Does trusting God remove anxiety?

Over the years of doing therapy with Christians I have noticed how many feel guilty for their anxieties. “If only I could trust God more…I say I believe he is good but clearly I don’t trust him because I can’t stop being anxious.” Still others express distress that their faith in God does not change their feelings of hurt over past relational wounds and fears it will never get better.

It seems we believe this maxim: If I really trust in God, I will be at peace. I will not struggle with the brokenness around me or with the unknown future.

Is this true? Is it possible to trust God fully and experience chronic negative emotion?

Let me suggest a better maxim and then illustrate it with a couple of Psalms.

Because I trust God completely, I bring him my angst again and again.

At the recent #CCEF16 conference on emotions, David Powlison referred to Psalm 62:8a, Trust in him at all times, O people; He noted that this assertion is strong. But what does it look like in action? David pointed us to the next line (8b) Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Trusting God looks a lot like venting, crying out in our confusion, sharing our fears and despairs.

Take a closer look at this Psalm. The writer is under assault by others. He likens himself to being a tottering fence, something easily knocked over. He is asking his enemies, “how long are you going to harm me?” He knows their intent. But their evil is the worst sort, one that pretends to be good but is really evil. They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse. It is likely the psalmist could say, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”

So, how does he talk to himself? Look at the cyclical pattern: reminder-pain-reminder-warning-reminder

  1. He starts with some truth. My only rest (or silence/peace) is in you God. You alone are my fortress. I will never [ultimately] be shaken.
  2. He laments. But you enemies are trying your best to destroy me, a weak, tottering fence.
  3. He reminds himself. Remember, look for rest and peace in God alone, it is only there you can find it, even when the ground is shaking
  4. He warns self and others. Don’t trust in your position, don’t trust in ill-gotten gain. And if God blesses you, don’t trust in the blessing
  5. He cycles back to truth. Remember this one thing: God you are strong AND loving. You will remain righteous in your dealings with us.

While the Psalm ends, I suspect the writer could easily have kept the pattern going, as in starting again with the first verse or adding more to the pattern.

This pattern of truth, honest admission of pain, reminder of truth is a far better picture of the reality of life hidden in Christ than the false stoic (or Zen) image of being unperturbed by the chaos in and around us. God does not remove us from the storm. Instead, we express our trust (as much to remind ourselves as in bold assertion), we lament, we groan, we pour out our troubles and we circle back to the one truth we can hang our hope on.

You can see this pattern also in Psalm 42 and 43 with slight variations: Remember when I used to be out in front leading the worship but now my tears are my only food. Why am I like this? I hope in God. But I am downcast. Day and night God is loving…but it seems you have forgotten me in my oppression? Vindicate me. You are my stronghold so why is this not getting better? Free me so I can worship you…yet I am still in despair even as I hope in you.

If you feel guilty much of the time when thinking about your level of trusting God, consider this alternative narrative: it is the greatest act of trust to keep bringing God your troubles, even when things or your response to them do not get easier.

So, does trust in God remove our anxieties? Not as much as we might think. But, if you could no longer feel guilty about your angst, might you in fact feel more peace as you trust God through the storm?


Filed under Anxiety, Biblical Reflection, CCEF, christian counseling, counseling, Uncategorized

Entering into the Emotions of Others: Thoughts by Winston Smith

Winston Smith delivered an extraordinary plenary about how we enter into the pain of others. He began by telling the story from Good Will Hunting, an exchange between the Matt Damon character and his therapist, Robin Williams. The exchange illustrated the difference between having loads of knowledge about love or hurt and a true experience of love (or hurt). Knowledge knows nothing in comparison to experience. Winston then talked about an early counselor experience he had where he listened to a person’s pain but only critiqued it rather than entering in. He acknowledged the danger of biblical counselors to whip out a 3 trees chart and assessing them, thereby invalidating their experiences of pain. 

Instead, he suggest a better path

  1. Enter in. Really listen to them. Don’t imagine how you would feel in that situation as that will cause you to think and respond to yourself, not to the concerns and needs of the one who you want to help.
  2. Connect to their experience. Don’t go first to fixing or giving perspective. That can be helpful in the right time. When you are trying to connect, that is NOT the right time.
  3. Care. Let their grief become yours. Caring does not mean agreeing. And when you see strong responses or biases, we start to think that care means to correct. There is something true enough that you can start with their experience. 

