Today’s conversation is pure fire! We're talking all things anxiety with Curtis Chang, author of a brand new book, The Anxiety Opportunity. This is such a fresh take on anxiety, unlike anything you’ve heard at church or in the secular culture. We also touch on the problem of how most of us have been taught to view heaven, and how recasting that vision has everything to do with anxiety.
If you’ve struggled with anxiety or if you have kids who struggle with anxiety, please do not miss this episode. Here’s what we cover:
1. The problem with the “prayer” or “pill” approach to anxiety
2. The anxiety pandemic
3. The most important thing we can do to help our anxious kids
4. Did Jesus experience anxiety?
5. Curtis’s experience with crippling anxiety
6. The surprising discovery he made in therapy
7. Why heaven is not what you think it is & how that changes everything
Do you have questions for Dr. Alison? Leave them here.
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Music by Andy Luiten
Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik
The Anxiety Opportunity by Curtis Chang
Good Faith Podcast with David French and Curtis Chang
“If you can name it, you can tame it.” -Dan Siegel
Boundaries For Your Soul Series
Episode 4: What do I need to know about trauma?
While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
The Best of You Podcast:
With Dr. Alison Cook with Guest Curtis Chang
Episode 54: What Does the Bible Really Say? - Anxiety
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Alison: Hey, everyone, I'm Dr. Alison and I'm so glad you're here to discover what brings out the best of you. This podcast is all about breaking free from painful patterns, mending the past, and discovering our true selves in God. I can't wait to get started as we learn together how to become the best version of who we are with God's help.
Hey, everyone, and welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You podcast. I am so glad you're here. We have a brand new series we are starting today called What Does the Bible Really Say? We're going to hit on just some of those hot topic, hot button, issues in this series. Especially as it relates to the questions that we have about how we're supposed to live our lives here on Earth.
So psychology focuses so much on the who we are now. Becoming a better version of yourself. Living life to its fullest, healing, painful patterns, presumably so that we can have a better quality life here on Earth. So what does the Bible really say about how we are supposed to approach this life we've been given to live? And I'm super excited because guess what? This is the start of season two of The Best of You podcast. I cannot believe it, but this podcast launched one year ago. We've put out 53 episodes of the podcast.
And, so, as we start episode 54 and a brand new season, a brand new year of The Best of You podcast, we are going to dive into what does the Bible really say about how we are to live this "One wild and precious life" that we've been given to live. To quote the wonderful Mary Oliver.
So today's guest, we're going to hit the ground running with a question I hear all the time because so many of you have been taught this, "Can I pray my anxiety away?" This is a question I get so much, and it really leads to a larger question of these things that are hard. Things like anxiety or depression, just things that we struggle with, are we supposed to be able to pray them away?
Is that really what the Bible teaches us about how we're supposed to deal with our challenges, with our anxieties? Everybody experiences anxiety, and is that really the best approach to it? To just pray for God to take it away? Well, to help me answer this question, I've asked Curtis Chang to talk about his experience with anxiety.
I'm really excited to introduce you to Curtis, and I try to only invite guests, on this podcast, who are people I have some acquaintance with in real life. They're either personal friends of mine or I know them through friends of friends, or I have a deep acquaintance with their work. I want to talk to these folks. These are folks whose work I've benefited from, who I've learned from, who I've gotten to know in my real life. And, so, with that being said, let me introduce you to Curtis Chang.[00:04:29] < Music >
So I'm so excited to introduce you guys, today, to Curtis Chang. Curtis and I have a ton of friends in common. We just met each other, but when we started to talk, we realized we're part of this very small world. Were you on staff with university?
Curtis: I was. I was on staff in the late '90s at university in Boston.
Alison: And most of my friends in Boston have, at some point, either been on staff with university or still on staff with university at Harvard or went to Harvard, or whatever. And, so, we pretty much know everybody in common, which was really fun, but we'd never met each other. So Curtis Chang is a theologian and a consulting faculty member of Duke Divinity School. He's a senior fellow at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Curtis has written for the New York Times and Christianity Today. He's appeared on CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, and NPR. He's pretty much been everywhere. He's the co-host of an amazing podcast I have just come to really value, it's called The Good Faith podcast. He co-hosts it with his friend, from time to time, David French, who's a columnist for The New York Times.
Curtis's ministry speaking and writing are fueled by a passion to help Christians recognize the surprising authority and relevance of Jesus for the parts of our life that are often left to the secular world. And Curtis has written a wonderful new book; I've read a lot of books on anxiety, Christian books on anxiety, secular books on anxiety. And I said this to Curtis, I said, "This is one of the first books I've read in a really long time that stunned me."
Curtis: Listeners don't see the fact that you've got a bookshelf, stacked full of books behind you that prove that this is indeed true.
