“We’re all struggling. Yet we’re all struggling to make it appear like we’re not struggling.” -Paul Angone
We’re pretty crazy people. I mean, we want authenticity from others but we avoid ourselves. Best-selling author, Pete Wilson, once wrote, “Authenticity is the cry of all but the game of few.” Social media is one place where we see this most clearly. We know deep down we’re scrolling past everyone else’s highlight reel, but we still feel insecure about the boring, unfiltered moment we’re in the middle of living.
For some of us, that internal battle includes anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Because of the plastic way we display life on social media, telling people about struggle with anxiety can feel crazy, dangerous and scary.
Can I be honest with you? I thought I was above this struggle. But I was so wrong.
(Warning: We’re gonna talk about mental health issues and honesty in this blog today. Wanted to give you a heads-up in case these are challenges you or someone you love face.)
I’ve never had issues with depression or anxiety in my life, so until recently, I never worried about telling people about my struggle with anxiety. (Because I didn’t struggle!) I went through a season or two of burnout in my twenties, but neither one made it difficult to sleep, eat, do my job or function. My symptoms were more in the anger, frustration, and cynicism realm. (Although I did struggle to write sermons in one of those seasons, so maybe I’ve had some battles before recently. But that’s another post for another day).
My Unexpected Battle
This summer, I had my first major battle with anxiety. My wife and I made the biggest decision of our marriage. We felt led by God to move our family to Prescott, Arizona from Phoenix. While only about 100 miles apart, Phoenix and Prescott are very different. Phoenix is 40x bigger than the Prescott area and we had spent 11 and 14 years respectively in Phoenix. Danalyn would need to look for a new job as the move was initially driven by an opportunity for me become a Lead Pastor for the first time. We knew no one in Prescott previously.
During my first week on the job, I made plans to stay with the family of a church member while Dani wrapped up her last week of work and before we moved our stuff into our new house. At the last minute, this church member and his family had to leave town to attend a funeral. I was left alone in their rather large house located on the edge of town.
I’m not sure whether it was the move, being alone in a big house, or a deeper spiritual issue, but I had three of the worst nights of sleep of my life. One night, I finally fell asleep as the sun was rising. Another night, I drove around my new city at 4am because I could not sleep. I left lights on in the house because that helped or had a movie going on my iPad next to me. I’m not sure why I was so anxious, but I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t get my body to calm down. I’ve never had a panic attack before so I don’t know what to call it other than “anxiety.”
When I returned to Phoenix mid-week to help get our house packed up, I told my wife, Dani, about what I had been feeling. Gratefully, sleeping in my bed next to her in our apartment changed something and the anxiety subsided. However, in our first night in our new home, it came roaring back. This time, it wasn’t simply when I laid down before bed. Some nights, it started when we sat down for dinner. I didn’t know what to do.
I kept Dani in the loop. The elders in our church laid hands on me and prayed for me. I shared my struggle with a couple close friends. Over time, I started sleeping better and the anxiety somewhat subsided. I still have some nights where it takes longer to fall asleep or times where I feel uneasy. At times, it feels like I bump into the shadows of anxiety like we sometimes walk through spider webs. Luckily, nothing like those few weeks in the summer.
This the first time I’ve shared my struggle publicly. A week or two ago, I began to feel a sense that it was time to share. I know I’m not alone. I’ve watched a friend battle mental health issues (including a hospitalization), going off and on medication for several years. A close friend of mine battled anxiety himself over the last year and his sharing with me led to me sharing my story with him. I’ve been inspired by his courage.
Lessons from My Struggle With Anxiety
I’m no expert and my struggle is mild compared to many others. As I think about my experience, a few insights have emerged from this process. These lessons are less about how to battle mental health issues and more focused on us trying to help each other move towards more authentic living.
Here they are in no particular order.
Trust is dependent on vulnerability. Without it, people are skeptical and guarded.
Every relationships moves at the speed of trust. We can only grow our friendships and go places with other people when we trust each other. Without trust, we’ll never be vulnerable. Like the crew of the Enterprise on Star Trek, we’ll live with our “shields up.”
Best-selling author and humorist, Jon Acuff, recently tweeted a helpful post. “Old School Leadership: If I share my weaknesses, they won’t trust my strengths. New: If I pretend I don’t have any, they won’t trust anything.”
I know we live in a world of oversharing. My generation not only invented the acronym TMI, we embody it. Yet, unless we share our weakness and if we pretend we don’t have any, other people start thinking we’re perfect and no one connects to our pretend perfection. People cannot love our masks. Therefore, we have to build trust through consistent vulnerability.
Our inability to forgive prevents us from moving on from the past, connecting in the present and thriving in the future.
If we’ve been betrayed by someone else in the past, we struggle to be vulnerable and authentic in the present. While we think we’ve moved on, our actions show we haven’t.
I quoted Pete Wilson earlier. In talking about letting go, Pete says “Your past isn’t your past if it still affecting your present.”
I wrote my ebook, Forgiveness: From Myth to Reality, because I had seen my inability to forgive past wounds limit present relationships. Forgiveness is one of biggest roadblocks (or catalysts) to personal growth and relational health. If you haven’t read it, you can get a free copy here. It’s a 30-45 minute read with four really practical steps to help you make real progress towards letting go of a hurt you’ve been carrying unnecessarily.