(By the way, I find most first year counseling students really believe they are ready and willing to do these. But here’s where the challenge lies. You sit with someone and they begin telling you their pain. You convey a few connecting and caring responses and then after 5 minutes, you have nothing else to say. You are already wanting to comfort, give perspective, gently correct. We really do struggle with sitting with another’s pain. It makes us uncomfortable)

There is a cost to entering in. It will cost you your comfort. 

These 3 steps are quite hard even as they are simple. They are skills to be learned, but Winston reminds us that it is mostly hard because of something within. Why hard? You have to connect to something inside yourself that enables you to connect with them. You need to connect to fear, to grief, to despair, to rage. It will cost you something to do this well. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. 

So why would we do this? Sincere love calls us to enter in. It isn’t just a motive; love is a person. We can do this because we know and are connected to Jesus. His nature is love, willing to leave his comfort zone and enter into the world of another. He becomes one of us. Want to give the same love to others? Experience God’s entering into your world. 

He ended with 1 John 4:12: No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. So enter in with boldness. 

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Abusive Marriages: Restoring the voice of God to the Sufferer

In breakout format, Darby Strickland presented on this topic today at #CCEF16. She defined emotional abuse using the word oppression instead. She defined it as a pattern of coercive controlling and punishing behaviors whereby one spouse seeks to control and dominate the other. Oppressors enslave others, but tend to self-justify behaviors.  The oppressor tends to be entitled (people are there to please them; people should sacrifice for their well-being). They tend to dominate others and threaten as a means of control. Oppressors are willing to wound to keep control (which Darby reminds us is the opposite of how Jesus wields power–he was willing to be wounded for others). On the other hand, oppressors tend to be self-deceived, lack remorse and blameshift when accused.

Sometimes abuse is misunderstood as an anger problem. But the reality is that the root is self-worship and control. The only thing that matters are their words, their rules, their emotions, and their physical and sexual needs that must be obeyed. It is “enforced worship.”

Darby then explored emotional abuse in particular. Symptoms include a chronic pattern of rejecting, neglecting, degrading, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, belittling, deceiving, blaming, ignoring, shaming, and threatening. She also talked about “gas lighting” which is the attempt to make someone think that something that did happen never happened. Within emotional abuse is also spiritual abuse. The use of Scripture, doctrinc, or position of leadership to abuse. It can be subtle but it lording power over others, demanding submission, and use Scripture to shame.

Darby pulls no punches when she describes behaviors by oppressive and abusive men (yes, women can do this as well, but this talk is focused on the experience of oppressed women). It is destructive to souls and does not reflect any part of Jesus Christ. She was equally clear on the destructive impact on victims. Eccl 4: the dead are happier than the oppressed.

What does God say about oppression?

  • Not your fault. Evil comes out of the heart of the one doing it: Mark 7. You might be a stressor by just being a person.
  • You do not deserve this. (Victims and leaders look for reasons, like Job’s friends). Heb 10:17. Your sins and lawless deeds I will not remember anymore. God is your rescuer, not your punisher
  • It is not a marriage problem. Luke 6:45 shows us that evil comes out of the evil person’s heart. It is not merely some interaction problem. Do not ask the oppressed to serve the oppressor more. It emboldens oppressors.
  • Oppression violates God’s design for marriage. It is not to be submitted to but rather brought into the light. He tells the head to reject control for self sacrifice.
  • God sees your suffering. Jesus sees and knows oppression too.
  • God cares about your safety. Do you think that God cares more about you keeping your vows than he does about your safety? 
  • God’s desire is to rescue you. I will rescue my flock and they show no longer be a prey (Ex 34:22)

Draw near to God through laments; he does not ask you to forget your suffering. Learning to lament is a process. It may not be “sanctified speech” when you first start to speak. That is okay, just begin to speak. Listen for the content, less focus on the tone. Then, you can ask God to help shape your expression. To counter the shaming words, remember who God says about you. “Remember who Jesus is because he is everything your oppressor isn’t.” He woos you, he does not demand subjection.