Alison: Yes, I don't want to spoil it because we'll get to it toward the end, but you brought in one of my favorite theologians, which is N. T. Wright. But you brought it together with anxiety in a way I'd never thought about it, and I had an immediate epiphany. I was actually on a plane and it was so striking to me. It's a really good book, it's called The Anxiety Opportunity, and I cannot wait to have this conversation with you, Curtis. Thank you for being here on the podcast, today.
Curtis: Oh, it's a pleasure to be talking with you and talking about really substantive matters. In addition to dropping names of people we know. So I'm really looking forward to this conversation as well, thank you.
Alison: Oh, my gosh, I want to dive in to the deep end with you, personally, because your experience of anxiety really flows out of your personal life. And you start the book off talking about your experience with anxiety as a young boy, and it was just so compelling. I think any parent reading that, their heart is just being so tugged toward this very vivid description of what anxiety was like for you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Curtis: Yes, and it's important to recognize that we've always lived with anxiety. We certainly are living with higher rates of anxiety. I think, objectively, all the studies show that anxiety rates have gone up substantially, especially, for our teen.
So if you're a parent, odds are you have a child, a teen, in your family that is suffering from anxiety. And you know many other families with kids who are suffering from anxiety/depression. In my church, I don't know a single family that hasn't been touched by this. So we are living in a pandemic, a mental health pandemic of anxiety, that's for sure.
But it's also important to recognize that part of the rise has been just the rise of recognition of existing anxiety that's always been there. So, objectively, it's not we're just relabeling it, there's objective rise in anxiety.
But it's also helpful to recognize "Wait, we've always lived with that. We just didn't have, necessarily, the language or the tools to recognize the anxiety that was there, and that was certainly true for me growing up. Immigrant, part of an immigrant family, I immigrated when I was three. And in the Chinese-American culture, mental health is just not something that we have categories or tools to make easy sense of.
And, so, it just wasn't a category to be able to say I was anxious. And the story that I open the book up with was realizing that I grew up with a pervasive sense of anxiety stemming from the fact that I was a latchkey kid.
So starting at age eight, I was walked home from school and came home to an empty house by myself. I was the first kid to get home, and there was a key under the mat that I would use to let myself in. And now we think about letting an eight-year-old come home to an empty house, we think that's ridiculous, that's bizarre, but that was normal for me, growing up.
But it was, actually, looking back, I realized how much this was a deeply anxious experience for me, and both coming home to an empty house, thinking that perhaps the creak in the attic was some burglar that had broken in. And, so, I'd race outside when I'd hear a creaky sound in the house and try to be outside, so I couldn't be in the house alone. And then really afraid of that my parents wouldn't come home and that they wouldn't make it home alive. That was a childhood anxiety I had.
And, so, I developed all sorts of coping mechanisms to deal with it. Even though I was not ever able to name that experience as an anxiety. Certainly, and I tell the story in the book, certainly, I wasn't able to name it for my parents, and, I think, even if I did they wouldn't have any way to make sense of it.
And, so, that led to a bittersweet experience of my childhood, that I won't share the story of it in detail. But what it's trying to illustrate is, actually, even if you're a parent of an anxious child, listening to this right now. One of the steps that I talk about in my book that's helpful to recognize is to recognize your own anxiety, both, currently but also even in your past. As a way of actually making sense of it and establishing some sense of understanding of your anxious children.
Alison: Yes, it was interesting reading that section, Curtis. We're, probably, roughly, the same age because all of the era things that you point to, I was like, "Oh, yes, I relate to all of those." The latchkey kid was normal. I talk about trauma, you didn't use this word, and I always want to not throw that word around lightly. But even if we think about these small t traumas as unwitnessed pain. You were alone in that experience without there being a name to it.
And, so, it lives in your body a little bit and we develop shame around that. Which you get into in the book, that was my experience, too. It's like, "What is wrong with me that I can't, literally, be in a house by myself after dark when I should be old enough to be in a house? We start to develop a shame narrative, and you talk about this. As this anxiety continues to go unnamed, to maybe even go unwitnessed to yourself, to others, it festers a little bit till you reached a breaking point, as a pastor, and tell us a little bit about that.
Curtis: Yes, so one of the reasons I wrote this book was to reframe anxiety for Christians. Because the dominant narrative for anxiety for Christians is that it is a problem that we are supposed to make go away, and we can make it go away usually in one of two ways.
So in some churches, we're supposed to pray anxiety away and in other churches, to use a label for it, we are supposed to pill anxiety away. So we either use spiritual means to make anxiety go away, or we outsource it to secular mental health for either medication or therapy to make it go away. Which, by the way, I am a fan of medication and therapy, I think, it's a helpful tool.
