One of the more helpful (for me, at least) analogies that my counselor has used as we work on my anxiety is that we can think of our minds as a big open field. As we live and grow, our thoughts travel over this field and we start to wear-down paths as we think along the same lines over and over.
For example, little Marissa grew up in a safe, cozy home with parents who told her she was loved. So the “I am loved” thought-path got a lot of travel. It became an easy path to go down. But at some point, a conflicting message came in and it shifted the path. No longer “I am loved” without qualifiers, but now “I am loved by my family and God” because those are the ones who haven’t let me down or rejected me. And even though there’s evidence to the contrary coming from many friends, anxiety adds the idea “and no one else” to that thought-path.
Your Brain Can Lie
Your brain can be a dirty, rotten liar (to quote my counselor again). And while anxiety doesn’t look the same for everyone who deals with it, one of the common things it does is push your brain toward overestimating worst-case scenarios. You wear deep paths in your mental field that reinforce all the negative things and push positive ones off somewhere in the tall grass.
And so my mind likes to wander down the “no one will accept you as your full, authentic self” path even though I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. For example, all the comments on the post where I told you about my breakup and anxiety are evidence that my brain is lying when it wants to head down that road. But that’s still what the brain wants to do. And this is also how you can end up thinking things like, “no one appreciates my contributions” when there are dozens of people who love what you’re doing but those one or two people who criticize you become the only voices you can hear.
For a long time this was happening without me really noticing it. Oh, I noticed I was afraid and anxious and worried about things, but I didn’t really think my brain might be lying to me. Even when I realized there wasn’t much of a realistic basis for my anxieties and I couldn’t quite explain why my brain jumped there I didn’t think of it as being because that anxiety-path is so well traveled that it’s the easiest option for my thoughts. It’s been an eye-opening way of looking at things.
Finding Paths of Truth
So now I just have to work on making new pathways and training my brain to get comfortable with them instead of the other ones. That sounds like a nice, manageable goal that might only take the next decade or two.
I do find it a little frustrating that I’m not doing better already. And that I have this struggle in the first place. One of the well-worn paths in my mind is the one saying “You should have your life together already, but since you don’t what’s the point of trying now?” So I guess that’s going to be one of the first paths I’ll have to tackle re-writing. And in order to do that I’m also going to have to give myself room to fail and then keep going rather than seeing it as evidence that the “what’s the point?” path is right.
The song “Even If” that I wrote about a couple weeks ago has been running through my head again lately. While it has been a big help to me, I think I’m about ready for a new “theme song.” Something about moving forward and overcoming and picking ourselves up again when we fall (cue Batman quote). There’s no shame in spending time in the dark places, clinging to hope even if God doesn’t make things better right away. But I don’t want to stay there forever. And I don’t think we have to.
Let’s Make Some New Paths
What about you, my dear readers? Whether or not anxiety is one of your struggles, I’m guessing we all have some pathways in our minds that we’ve gotten used to our thoughts traveling down. And they’re probably not all about good, upright things.
In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:6-9)
I wrote this list of things Paul tells us to think about on a couple sticky notes and stuck one near my bed and the other here at my desk. That whole “in nothing be anxious” thing seems out of reach right now, but I can start with taking a look at how I think and what I think about. And then I can work on changing that while also not feeling guilty about the fact that it’s something I’m struggling with.
If you’re like me and you’ve discovered some thought-paths that are not leading to a good place, let’s start walking off-road and laying down more positive thought trails. Let’s make some new paths together.