She closed with Proverbs 12:18: The words of the reckless pierce like swords. But the tongue of the wise brings healing.


You might find it interesting that Darby chose to not take questions at the end. Her reason is that knowing that 25% of the christian world has experienced domestic abuse. Thus, she expected a number of victims in the room. She felt that taking questions might subject some, inadvertently, to further pain. (She was willing to take questions afterwards in private).

I very much appreciated her strong words to identify the pattern and indicate the primary concern for care for the victim. I know she has written and spoken on the topic of working with oppressors. This was not that talk.


Filed under Abuse, CCEF, christian counseling

What to do with our emotions? #CCEF16 

Continuing a summary of the Emotions conference, CCEF faculty member Alisdair Groves presented two plenary talks having to do with our emotions. In the first he defined emotions as the expression of what we value, desire, even worship. Our emotions are ours and they are complex responses to our histories. However, they are windows into what is most important to us. 

In the second plenary he asked what we can do with our emotions. Before giving suggestions as to what to do with our emotions he suggested two unhelpful responses: deify them or deny them. The larger culture may over-value our emotions as our self, but Groves feels the church can do this as well by expecting spiritual highs (“amped”) all the time and that life in the valley is a sign of a problem. The flip side is a stoic response, stiff upper lip. He reminded the audience that both extremes do have a valid point but skew in the wrong direction. 

So, what to do? Engage our emotions. Note he did not suggest we change them, vent them, or embrace them. More specifically, he made a couple points:

  1. Engage your body. Take care of it. Eat and sleep well. You will be better able to engage your negative emotions when you are your physical best. He quoted someone who said, “eating is the most over-used anti-depressant while exercise is the most under-used anti-anxiety tool.” 
  2. Engage your emotions in the Lord. He gave several dos and don’ts. Don’t vent. Don’t stew. Do bring your pain to God. Do connect with others over your pain and ask for their help, do insert Scripture and other goods into your life (like turning on a faucet of good clean water). Do repent. Not so much repent of your negative emotions but bring them to God and recognize you need to repent of those things that are not of God (e.g., bitterness, unforgiveness).


Question for you: Do our emotions only show what we love/worship/value? (Note, I do not believe this is what Alisdair was teaching the audience!)

If I am attacked and react in fear, does this show what I worship? Or does it show I value my life and my dominion is being stolen from me? I think Alisdair is right in that often our emotions do reveal our assumptions, perceptions, and yes, our values. But I believe and I think he would believe that emotions reveal our humanness AND our imaging of God’s emotions as well. They reveal the good and bad of relationships. I would argue that emotions are to be (a) listened to, (b) accepted, and (c) evaluated from the vantage point of life in Christ. Now, that last phrase, life in Christ, needs great unpacking. It would be easy to make that mean something like, “since Jesus has saved you, your negative emotions have no place here. In everything give thanks.” That would not be an accurate picture of what I mean by Life in Christ. Life in Christ with the hope of heaven does not deny what is broken in the life. It REQUIRES lament, confusion, anger, jealousy, even as it requires hope, joy, peace, and comfort. So, our emotions reveal something about ourselves and something about God and the world he has made. 


Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, Desires

Emotions in the face of suffering: Thoughts by Joni Eareckson Tada

“Most people think that living with quadriplegia is overwhelming. And it is.” Speaking at #CCEF16, she says this even as she says that now, nearly 50 years later, she would not give up her intimacy and depth in Christ, deepened through suffering, in order to walk. How do we bring these two opposing experiences together.

Joni tells us there are 1 billion disabled people in the world, most living in the developing world–people who are at greatest risk of being abused, neglected, and not protected. 

She spoke of her chronic pain that grew over the years and exploded in the mid 2000s and how it robbed her of joy and capacity to do the work she wanted to do. “It (the pain) made my quadriplegia a walk in the park.” “I know I am under the sovereignty of God but now his sovereignty seemed so scary.” “My depression lifted the day I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.” She said this with a smile, “Oh God, you might be taking me home now.” 

