f you’ve ever been a kid, you know that most of us have (or at least had) the tendency to realize that some part of our body hurts, then keep poking it and saying “Ow! It hurts!” over and over, as if it would suddenly stop hurting if we poked it enough. It never worked for me, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
In the past few years, I’ve learned that some of the truths we learn as children transfer into lies that influence how we behave as adults, and this isn’t a good thing.
I’ve certainly found myself acting from these lies, and I would venture that you might just do so too. Let’s start with the first one:
I know everything about myself
If I hide what I’m feeling, I’m the only one the feelings impact
If some part of you hurts, you shouldn’t poke it
How could that be untrue for anyone? We’ve lived literally every minute of our lives with ourselves. We’ve experienced every moment of joy and pain, and we know all of our deepest, darkest secrets in more intimate detail than anyone else ever could. How could there be anything about ourselves that we don’t know?
For me, it was simple: I’ve had anxiety most of my life–as far back as I can remember. A near-constant feeling of worry, nervousness, or fear about something uncertain or a bad thing that might happen. I’m not talking about being cautious or being well-prepared–those are good things. I mean an acute awareness of everything bad that could happen in any given situation. But here’s the catch: I didn’t know that this hyper-awareness wasn’t normal until a couple years ago. I barely knew that anxiety was a thing, and I certainly never dreamed that it was impacting me. I always thought that it was something that impacted the weak and that it could be easily overcome with sheer willpower. I was very wrong. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m as driven as they come. If there’s something I don’t like about myself, I’ll fix it. Quickly. I’m always looking at myself to see what I don’t like and trying to figure out how to fix it. Yet somehow I was oblivious to this giant fear-and-worry monster that I carried around with me everywhere I went. I always thought myself to be a failure, so I fought hard to convince myself I wasn’t. If someone at work had a critique of a project or idea of mine, I took it as an insult to my character and I fought to prove them wrong, because then I wouldn’t have to feel anxiety about feeling like a failure.
It took me months to even realize this about myself, and much longer to realize the impact that it was having on me. And that was with the help of an amazing counselor. If I were left to my own devices, I still may be oblivious. And I wasn’t the only one it was hurting, which leads me to the next lie:
I’ve spent many years trying to ignore things into not being a problem. It was like I thought that by sheer willpower something I didn’t like about myself would go away if only I didn’t admit it was there. Marriage has a way of changing that. I believe that God places us in a marriage with someone who, if we let them, will lift us up and encourage us while at the same time refusing to ignore those very things we love to ignore about ourselves.
It turns out that my anxiety was one of those things. If it only impacted me, I might have been able to ignore that for a while, but the more I looked, the more I realized how much it was hurting Jess. She’s a dreamer. She loves to get excited about possibilities and adventure. She would say, “What if we went took a trip to this city?” She was dreaming about a “someday” adventure, but in my anxiety, I wanted (needed) to have a plan for every detail of every scenario of the proposed trip. I needed details about how we would schedule time off from work, how to pay for everything we’d need, when we would go, where we’d stay, how we’d get there, what we’d do if the car broke down (and on and on…). All of this BEFORE I would show any excitement at all. She was dreaming, not planning and I was like a wet blanket on the flame of her excitement. Smothering would be a good word for it.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with planning things out well, and she will out-plan me every time when it comes to a trip, but my anxiety meant that I took all the fun out of it before there was even a chance to have fun. I remember how one night she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “We never have fun…”
I denied it at first, but over the next few days it really sunk in, and the more I looked, the more true it felt. Even worse, I knew that I was a very significant part of the reason we never had fun. Whether I liked it or not, my anxiety was smothering my wife’s fun and adventurous personality that I loved. So much for it only impacting me. Now, what to do about it… That leads to the final lie:
Wait…isn’t that something every one of us had drilled into our minds as children? Yes, it is, but this is different.
My anxiety hurt. I had spent years oblivious to its existence, and the more I became aware of it, the more I wanted to forget everything I had learned. But I couldn’t do that, at least not while loving my wife well. If I chose myself and what was easy, I’d keep smothering the sparkle Jess loved to experience in life. The choice was obvious, but it still took me a while to make it.
Once I did, I started a string of really intense every-other-week sessions with our counselor. She ended up working through years of hurt using the same techniques that many counselors use to help clients work through post-traumatic stress. We worked through the feelings of fear and panic behind every situation of intense anxiety I could remember. To do this, we had to work through every situation, every painful memory, and every big hurt in life–all of what I’d bottled up and stuffed away over my twenty-something years. It was exhausting. It was more emotionally painful than anything I’ve ever felt, because it was everything I’d ever felt. I’d come home after counseling some nights and wouldn’t want to talk for a couple days. I prayed over and over again for strength. Some of the emotions hurt so much that I felt as sore as you might the day after a really intense workout. Sometimes I felt like there was a giant knot in my chest, just twisting tighter and tighter, like it was trying to pull all of me into a black hole. Not fun. I never knew that physical pain from anxiety was even possible.
A week and a half after a session I would begin to start feeling normal again, only to go into another session a couple days later. Every part of me wanted to stop the sessions and bottle everything back up.
But I didn’t. (Remember that stubbornness I mentioned earlier?) After half a dozen sessions, I noticed something. The little things in life that always bugged me now bugged me less. I was able to stop taking well-intentioned advice as harsh criticism of my character.
So I prayed for strength. And I kept poking where it hurt.
After another handful of sessions, I noticed something else. I now had an ease about my outlook on life that I had never felt before. I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew I wanted more.
So I prayed for strength. And I kept poking where it hurt.
A couple of weeks later, Jess got downsized from her role at a shrinking company. Normally this would have sent me into a full-on panic, but something was different. I wasn’t stressed. I was very aware of the situation, but I was able to stay calm through it all. Not just outwardly calm while freaking out inside, but truly at peace. I didn’t understand it, but I liked it.
For the next five months, Jess had no significant job prospects and she felt so much stress. Because I had leaned into my own anxiety, I was able to be the calm, steady presence that she needed in an unsteady time. My anxiety wasn’t combining with her stress into a giant worry-storm this time, but instead, I was able to be helpful.
I’m nowhere near done on the path to emotional health, and I never will be this side of heaven, but I do know this: I will never stop poking where it hurts.
God brings healing to those who humble themselves, ask for it, and chase it with everything they have.
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14
A Few Final Thoughts:
- The things that hurt the most are the biggest opportunities for growth and healing
- Be gentle
- Don’t go it alone
- Anything worth having takes time, and healing is no exception
- If you’re in the same spot, you can do it
Lean into them. You’ll find in time that they just don’t hurt as much.
Working through things that hurt…well…hurts. When I say I kept poking where it hurt, I don’t mean viciously, but gently and persistently. Things that are bottled up hurt enough without breaking the bottles open.
I was only able to make the progress that I did because I found help from an experienced counselor who specializes in helping people with their anxiety. I’m not sure how much progress I would have made on my own, if any.
If, like me, you have a problem that’s been around for a lifetime, don’t expect an overnight fix. If you find one, it likely won’t last long. Healing is a process over time.
Pushing for healing is hard, and sometimes it’s hard to see the results right away, but if you’re working through the hard things with someone who knows what they’re doing, you will make progress and you’ll be so glad you did. You can do it!
Do you have an area in your life where you need to lean in instead of pulling away? Let us know in the comments…