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.

Breaking Agreements

Recently I listened to a couple of podcasts by John Eldredge and his friend Allen Arnold from the Ransomed Heart ministry. I was so impacted by these ideas and highly recommend the podcast, especially if you are seeking inner healing in your life. You can listen to the two-part episode here:

The Ransomed Heart Podcast: Agreements Part 1

The Ransomed Heart Podcast: Agreements Part 2

In these podcasts, John Eldredge suggests that agreements are essentially the ways that we interpret reality. They are often made in times of pain when we allow the Enemy to speak lies about our circumstances.  These agreements shape the way we view ourselves, our relationships with others, and even our perception of God.

Just a few examples of agreements might be:

I  will never belong.

I am always forgotten. 

I am not enough. 

I always get disappointed.

I must perform perfectly in order to be loved. 

I always get left behind. 

I will never be able to forgive.

God is working good in other people’s lives, but not in my life. 

In this podcast, John Eldredge warns about the power of agreements. He suggests that the more we start to believe agreements, the more they actually shape our reality.

God has really been challenging me to consider the agreements that I have made, specifically in regards to my anxiety. I think that at the root of my social anxiety are agreements about how I relate to others and the way I fit into groups of people.

My biggest takeaway from this podcast was the importance of interpretation. John Eldredge suggests that when we go through painful circumstances it’s important that we don’t passively accept the Enemy’s interpretation of our circumstances. Rather we must ask for God’s interpretation.

For example, when I experience a rejection in my life, be it big or small, I need to refuse the Enemy’s interpretation. He wants to tell me that I always will be rejected because I’m not enough. Instead, I need to ask God for His interpretation. He faithfully reminds me that I am His child and that He will never leave me or forsake me.

Or let’s say that I feel excluded from a group of people. The Enemy wants to interpret that moment with the lie that I will never belong. When I ask for God’s interpretation, He reminds me that I belong to His family and that I have a place with Him and in the Body of Christ.

Agreements can be so powerful and detrimental. But there is also so much power in breaking them!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Have you experienced the destructive power of agreements in your life? What tools have helped you break free from lies and embrace the truth?

The Power of Truth

“Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” -John 8:32

I am convinced that at the root of every anxiety is a lie. Lies are so powerful because they keep me in bondage. They tempt me to doubt who God is and what He says about me.

I find that especially when I’m tired or physically weak, the lies of the Enemy have more power in my life. During these times I need to be especially alert and aware of potentially dangerous thoughts that so easily creep into my mind.

I fear that God isn’t trustworthy.

I’m temped to believe that life is a series of disappointments and losses.

I question if this world is all there is.

I feel a need to manipulate and control situations in order to be safe.

I fear that I’m not enough.

I am convinced that I need to do more to earn the love of God.

I feel pressure to perform perfectly in order to be accepted.

It’s so easy to accept these lies from the enemy and allow them to take residence in my mind.

However, I also know from personal experience that the truth conquers every lie. The truth sets me free and brings light to every dark corner of my mind.

God brings the truth into my life in so many different ways— through His Word, a friend or mentor’s encouragement, an uplifting sermon or book, words prayed over me, or simply through time in the quiet listening to His voice. In these times I remember who God is and what He says about me.

I remember that God is trustworthy even when situations seem hopeless.

I am convinced that God is using every disappointment and loss to draw me closer to His heart.

I remember that the life I prize is coming. One day all things will be restored.

I know that I am safe simply resting in my Father’s love.

I am confident that I am more than enough.

I realize that there is nothing I could ever do to make God love me any more or any less.

I recognize that the opinion of man is insignificant compared to how God sees me.

Recently I started keeping a journal of the words and promises God has spoken to me. This includes Bible passages that have ministered to me, words and prayers that people have spoken over me, ideas from sermons and books that have resonated with my heart, and words that God has spoken to me during times of solitude. I try to read this list each morning when I wake up and each night before I go to bed. I can’t tell you how powerful this practice has been in reshaping my thought life.

Little by little, these truths are starting to seep into the deepest parts of my heart.

And the lies that have become ingrained in my mind have no choice but to flee.

The Fear of Man

“The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe.”

-Proverbs 29:25 

I have become convinced that the fear of man is one of the deepest roots of my social anxiety. I think that to some extent everyone struggles with a fear of man. It’s just a natural part of being human. However, for people who battle social anxiety, the fear of man can be especially intense. People with social anxiety have a heightened awareness of how people perceive them. They are especially sensitive to how their presentation is affecting others and spend a lot of time analyzing what people think about them.

In the past couple of years, God has showed me that the fear of man truly is a snare in my life.

The fear of man keeps me silent when God calls me to speak up. 

It causes me to hide my unique gifts and abilities rather than offering them to the world. 

The fear of man keeps me from acting until I have everything perfectly planned out.

It causes me to hide my weaknesses rather than practicing authenticity and vulnerability with the people in my life.

If the fear of man is such a snare, how do we stop caring so much about what people think?

One of my favorite children’s books beautifully illustrates the solution.

In the book You are Special by Max Lucado, a town of wooden people called Wemmicks judge their friends by placing star and dot stickers on one another. Stars are given to the Wemmicks who are beautiful, successful, and talented while dots are given to the ugly, awkward, or untalented Wemmicks. In this story, a young Wemmick named Punchinello receives only dots. One day he meets Lucia, a Wemmick who has no dots or stars because they have simply stopped sticking to her. When Punchinello asks Lucia for her secret, she encourages him to go to the woodcarver’s shop and talk to Eli their maker. Punchinello goes to see Eli and is reminded that Eli loves him simply because he made him and that Eli’s opinion is all that matters.

You can watch a YouTube reading of the story here:

I can’t tell you how much this simple children’s story has impacted my life. I can so relate to Punchinello. Living in an externals-focused society, it’s amazing how many stars and dots I accumulate throughout the day.

I get a “like” on social media…there’s a star. I receive a word of criticism from my boss…there’s a dot. Someone compliments my haircut…there’s another star. I feel excluded from a conversation…yet another dot. Someone praises my performance at work…another star. Gossip spreads about something embarrassing in my life…another dot.

Like Punchinello, I’m learning that the only way to truly stop caring about what people think is to spend intentional time in God’s presence. In the quiet place I remember who I am and who God is.

During these times I’ll ask the Lord some simple questions and then listen for his answers. Some questions to ask the Lord are:

What do you say about me?

How do you see me?

What do you want me to do today?

How can I please you today?

The more I spend time in Jesus’ presence, the more that His opinion of me becomes what truly matters.

And the opinions of man start to fade away.