Feeling conspicuous ...
I think I may need help. Over the last couple of months or so, I have developed some strange new symptoms. I’ve been experiencing some new anxiety, finding it difficult to speak and have been avoiding certain social situations. Things have been getting worse too – and symptoms are peaking this week. The only comfort is that this symptomology is restricted to a very specific social situation – anytime when I am asked to give my name. I can manage the surname fine – it’s just admitting to my first name which is the struggle. I have found myself seized with a desire to operate under a false name, or even borrow a friend’s identity for a while.
If you’re not sure why I’m experiencing all of this, scan to the bottom of this page, read my name and then think about it ... it won’t take long!
Being one of the ‘other’ Kate Middletons has been an interesting experience. I even got kicked off facebook for a few weeks, accused of using a false name! But most of all, it has drawn attention to me in situations where usually I enjoy everyone’s normal experience of being relatively inconscipuous. Even in situations which usually would automatically carry a certain respectful anonymity I have found people giggling at my name. After announcing my arrival to the receptionist at a recent hospital appointment for example, I sat trying to read a magazine whilst just within my earshot I could hear the nurse calling over her colleagues in amusement. “Look who we’ve got in today!” she announced, pointing meaningfully at the appointments list. Telephoning to order a new washing machine wasn’t any better. “K Middleton,” said the man on the other end of the line. “Wouldn’t it be funny if your name was Kate.” Ha ha ......
Actually though, most of the time I don’t mind, and have been certain advantages to my name over the last year or so. It gets a definite laugh at every conference I speak at for one. And my daughter is relishing the popularity she carries at school for being Kate Middleton’s daughter! But there have been times when I wanted to be anonymous, or just didn’t feel like being chatty and smiley, where my name has brought unwanted attention on to me. I have regularly felt much more self conscious than I usually do, and had to engage in conversations I would rather have avoided. I have had to sit through situations where I know that other people are laughing about me. I have even started (admittedly only fleetingly!) thinking about how to avoid situations where I might encounter these challenges.
Interestingly, what this has done, apart from giving my friends and church congregation a good laugh (!) is given me something of an insight into the feelings that a lot of people I have supported have described, when talking about how they feel in any social situation. Social anxiety disorder is a recognised clinical condition where people find any social situation cripplingly difficult. The definition describes how sufferers have a persistent fear of social situations where they are exposed to real or imagined scrutiny by others. They experience terrible anxiety in social circumstances, and can sometimes have panic attacks in particularly scary venues. All this means that sufferers often become limited in what they can do and where they can go, and can become effectively trapped in their homes, finding even everyday situations absolutely terrifying.
Social anxiety can be the main emotional issue that someone struggles with – but some degree of it is also extremely common alongside other emotional health problems. Heightened emotions – anxiety in particular - can also make you feel particularly self conscious. This is because your brain becomes set on a kind of constant ‘alert,’ always scanning the world around you for any signs of danger, and picking up much smaller signals than you would usually notice. Some people talk about experiencing this by feeling like they are in a kind of spotlight. They are so aware of everything going on and they assume that other people are looking at them in the same way. If you are feeling like this, crowds in particular are really difficult. And this feeling like everyone is looking at you can often get combined with the unhelpful thought patterns that are part of the emotional problem, leaving people to feel that everyone is laughing at them, or talking about them, or bound to be thinking about them in some negative or critical way. As a result, one of the hardest things about emotional ill health is that it very often leads people to become very isolated – avoiding social circumstances because they are just too much to face. Even good friendships can become very difficult.
One of the reasons I love what I do is that I get very excited as a psychologist about being able to learn from what the bible teaches us about human beings and how they were designed. After all – being designed by God and in God’s image, the bible is kind of like the makers guide to humans. Perhaps the first thing the Bible mentions about humans comes just after God had created Adam (see Genesis 2:18). He (God) looks at him and utters these very significant words: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God looks at the human He has made and says something very basic about the way that human is designed – it is not good for humans to be alone. The actual word used here implies more than just physical loneliness – it is a sense that it is not good for humans to be disconnected from one another. There is something about our setup which means we need to have real and genuine connections with other people. And it does need to be people – in the passage that follows, we see how God brings all of the animals to Adam but none of these have quite the necessary connection he needs – so God creates Eve. Of course then what happens is Adam experiences that ultimate connection – the one we’re all going to be celebrating this weekend, when one human is joined with another as man and wife. But its not just about marriage – all of us need the kind of real connections we can get through friendships and relationships. But it does need to be real - and to meet our needs, to involve a genuine ‘connection.’ I remember the days when I had a tiny baby, and a husband who worked very long hours. Popping out to the supermarket helped if I was feeling a bit lonely, because at least I got to see some other adults – but it was the real friends I had who kept me going, because they took the time to really connect with me.
