Category: Mental Health

Why you can be fine on the outside while you’re crumbling on the inside

There’s a popular meme that says “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is true. But what is also true is that many people are fighting a battle that even they know nothing about.

This is because we, as individuals and as a society, have a conditioned response to difficulty and trauma that is to downplay or to deny. This can be the response to people dealing with everything from anxiety and depression to burn out to the loss of a loved one, a car accident, sexual assault or even group trauma in response to terror attacks, war and natural disasters. Visual cues are less easy to downplay (and have resulted from something obvious) but the internal scarring and struggle can be invisible, even to the people bearing them.

How can this be? Prior to my marriage ending, I didn’t realise I was in a traumatic situation. I knew I was hurting. I knew I was miserable. I knew I was losing hope. But I didn’t know I was living in a situation that has a name in text books. When it was pointed out to me by a professional, I found it hard to believe. When my marriage ended then, in many ways it’s understandable if other people found it hard to believe too.

Many people are burdened with internal unrecognised and unnamed struggle and trauma. A friend of mine who works in the industry, told me that up to 90% of the women she meets in a professional capacity do not recognise that they have, or are in, something that has a name. Each are struggling with unnamed trauma. As a result of the event/struggle/trauma itself, there are also the responses to that trauma – there are flashbacks, nightmares, unexplained anxiety, over-worry, overwork, burn out, loss of self-esteem, lack of hope, depression – and all downplayed by the sufferer as “just those things we have to deal with”.

Because we just “deal with it”, people see our day-to-day faces. This can go on for years. In her book, Trauma-Sensitive Theology by Jennifer Baldwin, she notes that “When the intensity of the crisis remains below the threshold of resources and coping, crisis events are generally processed by our innate resources.” This means, we can go years dealing with internal battles because our innate coping mechanisms are high enough, and the level of crisis just low enough, to allow us to function on a daily basis. This is where our meme comes in.

BUT when our coping resources lessen, and/or the crisis increases in frequency or intensity, we lose the ability to function properly. That’s when people start to see it and can be surprised by its suddenness. What they don’t realise is, it’s the tip of the iceberg and 90% of the issue has been below the water line all this time.

What they also don’t realise is that this loss of functionality can be a shock to us too. When the walls come crashing in, the trauma needs to begin to be processed by the sufferer. What that means is that responses to the sufferer after the walls fell in can add to the trauma. The sufferer bears the burden of processing the trauma, as well as the burden of people’s response to the trauma.

We must not add a burden to our sisters and brothers. We must see the nuance behind the meme. The Bible itself gives us its wisdom: “Even in laughter the heart may ache.” (Proverbs 14:13). There is no denial of struggle here. There is recognition that people may be in the deepest pain but not show it on the outside. If we treat each other with patience, kindness and goodness though, we provide a solid foundation for re-building or strengthening a persons coping mechanisms. At worst we help people to function every day. At best, we support them in building their new resiliency in Christ.

As Jennifer Baldwin says, resiliency isn’t “going back” and living as though the struggle never happened or doesn’t exist. Resiliency is finding the courage to process the wounds and find new ways of living authentically. We can help people to do this.

The important key is the ratio of coping mechanism, to the threat of overwhelm. In other words, we need to keep the situation of struggle in check, and/or, we need to build a persons coping mechanisms. Many people cannot change their situation – parents with high needs kids, single parents, people carrying anxiety and depression to name but a few. These situations may not change, but can at best be managed. We can help them. This might be acts of kindness and material help, but more often than not it might be acceptance of the person, acknowledgement of the trauma or struggle, treating the person with compassion, and always prayer.

We can also build someone’s coping mechanisms. The Bible’s wisdom and the early church is built for just such a purpose. In general, our faith is a corporate affair. It is meant to be lived together. We meet at church, we join together at small groups, we do life together. This is fertile ground for interpersonal support and growth.

There is much more to be said about growing in resilience. But the foundation of it is to recognise that we have the power to add to someone’s burden, or add to someone’s journey of recovery. Be patient. Be gentle. Be kind. Against such things there is no law.