“I knew in my head that God is sovereign and that I trust him. Why can’t my emotions fall in line?” She then used the idea that in this life we experience “splashovers” of hell and “splashovers of heaven.” “There is nothing more sweet than finding Jesus in your moment of hell.” Pain tends to bring us into self-focus. But when we see the affliction of Jesus on the cross, our focus is changed. It doesn’t mean we no longer suffer but that our suffering done in and with Christ, “no longer afraid of it.” There is comfort in the promises of God even in the dark seasons. 

How can counselors convince others that Jesus is enough even if the pain is not able to be fixed? We start by counseling with compassion (being with them in their pain and suffering). When the sufferer sees they have a place in the body of Christ, that they are not isolated, this is of great importance. Spiritual community helps the sufferer to accept the pain as their own. God never intended us to suffer alone. Together, healing begins. We don’t just declare God is over all suffering, we demonstrate it through deep relationships. 

Someone who knows suffering can say things that many able-bodied people cannot say, or cannot be heard to say. Joni’s voice is prophetic for the Church. She calls us to walk with those with disabilities rather than avoid. May we listen. May be validate their pain first as we sit with them. May we never tired to hear of their difficulties. May we never put our need for assurance that “everything will turn out right” ahead of their need to be heard and loved. 

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Feeling Bad about Feeling Bad? 

This morning, Winston Smith of CCEF faculty opened the #CCEF16 conference on this topic. A few days ago I wrote about the toxicity of ruminating on negative thoughts and feelings. We often struggle even more when we berate ourselves for our reactions to life.

Winston began by asking the audience how they feel about their painful feelings. He noted that how we feel about our emotional experiences shape how we experience emotions. He finds feeling bad about feeling bad is especially problematic for Christians as they often feel that their negative things should not amount to much in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. If my anxiety only means that I don’t believe and trust God then I can only suffer more. It becomes an “inescapable feedback loop.”

If the Gospel itself only becomes a cause for greater shame and guilt, then something is off, says Smith. Instead, Smith says, “our negative emotions are designed to deepen our relationship with Christ and with each other.”

Winston took the time to look at Jesus’ emotional expression at Lazarus death (and soon to be resurrection). Jesus loses it. He is in anguish. This emotional distress reveals his divinity not merely his humanity. Notice that the good purpose of Lazarus’ death it doesn’t removed Jesus’ anguish. “What would biblical counselors say to Jesus as he wept? ‘I know Jesus that you are feeling bad but this is going to be for the good.’ Jesus is not having a moment of doubt…no, he is coming face to face with the brokenness of this world and all that it will cost him…and he is emotional and he weeps.”

Therefore, being image bearers of God require us that we experience and name negative emotions, especially in light of our experience of injustice and brokenness. And the more in tune we are with the glory and love of God we ought to feel intensification of negative feelings in response to things that are not right. We could even say that we have a calling to have negative emotions.

Jesus chose to enter into Mary and Martha’s pain. That is what love does. He concluded by telling a story about a man with a child with a serious medical problem. The man was somewhat sheepish that he felt anger, fear and helpless when the daughter was having a crisis. Winston asked, “what are you going to do for my friend? Are you going to try to fix it? No, We shouldn’t try to fix his feelings.” Let’s move beyond the “repent and repress” response to our negative emotions.

This is the opening plenary and there will be more to come. One of the areas I hope they cover is the skill of validating and sitting with the negative emotions of others. This is hard to do but an essential skill, first in order to comfort and be present with others in their pain. Second, as we learn to sit with the pain of others, we can also help teach others to be okay with their emotional experiences. The more we accept, the more we can then choose how we want to respond.

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Emotions: Why do we demean them so?

This morning I am on my way to represent my school at CCEF’s annual conference. This year the topic is “Emotions: Engaging the Expressions of our Heart.” I’ll try to post some reflections of what I hear throughout the conference.

Truth be told, emotions have gotten little consideration in the biblical/Christian counseling world. When I was a Westminster student back in the late 80s/early 90s David Powlison wrote an essay called “Crucial Issues in Biblical Counseling.” I recall one of those crucial issues to be that of developing a more robust theology of emotions. Nearly 30 years later, we still need that work to be done in evangelical circles. I’m hoping to hear some of that this week.