All of this teaches us something important about that all too common experience of feeling lonely. Did you know that loneliness is one of the most common issues that adults in the 21st century struggle with? When you feel like that, it is not a moment for you to get a grip, or learn how to be self sufficient, or anything else – it is a signal from your brain that something is missing from your world – that something about the way you were created to exist is missing. Humans need other humans – but in our disconnected 21st century culture it can be hard to find those meaningful moments – that all elusive ‘quality time’ we’re all trying to fit in with friends, children, spouses etc. In fact, a whole internet subculture is thriving because of this very need. Sites like facebook and twitter are exploding in popularity because of that very human urge to connect with other people. But no matter how good online connections are – they are not the same as real life face to face times. In fact research shows that whilst those who struggle with social anxiety issues are amongst the most frequent users of facebook, on the whole they do not report that it helps them feel less lonely. In fact the opposite is true as they become caught up in the tempting virtual world, and become more and more disconnected from the real world.
So what about church? How can we as the church help people to find this connection they so badly need? I see one of the most essential roles of the church in the 21st century as being a place where we can both hold on to and promote the kinds of social and relational networks which are becoming more and more rare in wider culture. One of my favourite verses in the Bible comes from the Message translation of James 3:17 – and it is a real challenge to those of us in church leadership. It reads “You can develop a healthy robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting on with each other, treating each other with dignity and honour.” I believe that one of the many positive things we can do in the church is to help people who are struggling with making and forming real relationships and friendships – to help those at risk of isolation to start to reconnect with people around them. But we do this against a challenge - church culture itself can be a struggle. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that they avoid church when feeling low because they feel a pressure to ‘present a happy face’ or to appear a certain way. Messages and teaching about rejoicing even through suffering can be a real challenge if you are finding life tough, and for some the message has been to stay away from church if you don’t feel like rejoicing.
So what can churches do to help those struggling with social anxiety? How do we do that ‘hard work’ to help people get on, and to remember to treat everyone with dignity and respect, not just those who are really confident and finding life ok at the moment?
The answers of course are different for every church – but here are just a few suggestions:
(1) Think about how your church feels for people who are finding social stuff tricky. Its very easy to forget how hard some people find this kind of thing and to assume a level of social confidence that a lot of people don’t have. Ever heard a preacher announce confidently ‘Just turn to the person next to you and say ...’ (usually with some joke on the end!). Done well this can be fine, and really break the ice, but if you are finding talking to anyone hard this can be a nightmare! Be sensitive and sympathetic and don’t forget that for some people coming to church might be the hardest thing they have done in their whole week.
(2) Provide some support for people who do find this hard – especially at those nightmare ‘social’ times. Probably the worst moments in church life for people who experience social anxiety are those when they are suddenly placed in social situations. So group prayer or discussion moments, buffet lunches, meetings or of course the dreaded ‘coffee after church’ time. All of these are actually very challenging social situations where there is no ‘script’ or defined plan. We can do some simple things to make things easier for people. Think about arranging meals etc around a seating plan where you can ensure that people are sat near friends or people they know. Arrange prayer and discussion groups so that each has a leader who can chair the discussion and make sure that everyone is involved. Form a group of people whose main role is to circulate and talk to people who are obviously finding social times difficult and make sure they actually do this, rather than just ending up chatting to people they already know!!
(3) Help people to integrate themselves into the church – don’t get too cliquey!! It is so easy, whether it is on Sundays or at church events, to just talk to the people you already know. It may be the only time you get to see some of your friends! But don’t forget to keep an eye out for people who might not know anyone, or who might not have a group to chat in. Imagine how you would feel without your bunch of friends to talk to – and help someone else out of that situation. As a church one thing we do is run a social event in a local cafe which is all about providing a space where people can meet and chat and grab coffee outside of the church setting, and it is a great way for people to get to know some of the people from our church. We’re working hard to try to produce a culture where everyone automatically talks to and includes new or less confident people – but to do this well we need everyone to be on board, not just the leaders!
(4) Provide planned support for people who are fighting social anxiety. Part of our pastoral care system often involves deliberately planning a way for those struggling with emotional health issues to form and maintain real and meaningful friendships in the church. Sometimes this means that we link them with someone to meet up with regularly for coffee and a friendly chat. Often we are able to introduce them to a group which already exists – maybe a home group or a team running a certain ministry. It can be a lot easier to chat to someone whilst you do the washing up between you than when you are stood nervously clutching a cup of coffee in a sea of people! This is one direct area where we have collaborated with local mental health teams working with individuals, and it means we can help people ‘practice’ the new skills they are discussing and learning in work with a psychologist, occupational therapist or counsellor.
I have a feeling that my own recent symptoms will start to lessen after this weekend. But I know that some of the other people I support will find it a longer struggle. So let’s keep doing what we can to help them to overcome this fear, and enable them to connect with one of the most vital resources we need in order to be healthy and happy – each other.