inspiring joy filled living

Fear and Faith: Why Our Thoughts Matter

May 7, 2020

I read something very interesting this morning.  In Rick Warren’s “A Purpose Driven Life,” he says if you know how to worry you know how to meditate.  Worry is thinking the same negative, repetitive thought over and over again.  In contrast, meditating is focusing on something positive.  This struck me because I’m really good at worrying.  I have literally spent years of my life paralyzed by certain thoughts that have played on repeat in the background of my mind.  At times, they were whispers, and other times they were loud, crass, and abusive.  Over time, I have found the whispers to be more damaging because they become part of the symphony of thoughts I have throughout the day.  So woven into the background noise, that I don’t even hear them anymore.  Instead of thoughts to be questioned, they are so incredibly familiar that I don’t even notice them.

But all those thoughts bring us down.  The damage shows up.  Whether we see it or not, it changes us.

For me, I’ve seen the whispers appear in a multitude of ways.  At one point in my life, it was an eating disorder.  When the tiny voice had gained so much momentum, my physical response was to drown it out. For years I struggled.  Not eating, bingeing, not eating, bingeing.  It was familiar and yet afterward, I would be flooded with disappointment, anger, and shame.  Nights were the worst when my thoughts were the loudest.

Then there was the alcohol.  Shortly after going to college, I quickly learned how my mind could be transformed by alcohol.  My fears, anxiety, anger, and frustration could all melt away.  I was fun and free.  I had courage like I’d never felt before. For an evening, I could let go of all the things I didn’t want to think about.  But it was always short-lived.  The hangovers were wicked.  The memories were fuzzy or non-existent.  The weight piled on.  My body was exhausted, heavy, and incredibly unhealthy.  And the thoughts came flooding back.  Anxiety and depression were handcuffs I couldn’t break free from, even if for a short time I didn’t feel them.

The time eventually came and I hit my breaking point.  I felt like I was living a double life.  There was the happy, life-of-the-party, super positive-sorority girl who was chasing her big dream of being a singer in the big city.  Then there was the incredibly unhappy, anxious, and fearful girl that lived on the inside.  When I met my sweet college boyfriend, now husband, one of the first things I told him was,

“This isn’t really me, I hope someday you get to meet her.”

At that point, unbeknownst to me, he started praying for me.  Lord knows if he would have mentioned God to me then, I would have RUN away. I wasn’t ready to hear it.  I was too angry.  I thought I knew better.  I was a wounded animal that would have scared off easily. 

Here’s the irony of the story.  I tried to break up with this guy.  Several times.  I went to Europe for the summer to sing.  He emailed me throughout the summer.  I transferred to a different college.  He told me to go and follow those big dreams.  He visited me, even if that meant driving in rush hour traffic to the heart of downtown Los Angeles.  Guys, texting was literally invented back then.  So we learned how to text.  During this time, he found me a therapist, and being in the fitness business, he offered to train her for free if she would meet with me.  For 5 years, I met with this sweet, beautiful woman who showed me that I am not my thoughts.  She called them the “internal inferno.” She taught me that I am not my circumstances or my past.  There were things in my past I couldn’t control, but now I could wrap my arms around that little girl in my mind’s eye and reassure her that we grew up and are ok now.  

I related to my mentor’s story and I think she saw herself in me.  Sometimes the process was excruciating.  Bringing and experiencing past pain felt crippling at times, but I kept going.  Walking through it made me stronger, gave me courage that didn’t include a drop of alcohol and a sense of peace that I did not know I could have.  My sweet guy was there when I broke down, had “aha!” moments, and even when I fought him on going because I was emotionally exhausted.  He continued to show up.  He would gently remind me that this was good and someday this part of our journey would be a distant memory.  I am so grateful for the courage of my guy to hold my hand and walk with me through that time in my life.  The fear and my brokenness were so real and yet God had a plan and a hand in it.

I share this story because my negative thoughts became so out of control, I could not pull myself back by myself.  The panic attacks were real and paralyzing.  I felt trapped in a cage with invisible bars. See, what happens is, negative repetitive thoughts have a tendency to multiply.  The more we have, the more we have.  They get louder and gnaw on the mind and heart.  When my external life was chaotic, I turned inward, which put me squarely in front of a crossroad.  Two paths outstretched in front of me leading in completely different directions.  

Here’s the beautiful part.  

There is a choice.  Each thought is a choice.  It is impossible to have two thoughts at the same time, so we only get to choose one.  To see the hope or the fear.  It is easy to say, but so incredibly challenging to do.  My suggestion is to start with one single thought.  I love the idea of focusing on one single line and saying it in a breath.  This could be a prayer, something you’re grateful for, one piece of beauty you observed, one hope or anything else that sets your heart and mind on the positive.  One statement at a time has literally changed my life.  