But even in the secular mental health usage of those tools, the dominant narrative and understanding of anxiety, still, it is a problem we make go away, either through prayer or pills, again, using as a stereotype. And, so, for me, as a pastor, this is after I've become a young adult and now a growing and maturing adult, and I become a senior pastor of a fairly large church here in California.
And I take over the church from the founding pastor, which is, I discovered, is a very stressful position to be in. And the church ended up struggling, as many churches do, in that transition from the founding pastor to the successor. And, suddenly, I'm having to preach regularly, for the first time, lead a staff team. Deal with the fact that people are now no longer have the person that they've, psychically, imprinted in with as a founding pastor, the .com bust hits.
And, so, people are losing their jobs, our giving goes down, we have to do layoffs, and I start sleeping less and less. From seven and half hours to seven, then six, then five, I'm sleeping less and less. Now, in retrospect, that's a dead giveaway for somebody of my profile that I am experiencing building anxiety, that it manifests itself bodily in sleep. But I did not recognize that. I just said it's because I have more work to do. It's because there's a lot of issues I have to handle.
And, so, I'm just sleeping less because I have more work to do. And what I didn't recognize was that I could not, at that point, admit to myself or anybody else, that I was suffering from anxiety. Because of that narrative; that it is a problem that we're supposed to make go away, pray away. And in some churches, it's even a sign of lack of faith or even a sin. Many churches will even go so far as, "Oh, it shows you don't really trust God." So they misuse. Philippians 4:6 "Do not be anxious about anything." To say that that means anxiety is a sin.
And, so, I was living with something of that, even in an unconscious way, that narrative, that anxiety was a problem. It was a sign of lack of faith. And here I am, the senior pastor, how then am I supposed to admit I'm suffering from, increasingly, crippling, anxiety? So I don't. I just try to ignore it. I narrate it in a way that pushes the problem to external factors and I don't acknowledge it, and it not only just doesn't fester, it metastasizes, it grows.
And, so, I finally hit a period where that sleep went from 5 hours to four. And then I went through a two-week period where I do not remember consciously falling asleep at all, for two weeks straight. I must have had some little micro sleep because your body just can't survive that.
But I don't remember consciously falling asleep and waking up for two weeks, in a row. And I remember during that second week, I was alone in the house, by myself, and I scream out loud. I'm shouting at the top of my lungs, "God, make it stop. I'll do anything, just make it stop." And then I had the second moment of realization which was, "Oh, so this is how Guantanamo Bay works."
I realized, "Oh, this is why sleep deprivation is considered by the Geneva Convention, as a form of torture." Because it's not just I was tired, my mind was fracturing, it was psychic torture. It's hard to describe to somebody the psychic nature of anxiety-fueled sleep deprivation, of just how painful it is and how you sense you're losing your grip on reality itself.
So that happened to me and then, ultimately, that heightened anxiety slipped into depression, which is often what happens when chronic, untreated, anxiety goes for a long period of time. It can slide into deep depression. I went on disability, and I was barely functioning for months, and my wife had to raise our two young daughters by herself. Getting out of bed was like a major accomplishment, during those months for me. I was utterly crippled and disabled, as a person.
And, so, all of that, at least, is somewhat attribute to the fact that I felt so deeply ashamed about anxiety, that I could not actually acknowledge it as a problem. When it was still building and the worst of the symptoms could have been headed off.
So I share all of that to say that this is the danger of treating anxiety, solely, as a problem to make go away.
Is that we end up not being able to admit it because it's surrounded by so much shame. But, more importantly, I share all that to say I know how painful anxiety is. When I say the title of my book is The Anxiety Opportunity, and I'm trying to reframe anxiety from solely being a problem, to actually being a profound opportunity for spiritual growth.
So I sure all I have to say is I know anxiety is painful. I'm not saying it isn't painful or it isn't a problem. I am saying, though, it isn't just a problem, that it also is a profound opportunity for the deepest kind of spiritual growth we need to encounter, and I experienced that.
I'm writing the book because I can say, as somebody who's gone through anxiety, that is precisely that. It is something to go through. It is not something to avoid or make go away, it's something we go through. It's like a doorway that we go through and on the other side God has, actually, our best self for us if we're willing to go through it.[00:18:05] < Music >
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Alison: The paradox of that door, the metaphor that you're using, and as I'm listening and I was reading, is that we can't get through that door, to go through it if we don't name it and call it what it is. And that's what came through, so clearly, in your story, and it's what as therapists, we, at best, when we're diagnosing it's not to say, "This is a problem to make it go away."
It's to say, "We need to name this." Because once we name it, and you talk about this in the book, we can differentiate from it. We can get it outside of us a little bit. There's a paradox there of the shame wants to keep us from saying, "Oh, it's..." And you talk about this so well in the book. Either we minimize it, we spiritually bypass it, as you're saying, or we try to externalize "Oh, if I just wasn't so busy."
