For most of my life, religion (specifically Christianity) has been a part of who I am. I was baptized as an infant; grew up going to church every weekend; went to a Christian university for undergrad; and was a youth ministry leader for many years. You may be wondering what this has to do with my mental health, and I suppose the answer is that my faith and mental health have always had a complicated relationship with each other.
During the dark times in my life, my faith brought me comfort. The notion of the existence of something bigger than myself was sometimes the only thing that kept me going. But, at the same time, there were also parts of my religion that only added to my anxiety and depression. I encountered a lot of twisted messages about how to live my life as a Christian—a lot of bad theology that was especially hard to swallow because of the state of my mental health. These messages stuck for way too long, and it has taken a long time to "untwist" them. The process of untwisting has meant letting go of a lot of my religious beliefs but, it has also provided me with some valuable lessons—three of which are listed below. Letting go of these beliefs has helped me to not only take better care of myself, but trust, accept, and love myself.
Lesson one: trusting myself
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5, NIV)
If you believe in an almighty, benevolent being, feeling like you can go to them for guidance during difficult times and tough decisions seems comforting—I've had plenty of experiences where I've felt like that. But it's the second part of the verse above that was always troublesome for me: lean not on your own understanding. Growing up in the Christian church, I heard a lot of people say "God wants me to do this" or "I feel called to do this", which may have worked just fine for them. But, to me, it brought more anxiety than relief to try to listen to God's calling.
I was always so concerned about whether I was following the right path and doing what God wanted me to do. So concerned, that it got in the way of enjoying the present. I didn't feel like I "heard" anything from God; I wasn't getting any answers or callings or direction. Everyone else seemed to have a direct line to God, but mine was somehow missing. It made me anxious. It made me feel broken. It made me feel alone. I felt confused and lost. I felt like I was disappointing God. And, during this time, I lost touch with my own intuition which I had learned could not be trusted. Not my will, but Your will be done.
When I left the church (more on that in part two of this series), I started to realize that I did, in fact, have strong intuitions. I trusted my gut more. I didn't feel anxious about what God wanted me to do—and it was kind of freeing. With this freedom came a realization: maybe God trusts me to make decisions on my own. Maybe God has given me the ability to discern what is right and what is wrong. So I started doing that. I started trusting myself to make my own decisions. And the fear that I was constantly disappointing God started crumbling away.
Lesson two: accepting myself
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48, NIV)
To anyone with obsessive, compulsive, or anxious tendencies, this verse can feel like a punch in the gut, especially when taken literally. Even though the churches I went to spoke of the grace of God, there was still, paradoxically, this notion of perfection that was prevalent in the background. As in: sure, God loves you no matter what but, at the same time, you need to try to strive for perfection, just as God is perfect. But, what does that even mean??
I have wasted so much of my life trying to be perfect; it's my Achilles heel. I've always been hard on myself, acting as my own worst critic when (of course) I can't achieve perfection. And the church is not immune to this trap of perfection either. It's easier to pretend that everyone and everything is fine—that we're all living holy lives and striving for perfection—than to do the hard work of being truly vulnerable, and owning up to our messiness.
As a person with mental illnesses, I need vulnerability. I can't pretend that everything is fine when, on so many days, it clearly isn't. But when perfection is preached from the pulpit, or when it becomes the silent expectation, it doesn't make room for people like me. What we (I) need to hear about is grace, and grace preached loudly. We need to hear acceptance of our imperfections; that they make us beautiful, special, and needed. I needed that acceptance and grace—the freedom from the pressure to be perfect—but I had trouble finding it at church. When I stopped worrying that I was being held to perfection by some higher being or organization, I started allowing myself to be myself.
Lesson three: loving myself
The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:31, NIV)
Loving your neighbor as yourself: the golden rule. This verse (or some form of it) is probably the most universal tenet across religions. But, for so long, I got this verse completely twisted because I neglected one tiny word: as. I used to read this verse and think that it meant "love your neighbor instead of yourself". I thought it was about being selfless, about giving everything I had to those who needed it, ignoring my own needs. And that's what I used to do.
This has been the hardest lesson to learn: to love myself. I think back to those years where I was spread so thin. I used to give and give and give. I used to volunteer for every possible cause that I could squeeze into my schedule. I used to try to put everyone else first, because I thought that was the "godly" thing to do, all the while dealing with extreme depression and anxiety. I spent so much time taking care of others that I neglected to take care of myself first and foremost. But, the thing is, you have to take care of yourself in order to have anything to give to others. That "as" is so important: it presupposes that we must love ourselves in order to love others. For the longest time I thought self-love was selfishness, instead of being the gateway to selflessness.
Today, I try to focus on the "as". I've learned that having mental illnesses means that I need to take care of myself first, before I can effectively love others. I also try to let go of perfectionism, focusing on accepting my imperfections. I try to listen to my intuitions and trust myself to make good choices. As I let go of all of this bad theology, little by little, I start to gain faith in myself.