Updated: Oct 5, 2022
How to Break Up with Your Anxious Life
Meeting the Need for Reality, Part Two
Growing up in a Christian community, I learned a lot about Biblical truth. Truth belonged to God, and lies belonged to the enemy. Truth belonged to the people of God, while the World was deceived.
Now, I love me some Biblical truth. Like these:
· Human beings were created in the image of God.
· God loves people.
· Jesus was sent to earth to save sinners, which we all are.
· God is all-powerful, all-knowing, faithful and kind.
These truths have sustained me. I’m so grateful I was taught them as a child and built my life on their firm foundation.
But here’s a disconnect I’ve discovered in adulthood. Growing up in a Christian community will put you in touch with Biblical truth, but may not teach you to be in touch with reality. The principles of gratitude and grace may lead believers to deny emotions, minimize sin, have a total lack of healthy boundaries, spiritualize-away conflict, and in the worse case scenarios, cover up systemic abuse.
How does this relate to anxiety? A few ways:
First, when Paul exhorts us not to be anxious for anything, but instead to make requests to God with thanksgiving, Paul is not saying there is nothing to be anxious about. Rather, he’s saying that naming anxiety before God is the key to banishing it. This will make the difference between being anxious and just feeling anxious temporarily. Paul is also not promising that God will solve our problems when we do this, but rather grant us “peace that surpasses understanding.” For me, this is a process, one that is done daily and sometimes hourly.
Most Christians quote this verse without actually doing what it says. They focus on “don’t be anxious” rather than the direction to present their requests to God; they try to pretend that they don’t have requests in the first place by focusing on gratitude.
Second, the process of using gratitude to deny the severity of problems – especially because they may be less than other people’s problems -- increases anxiety. It’s a form of gaslighting – and we can be taught to gaslight ourselves. We try to make ourselves and others feel better with inane ideas like, “Well I have arthritis, but at least it’s not cancer.” Why do we do this? Why can't we just say, "I have arthritis and it sucks." Brené Brown says a lot of beautiful, true things about this in her book Rising Strong:
Comparative suffering is a function of fear and scarcity ... Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone, there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who’s going through a divorce. Yes, perspective is critical…but hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.
When we don’t follow this wise advice – the result is not more gratitude. Our brains are too smart to be out-maneuvered this way. Instead, we experience cognitive dissonance (Essentially, “This feels bad, but everyone is telling me it isn’t that bad”). Or, we develop shame because we are weak and faithless enough to be suffering over something that really isn’t a big deal. Unchecked, cognitive dissonance and shame will fester into nasty infections of the soul and maybe serious mental health conditions.
And finally (for today), naming situations that cause us anxiety allows us to establish healthy boundaries. We are all sinners, and Christ came to save us. Peter told us to cover each other’s sins with love. And yet! The Bible also advocates for setting boundaries against sin and unhealthy behaviors, choose wise companions and guard our hearts against fools. These seemingly contrary directives require us to be discerning, passionate truth-tellers. We have to be able to say hard things to ourselves (and possibly others) like, “That woman I sit next to in Bible study says mean-spirited things to me regularly.” Or, “My sister has an addiction and gets out of control when she drinks.” We have to name these things even when they don't sound "nice" or "loving."
Why wouldn’t we do the above three things well? Is it just because our theology is confused? Maybe a little. But also, it's more likely we don't do them because they are wildly inconvenient and, in the short term, painful. The next step after naming reality is responding to it. Peace that passes understanding not withstanding, when we name a bad situation, God may call us to leave it or solve it. We might quit this session of Bible study so the mean-spirited lady doesn’t send us into a stress-spiral; we should choose not to let our alcoholic sister babysit the kids (or maybe even stop inviting her to their birthday parties).
I may have told you this story before, but it bears repeating. A few years ago, I was really struggling with a group of people with whom I spent a lot of time; I would leave our gatherings and feel incredibly irritated and anxious for days afterwards. I asked my devout and brilliant Christian psychologist if he could please fix me so that I wouldn’t be so distressed when I spent time with them.
He said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’m sorry. I don’t have a magic pill that makes unhealthy relationships feel good to you. The healthier you get, the more you’re going to notice unhealthy behavior. What I can tell you is that you don’t have to go be with them if you don't want to.”
That advice sucked, and was worth every penny. I have since taken a sabbatical from these gatherings, and I feel peaceful and justified for doing so. Because the irritating thing about them was that people in this system were dishonest on multiple levels. And my reality now is, that I can only do intimacy with people who live in reality.
May God bless you with peace as you seek truth with Him this week.
Next week: Meeting the Need for Reality Part 3: How to Raise Reality-Rich Kids
(For a great study on these concepts, check out https://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/)