How to Love a Nervous Human

I doubt I could have been much more than three years old, but I can still remember how I was slouching down in my car seat, trying to soothe the stomach ache I had from being homesick.

My brother and I were staying with my Aunt Elaine and Uncle Ken for the weekend so that my parents could have a little vacation “up north,” as the Michigan parents tend to do. This is the first memory I have of being away from my parents for more than a few hours, and I distinctly remember feeling a little unsure about the whole idea.

Aunt Elaine had already picked up on to my separation anxiety, probably long before I was aware of it myself. I remember staring at her reassuring smile in the rear view mirror as we ventured toward our picnic in the park—it was a little-known cure for homesickness that my aunt had up her sleeve.

When we arrived, my aunt pulled out the quintessential checkered blanket from her picnic basket that she had packed with special treats she knew we’d love. I remember the bright, pink jam she made herself and the refreshing lemonade she poured into glass cups that sparkled in the sun. The scene was like something out of a movie on a sunny afternoon in June… and it was just what my heart needed.

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I soon learned that this was my Aunt Elaine’s super power: she could turn any ordinary circumstance into a magical moment that made you feel like the most important human being on earth.

She was always busy in the kitchen preparing something wonderful for someone. But it wasn’t just her cooking abilities that made people begin to feel better (although that surely didn’t hurt)—it was the love and joy with which she did it.

And that day at the park, it wasn’t actually the picnic itself that I remembered most. The drive home is what has remained etched in my mind for over 30 years. It was one of the first pictures I had of the love of God that met my 3-year-old heart in the middle of my homesickness.

As we pulled away from the park and onto the dirt roads, we passed beneath a canopy of oak trees overhead. The sunlight weaved through the leaves in tiny little specks that danced all over the car windows. My brother and I let out squeals of excitement over the beauty of it all.

“Do it again! Do it again!” We exclaimed.

“Alright, let’s do it again,” Aunt Elaine said, chuckling. And with that, she turned the car around to make a second trip beneath the magical tree canopy.

Looking back, it must have been ten times she turned around and drove back down that road again, laughing and squealing with us the whole way.

I’m sure she had a long list of things she could have been doing that day, but instead, she chose to honor the seemingly futile requests of her niece and nephew, just for a little more joy and little more laughter.

My aunt knew these little gestures would one day help my brother and I to understand the kind of joyful love our Creator had for us. And I saw over the years how she wanted every person she met to know this same kind of love—that they were worth driving the extra mile, even if she already driven it ten times prior.

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As I grew up, my aunt continued to show me what genuine love for another human looks like—the kind of love that meets a person right where they are with no expectations at all.

I began having social anxiety very young, even at family events. I remember choking my dinner down and asking to leave the table so I could go play in my room alone where it was safe.

But Aunt Elaine would always find me. She would get down on the floor with me and play with my dolls, or maybe start singing, or doing a little dance until I started to laugh… and the fear would begin to evaporate.

I didn’t realize it then, but she was on a mission to convince me I was still worth loving, whether I stayed at the table or ran to my room alone—I was still worth seeking out.

The artful way my aunt loved people brought a little of God’s kingdom here on earth. And now that she has gone home to be with the One who taught her how to love so well, I have been reflecting on how I can continue to love like she did.

Very unfortunately I didn’t inherit her skills in the kitchen, outgoing personality, or crafty homemaking abilities. However, I can tell you I did inherit her goofiness and desire to see others laugh their way to peace and freedom. My aunt wasn’t afraid to be silly and I believe this was one of her most powerful tools for bringing healing to others—it certainly was for me.

Vincent van Gogh famously stated, “The more I think, the more I know, there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

When I look at my aunt’s life I can see this love-art so clearly. There is no formula she followed for loving someone well. Like art, her love was colorful, fluid, moment to moment, and always new.

My aunt’s life taught me that loving someone is simply using the gifts you have been given to go the extra mile (or ten) through the wooded road. It’s meeting someone right in the midst of their anxiety to make them laugh, or sing, or dance, or squeal with excitement. These are the artful moments they will always remember… the moments that will help them to believe how very much they are worth loving.

If we have no peace it is because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.
— Mother Teresa

The Counter-Intuitive Case for Weakness

Do you remember the first time you felt like a failure? Your very first red-faced encounter with humiliation and self-doubt?

