Making Some New Paths In Our Minds

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. Read more

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As You Love Yourself

Last weekend at a Young Adult retreat, I gave my first seminar. And it went so well! Praise the Lord — I know anything good I write comes from Him and the fact that I delivered a spoken message in front of people without looking nervous or having a panic attack is a clear “God thing.” Since people liked it in-person, I’ve adapted my notes for a blog post to share with you today.

When someone asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment in the law, He gave a two part answer. 1) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And 2) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31, WEB). The theme for the retreat I spoke at was connecting with God and others, and that’s what these two great commandments are all about. The first tells us how to love God, which is the foundation for building a relationship with Him. And the second tells us how to love our neighbors. Jesus says to love them the same way we love ourselves.

But loving yourself isn’t something we talk about very much in Christianity. We focus on the “love your neighbor” side of this command. If we talk about the “as yourself” part, it’s often assumed that you already know how to love yourself. That’s part of our culture, right? We have a self-acceptance movement and a focus on looking out for “number one.” If anything, I think most Christians would say we love ourselves too much. So we don’t talk about it, just assuming we know how to show love towards ourselves and that we can use this as a guide for how to love others. But do we really know how to love ourselves the way God wants us to?As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The word “love” in the verse we just looked at is translated from a agape. This is a benevolent love that always seeks good things for the person who you’re loving. While it does involve feelings, it’s not what you would call an emotion driven kind of love. For example, if you’re giving a friend advice and one option is going to make them happy and your life easier, but the other option is clearly better for their long-term good, agape is always going to pick the better one even though it’s harder.

Agape is an incredibly important concept in the Bible. Of the 356 times the words “love” or “charity” appear in the King James Version of the New Testament, 320 are translated from a form of agape (that’s just shy of 90%). It’s so important that the Bible gives us a full definition in 1 Corinthians 13.

“Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8, WEB)

Let’s ask some questions based on this verse:

  • Are you patient and kind with yourself?
  • Do you let yourself get eaten up with envy, bragging, or pride?
  • Are you treating yourself in a way you’d consider inappropriate if you were doing it to others?
  • Do you get unreasonably angry with yourself?
  • Do you keep an account of the bad things you’ve done so you can use it to beat yourself up?
  • Are you dwelling on the unrighteous things you’ve done or rejoicing in the ways you follow God’s truth?
  • Do you stick by yourself, believe in your ability to do better, and hope good things for your future?

When I asked how many people could honestly say they’re loving and kind toward themselves in this way, only one person raised their hand. But when I asked, “How many of you feel guilty about the idea of showing love toward yourself?” about half the group raised their hands. That included me, which is why I actually felt kinda weird talking about the subject of love like this. It sounds a little selfish, doesn’t it? And we know selfishness is bad. So let’s take a moment to clarify a few things.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Real love never stops with yourself. If you’re the only object of your love and you always put yourself first, then you have a problem. That’s what it means to be selfish and self-centered. But avoiding selfishness doesn’t mean you refuse to take care of yourself. We’re to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, not abuse ourselves. If you never meet your own needs or do those loving things mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13 for yourself, then you’re going to burn-out. And God loves you way too much to want that.

To see ourselves and care for ourselves and others properly, we need to understand how God sees and cares for us. Most of the time when I hear people talk about asking God to let you see yourself the way He sees you, they’re talking about discovering hidden faults. And that is important, because we all know the verses that talk about our inability to know our own hearts. We need God’s perspective to show us where we should change and grow as we keep moving toward perfection. But if we want a more complete picture of how He sees us, then we also need to understand how much He values us.

The reason the two most important commands are about loving God and loving others is because God Himself is love. Agape is the key element of His essential character. But sometimes, even if it’s not something we’d say out loud, we think that God loves us more when we’re being good. We treat ourselves as if God’s love is conditional on our having already achieved perfection. But it’s not. Remember Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (LEB). The Father and Jesus Christ thought you were worth the price of Jesus’ life even before you were saved. So don’t you dare say you’re not worth loving now.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

One of the most interesting studies I’ve ever done was about how God uses the word “perfect” in the Bible. He describes Job as “a perfect and an upright man” twice at the beginning of the story (Job 1:8 and 2:3). We know Job learned and grew as a result of the trials he went through, and yet God could describe him as “perfect” with complete honesty before that growth happened. We tend to think of perfect as the best that you can get, but from this example we see that’s not really how God uses the word.

