Tag Archives: Mental Health

Who Do You Think You Are?

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Knowing who you are is an important concept when it comes to good mental health. Development of a healthy sense of self is one of the primary tasks of youth. However, a sense of self is a problematic concept for a lot of Christ followers. Are we supposed to love ourselves? Where is the line between loving myself and “thinking more highly of myself than I ought”? If I’m confident in myself, does that mean I’m not humble? While the answers to these questions are complex, I think the answer lies in having our identity in Christ, but what does it really mean to have “identity in Christ?”

A sense of identity in the world generally occurs through relationship. My identity as a child follows this loose formula: I start to get a sense of myself; I start to get a sense of you; and then the relationship that exists (how you interact with me, what you think of me, how you respond to me) shapes my identity. As you go on in life, this same loose formula applies. My sense of myself as a wife is based on knowing myself, knowing my husband and the relationship we have with each other – the ways we respond and love each other confirms my identity as his wife. Even non-personal identities can be formed this way. A sense of identity as a certain kind of employee is based on knowing me (my skills and what I have to offer); knowing the company (what skills are required and what they are looking for); and then the relationship between those two is confirmed with production, employee reviews and so forth. I get a sense of identity as a certain kind of worker through the relationship between these three things.

I think we can apply this same loose formula to our identity in Christ. Identity in Christ is based on knowing who I am in relationship to Him; knowing Him and what He has done; and the relationship that exists between us – how He interacts with me, responds to me, what He thinks of me and how He reveals himself to me. If any of these three pieces is out of place, my sense of identity in Christ will be skewed accordingly. That’s why perhaps it’s easier to talk about this topic in terms of how you might know if you don’t have a solid identity in Christ – and how you can work on that. Since I’m defining identity with a three-part equation, I’ll also identify three different pitfalls.

Identity Crisis #1: Self-righteousness or Judgmentalism – I don’t know who I am.    This may be one of the hardest to diagnose in ourselves, because none of us want to think of ourselves as self-righteous or judgmental. But we all are this way from time to time, and it comes from not having a clear view of who we really are and how we stand before God. If you read Romans 1:18-3:20, you will get a very good picture of what your position is before God (I recommend the Message version). This is the beginning of Paul’s classic text on salvation – and he starts with the fact that we are all guilty, every single one of us. God does not “grade on the curve”- we are all in the same boat, sinners every one. It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others and say “they” are so much worse than “us”; but Paul calls our bluff. Of course (thank goodness) Romans goes on after Chapter 3, verse 20. Knowing how we really stand before God isn’t just to shame us or make us feel horrible. But if we find ourselves consistently feeling overconfident, self-righteous or judgmental of other people, our identity in Christ is skewed. We need to be careful not to put ourselves above any other human who has ever lived – we are all guilty. If this is you, I recommend immersing yourself in these verses from Romans until you really understand your position before God.

Identity Crisis #2: Low Self-Esteem – I don’t know who God is.                                                  If you have low self-esteem, you might be overly focused on your guilt and sin – knowing full well your pitiful position before God and consumed with that – without balancing that with who God is and what He thinks of you and has done for you. God created you and thinks you are a masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10); He has gifted you and has plans for you (Jeremiah 29:11); if you were the only person living, Jesus would have still died for you to offer justification by faith for your sins. God loves you, with a pure and intentional love. If you don’t love yourself, you are saying something about what He’s created that is almost disrespectful in nature. It would be like accepting an art piece someone handcrafted for you, saying you are thankful for the gift, but then treating it poorly. The artist would not feel good about giving such a gift to an ungrateful receiver. Loving yourself and seeing yourself as uniquely gifted, handcrafted and beautiful is a respectful and correct view of yourself in light of God being your loving Creator. You cannot have a secure and firm identity in Christ if you have a consistent low self-esteem. I recommend immersing yourself in Scripture that assures you of who God is and how He feels about His own creation, and then lining yourself up with this truth.