Or "If this wasn't the case."
Instead of just going, "I'm dealing with some anxiety." Which makes us feel anxious to name it and, in fact, it's part of what opens the key to that door that actually allows it to soften. We talk about it in IFS terms as befriending it, which isn't to say that you love the experience of it. But the minute "You can name it," as Dan Siegel says, "You can start to tame it." And you really show us that in the book. It's such a gift that you take us into your journey, Curtis, because it was very real for you, this was not a minor event.
Curtis: Well, it wasn't just a one-time event like I explained how I grew up with it, although, I didn't have the name for it growing up. Because I had developed so many coping mechanisms that made it a highly-functional anxiety until I hit that breaking point, as a pastor. And I experienced it after my breakdown, and I still experience it today, anxiety has not gone away from my life.
But what it has become is this opportunity for spiritual growth. Which is really the core message, and what I'm really inviting people to realize is that in anxiety we are given an insight. Given a picture, given understanding of all of the most fundamental things in our lives that we fear losing. Because that's what anxiety is, anxiety is the fear of loss.
And, so, when we're able to actually name and look at our anxiety, we're given a look into, "Oh, this is the true state of my heart, the true state of my soul." And there's nothing like anxiety to reveal that, if we're willing not to externalize it or not to be ashamed about it, but to actually just realize it's an invitation from God. That's the real invitation of the book is for people to follow this journey through anxiety, to realize that this is actually the key, I believe, for some really profound spiritual growth for all of us.
Alison: Yes, it's beautiful how you talk about that. It's an invitation to look at our attachments, and you do such a nuanced job of it. Because there is one section of the book I really appreciated and got a lot from, where there's a lot of reasons we have anxiety.
Sometimes we're anxious because we should be anxious because things are really hard and that doesn't mean we have a predisposition to it, or whatever. And also two things can be true sometimes there is, you talk about idols underneath it. It can surely help us uncover and discover what are these things that we are just so afraid of losing.
Curtis, this takes me to you talk about in the book that this was the new thing that just was stunning to me. That in order to face the fear of the loss, the loss that is underneath so much of our anxiety, and it's a piece that I've never been taught before, we have to understand that that loss will be returned to us, and it gets at hope. Tell us a little bit about that. That was so powerful to me.
Curtis: Yes, if there's one theological contribution that I'm trying to make to Christian understanding of anxiety that doesn't exist right now. It is that the ultimate answer, the ultimate strategy or approach to anxiety from a deeply Christ-centered perspective is the resurrection. Because the resurrection is the answer to anxiety. But it's important to understand how this works because what anxiety is it is the fear of loss.
Now, what a common mistake Christians make is that God's answer to loss is that we will avoid loss. So that, somehow, God will protect me from this feared loss. So if I am anxious about my finances, I'm anxious about my kids, how they're doing. I'm anxious about the world, the climate change, or politics or something like that, that the answer to anxiety is that feared loss will never happen. God will be the grand insurance broker in the sky.
Alison: Are you saying that's what the church teaches us?
Curtis: Yes, I'm saying that's the common mistake that churches can teach is that if anxiety is lost, then God is going to insure me from any scenario in the future of loss. Which is God, both, never promises that and anybody who's lived for any period of time, with any honesty, would realize that doesn't happen. Christians go through loss just like everybody else goes through loss. And that the Christian, the Christ-centered answer to loss is not that God will protect you and insure you from facing loss.
But, actually, if you go through loss with Jesus, and in Jesus, then we participate in the resurrection promise. And what the resurrection is, it's the promise to give back what we have lost, not to avoid loss. In fact, the resurrection is only resurrection if we have died. That's what resurrection means, that it is the restoration of life after death. So death is the loss of all losses.
So the resurrection promise, which is the center promise of the gospel, is not you will avoid loss. In fact, it is a promise, essentially, that you will go through loss, you will die. That's what death is, it's the loss of all losses. So we have to, actually, get over our fear and our impulse to avoid loss and be willing to go through it like we walk through a door.
And that's what it means to walk through anxiety, is to walk through loss, to go through it. And, then, the promise is not we will avoid it. Not that there's a way around it or a way away from the loss, but a way through that loss. And that way through is experiencing, enduring it, suffering it, suffering the real pain of the loss, but with the promise that on the other side is resurrection. Which resurrection is the return to us, it's the great get back of all that we have lost.
And Christians have not quite, one, understood that the true nature of that resurrection is the return of all these earthly, bodily, physical, real, concrete things that we fear losing. It is not we are zapped away in immaterial souls to heaven. It is actually a restoration of real losses that we both fear and will inevitably experience.