The Hebrew word translated “perfect” is tam (H8535). The word refers to completeness and entirety, but doesn’t necessarily mean finished. Rather, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says the root of tam (H8552; tamam) refers to someone moving “naturally toward that which is ethically sound.” Thus, followers of God can be described as “perfect” while still on the path toward perfection. God will take care of perfecting you – He just needs you to keep moving forward. God loves us even with all our flaws and weaknesses and ways we fall short. He also wants us to grow toward being the best people we can be in Him because that’s what leads to the best outcome we can get – having a relationship with Him that lasts into eternity.

Becoming part of God’s family is made possible because He is love. Having God’s agape directed toward you is amazing. The strength of that love has literally shaped the way the entire universe functions. It’s what motivated the Father to send His Son to this earth to live in a human body and become our sympathetic High Priest as well as the sacrifice that makes salvation possible. If that was the only kind of love God had toward us it would be more than enough and more than we ever had a right to hope for. But it’s actually not the only way God the Father and Jesus Christ love us.

One of my favorite Bible verses reads, for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me, and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27. WEB). Seems simple enough, but this word is not agape. It’s translated from phileo (G5368). According to Spiros Zodhiates’ Greek dictionary, the word phileo means “to have affection for someone.” HELPs word studies adds that it is “characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration and kinship.” Phileo implies having common interests or friendship with the object of one’s love. This type of love is one we can readily identify with because it’s what we feel for our closest friends.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Have you ever thought about God loving you like that? In the context of John 16, Jesus is assuring His disciples that the Father personally listens to our prayers because of His friendly, affectionate love for us and because of our belief on His Son Jesus. If you can honestly say you love Jesus and believe that He’s the son of God, then God Himself wants to be your friend. God is agape and He has that love for every person in the world. God’s phileo, on the other hand, is reserved for those He’s in relationship with – the ones who share His interests, believe in His word, and enter a covenant with Him.

All this love that God has poured into our lives shows us how we’re to relate to ourselves and to others. As John says, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, LEB). The love God has poured into our lives shows us how to love ourselves as well as how to love others because we learn to see ourselves and others the way He sees us. C.S. Lewis touches on this in The Screwtape Letters. This book is composed of a series of fictional letters written from one demon to another teaching them how to seduce human beings away from God, whom they refer to as “The Enemy.” (I know that sounds a bit strange, but it’s a fantastic book that puts a different perspective on talking about what God wants for us.)

The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long- term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.

The thing Screwtape finds disgusting is a facet of Christianity that gives us great cause for rejoicing. God does not want you to hate yourself. He wants you to love Him, and your neighbors, and yourself all in a right and proper way. So, now that we’ve talked about what love is and how God shows love toward us, let’s go back and fill in some answers to our first question.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Here’s the list I came up with when prepping for the seminar.

  • accept the love God is giving you
  • take time for yourself to read the Bible, meditate, and pray
  • understand and find ways Godly to meet your needs
  • work through your stressful emotions instead of burying them
  • be kind to your shortcomings
  • turn the things that cause you anxiety over to God
  • push yourself to improve and develop your strengths
  • remember God made you human and gave you limits
  • Accept God’s gifts of rest, good food, and exercise
  • build good boundaries

Now here’s your homework. Make sure you’re doing these things for the people around you as well as yourself. For example, you could help your roommate with the housework so they aren’t worried about finding time to study and pray. You can be patient with the shortcomings of the people you go to church with and encourage them keep trying. While you’re taking care of yourself as a person who is incredibly valuable to God, remember the people around you hold the same value in his eyes.

In closing, I want to quote C.S. Lewis again. This is from an article titled “The Weight of Glory” (click to read the full text). Here, Lewis talks about the potential for each human being to enter the family of God.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. … It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

In 2 Peter 3:9, it says the Lord is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (KJV). God sees the potential of every human being He has created to become something wonderful. And He wants us to see that, too. That’s what Lewis is getting at in these passages. As part of our expression of agape, we need to start seeing our neighbors as candidates for eternal life and valuing their potential as highly as we know God values ours.