And if you are reading this and you are struggling with trauma or trauma response, please know that you are loved and believed and accepted. If you can feel your situation getting the better of you, please seek help to review it and manage it and change it where possible and appropriate. As a single parent working full time, I’ve done things as a simple as getting my groceries delivered because dragging 2 kids around Coles was adding to my stress and sense of overwhelm.

If you can feel your coping mechanisms crumbling, please seek the help and support of Christian sisters or brothers, and if need be, a professional.

Above all, please please be in God’s word. He is Lord and he is alive and he lives in you. Know it, and know that you were known and loved and accepted before you were even born.

Notes:

If you’re a reader, I can recommend Change Your Thinking by Sarah Edelman. She also has a new book coming out in June 2019 on managing anxiety.

If you are in ministry (and if you’re interested), Jennifer Baldwin’s book Trauma-Sensitive Theology is a must in seeking to equip ministers to understand trauma.

Praying for peace when you’re too tired to even finish this sentence

Life is really hard. I mean, it’s great, but it’s really hard. We all have those days when, half in jest, we pray “Hey Jesus, if you’re thinking of coming back soon, now would be a reeeeeeally good time.”

Sometimes it seems relentless, unending, even hopeless. The days flow on, one after another, like the incessant march of wartime. We didn’t really plan for this, but the days go on like war came to our doorstep whether we liked it or not. And now we’re in it, we just have to keep going until the war is over.

When will the war be over? We think. When will it get less difficult? I’m so tired.

At times like these, usually the Bible is one of the last places we go. We’re too busy trying to do life. But that’s why we need it. The more we strain to get through the day, the more we tend to rely on our own initiative. Head down, bum up, organising, planning, running things, keeping small people alive, happy and safe, just managing to keep putting one foot in front of the other…… It is easy to fall into self-reliance.

But that’s where we have gone off course, and we need to get back to God’s word.

God gets us. He so gets us. The place where he communicates with us is the place we find people who have gone before who have done and felt the exact same thing as us. And they rest in the pages of the bible so God can redirect our attention to the right place.

The book of Micah is one such place. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BC – it was just before the Assyrians wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel and came right to the door of the southern kingdom of Judah. War is coming. The Assyrians are coming. When will there be peace?

Micah tells them in chapter 4 that God’s peace will come. The law will go out from him and he will judge and settle disputes. The people, Micah says, will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (4:3b). There will be no need for these weapons. They will turn weapons of war into tools of the farm. Prosperity. Fertility. Peace.

Then he says:

Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (4:4).

Can you imagine that? Sitting somewhere in complete safety and tranquility. Master or mistress of your own little spot. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to fear. Nothing to lose.

What would it look like for you? For me it’s a late afternoon, sunny but cool. The light casting a faint orange glow over the countryside. The sound of the breeze in the trees – not even birds chirping. Breathing in the sweet air with the faint whiff of hay and honeysuckle. My kids playing and laughing.

Nothing to worry about. Nothing to fear. Nothing to lose.

Peace. God’s peace. That’s what he promises in Micah. One day, this will be real. It won’t look like that – who knows what it will look like? But it will feel like that. One day we will be there, in God’s full peace. In his presence. He promised it. He communicated it, and he is faithful. It will happen.

How does that change the tough days? Hope.

It lifts me because I know what sitting under my own vine would look like, what it would feel like. I pray for the day I will sit under my own vine, but I also know it is a certainty, and so my bad days become not so bad. I can imagine being in God’s peace and it calms me.

It even pushes me forward – if that is a certainty, what should I be doing before I can relax under my vine? What is the work that’s still to be done? That drives me back to God again. What shall I do, God? What can I do so that when I sit under my vine, I do so as a good and faithful servant? Complete, replete, God’s own. Forever.

Sleep well, friends. Be well. Be hopeful. God has promised and it will happen.