That's only when we can hold on to that promise that, then, we have the true Christ-centered response to anxiety, which leads us to our best self. Because our best, most glorified self, is given to us through death and resurrection. And, I think, if there's one thing I want to have a message out to your peers and your fellow practitioners, Christian therapists, is to actually really integrate the theology of the resurrection into our therapy. Because, ultimately, that is the deepest, most robust answer we have to anxiety.
The various things like mindful breathing, and presence, and naming, those are all good. Those are all helpful, Buddhists do that, secular therapists do that, that's cognitive behavioral therapy. What Christians bring, uniquely, to people suffering from anxiety, if they're willing to entertain it, anyways, is the promise of true restoration that only comes from resurrection.
Alison: And you talk about all of those methods in the book, too, which are also very helpful. That's what I appreciate about the book. There's a practicality to the different strategies that are, sometimes, just really practical, really concrete, really in the moment. The best of what psychology has taught us is important, and that piece where you brought it back.
There's an exercise in the book, I'm not going to give it away, but I did the exercise. Thinking about how we think about heaven and it was revelatory to me. And you take us through a corrective about what it really means to find our lives, again, on the other side of death. And it's not what so many of us have been taught. And then you reverse engineer the fear. So it's like this thing, "I'm so anxious about my health. I'm losing aspects of my health that have meant so much to me." And we're afraid to face that because then we got to grieve it, and then that's just so sad.
But what this exercise does is it makes you go, "Oh, my gosh, God wants to give that back to me." And it's not a spiritually bypassing thing. It's not just like, "Oh, it'll be fine in heaven." That's not what you are saying. You are saying it's hard, there is some real loss, and anybody who struggles with anxiety understands that. You can't dupe yourself, gaslight yourself, to be like, "It's really fine, nothing bad.
No. People who struggle with anxiety are sometimes finely tuned to the fact that sometimes really hard things happen. And, so, what I love about what you're doing is there's a way of saying, "Yes, it doesn't mean everything bad that you worry about is going to happen." But, at the end of the day, what if it does?
You have a God that goes in it with you and is actually going to restore that for you, at some point. And there's a hope that allows you to walk through the anxiety honestly, it's really nuanced. It's really beautiful piece of work, Curtis
Curtis: Yes, and you not only get the ultimate restoration, but you actually will experience less anxiety. Not zero anxiety but less anxiety. Because when anxiety, which is a natural human emotion, we experience in the presence of potential future loss, it is normal, it is natural. It is not a sin, and I explain that in my book, including the claim that, you'll have to read the book to see how it's all laid out, that Jesus experienced anxiety. The gospels are universally clear Jesus experienced anxiety.
So it's not a sin, it's a natural human emotion and experience in the face of loss. Such that when Jesus, the ultimate true human, faced His impending loss in His death, He experienced all of the symptoms, well, not all, but many of the symptoms, classic symptoms, of anxiety and the Scriptures are clear about that.
But there's a difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder. So anxiety disorder is when we are actually responding to anxiety in an unhelpful dysfunctional way. And one of the most pervasive, common, thread that you run through anxiety disorders, and studies have shown this, is this avoidance, is that we're actually trying to avoid anxiety. We're afraid of feeling anxious. But we can't actually avoid it because it's a natural human emotion in the face of inevitable loss.
And, so, what happens is we get on this hamster wheel where we are trying, desperately, to not feel anxious. To do things to actually avoid feeling anxious rather than just suffer it and go through it, and that actually is what creates anxiety disorders. That's what, actually, multiplies the level of anxiety in our life, it's when we feel like it's something that we must make go away.
Alison: Yes, I want to bring this around a little bit to where you started. Because so many of my listeners I know are probably thinking about themselves, but also about their kids. One of the things we do, in my family, to try to not do the anxiety avoidance is we try to categorize it. And, so, we would say things to our kids. So, for example, "Is it big, medium, or small?"
So the point is, of course, there's anxiety, and they could do, "Oh, small."
So if it's small, we just got to live with it; we got to do the thing. If it's big and it's starting to veer toward, then, we'll take a different approach. But just that it's the naming and it's the taming a little bit, it's categorizing, and that's what you're getting at when we avoid it or pretend.
And, as parents, and you talk about this in the book, as a dad, and I want you to talk about it, it was so great. If we're afraid to honor the reality that, "Of course our kids are anxious." Which means we have to do our own work with our own anxiety, we're going to make it worse for them. So tell us a little bit about that, as a dad.
Curtis: Oh, well, this is something that I really spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this in the book. Because I just recognize that we are living in a mental health pandemic. Where the latest CDC report shows one in three of teenage girls felt deeply anxious and depressed enough to at least contemplate suicide, I mean, that's a remarkable statistic. And, so, anxiety is everywhere among teens.