A couple years ago, I was a funeral and the speaker said the man we were there to remember “lived his life as though it had eternal consequences.” That’s what God intends us to do as well. How we view and treat ourselves and others will have consequences that stretch far beyond this life. We need to keep our eternal potential in mind when we make decisions about how we treat ourselves and by extension how we interact with others. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I hope we now have a better idea of exactly how to do that.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

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Thoughts on A Book of Celtic Wisdom

I recently read a little book called Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue. A blog reader mentioned the idea of an anam cara, or “soul friend,” in a message, and I simply had to look it up. You can usually tell how interesting I found a non-fiction book by the number of sticky notes poking out by the time I’m done reading. Case in point:

Soul Friends | marissabaker.wordpress.com

It’s not that I agreed with everything in the book, but rather that I found its musings on the nature of life and connection between people fascinating. The first quote I placed a note next to was also one that I’d read in the article that initially pointed me toward this book.

Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. (p.13)

I love this idea, which comes from Chapter 1: The Mystery of Friendship. I’ve been toying with the idea of incorporating it into a new title for this blog. Perhaps “Soul Teacher”? I’m not sure yet.

A couple pages after this quote, the writer takes this discussion in a direction dear to my heart. He describes Jesus as “the secret anam cara of every individual” (p. 15). Isn’t that a beautiful picture? Jesus is our “soul friend,” our most intimate companion, teacher and spiritual guide, the One to whom you can reveal your most hidden self.

Consequently, love is anything but sentimental. In fact, it is the most real and creative form of human presence. Love is the threshold where divine and human presence ebb and flow into each other. (p.15)

Can We Heal Ourselves?

I loved the first chapter of this book. It was in later chapters that I became frustrated with aspects of O’Donahue’s ideology. In Chapter 3: Solitude Is Luminous, he talks about healing wounds in a way that really resonates with me, but I feel his solutions don’t go deep enough.

It’s true we often seem “destructively addicted to the negative” because confronting it seems to difficult. “If we maintain our misery at this surface level,”O’Donohue writes, “we hold off the initially threatening but ultimately redemptive and healing transfiguration that come through engaging with our inner contradiction.” I’d agree with this — we have to get to know ourselves before we can learn, grow and change ourselves. But O’Donohue isn’t advocating change so much as self-acceptance though befriending “the negative” and recognizing “that it is not destructive. It often seems that morality is the enemy of growth” (p. 115).

There are simply some things in our lives that shouldn’t be accepted. It’s not healthy or safe to befriend the dark side, and we can’t always turn negatives into something benign just by being nice to them. I have to believe it’s possible to grow and remain moral at the same time.

And yet, O’Donohue has a point that we must beware going to the other extreme of spending too much time analyzing and dragging up our pasts. Searching for your problems over and over again won’t help you overcome them, and self-knowledge is only useful if you can act on it in some way to heal and grow. He compares people who go through endless cycles of self-analysis to gardeners who dig up their potatoes every day and replant them a different way.

People in our hungry modern world are always scraping at the clay of their hearts. They have a new thought, a new plan, a new syndrome, that now explains why they are the way they are. …. Negative introspection damages the soul. It holds many people trapped for years and years, and ironically, it never allows them to change (p. 122).

The very next line is where he lost me: “It is wise to allow the soul to carry on its secret work in the night side of your life” (p. 122). Much like he suggests befriending our negativity is the best way of dealing with it, he believes our wounds can heal themselves if we give our souls space and approach our ” hurt indirectly and kindly” (123). But our souls aren’t designed to heal themselves. They’re healed by God.

I feel this idea of self-healing is connected to the writer’s idea of the divine residing inside our souls. Though he references Christianity heavily, that’s not the only theology O’Donohue draws on — the theology of this book is a mishmash of Irish Catholicism, Celtic paganism, and mysticism. He’s not comfortable with the idea of a “faraway divinity,” and so adopts the idea that the divine is within us. He’s missing a third option, though.

Biblicaly, the divine is outside us, but He’s not far away. “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” and the living Word wants to dwell inside us (Deut. 30:14; Rom. 10:8). I suppose you could say the divine resides inside us after we submit ourselves to Christ, but we have to ask Him in — not start out looking inside our own souls for the answers.