We evangelicals have prized thinking over feeling, as if one is less biased or less “fallen” than the other. This is not new. Early Christians worked to clarify the personhood of Jesus and shut down false views. The protestant reformation was intended to correct errors in thinking and belief that had infiltrated the Church. Thus, belief and repetition of those beliefs have been prized over listening to emotions. Right thinking is even prized, sadly, over right behavior.

One of the negative results of this problem for Christian counselors is the temptation to invalidate the feelings and experience of clients. Most counselors assume their helpful, gently corrective responses will bring a level of comfort and reduction in emotional pain. Far too frequently, the client is left feeling more alone and upset–even when they know the counselor as spoken truth. Why? Consider this made up exchange and see how you would feel if you were the client.

Client: [who feels that many overlook her competencies] I can’t believe my sister did that to me. Why would she be so hurtful and cut me out of my mother’s birthday celebration planning? I feel so rejected.

Counselor: You know, some people are like that. Really, you shouldn’t be bothered by her. Hasn’t she done this before to others? Be thankful that you didn’t have to do all that planning.

Does thinking or emotions have to trump the other? We are designed to think and feel, to experience our world through emotions and thoughts; each informing the other.

Here’s how we would know we are making headway:

  1. We stop trying to talk people out of their feelings. We start listening to what our feelings can tell us about ourselves and our world
  2. We worry less that emotional experiences are biased. We know they are but still recognize them as real experiences of the world.
  3. We look more for corrective emotional experiences than assuming that thinking always changes feeling.
  4. We know that God cares about our painful feelings and so we bring them to God, knowing that He too has felt sadness, jealousy, anger, and angst. He has compassion on us and offers us opportunities to see him in the midst of the struggle.

Sure, our feelings are not always (ever?) accurate. They need correction. They need perspective that God, Scripture, and wise friends can give. But rather than starting out with pointing out emotional or logic errors in our counselees, how about we get down in the mud and share in the experience as we walk together.


Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, Uncategorized

Ruminating: The Mental Health Killer

I teach a course on psychopathology. Each week we consider a different family of problems. We explore anxiety disorders, mood disorders (depression, mania), and anger/explosive disorders in the first few weeks in the class. Later on, we look at eating disorders, addictions, trauma, and psychosis.

While each of the presentations of problems vary widely from each other, there is ONE symptom that almost every person with a mental health problem experiences–repetitive, negative thought patterns. Rumination.

The content of the repetitive thoughts may change depending on the type of problem (i.e., anxious fears, depressive negative thoughts, illicit urges, fears of weight gain, hypervigilance, irritability, etc.) but the heart of the problem in most mental health challenges are negative thought patterns leading to an experience of either impulsivity or paralysis. These patterns can look like obsessional worries about germs (triggering ruminative “why” questions as to the root causes of the obsessions). The pattern can look like repeated negative self-attributions for perceived mistakes. Whatever the pattern, the person finds it difficult to break out of the negative thoughts and attempts at distractions seem futile since the thought or feeling returns in seconds to minutes.

Is there anything that helps?

Yes, there are things that you can do to reduce the “noise” level of these repetitive thoughts. It is important, however, to remember two important factors

  • patterns in place for years or decades are harder to change. Give yourself the grace to fail as you work to change them.
  • As with pain management, the goal should not be the complete elimination of negative thoughts and feelings. Realistically, anxious people will have some anxiety. Depressed people will feel darker thoughts. Addicts will have greater temptations. But lest you give up before you start, this does not mean that you must always suffer as you do now.

Consider the following three steps as a plan of action to address the problem of rumination.