Identity Crisis #3: Getting identity mainly from my work or human relationships – my relationship with Christ is not central.                                                                                              The third piece, once you are clear on who you are and who God is, is the relational piece. If relationship between yourself and God is central in your life, then God’s interaction with you is the primary place you get important feedback. God’s response to you, communication with you and love for you is where you can find real security. If this relationship is not central, you will need to rely on feedback from other sources, such as your job or your boyfriend or kids. We all rely on interpersonal feedback for our sense of identity – the question is simply which interpersonal feedback we will choose to have primary sway. Whatever we assess to be the most important relationships will have the most influence on our identity. So if success at work is our primary goal, then the opinions of our success at work will have the most influence over how we feel about ourselves. But if what God thinks of me is my primary goal, then what He thinks of me is going to be the most important feedback. This doesn’t mean that success at work and my other relationships isn’t important; it just means that if I’m ok with God, I’m ok. Those other things can now ebb and flow without the highs inflating me or the lows destroying me. If you find yourself being overly concerned with success at work or obsessed with what someone else thinks of you, you may want to work on making your relationship with Christ more central in your life. You might want to pursue intimacy with Him, find out more about what He says and feels about you. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of time trying to manage and/or control relationships and work issues that are not actually in your control.

Because this is a three-part formula, the concept of balance is obviously important. There is almost a knife-edge balance to be had here between being overly confident in God’s beautiful artwork (you) and being hopelessly lost in shame over your guilt and sin. You can be so centrally focused on your relationship with God that you find yourself not participating in the real concerns of life, or you can find yourself so consumed with your job/bills/kids that you forget to listen for God’s voice. Like riding a bike, balance is the process of constantly losing and then re-finding your balance. True identity in Christ is like that moment your parents let go of your bike and you actually rode on your own! Freedom indeed.

*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want

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Take it from the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need”. Or, take it from Paul, “So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12, NLT)

I think most of us intellectually understand that we won’t always get what we want, and that sometimes not getting what we want is a good thing. Why then, do so many people resist their actual experience? I hear so often, “if only I could get rid of this anxiety, then…” I could be happy, could be more productive, could travel, whatever. People do this on any number of maladies – if only this, then that. If I tend towards depression, of course it would be great if I were never depressed again. And yet, I know that I have learned many things in times of sadness or low spirits.

The truth is that God can heal – He could take away your anxiety, your depression, your marriage struggles, whatever your “it” is. And in some miraculous cases, He does. But usually, God allows a process. We don’t know what Paul’s thorn was, but whatever it was he struggled with, it kept him from being proud and he eventually learned to love his weakness because it allowed him to boast about God’s strength. God loves a process of learning, because process teaches us something about ourselves and also something about God. That God can use us – even us! – is something to boast about. Paul didn’t get what he wanted, but he got what he needed.

I’m not talking about a cop-out here; there are things in our lives that should change, and we have the power to do something about it. If you have an anger problem and you yell at your wife, I’m not suggesting that you just say “Well, I asked God for help and it hasn’t come yet!”. Or, if you eat donuts every morning and you are hurtling towards diabetes, I’m not suggesting you should simply say “I’ve asked God (three times!) to take away my blood sugar problem and nothing is happening.” Even though we don’t know what Paul’s thorn was, I think we can be assured that it wasn’t something that he could have achieved himself with discipline or better habits. This thorn was something that only God could remove – and God decided not to for Paul’s good.

With that in mind, think about something in your life that you wish would change – something that isn’t completely in your control, like anxiety or a difficult person you are in relationship with. Think about all the time you spend wishing it was different or dreaming about what life would be like if that changed or went away. Well, what if it never changes? What if this is how it is, but instead of wishing it away, you could just find acceptance that this is how it is? What if you could look for the lessons, the blessings, the ways God can use you even though this is what’s happening.

Also, understand that willing acceptance is not the same thing as giving up. For instance, let’s say you have anxiety. Willing acceptance means you let go of being angry about it, wishing it would go away, trying to figure out why and spinning about what’s wrong with you. It’s opening up that space with acceptance and then seeing what is possible even though you are experiencing anxiety. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see your doctor, go to therapy, read books and research answers. It simply means that you willingly accept that in this moment, this is where you are.

The bottom line is, wherever you are in this moment with whatever challenges you face, it’s where you are. You may heal, find answers, stop being anxious, lose weight, fix your relationship some other day – but today, right now, this is where you are. Willingly accepting that truth and then being available for life and for God anyway is your most powerful position. What would it be like to rest in this moment wherever you are and let that be okay?