For me, I love statements like “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” Phil 4:13.  Some of my others are “I’m grateful for the health of my family,” “Today is beautiful,”  “I’m worthy,” “I am strong,” “This too shall pass,” “I am beautiful,” or sometimes it’s as simple as “I’m still here.” Focusing on the positive throughout the day has been transformational to my life.  Pessimism and fear are my knee jerk reactions.  I tend to see all the obstacles and problems first.  In recent years, it has become a goal of mine to keep my mouth shut when those kinds of thoughts bubble up and want to fly out.  Instead, I’m working at capturing my negative thoughts first and putting them under a magnifying glass to see if they are in fact accurate.  More often than not, when I do this the lie is exposed and dissipates under the harsh light of truth.  

Disclaimer: This is so dang hard.  It takes time, courage, and awareness.  My friend, I’m working on this right along-side you because I certainly don’t have this skill mastered by any means.  But here’s what happens when we do stare fear in the face and lean into our courage, we take away its power.  And little by little, the more we do this and train our brain to reach for hope first the more second nature it becomes.

Here is one more bombshell that completely blew me away the first time I heard it, your thoughts are not necessarily true.  They are a mash-up of your perception, emotions, your past, other people’s words and opinions, the media, the world, the mean teacher you had that embarrassed you in class, the jerk bossed that yelled at you in front of everyone on your floor (yup, that is one of mine), the coach who didn’t pick you, the friend that hurt you, the fear that our nation is experiencing as a result of COVID-19 and so many things we are not even aware of on a conscious level.  My sweet friends, you are not your thoughts.  You are beautifully, wonderfully and, purposefully made by a God that loves you.  Those negative, hurtful, hate-filled thoughts in your head are not yours.  So don’t own them.  There are so many things I have told myself over the years, that I would never dare say to anyone else.  So why do we think we can say them to ourselves?

I love action steps and once I have knowledge, I want to implement it. So, what do we do next? As I’ve mentioned, I am not perfect at this.  Capturing my thoughts is still really hard at times.  But here are some steps that have helped me.  

For starters, get the facts.  Reading the Bible has helped reveal that God doesn’t do anything by accident, especially in making each and every one of us.  If you are breathing, God isn’t done with you or the beautiful plans He has for you.  It doesn’t mean it will be easy, but I promise He has a purpose even when we can’t see it or it doesn’t feel that way.  

Another way to gain perspective is to talk to someone you trust.  For me, this has looked like a kind and compassionate therapist, incredibly thoughtful and wise women in Moms groups, MOPS groups & in bible studies over the years, confiding in a trusted friend and my precious, courageous husband.  

Lastly, limiting or completely cutting off exposure to the things that bring you down.  Sometimes this looks like an unhealthy relationship, listening to the news 24/7, engaging in negativity on social media, etc.  

Please note, abuse in no uncertain terms is ever acceptable.  Verbal, physical, emotional, mental abuse is real and intolerable.  Your safety is paramount and non-negotiable.  It is vitally important that your physical and mental health be preserved even if that looks like removal of yourself from the abusive situation.  My heart breaks knowing how much suffering has happened and if this speaks to you, I want you to know my prayer is that you will know how deeply loved you are.  You are not the abuse.  Your story is the beautiful soul inside, the incredibly purposeful breath in your lungs, and the impact you have on the world just by being you.  We need you here to share your beauty because there has never been and never will be another you.

Sometimes, in real life or virtual life, people say things that hurt our feelings.  Maybe it’s intentional, maybe it’s not.  In those instances the best advice I’ve gotten was from my wise therapist.  She said to imagine someone put you in a giant plastic bubble, like a hamster ball that crashes around the house.  Even though he’s bouncing off walls, it is keeping that little creature safe.  When you’re inside the plastic ball, you can still see the world and hear what people are saying.  However, the words can’t reach you.  They can’t penetrate through the plastic.  Instead, their words hit the barrier and slide right off.  You heard them, but don’t feel them.  They don’t stick in your mind on replay.  You observe them and then they wash away.  Friends, this has taken me years to get more adept at.  It’s a process and please know that even a tiny step forward is still moving you in the right direction.  Even crawling on your hands and knees is still forward motion.   

A huge piece of this journey is learning and practicing forgiveness.  Forgiveness made me angry for years. Why should I forgive someone that hurt me? Don’t you know what they did? Why should I be the one to forgive them?  But here’s what I have learned: forgiveness is a must because it isn’t about them.  It’s about you.  It’s about me.  It’s about letting go and healing.  I used to think forgiveness was a one and done.  I wanted to believe that I could forgive once and walk away with the hurt lifted and clarity gained.  But that’s not how it works.  Sometimes it’s a 100 times a day process that feels endless and frustrating and so dang hard that you want to scream and give up completely.  But I’ll tell you the freedom of the weight being lifted is beautiful.  The daily work adds up and at some point the burden doesn’t feel as heavy.  When the fear and anger want to seep back in, attack them with a positive thought.  Even something as simple as, “I’m breathing” can shift the mindset. 