  1. Build a solid foundation of health. Every house needs a foundation if it is going to  last. Your mental health foundation starts with your physical body: Exercise, diet, and sleep. Did you know that daily exercise, getting a good 8 hours of sleep each night, and eating a diet rich in protein supports good mental health and may even prevent re-occurrence of prior problems? Will this solve all your problems. No! But failing to get good sleep and eat a balanced diet of proteins will exacerbate your problems. Sleep is especially needed. The lack of it will multiply your problem. Of course, getting sleep is difficult when you are worrying or depressed. Thus, work to develop a different bed-time routine. Shut off your electronics, do mindless activities like Sudoku, develop rituals that help promote sleep. If you are having trouble with this or your diet or exercise, find a trusted person to review your situation. And avoid all/nothing thinking that often leaves us paralyzed when we can’t reach our goals. On this point, read the next step.
  2. Prepare for change by accepting your struggle. What, I thought this was helping me out of my struggle? Acceptance is the beginning of change. Consider this examples. You struggle with intrusive negative thoughts about your belly. You don’t like how it looks. You’ve tried dieting and exercise, but still it is flabby. Every time you look at yourself, every time your hand rests on your belly, you hear (and feel) that negative narrative. The first step in change is to accept the body you have and to find ways to like it, even love it. Sounds impossible but it is necessary to accept all your parts. This does not mean that you won’t continue to exercise and eat well. Marsha Linehan suggests that one part of change is to accept the problem as it is. In her Dialectical Behavior Therapy model she speaks of choosing willingness over willfulness. Willingness opposes the response “I can’t stand this belly” by saying, “my belly is not as I would like but it is not all of who I am.” “I can’t stand it…” becomes a willful and yet paralyzing response. Whereas acceptance acknowledges the reality and chooses goals that are within one’s power to achieve (e.g., healthy eating choices). Acceptance is not giving up but preparing for realistic change.
  3.  Start to move. Consider these action steps as the beginning movements you undertake in a long process towards the goal:
    1. “So what?” Our ruminations are often filled with interpretations and assumptions. There are times we can challenge them by attacking the veracity of the assumptions. But we can also ask, “so what?” So what if I have OCD? So what if have to fight every day to stay sober? So what if I have to manage my schedule so as to not trigger a bipolar episode? Challenge the worst thing that you are afraid of.
    2. Develop a counter narrative. Rumination is a narrative. Begin by writing and rehearsing a counter narrative. It won’t have much power at first compared to your internalized rumination but it will gain power over time. Work to refine it. Choose to repeat it as often as you see the trigger for the rumination. Make sure your counter narrative doesn’t include self-debasing or invalidating comments. If you have trouble writing one, use Scripture passages that speak of God’s narrative, through Christ, for you. Be encouraged that developing alternative storylines has shown capacity to alter chronic nightmares. If nightmares can be changed, then even more thoughts and feelings during the day.
    3. Practice being present. Much of our lives are run on auto-pilot. When we are in that mode, it is easy to fall into rumination. Work to stay present, to be mindful and attuned to your surroundings. Notice ruminations but let them slide on out of view and bring yourself back to the present. Use your senses that God gave you to enjoy the world he made. Smells, sounds, sights, taste, and touch all give you means to enjoy that world. Start practicing staying in tune with it, a few minutes at a time and build your capacity as you go.


Filed under addiction, christian counseling, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, counseling skills, mental health, Mindfulness, Uncategorized

Using the news to explore our difficulties with apologies

Given the news in the last 24 hours about one politician’s indecent language (and his subsequent “apology”), it seems like a good time to review the human tendency to defend ourselves and shift blame. We’ve been doing this since Adam and Eve blamed others for their fall. But rather than shrug our shoulders or think we are better then politicians, let’s use this opportunity to remember what constitutes a good apology. Consider reading some of these previous posts and discussing with your friends. Ask yourselves where you need to grow:


Filed under Christianity, Uncategorized

3 negative consequences of having too many options

I prefer having choices to make over not having the option to choose how I spend my time. And yet, just like any medication you might take, the freedom to choose brings with it some potentially dangerous side effects. I’d like you to think about 3 and then consider a couple of modifications about how you make choices.

Consider the differences between choosing a mate today versus 50 years ago. According to Daniel Jones (listen at the 17 minute mark), in previous generations people chose mates from close proximity–from their block, building, or neighborhood. Now, we have endless choices if we are willing to use the Internet.  Consider the differences in choosing professions. In the past, your father was a farmer, you became a farmer. Now, not only can you pursue any career, you have to choose from endless post-secondary educational schools on your way to that career.

