I love listening to people’s stories. Stories of who they are, who they want to be, where they’ve been, and where they hope to head. How they have hurt, healed, hurt some more, and yet still continue to hope. We humans are such complex beings, and the fact that we all walk the very same Earth but have such vastly different experiences and perspectives fascinates me.
But this thing that I love—connecting with people—I also fear. Social anxiety has been a struggle since my pre-teen years, and though it’s a normal developmental challenge for that age group, it grasped me with an extra strong grip and held on throughout young adulthood. Worries about being rejected, teased, humiliated, and shunned, led me to waste way too much energy on blending in with the “in” crowd and trying to project and maintain my image.
Time and again over the years, I craved and yet avoided exciting opportunities and enriching relationships, eaten up by anxiety inside. Anyone who has experienced a similar struggle would probably agree that life is no fun when being with people brings unbearable anguish and being without people causes aching loneliness.
Shape-shifting helped soothe the discomfort, at least to some degree. When I was with the church kids, I spoke their language and was as holy as can be. When among the drink-and-be-merry crowd, I let loose and lived it up. With the adults, I acted impressively mature and charmed my way into a great reputation. The artists, athletes, rejects, and ritzy—I could connect with them all. Adaptability is a wonderful trait to have, but as it overextended into the loss of my true identity, I slowly sunk into despair. I had spun myself into a web of lies.
I lived with an underlying fear that at some point my different worlds would collide and everyone would find out that whoever they thought I was actually didn’t exist. “I” was just an ongoing act that changed according to time and place. Unintentionally I had been lying to everyone; no one knew my true self, not even me.
I functioned okay for quite a while, living in a house of white lies and half-truths that were pretty easy to get away with. But eventually, through a series of painful events that culminated with a soulful cry of surrender, the lies crumbled down. Surprisingly, the collision that had so terrified me turned out to be the most freeing event I’ve experienced yet. A new, beautiful being began to emerge: the real me.
I once heard a recovering alcoholic named Mickey say, “In the beginning God created Mickey. Out of fear, Mickey then tried to recreate Mickey. Now I’m in the process of uncovering and embracing the true Mickey that God created.” The simple words of that simple man sure resonate with my story.
At times I find myself still fearing people and still wearing masks. After a decade of living in addiction and perfecting my skills at deceiving, rationalizing, justifying, distorting, manipulating, and excusing, I can rather easily fall into these mindsets and behaviors without even realizing it. But thankfully as I’ve continued to very imperfectly practice new ways of living (such as honesty, asking for help, taking guidance, prayer, surrender, courage, taking responsibility, and flexibility), the old ways don’t fit nearly as well.
Today I am convinced that love is infinitely greater than fear, and I cling to that truth when the fear returns with its threats. Reflecting on where I’ve come from reminds me that love has conquered, is conquering, and will keep conquering fear forever.
All who confess that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect . . .
Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:15-18)
When I’m able to embrace God’s love for the real me and then dare to live authentically, this fear of people diminishes. Freed from crippling anxiety, I can be more present to actually have open ears and hear the stories that I love to hear.
What do you love and fear?