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Ride that Wave!

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Emotions are king in our culture. We write love songs while we look for love; we pursue happiness with everything we’ve got. We avoid painful feelings by shopping, eating, drinking, having sex, watching TV or wasting time. When we have good feelings, we hold on to them for dear life, often pursuing them in ways that don’t bring lasting contentment. Most of the clients who come to me start by saying they either want to “be happy” or “get rid of” some bad feeling.

If you think about the way God created the world, there is a lot of ebb and flow – the sun rises and sets; the tide goes in and out; the moon is a sliver and then it’s full. Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 4 says “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven; a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” Our emotions are meant to ebb and flow. If we desire healing and emotional growth, every emotion should be fully experienced. God understands and loves for us to pour out our hearts to Him, in the midst of our experiences, whether they be good or bad, happy or sad.

We see a great picture of this while reading the Psalms. In Psalm 88, it says “I am forgotten, cut off from your care. You have thrown me into the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. Your anger weighs me down; with wave after wave you have engulfed me.” (Vs. 5-7). Here the psalmist is expressing some deep, dark and painful emotions both about God, and to him. A few chapters later, we read “You thrill me, Lord, with all you have done for me! I sing for joy because of what you have done! O Lord, what great works you do!” (Ps. 92:4-5). Now, the psalmist (a different author) is rejoicing with great and wonderful joy. This isn’t instability of character. Rather this is God preserving emotion in his Word to show us that He can handle all of our emotion as we experience our lives. Again, not all behavior is beneficial, but God loves honesty about how we are feeling.

So what do we do about all of these feelings? If we use the metaphor of ocean tides, instead of getting rid of emotion we think is negative, why not find a “surfboard” so that riding the tides of our emotion becomes an adventure? If you are sitting on your surfboard in the ocean, you can sit there through many large waves before you actually choose to stand up and surf one. You also might be sitting on calm seas one day, and getting knocked off your board and thrashed around on another! This is all part of the experience of surfing. A surfer understands that the waves are not at his beck and call – he will have varying conditions. The one stable resource he has is his board.

One of the primary steps in learning to work with emotion, then, is to observe it and feel it without impulsively acting upon those feelings; this is your surfboard. What would it be like to become angry at poor customer service and not complain or make a scene – simply as an experiment to observe the rise and fall of what anger feels like in your own body. For most of us, the behavior that follows our emotion (like yelling when you are angry) comes so quickly that we tend to think we can’t control it. Feelings and thoughts are inextricably linked and difficult to separate, but behavior is an entirely different thing. It is possible to be fully angry and not respond angrily. It is possible, if you found yourself having feelings for someone outside your marriage, to experience those feelings without acting upon them.

Think of it as a scientific experiment: How long would anger remain in your mind and body if you simply observed it and watched it rise and fall without buying into it or attaching your thoughts to any particular part of it? If you were curious about it but didn’t feed it all of the evidence about why you think you are justified to behave poorly? You can do this with any emotion, and for each person it will be altogether different. For me, anxiety might be brief and tolerable, but sadness almost unbearable. For you, observing anger might feel completely impossible but experiencing loneliness is ok. It’s a life-changing shift to realize that not everything you feel needs to be acted upon.

EXERCISE: Take a look at this list of emotions. Pick a couple that are uncomfortable for you but not unbearable. Practice dedicating yourself to simply experiencing this feeling without doing anything about it. How long does it last? Where do you feel it in your body? Ride the wave as it crests and recedes. Later, you can choose more difficult emotions, but commit to working on this one emotion at a time.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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Thought Replacement

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Last week we discussed observing our thoughts in order to come up with a “diagnosis” of how our thoughts can negatively affect us. This week, we are going to start talking about a “treatment process”. How does a person find this transformation Paul is talking about in Romans when he says “do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2 NKJV). I think we’ve established that you won’t achieve this change by trying to force yourself to stop unproductive thinking and be transformed! Real transformation is only made possible through the grace of God, kind of like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar is a willing participant, but it’s not the agent of change.