How can having choices/options lead to negative consequences?

  • Dissatisfied. You are always wondering if there is something better out there. Again, consider Daniel Jones as he discusses online dating sites,

“…it turns you into a flaky person who is always looking for something better, that can become a kind of mania…if you have a moment of boredom, you think there are 12 more possibilities in your inbox…”

Later in the same interview, Jones tells us that the issue of today is “not labeling relationships. Based on his college student interviews, many young people today are loathe to identify someone as their partner or lover. They tend to resist labeling someone as a boy or girlfriend. The failure to accept normal labels not only lead to potential of chronic dissatisfaction but also confusion–if you don’t know when a relationship begins, ends or what it is founded upon. It would seem that commitment to a relationship would suffer if it never is named as such.

Dissatisfaction leads to comparing self against others and both lead to depression.

  • Anxious. Coupled with the tendency towards feeling dissatisfied with life, more choices lead many to anxiety. What if I made the wrong decision? What if the next person I meet would make a better spouse? What if I’m missing out on something important? Continual choice and/or rumination over choices increases the sense of importance for the choices we have.

Anxiety leads to chronic stress and chronic stress begins to break down our immune system.

  • Fatigued (cognitive and emotional). We find ways to simplify life. A colleague of mine has a system to know what to wear each day so as to avoid the “What am I going to wear today” question. We (try to) put our keys in the same place to avoid the stress of looking for them every time we leave the house. When we live with too many open choices and options, we burn more glucose and our brains become less efficient. We numb our feelings or we become edgy.

Fatigue leads to poor decision-making (impulsive, reactive, unthinking). This is why we blow diets more at 10 pm than we do at 9 am. This is why those with addictions are more likely to use later in the day than early in the morning. When we are emotionally and cognitively fatigued, we are prone to feel greater anxiety and dissatisfaction. The “gift” of choice continues to give.

Can We Do Anything About This?

Now, rest assured that I am not advocating for life to return to a place of no choice (arranged marriage, one career path, etc.). Choice has enabled me to learn about myself and given me many wonderful experiences that as a boy growing up in Vermont I never imagined. But are there ways we can minimize the common negative consequences of too many choices?

  1. Examine your view of God’s will. I meet many people who fear making a choice God does not want them to make. They fear they will somehow end up on plan B of life as punishment from God. While there are many very black and white decisions (should I cheat on my taxes? Is it okay to kill my annoying neighbor?) most decisions are not that clear. What if most of your decisions are neither right nor wrong? Whether you go to university A or B, marry person A or B is less of concern for God than we might think. Typically God seems more interested in our motives than some of our daily choices. Consider seeing God’s will as guardrails on a road rather than a pinpoint decision.
  2. Limit your decision-making time. It can be a habit of some to mull over future decisions long before the decision needs to be made. Do you find yourself worrying about the challenges of next week? While it might seem wise to think through your decisions in a thorough way, anxious rumination is not helpful. Limit when you think about big ticket future decisions. For example, if you are considering a career change, set a specific time during the week to search out available options. Then, when you find your mind mulling over options outside that set time, you can say to yourself, “I’m going to think about that during the scheduled time, not now!” When you do make a decision, use the same technique to limit when you review/evaluate that decision, thereby limiting time for “what ifs.”
  3. Challenge post decision “if only” regrets. I made a major career decision 17 years ago. I chose to become a seminary professor over an Ivy League appointment. For the first few months at Biblical Seminary I found myself wondering if I had made the right choice. I imagine this was the result of financial struggles (the other job paid double) and the overwhelming stress of creating grad courses from scratch (the other job was something I had ample experience to do). So, I could easily see that I chose the harder job for less pay. That became the truth I believed for a bit. But, the real truth is that I chose a job that had immense freedom and opportunity for growth. I would not have been able to travel the world as I do now. Of course, I couldn’t know all that then. So, work to challenge your assumptions about the future. Yes, like me, you will grieve when doors close. But remember, God is at work in providing a future for you, even in tough locations and times.


Filed under Anxiety, biblical counseling, counseling, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized