortable in front of children. This has brought me so much joy. And it’s been great to form relationships with the other adults that I teach with.

Looking for smaller communities: Although I think it’s important to meet with the whole Body of Christ, God has shown me that my deepest sense of community will always be experienced in a subset of the larger community. Therefore as much as possible, I look for small group or one-on-one settings.

I’m a part of a small group at my church and that has been so life-giving to me. Although it’s still stretching for my introverted personality, I’ve learned so much from being a part of that group.  In my experience, community is different from friendship. We choose friends based on shared interests and perspectives. However, I love the way that being a part of community forces me to interact with people very different from myself. I see God’s image reflected in unique and beautiful ways in people I might not normally choose to be friends with on my own.

I also have found so much joy in embracing community with one person at a time. While big groups of people exhaust and overwhelm me, I come alive in one-on-one settings. As an introvert, God has showed me that I’m wired for depth more than breadth of relationship. Therefore I put a lot of time and energy into one-on-one relationships with people.

Embracing the gifts of my personality: I’ve spent a lot of my life wishing that I could be different than I am— that I could be loud and extroverted, that I could command a room of people, or that I could have a charismatic and charming personality. However, the truth is that simply isn’t how God has wired me.

I’ve found so much freedom in embracing my personality and celebrating the gifts I have to offer as a quieter, more introverted person. For example, God has given me such a heart for people who are lonely and anxious. I am a good listener. I am highly empathetic. I reflect deeply on things which gives me wisdom and insight to offer to others.

Rather than trying to be someone I’m not, I’ve found it so freeing to embrace the gifts God has given me and look for ways to offer them to my community.

I’d love to hear from you! What struggles have you faced in community? How has the Lord been at work in this area of your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Silence and Solitude

We come to  a place of freedom. Our failures slowly lose their power over us. As do our successes. We get out from under the tyranny of people’s opinions- their disapproval or approval of us. Free to be us, the mixed bag that we are. Nothing more than children with our Father. Adopted into love… In silence and solitude, our souls finally come home.”

-John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

I just love this quote. In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, (highly recommend!) pastor John Mark Comer writes about the danger of hurry. He shares several spiritual disciplines that are an antidote to our culture’s pervasive disease of hurry. The one that stood out to me the most was that of silence and solitude.

I am becoming convinced that silence and solitude is an essential practice for all believers. However, as someone who struggles with anxiety, silence and solitude is absolutely vital for my emotional and spiritual health.

Now the honest truth is that sometimes silence and solitude is just plain hard. I think that people usually picture silence and solitude as peaceful time with Jesus, resting in His presence. While this sometimes is my experience, at times silence and solitude can be downright painful.

When I engage in silence and solitude, I am forced to face what is truly going on inside of me.

And I don’t always like what I find.

I recognize distorted desires that have taken precedence in my life. I realize how much the fear of man has been ruling my decisions. I am forced to sit with disappointments in my life where my plans haven’t worked out. And I face the reality of life as it actually is, a mixed cup of blessing and sorrow.

However, beautiful things start to happen when I sit with these emotions and realizations before God.

I experience deep forgiveness as my sins and unholy desires are laid bare before Him. I focus my heart on the only One who’s approval actually matters. I let go of the need to manipulate and control my life. And fully secure in the love of my Father, I have courage to embrace the full reality of my life.

I’m learning that anxiety is actually a helpful signal that something is off-kilter in my heart.

It is a simple reminder to return to my true home.

And engage with God in the quiet place.

Thoughts on Judgement

“He (Paul) cares very little if he is judged by the Corinthians or by any human court. And then he goes one step further: He will not even judge himself. It’s as if he says, ‘I don’t care what you think— but but I don’t care what I think. I have a very low opinion of your opinion of me—but I have a very low opinion of my opinion of me.'”

-Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

As someone who wrestles with social anxiety, I have a strong fear of judgement.  As a result, I find myself doing everything I can to avoid the judgement of people. I often adjust myself to meet the expectations of others. I carefully select the parts of myself that I think will be acceptable to them. And in the process I lose sight of simply being the authentic person God has created me to be.

God has also been showing me the danger of judging myself. I can be my own worst critic. It is so natural for me to dwell on the things that I don’t like about myself. My inner critic reminds me of all the places where I fall short. And in the process I lose sight of the person that God is shaping me to be. I focus on the flaws in who I currently am, not on the whole and healed person that I am becoming.

As a result, I loved the above quote by Timothy Keller. What a hopeful thought! God desires for me to be free not only from the opinion of man, but also from my opinion of myself.

People aren’t my judge.

I am not my judge.

God alone is my judge.

And He loves me unconditionally.

Since Jesus received all judgement on the cross, I am free from the judgement of man. And I am free from my own self-judgement.

I wanted to close this post with a song by Andrew Peterson. He is such a kindred spirit and I love his honest and authentic song-writing. This song has ministered to me numerous times when I’ve felt tempted to judge and condemn myself. I hope it speaks to you.

Be Kind To Yourself: Andrew Peterson

My Shepherd

“The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters.”

-Psalm 23: 1 and 2

Recently the Lord asked me to give up my vigilance. I’ve realized that vigilance has been a driving force in my life and a central root of my anxiety.

I am always aware of things that could go wrong. As a result, I tend to operate from a state of constant vigilance, trying to foresee potential problems and then doing whatever I can to avoid them.

I’ve noticed that vigilance affects my relationships. Instead of truly enjoying the moment with people, I often find myself on edge. I over-analyze situations, trying to identify all of the possible outcomes. And I waste so much energy trying to avoid the disapproval of others.

Sadly my vigilance causes me to miss out on joy. When I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, I miss out on the beauty that is happening right now in the present moment.

I’m learning that God doesn’t call me to live a life of vigilance. I’ve always loved Psalm 23 and the simple but powerful picture of God as my Shepherd.

I am not my shepherd. He is.

What a freeing perspective.

It’s the Shepherd’s job be vigilant and watchful on behalf of the sheep.

As the sheep, I am simply called to rest at peace in my Shepherd’s care.

I will still face problems and challenges. However, I don’t need to fear them.

If I truly trust that my Shepherd is guiding my life and has my best interest in mind, I can release control.

I can let go of my hyper-vigilance and trust that God is vigilant on my behalf.

And I can truly rest.