Forgiveness is also about forgiving yourself.  It is one of the highest forms of self-love.  The guilt, shame, hurt, and pain for what you have done or haven’t done needs to be released.  By punishing yourself for your past, it is almost impossible to see light in the future.  And if you can’t see it, how in the world can you live into it?  We are all human and by definition, we are imperfect.  We make mistakes, say the wrong thing, and even hurt the people we love.  We don’t follow through, we let each other down, we blow presentations, and sometimes even blow-up relationships.  Even in our missteps, we have an opportunity to seek the wisdom that is wrapped up in the experience and learn from it, or we sink like an anchor being thrown off a ship and use it as an excuse to keep us stagnant.  Sometimes, the person we need to forgive most in our lives is staring at us in the mirror and the most courageous thing we can possibly do is extend our heart and accept forgiveness.  What a beautiful picture of love.  I promise you are worth it. 

Lastly, I want to add that I can’t say enough good things about walking through these kinds of emotions with a professional.  My therapist illuminated the darkness, gave me words I didn’t know I needed, and gave me tools to bring about positive change.  There is no shame in asking for help.  Friend, I applaud you.  I’m weeping happy tears for you because I know how transforming it has been in my life.  We all have areas of struggle because we are human.  We are not meant to live life in solitude or shoulder our burdens alone.  The darkness can be destroyed by a single match and sometimes we need someone to light the flame.  

Dear friend, you are so loved.  You are immensely important and your story needs to be told. Why? Because you are the only one that can tell it.  We need your voice, opinions, beauty, and light because the world wouldn’t be the same without you in it.  The thoughts in our minds can be a catalyst to push us forward into our greatness.  Here’s the really incredible part.  Our positive change is contagious.  Every time we choose hope or joy, it changes us and that affects everyone around us. The way we treat our kids, spouse, neighbor, or the person in line behind us at the grocery store matters.  The point is, what we think matters not only to our own well being but to everyone we touch in person and virtually.  

When kindness is literally spilling out of us we can’t help but share that joy.  And that influences someone, who influences someone, who influences someone.  The ripple is endless.  There is an incredible study called the Butterfly Effect that spoke about how one small change in initial conditions can create a significantly different outcome.  The theory is that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world has the ability to bring about change all the way on the other side of the world.  How that one small change in our climate can, over time affect our weather patterns, and even create tornados. I first read about this theory in Andy Andrews book, “The Seven Decisions,” where he paints a vivid picture of cause and effect. After reading it several times, it has become one of my favorite books on personal growth.

I also think this theory highlights how deeply interconnected we are.  The mood of one person is easily transferred to another.  Our actions, positive or negative, can have a huge impact on the people around us, who then in turn affect the people around them.  It is worth noting that all of our actions start with a thought.  Here is where I get super excited.  Through our filter, we can screen our thoughts.  We can question, discard, and reject those thoughts that don’t serve us.  We also have the ability to highlight, hand-pick, illuminate, and live into those that do.  Inside of those thoughts are creativity, solutions, compassion, hope, peace, love, and joy.  They unlock our ability to fuel greatness not only in ourselves but also in others.  Once those floodgates are open, just imagine the incredible possibilities.  

As I’m writing this we are on day 15 of self-quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Fear is prevalent and widespread.  Life has been completely disrupted and the future feels incredibly uncertain.  Sitting amongst the chaos, I’m reminded that I have a choice of how I respond.  I can’t control what is happening, but I can take inventory of my thoughts.  

I know my kids are watching me and developing their own skills on how to cope with life’s challenges.  They are listening to my words, observing my actions and reactions, and subconsciously taking notes on how adults handle a crisis.  Right now, my three girls are in the backyard playing.  They are laughing and running gleefully through the grass. Hair is flying wildly in the windy spring afternoon.  They are filled with joy and it brings a smile to my face.  Their happiness is infectious.  I can’t help but be filled with feelings of gratitude for these precious little people.  At this moment, the uncertainty of the times fades a bit, as I watch them play.  I’m reminded of the beauty that is present even in the midst of hardship.  We don’t know how this global crisis will unfold or the health or the economic toll it will take.  I can’t tell you exactly where we will be standing when the dust settles and we emerge from this confinement.  

But here’s what I can tell you, during this time I will be doing my best to seek out those beautiful moments of gratitude, no matter how fleeting they might be.  I named this blog Seeking Roses because roses are my favorite flowers.  There is something about their beauty that just makes my heart happy.  We also have a game in our family where we ask one another what the rose and thorn of your day were.  Sometimes around the dinner table, on the car ride home from school or when we are tucking kiddos into bed at night.  The rose is the highlight of the day and the thorn was the challenge.  To me, seeking roses means being intentional in looking for the highlights and celebrating our everyday moments.  Right now, as we grapple with this new normal, it feels more important than ever to find joy in the small things.  Even through social distancing, we have no idea whose day we might touch and brighten.  On some level that knowledge brings me deep comfort to know we are not alone.  That we truly are all in this together.

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