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.

Made New

“At the renewal of all things, our hearts are going to be free from grief. The joy of this will far surpass our physical relief. Think of it— if God would offer today to remove from you just one of your greatest sources of internal pain, what would you ask him to remove? And if all your brokenness were finally and completely healed, and your sin removed from you as far as the east is from the west— what will you no longer face? What will you finally be?”

-John Eldredge, All Things New

I just love this quote. In his book All Things New (highly recommend!), author John Eldredge writes about the hope we have that one day all things will be made new. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. More specifically, though, he writes about how humanity will one day be restored and no longer affected by sin.

This thought has profoundly impacted me. Especially when I get caught up in the day to day struggles of my life, I need to remember the future hope that I have in Jesus. I’m not destined to forever struggle with social anxiety. In fact, social anxiety and all of its many causes won’t even exist in the new heaven and new earth.

It is so encouraging to think about the people that we will one day be. 

We will no longer have broken relationships. All of our relationships will be fully restored and healed.

We will no longer experience rejection. We will finally feel deeply accepted by God and by others.

We will no longer feel a need to prove ourselves as good enough. Instead, we will be fully secure in the love of God and one another.

And we will no longer experience fear and doubt. We will live with a deep sense of peace and certainty that no one can take away from us.

Our hearts crave hope like nothing else. Especially in seasons of anxiety, I need to remember the hope that I already have and that will one day be fully realized.

God is making all things new.

He is making me new.

This promise starts now and will last forever.

The Present Moment

“We need to be fully aware and awake in the moment. Too much time in the past leads to depression: regrets, bad memories, shame, guilt, bitterness, old wounds— all that lies in the past. Too much time in the future leads to anxiety: what if that happens? What if this falls through? Fear. Worry. Concern. It’s all in the future.”

-John Mark Comer, My Name Is Hope 

This book has been so central in my healing journey. In My Name is Hope (highly recommend!), author and pastor John Mark Comer writes about anxiety and depression. One of my biggest takeaways was the importance of living in the present moment.

Now I do believe that it’s sometimes helpful to reflect on the past in order to learn, grow, and even heal from painful experiences.

However, I know from personal experience, that dwelling too deeply on the past can lead to persistent sadness and regret. I can waste precious time rehashing painful memories, analyzing past conversations with people, and regretting wasted moments and opportunities. The truth is that there’s nothing I can do to change the past. It has already happened. Therefore, all I can do is invite God into the pain of my past and choose not to let it define me.

The same thing is true about the future. On the one hand, it is important to consider the future and set goals and plans.

However, I know from personal experience that it’s easy to spend way too much time lost in future possibilities. I can always find something to worry about. And the truth is that most of the things that I worry about never even materialize. Even more importantly, I miss the beauty of the present moment because my mind is caught up in future moments.

Recently I’ve discovered several strategies for being fully present in the moment. The following are some ideas that are helpful to me:

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 mindfulness: This is a fun exercise for getting into the present moment. I discovered it by reading many online articles about fighting anxiety. Basically, I go through each of my 5 senses and notice what my body is experiencing. I call it “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 mindfulness” because I notice 5 things I see, 4 things I feel, 3 things I hear, 2 things I smell, and 1 thing I taste.

For example, right now I am sitting in my bedroom.

I see tiny rays of light coming through the partially closed window blinds, the soft glow of lamplight, my blue beta fish swimming in its tank, my waterfall photograph on the wall, and my tall, white bookshelf full of my favorite books.

feel the soft pillow behind my head, the cool comforter that I’m sitting on, the scratchy carpet beneath my feet, and the smooth keys on my laptop keyboard.

I hear the soft buzz of my box fan, the tumble of the clothes dryer, and the clicking of my laptop keyboard.

I smell the calming scent of lavender room spray and the subtle odor of sunscreen that I wore earlier today.

I taste cool, refreshing raspberry sorbet that I am eating as I write this blog post.

I love this exercise because it helps me to notice all of the things that are happening right around me and to thank God for them.

Exercise: Exercise always helps me get into the present moment. Although I’m not the most athletic person, I love running. When I run, I find myself focusing on my breathing and my running pace. This helps me to stay focused on the moment. I also am a major hiker. I love getting out in nature and experiencing the beauty of God’s creation. I find that I most readily embrace the present moment when I’m out exploring all of the sights and sounds of a new hiking trail.

Worship: I love listening to worship music. Especially when I’m feeling anxious and afraid, music always brings me into the present moment. Especially when I’m driving, I like to sing along to worship songs and really focus on what the words are saying. These are such peaceful times with the Lord, spending time in His presence.

Written or verbal prayer: As someone who struggles with anxiety, I find that my mind often wanders when I try to pray. Therefore writing prayers to God in my journal helps me to stay focused on my conversation with Him. Sometimes I find it even more helpful to actually speak my prayers out loud to God. When I’m driving in the car, sometimes I’ll simply talk to God out loud and process life with Him. It’s amazing how this helps me to stay focused and present with the Lord.

Silence and solitude: I’ve mentioned this before, but silence and solitude are such important practices in my life. In many ways, silence and solitude discipline my mind to stay present. When I remove all of the distraction and noise, I’m left with just myself and God. It’s then that I can most clearly hear His voice and experience His presence.