You Have A Purpose

I want to share with you a passage in this book that I found hugely encouraging. It’s also from Chapter Three.

To be born is to be chosen. No one is here by accident. … Your identity was not offered for your choosing. In other words, a special destiny was prepared for you. But you were also given freedom and creativity to go beyond the given, to make a new set of relationships and to forge an ever new identity, inclusive of the old but not limited to it. … Destiny sets the outer frame of experience and life; freedom finds and fills its inner form. …

You were sent to a shape of destiny in which you would be able to express the special gift you bring to the world. Sometimes this gift may involve suffering and pain that can neither be accounted for nor explained. There is a unique destiny for each person. Each one of us has something to do here that can be done by no one else. If someone else could fulfill your destiny, then they would be in your place and you would not be here. … When you begin to decipher this, your gift and giftedness come alive. Your heart quickens and the urgency of living rekindles your creativity. (83-84)

This past Shabbat, the speaker at my Messianic congregation talked about Leah. She was not as pretty as her younger sister Rachel and she was unloved by her husband. She probably thought she didn’t make much of an impact on the world. And yet, her example of faith is recorded in the Bible for everyone to read, and her children founded the priestly lineage of Levi and the royal lineage of Judah, among other nations. She’s a direct ancestor of notable personages like Moses, David and Jesus Christ Himself. Her life matters more than she ever knew.

You also have a purpose in this world, even if you can’t see it. This isn’t to perpetuate an idea that you’re a “special unicorn” who is better than other people. Rather, it’s to say that of us has a unique gift that’s of real value, and you have a hand in shaping how it impacts the world.

Turning Offense Into Something Useful

It seems like everyone is offended about something today. Wherever someone voices a decided opinion, there’s someone else reacting to it defensively. In an effort not to offend anyone, we’re turning into a society where we talk around issues rather than addressing them directly. We couch our opinions in careful language like, “From my own personal view …” and “I don’t want to force an opinion on you, it’s just my thoughts that …”.

Why are we so quick to see offense as a bad thing in today’s culture? If it’s just because we don’t like to be made uncomfortable, then we’re missing valuable opportunities for personal growth. Being offended offers a challenge to how we think. For people who are open to questioning, growth, and refinement, being challenged is a good thing. For people who just want to float through life without wondering “why?”, offense is scary.

Turning Offense Into Something Useful | marissabaker.wordpress.com
photo credit for portrait: “Angy Face” by Ryan Hyde, CC BY-SA

The next time you feel offended, don’t look at it as a bad thing. See it as an opportunity for self-examination. It’s a chance to look inside yourself and find out why you’re having such a strong, defensive emotional reaction to what you just saw or heard. Ask yourself things like,

  • Is this important enough to be offended about?
    • If no, why am I so defensive?
    • If yes, how do I turn my offense into something more productive?
  • Am I offended by this because it makes me feel guilty about something I’m doing wrong? (plank in your own eye, speck in your brother’s …)
  • Does anyone else care that I care about this?
  • Would sharing my thoughts on this just stir up unproductive strife? (If yes, don’t do it!)
  • Is the thing I feel offended about something that’s hurting other people?
    • If yes, what can I do to stop it? (For example, being offended that human trafficking exists doesn’t help; you’d need to fight against it or support those who do.)
  • Is the idea/statement that offends me actually true, regardless of how I feel?

Offense is unproductive by itself, but when we feel offended we have a chance to transcend knee-jerk reactions and use it as a tool for self-examination, growth and motivation. We can look inside ourselves and see if our offended reaction points to something we need to change, and we can look outside ourselves for opportunities to actively make the world a better place.

Myers-Briggs Temperaments and Depression

Depression isn’t confined to a certain personality type, but we can use tools from the Myers-Briggs type system when trying to combat negative thought patterns. If you know what your four-letter type is, then you can easily find out what are some common stress triggers and negative thought patterns for your type that can increase risk of depression.

Myers-Briggs Temperaments and Depression| marissabaker.wordpress.com

Temperament Affects Behavior

Depression is a very complicated issue with lots of underlying causes. The Harvard Medical School points out that while people often assume depression is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, it also has to do with our genetics, temperament, stressful experiences, past traumas, other medical conditions, and certain medications. For now, we’re going to focus on temperament.