And, so, how do we, then, equip parents to actually be parents in that moment? And I think what I'm trying to call attention to is if your kids are feeling anxious, that's going to trigger, of course, anxiety in you. And it's going to be a complex triggering because, one, you're just going to be anxious for them.
Of course, naturally, as parents, "My kids are suffering." You're going to be anxious. That's one level and, then, there's even a deeper, subtler layer, which is it's quite likely their anxiety is going to also trigger your own childhood experience of anxiety. That's the script, that's the emotional script that's deeply embedded in you.
And, so, if you grew up like me; denying it, minimizing it, not wanting to confront it. There's a good chance that me as a parent, now, are going to fall back on that same script. Because I'm sure you talk about this in your therapy, as parents, we're reliving our childhood scripts.
Alison: We're healing those parts of us as our kids are bringing them to the surface, totally.
Curtis: Exactly. And, so, being a parent of an anxious child is actually an opportunity for you to do some healing of your own anxiety that's deep within you from your own, perhaps, childhood experiences. So, for me, again, because I grew up as an immigrant, in my culture, both, secular as well as Christian, and as an Asian American of this sort of minimizing it. And the way that gets transmuted to me now is I along with being a theologian, I'm also a consultant. I consult organizations, strategy, and leadership and so forth.
And, so, what I end up doing, my temptation as a parent, is I slip into what I call consultant dad, and consultant dad is really trying to solve their problems. What's been the hardest thing, for me, to recognize is recognizing how much so much of my motivation, when I'm being Consultant dad and trying to solve their problems right away, is I'm actually trying to minimize their problem.
I mean, there's part of me that is, actually, legitimately, loving them and wanting to solve their problem. But there's this unnamed emotional motivation that's like, "I want them to be okay because them not being okay is making me not okay and, so, I want to minimize it. And, so, it's a very sophisticated, in some ways, method, although, actually, it's not that sophisticated because my kids can see right through it.
They can't quite exactly name all of it but they recognize something about consultant dad is not right. They don't like consultant dad, and the reason is because they realize at some, either, named or unnamed level. They recognize that consultant dad is me trying to minimize their problem and it's not giving them space to feel what they're feeling.
Alison: Well, and consultant dad is trying to make the anxiety go away, without first naming it, honoring it, putting it...
Curtis: That's right, exactly.
Alison: I love that self-awareness, it's so beautiful. Because we all see it, we all do it, we see it in our spouses, when you just jump in to save the day. So you talk about it as consultant dad, and then what is it that you move toward?
Curtis: Yes, I call him I call this other self, to use your IFS paradigm that we have multiple cells that we can call on. So if there's consultant dad there's also grieving dad. And grieving dad isn't jumping in to solve the problem. Grieving dad sounds something like this "Honey, that sounds really hard. I'm so sorry you're feeling that, and that's totally understandable." And that sounds really different than, "Let's solve this problem; you need to do this."
"Have you thought about this?" It's a different voice, and I'm learning to lean more into and give more space and voice to grieving dad. And what I find is my kids, who are now 22 and 19, that's really the more appropriate dad for them at this age. I mean, there's a time when consultant dad is helpful for when kids need problems to be solved. But at this age, as adults, or near adults, they want somebody who is willing to grieve with them. And it's something that parents can give their kids in ways that no one else can.
And I'm discovering this right now, with my own kids, is that because so many of their peers are also anxious that there's not a lot of capacity, among their peers, to actually grieve with each other. To actually hold each other because they're all overwhelmed themselves with their own anxiety. That peer teens have a hard time, actually, making room for each other's anxieties because they're feeling so overcapacity themselves.
And, so, one of the great gifts parents can offer their kids is not to be the problem solver, although, there are moments and times when that can be appropriate. But to be the one who is grieving with your kid and making room for it and, ultimately, deeply, accepting their kids. Because the parental acceptance of your child, even as they are anxious, is something that any anxious person, but, especially, anxious teens are deeply craving. "Am I okay? Even in my current feelings, am I okay?"
"Am I still loved?"
"Am I still accepted?"
"Do I still belong?" And that's the voice that the parents can give. No therapist, no doctor, no pill can deliver. It is that deep, fundamental, unconditional, acceptance. And that's why it's so important for anxious parents to do their own work of accepting their own anxious selves. This is why I want them to read the book and do the work for their own anxiety. Because it's almost impossible to accept a quality in someone else that you have not accepted in yourself.
If you are rejecting, ashamed about, trying to make go away your own internal anxiety. You will not be able to accept, make space, receive the anxiety in your child. So it's both an opportunity and a necessary means of responding to your child. That your child's anxiety is an opportunity for you to grow in self-acceptance of your own anxiety, and then that self-acceptance will flow back to give back to your child what your child most needs from you.