I do. I was taking the big test to make the transition from preschool to kindergarten. I’d been practicing drawing shapes and naming colors like it was my job, and as far as I was concerned, I was the most qualified 4-year-old in Linden, Michigan.

But I wasn’t prepared for what happened with the blocks. What probably was the equivalent of stacking them up like a tower felt to me like constructing the Sistine Chapel by hand. I can’t recall exactly what I was asked to do, but I very clearly remember the feeling of shame that washed over me when the test moderators tried to stifle their laughter at my inability to accomplish it.

To this very much later day, I flash right back to that scene with the blocks, and the panic, and the laughing people when presented with an opportunity to complete some kind of mechanical task.

These seemingly trivial encounters with inadequacy as children can impact our lives all the way into adulthood. Why? Because children without the reasoning or emotional development to make sense of their experiences do the only thing they can think of to cope with pain — they bury it.

And the problem with burying our weakness is that it opens the door for shame, which is the single most toxic emotion to our physical and mental health.

The more convinced we are that our weakness undermines our worth, the more power it has to control our lives. Shame of weakness stunts our growth and locks away critical parts of our personalities where they can never grow up or heal.

In this way, many of us still carry a small child inside who was humiliated into hiding, and if we have any hope of healing, we first have to let this child out into the light.

We will have to say we’re sorry for locking him or her away for so many years and that we hope they weren’t very claustrophobic. We will have to let them into our lives, our counseling sessions, and our closest relationships. We will have to let them awkwardly reacquaint themselves with the world.

When we finally stop trying so hard to transform our weakness, we may find it ends up transforming us. 

Weakness is vulnerable, but fertile ground. It is the place where true acceptance and belonging are born. It is the force that drives us deeper into meaningful relationships and straight into the heart of God.

Years ago, a friend directed my attention to an oak tree in my yard and casually said something that changed my life. She explained that it was the tree’s need for water and nutrients that drove its roots further into the ground, making it taller, stronger, and more beautiful. It was what the tree was unable to produce on its own that ultimately made it thrive.

“And the same goes for us,” she brilliantly concluded.

Our weakness can either drive us into fear and isolation or it can drive us deeper into life-giving relationships. It can cause us to become frail and lifeless or it can force our roots deeper into the fertile soil of acceptance and belonging.

Even though I still experience the same irrational fear when confronted with certain types of tasks, I now recognize this uncomfortable feeling as an opportunity—a chance to first accept myself as I am, and secondly, to open the door for vulnerability and true connection with those around me.

Unflattering though it may seem, voicing our weakness is the only way to usher in the kind of connection we're made to experience.

What if the very weakness you think is keeping you from love and acceptance is actually the path to receiving it?

No Matter How Your Heart is Grieving

No sooner had I learned the importance of allowing myself to feel and process sadness when grief showed up at my door with all his luggage in tow.  And by the looks of it, he was planning on staying for a while.

So, given the circumstances, I did the most logical thing I could think of. I took everything I learned in the last year about dealing with emotions properly and threw it out the window. I told grief to make himself at home but that I had a very busy schedule coming up and we probably wouldn't be seeing much of each other.

At all. 

This seemed like an ideal arrangement to me. Essentially, grief moved in and I moved out. And it was all going great until I realized how much I disliked being homeless. 

There's an overwhelming amount of research that shows a correlation between unprocessed grief and neurosis—it seems all the scientists agree: we have to feel to heal. So the truly terrible news is we can't just allow grief into our lives and then make ourselves scarce.

We have to spend some quality time with it.

In my valiant attempts to avoid grief, one unrelenting verse followed me around like some kind of holy haunting: "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted."

When I finally slowed down enough to let those words wash over me, I realized I was missing a crucial part of the picture. (And when I say a crucial part, I mean basically the entire picture.)

Feeling the intensity of our emotions can be a terrifying thing if we miss the promise that comes with it—God's comfort. Broken hearts don't need answers or solutions, they need an experience.

When our lives fall apart, what we need more than anything is to be scooped up into our Father's arms and reminded—through a felt sense—that we are deeply loved and everything is going to be okay. Without this, we hold onto our hurt until it turns into debilitating fear and depression.

And this is why: grief will either convince us we're alone or reveal to us we're not.

The reason we have to feel to heal is because it's only when we feel our pain we can feel God's comfort. And His promise to us is that He's waiting in the midst of our pain to wrap His arms around us. He draws near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).

But even more importantly: God's comfort doesn't just heal us, it equips us to become healers.

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ." (2 Cor. 1-3-5)

Because of this, every grief-stricken hour holds incredible value—the comfort we receive is ours to change the world with. These are the moments we become agents of hope to the hurting.

Those who bring healing to a broken world are those who’ve been held by their Father.

Are you willing?

The world needs you to be.

Sadness and Anxiety: A Surprising Relationship

There was a deep blue sky in my rearview mirror and flood warnings on the radio as I drove to my first counseling appointment. Yes, this would be my third new therapist in a year—but this time, I was determined to stick it out.

"There is one really good thing about anxiety," she said. "It's painful. It hurts so much that it forces you to do something about it."

She was right. If my anxiety hadn't been so unbearable, I wouldn't be sitting awkwardly on the couch of yet another therapist. But there I was, doing exactly what I didn't want to do, seeking the healing I didn't want to seek. And ironically, I had my anxiety to thank for that.

But if anxiety was just the painful agent driving me to seek healing, then what was it I really needed healing from?

"I've found that most people who deal with anxiety have at some point turned off their other emotions," she explained. "For example, some people are unable to process sadness."

"Do you think you know how to be sad?" she asked.

I nodded confidently as my mind flashed through all the very healthy ways I cope with sadness: Jillian Michaels, Cabernet Sauvignon, the Target clearance section, salted caramel anything . . . 

The nodding slowed. Maybe I didn't know how to be sad. Suddenly I couldn't  think of a single instance that I had actually allowed myself to feel it. And for that matter, did I even know what it felt like? When I tried to recall the feeling of sadness, all I felt was fear.

"You must be exhausted," she said, with her empathetic counselor eyes. "It takes a ton of energy and resources to avoid feeling pain." 

I felt my chin start to tremble.

No. Not this, I thought. Not the ugly quiver chin.

I considered faking a phone call, or excusing myself to the bathroom, or abruptly changing the subject, or just straight up playing dead. Something. 

But I knew that would all be counterproductive. After all, this was the reason I had come. Not to mention, playing dead would most likely get me a far more serious diagnosis. So I did what I thought I couldn't. I sat there and let sadness wash over me in all its glory.  

I'm happy to report that I survived. And when that horrible 30 seconds had passed, I realized I had traded a little pride and fear for an unusual amount of peace. Not a bad deal, as it turns out.  

I've never seen it rain like it did the day I left her office, and I couldn't help but laugh at the timeliness of it. My weary, neurotic soul needed a torrential downpour just as much as the thirsty soil needed rain.

According to Tim Clinton and Gary Sibcy, in the book Attachments:
All neuroticism, or unnecessary pain, is caused by the avoidance of legitimate pain.

Fellow neurotics, this is a game changer. All my life I thought neuroticism was just biology, but the truth is, it's rooted in unhealthy coping mechanisms. If we are unwilling to feel our pain, we will have to work really hard to avoid it. 

Enter: anxiety. 

Truly processing the difficult emotions we encounter means inviting others into it. We need someone there to hear us out,  identify with us, and provide comfort in the midst of our sorrow. 

"Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted."

As my therapist likes to say: if the wound came through relationship, so will the healing.

Although it can be terrifying to let others into our pain, this is where all true connection is born, and connection is the only thing that makes us fully alive.

So if we are willing to feel our pain, and if we choose to let others into it, we might find even more than freedom from fear . . .

We might find joy. 

 

What the Cross Means for Your Anxiety Disorder

His cloudy blue eyes squinted with thoughtful concern as I told him my story. Something I hadn't planned on doing. I assumed I'd be in and out of the doctor's office in less than an hour. But there I was, saying everything. And there he was, listening carefully.

I told him that I'd had anxiety forever.  That, when I was three, my preschool teacher held a meeting with my parents because my hands were shaking when I was learning how to use scissors. She thought I was going through something terrible, but it turned out I was just stressed about the scissors.

