How to examine your anxiety, and why
The interior examination of anxiety is a powerful practice to engage in. To be anxious is to be human. But to be regularly shaped by anxiety diminishes our humanity. Therapist and pastor Peter Steinke noted two types of anxiety: acute and chronic. Acute anxiety is situational and time based. It is a momentary loss of self-composure and poise. Chronic anxiety is not specific to a threat. Any issue, topic or circumstance can provoke chronically anxious people. Consequently, they have little capacity to step out of their experience, observe their own emotionality, reflect on what is happening, make choices based on principles, and manage their lives.
It’s normal to have moments of acute anxiety, but when our lives are chronically being affected by an undercurrent of anxious forces, we are in bondage. However, anxiety—although unpleasant—can provide us with the gift of self-awareness and healing. As we name our anxiety and its corresponding stories, we give ourselves the opportunity to rise above it.
Time and time again, God invites his people to come out from debilitating fear and into a deeper experience of peace and trust. When we examine our anxiety, we can expose the power and grip it has on our lives in place of God’s great love.
I have found a helpful question to consider when identifying and examining anxiety: Who and what situations make me anxious? In my case, one of the people who has made me anxious (over the past 10 years) has been the chairperson of our church board of elders. In my tenure as a lead pastor, we have had three different people in this role, and in each case—no matter who is in this role—I’m aware of my anxiety. There have been times when difficult conversations have been necessary; whenever something I’ve said or done needs clarification or leads to some critique, my anxiety surfaces. I’ve learned that I have a strong need to feel competent and capable, so anytime I infer that someone perceives me as not having these traits, my sense of self is wounded.
In the last few years, the gospel truth of grace has helped me be “compassionately curious” with myself whenever anxiety surfaces. I remember going through my annual performance review with the board of elders some years ago. During and after the meeting, I fixated on the minor points of correction they asked me to consider. It took days for me to shake my feelings of incompetence.
But the following year, something changed. I was learning to be compassionately curious. The board still had recommendations for how I could lead more effectively, and I noticed my anxiety rising. But this time, instead of going down a road of anxious self-loathing, I spent time asking myself why their comments affected me so much. When I returned home, I took 20 minutes to write down what I sensed was happening on the inside and then reminded myself that, like every other person on the planet, I have gaps and blind spots. And I will always have shortcomings and failings, as I’m a fallible human being.
When I have done a simple exercise like this, the lingering effects of my anxiety are limited. In the past, it might have taken a few days to move through some of the anxious moments I’ve experienced. As I have done this work, within a matter of hours, sometimes minutes, I have found myself being self-regulated.
Examination of our feelings
The examination of our feelings as a whole is an integral practice for deeply formed lives. To that end, I have found Alice Miller’s distinction between emotions and feelings to be enlightening. She wrote, “Emotion is a more or less unconscious, but at the same time vitally important physical response to internal or external events—such things as fear of thunderstorms, rage at having been deceived, or the pleasure that results from a present we really desire. By contrast, the word ‘feeling’ designates a conscious perception of an emotion.”
The processing of our feelings leads us to live more integrated in the world, yet it’s a path many people find difficult. Many of us have grown up with rules about feelings. In some cultures, to show any sign of sadness is to communicate weakness. In others, to express anger is frowned upon. In some churches, any show of grief is a sign that one lacks faith. Consequently, many people learn to avoid, repress or rationalize away difficult feelings. But we need our feelings to help us navigate our world as well as to discern God’s will.
The theologian who has helped me the most in seeing our feelings as part of a deeply formed life is Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). After a tragic accident in which his knee was shattered in battle, Ignatius had extended periods for reflection and examination. In the course of his reading, praying, and conversations with multiple people, he discovered the role of feelings in locating ourselves in the world and discerning God’s will. In his classic work The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius calls upon the religious faithful to a practice of examination. This involves bringing to mind the presence of God in an ordinary day, noting the ways in which we have been present to or unaware of God’s presence. But one of the ingenious elements of Ignatian spirituality is the commitment to exploring the landscape of feelings. Ignatius called them consolations and desolations.
Consolations and desolations reveal feelings of peace, joy and contentment, as well as feelings of angst, anger and discontentment. But more than just naming the feelings, the goal is to lift the various feelings to help us discern if we are moving toward God or away from him. There are many layers to this approach, but for our purposes, the presence and processing of our feelings is to help us examine ourselves in light of God’s presence. As we sift through these feelings, we not only provide outlets for potentially soul-damaging effects but also have another means of communing with God and others. Emotions don’t die; they get redirected in a myriad of dangerous ways.
Toward this end, Pete and Geri Scazzero created a straightforward, powerful tool called Explore the Iceberg. The tool offers four simple questions that the most intelligent and educated have struggled to respond to. It’s a helpful guide for cultivating a life of interior examination. The four questions are:
- What are you mad about?
- What are you sad about?
- What are you anxious about?
- What are you glad about?
As we wrestle with these questions, whether in solitude or in community, we bring to light some of the material that needs to be named, discerned and healed.
Excerpted from The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus. Copyright © 2020 by Rich Villodas. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
- Read The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus (WaterBrook, 2020) by Rich Villodas.
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