So how do we readily participate in this thought transformation? There are a multitude of strategies we can use. We’ve already established the fact that our thoughts aren’t necessarily true, and you might have even identified some of your thoughts that aren’t actually true. It’s often helpful to get a little bit of distance from them, and one way you can do this is by naming them, like the “I’m a bad father story”, or “here’s the I’m an unorganized loser story”. It’s just wording, but it helps you to identify in your own mind that you’re not buying into the false belief that all of your thoughts are true.

One technique I really like is the idea of redirecting, like you might do with a wayward 2-year old who is doing something naughty – instead of punishing, you could just pick her up and set her down by a beloved toy or puzzle. Similarly, you can “pick up” a wayward thought and set it down on a thought you do want to be thinking. This is what Paul is getting at when he tells us in Philippians 4:8 (NLT):

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

Paul knew that thoughts pop into our heads, unbidden. Do we really imagine that Paul never once thought about his horrible past and the things he’d done? Probably he did, but one thing we do know: he didn’t live in the past; he didn’t dwell on those things. If he had, he never would have been available to do God’s bidding. Instead, Paul replaced these thoughts with today’s truth – thoughts that were true, honorable and so on. And he encourages us to do the same. I often say to my clients, you can’t do anything about a bird landing on your head, but you can control how long it sits there! Thoughts will come unbidden, that’s true. But you get to choose which thoughts you will rest your mind on. And you can choose, like Paul did, thoughts that fall into this verse’s instruction from Philippians.

EXERCISE: Make a list of a couple of thoughts you struggle with and then come up with a replacement thought. These can be any sayings or verses, they don’t have to specifically relate. But as an example, here are a couple of mine:

 Untrue Thought: “I am fat”

Thought to use as a replacement: “I am God’s masterpiece” (Eph 2:10)

 [So I’m not trying to STOP thinking “I am fat” – I’m just trying to notice it, and every time I notice it, I say (maybe even out loud), “No, I’m God’s masterpiece”.]

 Dishonorable Thought: “I really don’t like my downstairs neighbor, she’s rude”

Thought to use as a replacement: “Love your enemies, bless those that curse you” Matt. 5:44

 Also, it’s important to understand that this is not “pop psychology” or “positive affirmation”. I acknowledge the painful nature of my thoughts without judgment, and that my experience has value. My downstairs neighbor might well have been very rude to me. I’m not attempting to “get rid” of that thought or convince myself she is really nice. I’m instead choosing where my mind finds its resting place in regard to that particular situation.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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Don’t Even Think About It

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God’s power and strength are only available to us in this present moment. Being aware of what is happening for you in the present moment is a great launching point to start examining and working with your thoughts. Most of us would agree that our thinking gets us in trouble sometimes, so being able to have a right relationship with our own thoughts is critical.

Familiar Bible verses can be found to encourage a right relationship with thoughts such as “and do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2 NKJV) and “we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 ESV). But often, the message we get is an encouragement to eliminate our “bad” thoughts; somehow get rid of them because bad thoughts equal bad behavior. And it’s true, we do need to be transformed and obey Christ in our thinking. Trying hard to eliminate thoughts is the root of a lot of discouragement; you don’t have to try this method for very long before you fail. If I say “no matter what you do, do NOT think about ice cream”, I guarantee you will be eating ice cream by the time the day is over! It will be all that you can think about.

So the first step here is to drop the judgment and to start observing what we are actually thinking. This is the first step, I’m not suggesting that we just allow bad or wrong thoughts to simply be okay. But we often jump too soon into the treatment plan before we accurately diagnose what is happening. As Christ-followers, we do believe in absolute truth in the person of Jesus Christ. There is a line of right and wrong. However, before we jump to judgment and treatment, let’s allow ourselves to be curious and compassionate about our experience in the process of our diagnosis.

Remember that instead of trying to control our thoughts, which can’t be done, we are trying instead to have a right relationship with our thoughts. So what exactly are thoughts? Thoughts are simply patterns of words, or stories. We think of our thoughts as true, but often they are not. Here’s a silly little exercise: Think really hard right now “I can NOT lift my arm. I can NOT lift my arm”. Now lift your arm. Your thinking that you couldn’t lift your arm didn’t really affect your ability to lift your arm, did it? Of course not. The truth is, you can think anything in your head, and it may or may not be true.

