In this second edition of our Well on the Way series, I want to focus on a principle of healthy self-talk that will undergird emotional health, and that is:
Core idea 2: I am an active agent in my emotional health.
People I meet in my practice commonly feel very passive about their emotional health. They have tried a range of strategies, usually for many years without a lot of impact, and so have come to accept and believe that this is part of who they are. “I am Jane and I have depression. I am Adam and I have anxiety. It’s permanent. It’s become built into my self-definition and self-understanding, and so becomes self-fulfilling!”
For many Christians, there is an additional layer of spiritual failure and disappointment with God. I have prayed, but he hasn’t taken away my struggle. Where does that leave me?
What do I believe about what is causing my emotional struggles? Do I believe they are a fixture in my life or something that God is using for my growth?
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Part of my work is coming alongside people to help them see what is going on – to get a meta-perspective on themselves that leads to change.
Emotional health is shaped by five factors, all starting with ‘P’. Both the examples and genes that my parents gave me, as well as their approach to parenting, will have contributed to my emotional health. If they were the worrying types, then I will have learnt from them a highly cautious, anticipate-every-possible-problem approach to life.
My innate personality also contributes to my emotional health. Some of us are more naturally extroverted, more naturally sensitive or more naturally analytical.
The next factor is our past experiences – for example, bullying, trauma, abuse, struggles and failures. Next, our present circumstances are also powerful ingredients that God has used to shape the unique person called me!
We need to draw a clear distinction between my feelings and my beliefs.
But, the sixth factor shaping me, and the most powerful one, is my own attitude to emotional health. What do I believe about what is causing my emotional struggles? Do I believe they are a fixture in my life or something that God is using for my growth? Rather than believing “I am Jane and I have depression”, could I explore the possibility that “I am Jane and I am learning to overcome depression”? Or “I am Jane and I am learning how to care for myself”?
We need to draw a clear distinction between my feelings and my beliefs, not automatically believing that my feelings are giving me the whole truth about reality. For example, when feeling overwhelmed, we can help ourselves with this self-talk: “I am feeling pretty overwhelmed just now, but I won’t let myself believe that ‘I am overwhelmed’ because that will sink me. I am not powerless because I have choices.”
A really useful and practical strategy that flows from this is my ‘Proactive Page’.
Practical tip 2: the Proactive Page
This involves taking a blank sheet of A4 paper and drawing a vertical line down the middle. At the top of the left-hand column write “Things I am worried about” and at the top of the right-hand column write “One step I can take towards resolving this”.
The next step is to cluster your worries. Write them down in groups. For example, maybe there is a cluster about my work and what is going on there. Maybe there is a cluster about my marriage and the recent unresolved arguments we have been having. Maybe there is a cluster about my own mental health.
The result of this process is usually very positive! We discover that rather than having 1000 problems that are overwhelming, they actually cluster down to four or five or six groups, which already feels way more manageable!
The next step is to think of one little step that I could take towards resolving this …
The next step is to look at the second column and think of one little step that I could take towards resolving this. If there is stress in my workplace, what is a possible proactive step I could take? Could I discuss it with my boss? Could I ask a Christian friend or two to pray about this with me? Could I ask a wise colleague for their perspective?
If our marriage is under stress, what is one sensible step I could take? Would inviting my partner out on a date night give us time for better talking? Could I buy a book on effective communication and suggest that we read a chapter each week and discuss it? Could I plan a quiet moment to share my concern with my partner?
Planning one little step forward will not solve all the problems, but it will help you feel way more in control. It can take us out of a fear-driven, powerless, self-pity hole into being a more confident, proactive problem-solver! And you tell me which is more healthy.
I need go no further than the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:7) to hear Jesus telling us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”. Yes, we engage in active prayer, but we must also actively solve problems with a healthy self-confidence that says, “I am a sensible person who can make good decisions.”
The much healthier path is to look for proactive solutions, or at least steps to take to solve the problems in my world, knowing that I am an active agent in the process and God is at work, growing me into the likeness of his Son.