If I’m really honest with you, I’ve been scared to write this post. I sat down to write it several times in the last week or two and checking Facebook was so much easier. I’ve been wounded in the past few years when I’ve been transparent in a sermon, article or social media post. I could be wounded again because of this post.
What has moved me past my fear is my belief that some people needed this post. I kept writing because I committed to make this place somewhere you could come and get empowered with new perspective. Like Acuff said, you’re not going to let me in and trust me as a voice in your life if I don’t let you in and trust you too.
We feel like we have too much to lose when we let people in.
Letting someone else in is scary. I was nervous when our elder meeting transitioned to a time of prayer and the words “Yeah, I have something going on” fell out of my mouth.
Some of us have been betrayed in the past and so we have scar tissue and self-defense mechanisms which kick in automatically. As one of my friends says, “you never forget trauma.” I was having a meal with a friend recently and he let me in with more honesty than we had ever experienced. At a certain point, I felt like he realized how far in we’d gone and we were walking out the door only a few minutes later.
One of my favorite writers ever is Henri Nouwen. In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen writes, “The temptation to power is greatest when intimacy is perceived as a threat.” When we feel like we have too much to lose, we reach for power. We shut things down or we try to re-establish a place of protection.
I’m going to guess some of you have a story or struggle you’ve been carrying and you’ve felt like you have too much to lose if you let other people in. I feel your fears! But I have to tell you – people connect with you more through your weakness than your strengths. And the very thing you fear (being hurt) lies along the same path to what you most desperately want (deep connection). If we want to be loved, we have to risk being known.
Being wrong is worse than being fake.
Have you ever felt like you had to be fake? Maybe it was a job you held or a relationship you were in or even a church you attended. Being fake is exhausting (and not just physically tiring). When we live less than authentically, I think it feels like a little part of us dies on the inside each day.
I think it’s worse to be wrong than it is to be fake. It’s worse to be wrong on trusting someone and get hurt as a result than it is to be fake. I stood up in a sermon a couple years ago and told a story where a friend had pointed out a glaring weakness in the way I related to people. I heard a lot of great responses from people that day. The next day, though, I got arguably the most hurtful email I’ve ever received. The person just piled on, saying they were “gratified” to read someone had told me about my weakness as they had seen it for years and talked about it with others. This person was a key volunteer in our church with a lot of influence.
I’m not sure how I didn’t hit reply and fire off a venomous response. But I waited until the next Sunday when I saw this man, where I shared it was unacceptable to write such words with me. I’m not sure he got the message because I didn’t see a change – he only continued the same pattern with other people. I can’t say I was sad when his family decided to find a new church home, but I did feel bad for the leaders there who would undoubtedly get the same treatment.
At the end of his leadership podcast each month, Craig Groeschel says, “Be yourself. People would rather follow a leader who is always real than one who is always right.” I heartily agree.
Saying “I don’t know” is okay.
Here’s the thing. Google knows it all but we aren’t Google. If we don’t know it all, then we should get comfortable saying, “You know what? I don’t know.” We should all be able to remember the last time we told someone, “I don’t know.” Sadly, I’ve answered far too many people and questions with an answer I pulled out of you-know-where instead of having the guts to say “I don’t know.” It takes tremendous courage and self-confidence to say those three little words but we need that kind of vulnerability and honesty.
Not having all the answers is not antithetical to being a person of faith. Struggling with doubt doesn’t mean you don’t have faith, either. Contrary to popular opinion, faith is not the opposite of doubt. Doubt is in fact an essential ingredient to faith. The motto of the theology department at my university came from a medieval theologian, Anselm of Canterbury. The motto was “Faith Seeking Understanding.”
What I Don’t Know…
I don’t know why I became anxious. I don’t know why it went away. I’m not sure when the anxiety will come back, if it will be the same or worse. I don’t know whether I had a “ panic attack”. I’m not sure if I was depressed. None of it makes sense to me.
I don’t know why you’re battling depression or anxiety. Why do some people respond to medication and others don’t? I’m not sure. Why do some people believe taking medication is unspiritual? I have ideas, but I’m not certain. I don’t know why some people we love lose their internal battles and make horrific choices.
But here’s what I do know.
It’s okay not to be okay. I also know you’re not alone. There are other people who would say “me too” if you shared your story. Having to have all the answers and having to be perfect are terrible expectations and they destroy any chance we have of connecting with one another.
I don’t have a nice-and-neat next step plan. I don’t know have a lot of answers I intended to share in this post. But here’s what I hope you “hear” today from this post.
I wanted you to know you’re not alone.
I wanted you to know it’s okay not to be okay.
There are people in your life, around you, who would jump into the struggle with you if you told them. (You may need to turn some acquaintances into friends for this to be true, but the people are there.)
I wanted you to know there are some soul-bullies (as my friend Leeana calls them) who will hurt you with what you share as a result of being vulnerable and authentic. Beware.
I wanted you to know that sometimes the most cruel voice is the one inside your head.
I wanted you to know this is a place of honesty, where you can come again and again to get a new perspective on life as it truly is (not how we want it to be).
And I wanted you to know I may have a lot of words, but I don’t have it all together.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. You can also feel free to drop me a note. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I read and reply to every email I can.
Thanks for reading!