It’s not a guilty pleasure, it’s bear baiting

Bear-baiting was a blood thirsty spectator sport in England that existed from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. In a deep pit, a bear would be pitted against trained fighting dogs. You can imagine the results. Vicious animals tearing flesh from each other as a shouting crowd – their blood up – howl their approval. Thank goodness we have moved beyond this.

Or have we?

I like voting-out-shows. You know the ones – Masterchef, Survivor and The Great British Bake-off are my popular go-tos. When there’s no Masterchef, I’ll get hooked on My Kitchen Rules, but I like it less because of the high ratio of bitching and fighting to actual cooking. But it’s my “guilty pleasure”. We use this term to describe something we know we shouldn’t have/watch/eat/do, but we do anyway. It’s how we justify things we know are either bad for us, or may result in some kind of judgement on our behaviour. With TV it’s usually the fear of being judged for really low-brow telly shows. Yeah. Like we all only watch documentaries and the news.

But the recent series of Married at First Sight (MAFS) is changing my opinion of “guilty pleasures”. This is the show where a group of wannabe D-list celebrity nobodys marry someone without meeting them first. Then we watch to see if true love unfolds. Except it’s not an interesting social experiment. It’s bear baiting.

It could be any of these kinds of shows (Love Island, and increasingly The Batchelor and The Bachelorette, the list is long these days). But this season of MAFS has been a zenith for verbal abuse from both men and women, lying, cheating, dodging, and basic unpleasantness from everyone. It is the worst kind of behaviour you can imagine, probably edited for additional drama and shock factor.

And what does that say? The producers and editors are editing this garbage into a package of slop they think we want to shovel down with the rest of the trash that’s out there. Do we love it because that’s what they feed us or is this what we feed us because this is what we love? At the end of the day it makes no difference. We are no different to a Medieval mob baying for blood.

At some point we have to decide what we’re willing to accept. At the moment, what we’re willing to accept is this festering pile of detritus.

The only way things change is for a lot of people to act individually. It’s when we all make better choices. Just don’t watch this bilge. Why? Apart from the fact that it’s a smouldering pit of animal sediment, it’s a sign of how socially numb we’ve become.

When everyone is doing it, it’s easy to go along. But Proverbs 4:23 says “above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Jesus, in the gospel of Luke explains that “a good man brings good things out of the good stored up i his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45).

Now this is not a rebuke or a call to ban shows, burn books or get crazy. I’m saying that our choices are not morally or spiritually neutral. I’m saying that our hearts, unguarded, become blind or numb or both. And from that numbness, comes what we think is appropriate behaviour.

We’re better than that. And frankly we should be bloody outraged – not just because this show speaks to spirit of nastiness and viciousness that our society applauds, and not just because TV executives think so little of our intellect that they produce these vats of toilet sweepings by the truck load. But because this is not what we were made for.

We are better than this. We were made for more. Don’t waste it with this offal. Be awake. There’s plenty of other (less harmful) trash to watch instead. Choose wisely.

“The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17). Our wisdom is a gift. God guides us in our discipleship and growing discernment. Use it. Choose thoughtfully. Choose wisely.

The fear of people realising you’re a fake

You’d think now that we’re all grown up that we’d know what we were doing, right? Not so much. “Impostor syndrome” is the feeling like you’ve managed to fool everyone into thinking that you’ve got it all together, but inside you feel like a total loser. So you feel like a fake. And that’s bad.

But it gets worse. There’s also the fear that at some point, everyone will find out that you’re not all that. Deep down, many of us feel like anything we have managed to do or achieve or overcome, was somehow by luck. So now we’ve got to where we are, we don’t really deserve to be there, and we’ve hoodwinked the people around us into thinking we are better than we are.

This is because there is a difference between how others see you, and how we see ourselves.

If this is you, here’s some things to think about:

  • What do I believe? For instance: I’m a fake. Everything I’ve achieved is by accident.
  • What do I know to be true? For instance: I can adapt to changing circumstances. I can problem solve when I need to.