A right relationship with my thoughts means that I understand that my thoughts are simply strings of words and pictures. They may be true, or they may be untrue. I’m allowed to examine and assess them, and then I’m allowed to choose whether or not I’d like to act on them or behave according to them. My goal isn’t to stop them, push them away or label them – but rather to see them as they are. If my thoughts help me move towards my values or towards Christ-centered living, then I can use them for action. If they don’t, I can allow them to just float on by, making room for something else.

EXERCISE: This week, in order to become more aware of your thought patterns, set a timer on your smartphone for four random times per day. Carry a small notebook, and each time the alarm sounds, simply write down the last thing you were thinking before the alarm sounded. Have no judgment about your thoughts – you are simply trying to see if there is a pattern to your thinking, or problematic thoughts that you notice arise again and again.

 Now, assess those thoughts for truth. So if you thought “my boss is a jerk”, is that true? It might be true that you don’t like what she just did, but it probably isn’t true that her whole character is a jerk. Or if you thought “I’m a terrible father”, is that true? You may have made a mistake or not spent enough time with your kids lately, but I bet you can think of some ways that you are a good father also. It may be true that you can improve based on your thought, but the thought itself might not be true. Also be aware that some thoughts that are NOT true can feel very true, because you’ve been thinking them for so long. But “I’m worthless” can’t possibly be true for anyone when judged against the truth of the Bible and God’s love for you. So if you have trouble determining truth, try seeing what the Bible has to say.

*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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The Donut Metaphor

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Last week I talked about the barriers that exist when it comes to living in the Spirit. One of those barriers is sometimes not knowing our values or not being clear about them. Here’s a metaphor I like to use to illustrate this point:

Let’s say I have a goal, I want to lose ten pounds. And maybe I really want to lose it, I have a wedding coming up or some summer shorts I want to fit into. But then you come into my office and bring me my favorite donut (substitute your favorite food!) Here’s the thing: the donut is guaranteed. It looks good, it smells good, I know it’s going to taste good. Plus it’s right here – immediate gratification! There’s only one reason I would ever refuse the donut in favor of my weight loss goal – and that is if my long term weight loss goal is so “tasty”, so available, so immediate that it’s like choosing between two available treats – and then I can choose the healthier option.

A lot of my work with clients involves clarifying their values. If you aren’t clear on what you’re moving toward, you’re going to take your eyes off your goals every time – in fact, it’s hard to even make and clarify goals if you don’t have a value system to base them on. So if, for instance, kindness isn’t a value that is clear and salient to you, you’re going to go for that pleasure that comes with lobbing a word grenade at someone in an argument – every time. Often when I ask a client “what are your values?” there’s a long pause and then they say something like “to be kind?” or “to love people?” That’s like asking an entrepreneur what his business vision is and having him say “um, to make money?” If you don’t have a very clear and significant vision of where you’re going, how would you ever hope to get there?

Sadly, in my experience I’ve found that we in the Church are no better at having defined values than anyone else – and we should, shouldn’t we? For an entire body of people whose lifestyle is based around the values laid down by the One we claim to follow – Jesus – we sure have a pretty vague sense of where we’re going sometimes. Paul said in his letter to the Philippians (3:13-14), “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (NIV) Paul knew that it’s better to go toward something than away from something.

If you find yourself constantly doing something you wish you wouldn’t do (like lying, watching porn or eating) – or not doing something you know you should do (working out, eating healthy), you might have a problem with vague values. You may be getting distracted by the immediate tug because what you really value is too far out of reach, too hypothetical. What you don’t want to do is readily available, and what you want to do is too much of a “Sunday sermon” and not enough of a daily reality.

 What are your values? Were they given to you by your parents or your church, or are they yours? Can you taste them? Or do you take the donut every time?

PRACTICE: If you feel like you do not have very well defined values or a very clear “life vision”, take some time in a quiet place to imagine that it’s years from now, and you have passed away. Somehow, you have the opportunity to be present at your own funeral and hear the words your loved ones are speaking. If you have lived your ideal life, what are they saying? What kinds of examples are they giving of how you lived this out? If you spend enough time really visualizing this scenario, you will have a better idea about what your values really are, and how that would look right now, today.

*Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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