Alison: It's so good. It's so right, and as you were talking and you were talking about holding that non anxious presence, that safety. I got a picture, in my mind, that's what God does for us. God doesn't say, Jesus doesn't say, "All right, here's the problem."
Jesus says, "I am with you. I am with you in it." It's the presence that we create, and there are so few pockets of that for our kids.
There was a moment I loved, Curtis, where you had that moment with yourself, and it was just so beautiful, where you found yourself being present with your anxiety, from a different place inside. It reminded me of what Henri Nouwen calls the inner voice of love. And it was just a moment. I think, it was while you were in the therapy office, is that right?
Curtis: In therapy, yes, it was in the middle of therapy experience, and my therapist was asked, my form of anxiety disorder is rumination. The turning over of a thought or a scenario, over and over in your mind, all in a desperate attempt to find something that will make the anxiety go away. So that's my anxiety disorder of my move at trying to make anxiety go away.
And, so, I was talking to my therapist about that and she asked me this question, which was so puzzling to me at the time. She said, "Well, is there a different move you can make?" And I thought she meant, "Is there a different mental move?"
And I was like, "I'm trapped, I can't."
And she's like, "No, I'm talking about a different physical move, a different bodily move." Which was just a question I'd never thought of before. And, so, I started to try to just tune in to what my body craved, and what my body wanted and needed in that moment.
And I discovered a move, and I talk about this in the book, and it turns out to be just a very basic reaching across my body and giving my shoulder, it's usually my right hand to my left shoulder, a very gentle pat. And, then, as I was just gently patting myself, I heard myself say out loud, "It's all right, kiddo. It's all right." Nobody has ever called me kiddo before. My parents didn't call me that. No one calls me that. And I was like, "Where is that coming from?"
And I realized, "Oh, that's the voice of what I needed to hear as an eight-year-old when I was a scared as a latchkey kid alone in the house." And I felt like I was receiving that from Jesus because that voice was somebody who knew me deeply. Who was with me even all the days of my life, including when I was eight years old and knew from a place of acceptance and empathy, having experienced anxiety knew exactly what I needed to hear and feel at that point. And that's the beauty of taking our anxiety and experiencing our anxiety with Jesus.
We experience it with the one who knows us, the one who created us, the one who Himself suffered anxiety. I find that so comforting and reassuring to know that Jesus, Himself, the incarnate one, the truly human one, suffered anxiety.
And, so, He does not look down with a wagging finger, with a shaming reproach, with some command for us to just get our act together when we're anxious. He knows, He's been there, He shares it. And, so, the voice we hear from Jesus, in our anxiety, if it is truly the genuine voice of Jesus, will be the voice of empathy and acceptance.
Alison: I love that.[00:43:34] < Music >
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Alison: You see the fruit of that, your own work to embrace and accept, and the opportunity that anxiety has given you to grow in the receiving of that love. You see the fruit of that in your ability to hold that, then, for your daughters.
Curtis: Yes, you hold it for others, hold it for your loved ones, hold it for yourself. It's not like I never experience anxiety anymore. But I hold it very differently, and when you develop these various practices, that I talk about in the book, what I call holding practices. That are different than the avoidance habits, bad habits, we get into, when we can actually hold our anxiety.
I can say with my own experience and an experience passed by research, when you can actually hold anxiety, it doesn't make anxiety go away, but it brings it down to such lower levels. Because we're not on a hamster wheel trying to get away from anxiety. We're just going through it and we're just enduring it, just experiencing it, just suffering it, and it becomes big to medium or medium to too little when that happens.
Alison: Exactly, and it brings you closer to the people that you love in that regard. Curtis, it is such a beautiful book, I'm going to be sending it to lots of folks I know.
Curtis: Oh, thank you.
Alison: It's just a really profound, everything I do I'm trying to integrate faith with psychology, and that's what this book is doing. It's the best of what secular therapy and all these strategies have to offer, combined with this really robust Christian theology, biblical theology. Tell folks how they can find you? How they can get a hold of the book?
Curtis: Well, so you can get a hold of the book at your typical Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, wherever you get your book. So it's called The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry is the Doorway to Your Best Self. So please order, please review, and then also encourage folks to listen into our conversations around a lot of topics, but anxiety is a big theme that we weave through our discussion on our podcast called The Good Faith Podcast. Again, available on any Apple podcast, or Stitcher, or any streaming device.
And we really believe that anxiety is one of the unexplored factors in a lot of our cultural, social, even political struggles we have as Christians. And I'm trying to actually show how anxiety and our, potentially, misshapen responses to anxiety are responsible for how messed up we can get on all these other aspects of our lives. So, Good Faith podcast, please check that out, and The Anxiety Opportunity as a book.