This can help us to see more starkly the negative things we think about ourselves and put them side by side with things that are real observations. One is about feelings, the other is about observation. They are both important, but the former needs to be put into perspective by the latter. Writing it down helps – it takes it out of your brain somehow. It helps you to not stew on it at 3 in the morning when you’ve woken up needing a wee and then can’t get back to sleep because you start worrying and replaying things in your mind……(may or may not be based on a real person).

Here’s the kicker though. We are Christian. We have knowledge that is objectively true.

  • How do I see myself? I’m a loser.
  • How does God see me? He sees me as fearfully and wonderfully made. He sees me as carrying the treasure of the gospel. He sees me as an integral part of his plans. He sees me as his.

There is no hint of arrogance to know and believe these things. He has told us himself.

It may be hard for you to believe this, but we need to write it down and know that its true, even if right now you don’t feel it.

Re-visit what you have written. Keep going back to it. Know it in your heart and in your mind. It’s not something we are trying to live up to, its something we already are. And the pressure is off because we aren’t this because of something we did or can do – it’s because of what he did.

We are not fakes or frauds. We are as God made us. He shapes us and grows us and we are these cracked and broken jars or clay so he can use us for his purposes.

And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing and there is nothing fake about it.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” Psalm 139:13

“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6:11

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

 

Have we forgotten how to give a toss?

Here’s a conundrum: We need strong theology, but sometimes we can be so fixed on “guarding the good deposit” that we forget to treat people with grace and compassion. Sometimes, being so focused on orthodoxy can come across as sanctimonious and judgmental.

Theology offered without humanity seems like a special lack of emotional intelligence. You know those people you meet who just can’t read the temperature of the room, or see and recognise emotions on other people’s faces? Person A is speaking. Person B is getting upset. Person A can’t see the effect of their words on Person B and carry on regardless. Person B is clearly deeply hurt and retreats. There is damaged trust between Person A and Person B after this point.

Our churches can sometimes be Person A, and it annoys and hurts and depresses me when you see it.

Here’s what I am NOT saying: I am not saying we should change or shift our theology in any way. It is a good deposit and it definitely needs to be guarded. I am not saying we should be progressive and liberal, condoning behavior that is sinful and clearly contrary to God’s plans for us.

I’m also not saying that everyone in the church, or all churches, are like this. Thankfully we have access to genuine ministers of the word and pastors of people who have great theological training and a heart for the flock.

Here’s what I am saying: Just don’t be a jerk. You don’t have to have been divorced to be able to walk with someone and not make them feel as though they are morally tainted for life. You don’t have to have a gay child to be able to stand side by side with the parents who’s hearts are hurting and confused and full of love for their kid. You don’t have to have been abused to be able to do life with them authentically and lovingly. You don’t have to have had relationship difficulties to be able to support someone and love them through the ups and downs.

Presenting the beauty of the Bible in a way that minimises theology to the individual words themselves causes more damage than you know. It also treats the Bible legalistically – a list of can and can’t do’s to be presented starkly, coldly, judgmentally.

Presenting theology without humanity drives people away. It makes the church itself a stumbling block to people’s faith and discipleship.

Jesus did not approve of, or condone, people’s sin. But he walked with them. He cared for them so much that he was accused of heresy by the Pharisees. Can we do that? Can we point people to Jesus with compassion? Can we present our theology with love? Can we try to understand where people are coming from? What issues they are facing? Comprehend the mess? We don’t have to compromise our theology to present it with grace.

At the end of the day, theology needs to be applied in real life. That means not treating it like a text book. This means climbing down from our ivory tower to meet people where they are. It means loving them and walking with them. We point them to Jesus who will love them better and more beautifully than we ever could.

So remember this: Even if you come across people who have forgotten how to give a toss – they are not “the norm”. The response is not to double down on something you see that disappoints you by spreading discontent. The response is to get alongside those who are hurting. You don’t have to change your theology to do life with people in the middle of the mess. The church is not a building, it’s a body of people. It’s you. Have confidence in your ability to love people and point them to Jesus.