Intentional time with others: Although I’m an introvert, I love spending time with people, especially in one-on-one settings. I find that I most readily embrace the present moment when I’m face-to-face and communicating with someone I care about. Something I try to practice is intentional listening— seeking to hear what the other person is truly saying and feeling without just waiting to jump in with my own thoughts. It’s amazing how fully present I feel when I get outside of my own mental orbit and seek to truly understand what’s going on inside another person.

I’d love to hear from you! What are some strategies that you utilize to more fully engage in the present moment and experience God there?

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 too 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.

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.

The Battle of the Mind

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.”

-Romans 8: 5&6

This verse has had such an impact on me lately. Oh how I want a mind governed by the Spirit, filled with life and peace!

Since anxiety always begins in the mind, I think that as Christians we need to pay more attention to our thoughts. I once heard it said that our minds can be one of two things. The mind can be a Wild West where anything goes and criminal thoughts are allowed to enter and wreak havoc. Or it can be a Garden of Eden, disciplined by the Spirit and ruled by truth and peace.

This sounds ideal but in reality, a mind governed by the Spirit requires so much discipline and intentionality. I know from personal experience that controlling the mind is a battle that is not easily won! In this post, I want to share some practical ways that God has been helping me win the battle for my mind.

Questioning anxious thoughts: When I’m overcome with an anxious thought, I first try to carefully examine it. It’s almost like I’m putting my thoughts on trial to see if they actually hold up.

In her book How to be Yourself: Quiet your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety (highly recommend!), author Ellen Hendriksen suggests two important questions to ask oneself in an anxious moment:

  1. What is the worst that could happen? Although this might seems dramatic, sometimes playing out an anxious thought to its end is actually very helpful to me. It helps me to realize that no matter what happens, I’m going to be ok. As a Christian I can rest in the truth that no matter what happens, I always have Jesus and He is all I need. This may sound simplistic, but honestly this reminder is so important when I’m in the midst of anxiety.
  2. How would I cope? This question is equally important because it takes away feelings of powerlessness. I remember how much support and love I have in my life through dear friends, family, and especially my faith. Remembering my support system lessens the power of anxious thoughts and ideas.

Distinguishing truth from lies: There is so much power in identifying lies, many of which are the root of social anxiety. However, I’ve learned that I have to be close to the Lord in order to recognize lies from the Enemy. Only by spending time in God’s presence, reading His Word, and studying His character can I be equipped to identify thoughts that are harmful and untrue.

I’ve also realized that it’s not enough to simply identify lies. Victory comes through replacing those lies with truth. Sometimes I’ll keep a list on my mirror of truths from God’s Word. I will read them each morning as I’m getting ready for the day. In another season, God laid it on my heart to journal every scripture I could find about His love for me. This is something that I can go back to when I feel overcome with lies and need to remember the truth about myself. 

Healthy processing. I don’t think it’s every helpful to wallow in anxiety. However, I have found that healthy processing can be a good strategy for releasing anxious thoughts.

Journaling is one of my favorite tools. If I go to bed feeling overwhelmed with anxieties of the day, sometimes I’ll write an “offload list” in my journal. This is a place to write anything that I feel unsettled about that is absorbing my attention. Sometimes I’ll even draw a picture of a present next to each item as a visual reminder that I’m giving that anxiety to God and refusing to dwell on it any longer.

Sometimes processing with a friend or family member is also helpful. We aren’t meant to walk through challenges alone. Sometimes it’s so relieving to speak out the things that are swirling around in my mind. Additionally, I’ve found that someone coming from an outside perspective can more easily identify the lies that I’m accepting as truth.

Self compassion: I am a big fan of self compassion, but I don’t love the terminology. I think that a better term might be “God compassion”. When I’m in the midst of anxiety, I need to talk to myself kindly, treating myself with the compassion that God has for me.

As someone who is very self-critical, this is a challenging strategy to implement. Sometimes I find it helpful to imagine that a dear friend is experiencing the anxiety I’m facing. I then try to to talk to myself in the same way that I would talk to them— with grace, compassion, and validation of their feelings.  The following are helpful phrases to speak to myself:

“This is hard for you right now and that’s ok.”

“You’re feeling really anxious and that’s not a good way to feel.”

“This anxiety is going to pass.”

“You’ve been victorious over anxiety before and you can do it again.”

Gratitude: This is probably my favorite strategy for reclaiming my mind. In my opinion, gratitude is the most helpful remedy for critical, negative thoughts. A few years ago, I started documenting “evidences of grace” in my journal. My habit is to daily (or at least every few days) make a list of the places where I’ve seen God’s grace in my life. This could be anything from a warm cup of tea to a moment of connection with someone. This practice has been revolutionizing my mind. I am more aware of the beauty, gifts, and blessings in my life that I so easily miss. When my mind is filled with thankfulness and gratitude there is no room for anxieties and worries to enter.

The battle for the mind isn’t easy, but it’s so worth fighting. I don’t want you to think I have this figured out. The truth is that sometimes my mind still feels a lot more like a chaotic Wild West than a peaceful Garden of Eden. However, I no longer feel powerless when unruly thoughts enter my mind. I have tools that I can use to discipline my mind, allowing it to come under the government of the Spirit, not my flesh.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How do you combat anxious thoughts in your life?