Your view of the world and, in particular, your unacknowledged assumptions about how the world works also influence how you feel. You develop your viewpoint early on and learn to automatically fall back on it when loss, disappointment, or rejection occurs.” — Understanding Depression, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School

Our temperaments affect how we process the sorts of situations that often lead to depression, such as grief or a prolonged struggle. In Myers-Briggs theory, we use the four-letter types to describe the personality temperament which is built from someone’s genetic predispositions and early childhood experiences.

*** People frequently experience depressed moods that last for a short time, which is different than clinical depression. Studying ways to change patterns of negative thinking can help pull you out of depression, but for ongoing or serious depression it is no substitute for professional counseling. If depression is interfering with your daily life, and especially if you’re having suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help.***

Your “Inferior Function”

Your Myers-Briggs type describes your temperament weaknesses as well as your strengths. Every type has what we call an inferior function, which is also sometimes called the “shadow.” It is our least-developed function that we still have some conscious access to, and it’s the one that emerges when we’re stressed. Since it’s largely unused, it’s an immature and distorted way of looking at the world and can lead to unhealthy outlooks and negative thoughts, which can in turn contribute to depression.

Naomi Quenk’s book Was That Really Me? talks about stress bringing out our “hidden personality” in what she describes as an eruption of the inferior function. When we’re caught “in the grip” of our inferior functions, we are trying to deal with stress using a mental process that is unfamiliar, and it can have a profound effect on our mood.

Not every instance of stress will trigger our inferior function, and not all grip experiences are negative. Staying in your inferior function, though, increases stress levels because you’re not really using the functions that come most naturally to you. Learning about your inferior function gives you insight into typical sensitivities that might trigger a grip experience, describes signs that you are “in the grip”, and gives you tools for returning to a more balanced state of mind.

The Grip and Depression

Depression isn’t necessarily a symptom of being in the grip, but grip experiences do increase the tendency to fall into negative thought patterns. Our thought patterns directly impact our health, and “in many cases, depression can be caused by negative thinking, itself” (LiveScience.com). The tools each type can use to climb out of the grip can also help you get a handle on negative thinking.

As an example, INFJs and INFPs are two types that frequently report dealing with depression. An INFJ’s inferior function is Extroverted Sensing, and it typically shows up as “obsessive focus on external data,” “overindulgence in sensual pleasure,” and “adversarial attitude toward the outer world” (Quenk, p.198)  For INFPs, their inferior Extroverted Thinking causes “judgements of incompetence,” “aggressive criticism,” and “precipitous action” (Quenk, p.105). It’s easy to see how these will negatively influence your thoughts. If you feel like the outer world is attacking you, it changes how you think about everything around you and your own responses to external events and people. If you fall into a pattern of thinking you’re incompetent, it’s going to pull your thoughts in a negative direction.

Naomi Quenk writes that INFJs “need space and a low-pressure environment to regain their dominant” function (p.207). A change of scenery can help, and INFJs often appreciate having someone else around after a while to offer support and affirmation. Sometimes, taking time away from other people to journal about your thoughts and look at them more objectively helps redirect patterns of negativity. Talking things over with a friend or therapist also helps, though I find it works best after taking some alone time first. INFPs use similar methods for returning to equilibrium, but alone time is even more important for them and when they do talk to people, they need someone to listen more than offer guidance (Quenk, p.115).

A certain amount of alone time is critical for many introvert types, but not always so much for extroverted types. ENFJs, for example, fall into a pattern of “excessive criticism,” “convoluted logic,” and “compulsive search for truth” when in the grip. This type often benefits from exercise and a change of scenery, as well as having someone involve them in a project that captures their interest. Having a chance to talk things over with someone who takes them seriously is critical (Quenk, p. 163).

I highly recommend checking out Naomi Quenk’s book, or at least running a Google search to learn your type’s inferior function. It’s helped me quite a bit with my anxiety and in finding strategies for turning negative thoughts around, as well as with relating to other people who are struggling with different stressors in their lives.

Myers-Briggs Temperaments and Depression| marissabaker.wordpress.com

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