Alison: Well, thank you for just taking your story with anxiety. You also talk about, we didn't get into this, but the other moment in the book where I teared up was where you talked about the idol. And, then, when you finally released all that fear around that particular idol of work to God. How, ironically, you began to have a lot of fruitfulness, and a lot of it was in this area of taking this pain of anxiety and transforming it into these beautiful resources for others.
Curtis: Yes, I found, when I talk to people, they all end up having their own examples of that story. Of when they do, finally, walk through their anxiety, how God opens up amazing opportunities for them to love, care, serve others in the world, and that's the anxiety opportunity.
So thank you for giving me a chance to share that with your listeners. And, listeners, by the way, tune into Good Faith because we're going to have a great guest coming up. You're going to have to tune in every week to find out when this great guest comes, but that's Alison. She's going to be coming on The Good Faith, and I can't wait to have this conversation because, Alison, you and I have some really fun conversations to have about the self and what is the true self.
Alison: I can't wait. I'm looking forward to it. Tell us, as I ask all my guests, Curtis, what is bringing out the best of you right now?
Curtis: So, most recently, I've been discovering music, and I feel kind of funny saying this, but I'm not a music listener. But I finally said, "You know what, I really should be listening more to engage a part of myself that is undernourished. It's the non-rational, more emotional side of myself.
The part that's poetry, not nonfiction. And I realized, "Oh, that's what music is." Music is speaking to the heart, it's speaking to the emotions, and it activates that part. So my daughters finally showed me how to get on Spotify and how to actually open up a whole range of music. And I'm going to put a shout out, the music of Andrew Peterson is bringing me great joy.
So Andrew Peterson is a Christian musician based in Nashville. He's written, released two albums called "The Resurrection Letters" Volume One and Volume Two. I highly recommend that because, as you know, as we've talked about, resurrection is such, for me, interwoven to the Christian response to anxiety. And to have this musical exploration of the Christian promise of resurrection has been so soul filling for me. So that's been the thing that's been bringing me joy.
Alison: Well, I love that. I'm going to go check that out. I love that. I love your call to rethink and reimagine how we're talking about resurrection. I just want to put a plug in, if you just read those two chapters, I want to say it is not this sort of we're just going to sit around in the sky and sing boring songs. Because what hope is there in that?
Curtis: That's right. Yes, how is that a response to anxiety?
Alison: Exactly, I love it. Well, thank you again, Curtis. Check out The Anxiety Opportunity. Check out The Good Faith Podcast, and we're just so grateful for you.
Curtis: Alison, it's been a pleasure, thank you for having me.[00:53:27] < Outro >
Alison: Thank you for joining me for this week's episode of The Best of You. It would mean so much if you'd take a moment to subscribe. You can go to Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts and click the Plus or Follow button. That will ensure you don't miss an episode and it helps get the word out to others. While you're there, I'd love it if you'd leave your five-star review. I look forward to seeing you back here next Thursday. And remember, as you become the best of who you are, you honor God, you heal others, and you stay true to your God-given self.
Philippians 4:6 – "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
The Anxiety Opportunity by Curtis Chang
Resurrection Letters by Andrew Peterson
The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Mary Oliver
"If you can name it, you can tame it" Dr. Dan Siegel
18th May 2023
Debra Black says
This was a nice interview. I think, however, if the guest understood the spiritual tradition and theology of the Catholic Church, he would be amazed. Much of the assumptions of “Christians” and “Churches” expressed here are Protestant not Catholic. In Catholic theology, we know the mind is part of the soul, its faculties. The lower faculties tied to our bodily sensations is where fear, anxiety, and emotions, etc. are housed. Through the healing power of Jesus and spiritual practices of the 2000 year history of saints, anxiety (which ultimately is a form of fear) becomes properly ordered to reason and performs its intended purpose. Then the person can live a more integrated life being held within the embrace of God, and actually experience interiorly His presence within their soul. 🙂
Brian Stitt says
Hi Dr. Cook,
Anxiety is a tough cookie for me to overcome . As I am both a spiritual and a physical North American, I have prayed to God or Jesus to help me with a myriad of problems throughout my life . I do thank the Lord for help daily. Some things are harder to deal with because of hidden actions by larcenous family members and ,God only knows , what the future holds. God doesn’t give me any hints at how to be prepared, other than offering my other cheek. I’ve heard different interpretations of this also, between the Bible and interpreters, I’m confused. I’ll tell you honestly that the Bible confuses me and angers me at the cruelty in the O.T. and confusing passages throughout . I have tried reading it and end up frustrated so I put it aside.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve looked for God throughout my life of almost 70 years. I’m always searching, expecting to one day actually recognize God. Maybe even before I pass away. I do wish it was easier but that’s a tall order .
Anyhow I’ll thank you for the movie,Seven Days in Utopia. It showed me that a teacher can come at the right time. It gave me hope that anything is possible in this world. Your orations are heartwarming