"I've never known life outside of anxiety," I said. "And I'm finally willing to admit this might be chemical."  

I looked up to find the doctor appearing even more like a grandfather than he did when I began. I had tried to disguise the shame I felt with frequent smiles and nervous laughs, but the look of deep compassion on his face informed me I hadn't succeeded.

For a moment it was silent. But it wasn't the uncomfortable kind of silence, loaded with judgement and ridicule. It was the safe kind, filled with empathy and concern. 

"Now I know that Scripture says to be anxious for nothing," he said, eyes steady and serious. "But I don't want you to take that and feel guilty. We live in a fallen world with fallen neurotransmitters...

"This isn't your fault. Do you understand that?" 

Tears filled my eyes as I nodded. 

Somehow he knew I needed to hear those words even more than I needed medication.

Many will tell you the Cross means your anxiety disorder shouldn't exist, but I'm here to tell you the Cross means it's okay.

It's okay to be broken. It's okay to seek help. It's okay to need medication.

Jesus showed up in my brokenness that afternoon and kindly informed me I had everything backwards. Anxiety wasn’t keeping me from wholeness—shame was.

The Cross made healing possible first by annihilating shame—by lifting the veil that separates us from the truth about our brokenness. And the truth is, it's okay. 

For the six months that followed, I chose to give my weary brain a break. My doctor prescribed a mild anti-anxiety medication that helped me stop avoiding things that scared me, and I finally began to taste a life outside of fear.

For many of us, this is an absolutely necessary step to recovery. Taking medication doesn't mean you don't trust God. Quite oppositely, it means you trust him enough to guide you down this unfamiliar path to healing.

Are there risks to consider? Of course. Should you seek advice from a professional counselor? Absolutely. But because of the Cross, we don't have to live in fear (or shame) of any of that.

So if you feel broken and afraid and ashamed about all of it, here's what I recommend:

Take a deep breath and ask for what you need . . .

Because the Cross means it’s okay.

Why You Can't Pray Away Your Anxiety

Believe me. I've tried. 

I've been praying against anxiety for almost as long as I could spell it. But it wasn't until 31 I realized why it wasn't working.

I had finally decided to start counseling because nothing else seemed to be working—not prayer, not wine, not even JCrew. Things were getting desperate. I pulled up to a tiny white house in the middle of nowhere and wondered if this whole thing was a joke. Or if I was going to be murdered. Neither seemed ideal.

But this particular counselor was working on his licensure and therefore happened to be free of charge. I decided it was worth the risk.

He was younger than I thought he'd be, and not even the slightest bit ugly. If he was going to be my age, the least he could do is be a little ugly. No one should ever have to tell a good-looking stranger their problems. But I remembered again that the whole thing was free . . . I had nothing to lose but every trace of dignity.

"It sounds like you have a bit of social anxiety," he said.

I folded my clammy hands tightly in my lap and nodded. 

"And it also sounds like your goal is to get over your anxiety while telling as few people about it as possible, am I right?"

" . . .Yeah, I guess so," I said, shrugging. It seemed reasonable to me.

"Well, the good news is that you can overcome this anxiety. The bad news is that if you do so in secret, you won't have accomplished anything. What you really fear is being honest."

I was getting irritated. 

"People come in here all the time wanting to be healed in secret," he continued. "And the irony is, it's the secrets that keep them from healing."

For an amateur counselor, he was annoyingly profound.

Ever since I've looked at healing in a completely different way. My anxiety is only the symptom of a bigger problem: the unwillingness to let others into the dark places in my heart and bring a little light with them. 

I read recently that the U.S. has the highest anxiety rates in the world. We have more wealth and opportunity than we know what to do with, and yet we are poor beyond comprehension because we don't know how to trust each other.

We don't know how to say, "I'm afraid. I'm tired. I'm weak. I'm broken. I need you."

We lock ourselves away in prayer closets, hoping God will zap us of our weakness so we can walk into community all confident and holy . . . so we can bring healing to others without asking anything in return.

And our Father isn't getting on board with this plan. He has lavished us in his love through the gift of community, but we will never truly experience that love if won't don't open ourselves up to it.

What weakness have you been trying to pray away?

Maybe God isn't saying no. Maybe his yes is waiting for you in community.