How to tell the chronically anxious from the truly concerned

I am no expert on this, but it is feeling important to identify. So here is a first attempt at laying it out. These are my own thoughts, and I’m willing to be wrong about them so I can learn.

I’ll use the colour of the paint on the walls or of the carpet as my made up example of what the person might come to me or other leaders about. That seems a safe example. If I used a particular hymnal, people might think I’m trying to actually say something about the hymnal. For the record, I’m ok with the colour of the walls and carpets.

First of all, as the person is speaking, I try to sense the person’s mood, emotion, feeling or ‘energy’ behind what they are mentioning. If the person is really wound up, excited, steamed, or ‘charged’ in how they present their concern, and the energy is mainly negative, meaning it is ‘against’ something, especially something that has recently changed, I am likely dealing with a chronically anxious person. But that is only one category. The person could truly be in emotional or spiritual distress and have that kind of emotion pent up. The key is more that the person is opposed to the colour of the wall or the type of carpet that has been put in. In other words, the energy is oppositional energy in a person who is chronically (consistently) anxious. As my uncle used to joke, mixing Dutch and English, they will be “helemaal opposed against it” (Wholeheartedly opposed against it). This oppositional energy works a lot like static electricity in a home. Remember what we used to do as kids? We would purposely shuffle our feet on the carpet until we built up a static charge and then touch someone else by surprise and hear the snap/crackle and see them jump. I remember darkening a room and us being able to see the spark. Well, oppositional energy builds in people, and they go around zapping that off on others. Sometimes those others then need to go zap it off on a new person. Healthier people simply touch something metal to get rid of that unpleasant energy in themselves.

Negatively charged people will be real hard pressed to provide if you ask them for something with positive energy.

If the person uses manipulative language or accusing language that you can’t find truth to, it might be a consistently anxious person. Anyone who starts a statement with “Surely you would agree pastor, that the existing colour is too bright for a place of serious worship” is likely trying to manipulate me into a position on the colour of the walls by making it clear they expect agreement with them (in their insecurity). If someone says “You are ruining my experience of church by not changing the paint back to what it was….” well, there are a couple of clues in that. First of all, they are blameshifting in accusing me as the pastor, second they are attributing massive amounts of power to me as pastor that I don’t have, thirdly they are not taking any personal responsibility for having to personally reflect on what they themselves can do to adjust.

If the person’s objections, over time, consistently have fear of some kind behind them, that is a huge clue that you are dealing with an unsettled person who might not be mature or emotionally or spiritually healthy. Fear and chronic anxiety go hand in hand. Fear causes the body to produce its own adrenalin. And adrenalin is an addictive substance that does a lot of the same things in the brain that some of the drugs people get addicted to do. Can you imagine someone addicted to being fearful (or intensely angry – which does the same thing?). In the church? Well, I have known some. There is no point changing things to calm them down, because they ‘need’ to be producing adrenalin. I have to be careful myself, because procrastination does the same adrenalin rush thing, and I tend to do things last minute too much, mainly because I like the energy burst of it.

If the person’s issues they bring forward are in the end always about them being unhappy, with implied ‘others’ who rarely are with them presenting an issue to you, you are likely dealing with a consistently anxious person. First of all, over time you can recognize the self-centeredness of it, that it is really all about their individual happiness, their continuing to feel comfortable, and their feeling like they have power. The person will be trying to claim more and more ‘power’ for themselves. Claiming to represent ‘a group of us’ is often simply a technique of appearing bigger and more powerful than the person really is. Anxiety creates the need to do that. Inner peace would not. We’ve all known a person, I’m presuming, who uses the kind of manipulative statements I’ve given above in a way that when they come to you after church or over coffee and say “surely you would agree that the pastor’s hair colour is wrong” and you don’t know how to start disagreeing. Right? Well, that person will then come to the pastor and give your name as someone who “thinks just like I do.” It’s not true.

If the person contradicts themselves in bringing their concern to the fore. I’ve used the example elsewhere of the man who stood in a congregational meeting to object to the amount of money the pastor was being paid to cover mileage expenses, and then a few minutes later stood to complain that the pastor had not made a ‘special’ trip to visit his new grandchild, but had ‘only’ stopped in on the way back from somewhere else (to reduce mileage). That’s a contradiction. That is inconsistent. That is what anxiety does.

If the issue presented does not feel like the real issue, you are likely dealing with a person with troubles that are deeper. They may have a real need you can help them with, but only if they will let you explore it with them. If they won’t, then they prefer to be upset. But you also don’t have to address their issue, because it is not the real issue. This can take some time to uncover. But if you change the colour of the paint in one room based on their objections, you soon find they are back saying the carpet in another room is not right. If they will let you explore the roots of their anxiety, it may well be that the paint is the same colour of the room their beloved grandmother died in, and they are disturbed to be reminded each time they enter the room. That is something they can work on, but only in the sense of them growing to where it is not a problem so much anymore.

And finally, for this off the top of my awareness list, if the person can’t point out how the item they are complaining about makes a spiritual difference for the congregation, you might be dealing with a consistently anxious person.

That’s a start.

So, just as with Israel in the wilderness, what appeared to be food and water crises were actually faith and trust crises at a deeper level, as leadership in the church today we need to learn to identify the deeper, spiritual issues (faith and trust in God are spiritual issues) and address them, if people will let us.

I’ll finish with an even quicker summary of signs a person bringing forward an issue is speaking from a healthy emotional and spiritual place.

First, they may have some strong feelings but they can own them and name them instead of projecting them unawares. Those feelings stay with them, and are not spread in a contagious way, because the people know they are their own feelings and they need to deal with them.

Second, a healthier person will not try to manipulate you. They will be able to state their concern about the colour of the room, explain why they see it as a problem, and be satisfied that you know of their concern, and will leave it to you as a leader to decide. A healthy person will welcome alternate points of view and reasons for them. They will hear them. They will be able to say “That makes sense, I hadn’t thought of that.” A healthy person can live with the knowledge that not everyone sees things exactly as they do.

Third, a healthy issue-raiser will not make accusations about your personal motives in choosing the colour of the carpet. Or other speculative accusations. Such accusations usually come with an ‘intent to destabilize’ not to resolve an issue.

Fourth, a person who wants to debate and discuss in healthy ways will not try to make you fearful, because they are not fearful, only wondering or concerned. You will be able to remain calm at your core, as they are, and although you might be passionate about each making your case, you will not feel your relationship is at risk by disagreeing.

Fifth, often a healthy issue-raiser will be genuinely concerned for the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of others. They will not ‘use’ them as a power tool, but will be willing to even suffer some themselves so others can grow.

Sixth, if the person can be not only calm in raising their important concern (doesn’t mean they are not nervous), but can be clear and consistent in explaining it, without contradicting themselves in a big way, you are likely dealing with someone it is worth spending more time with.

Seventh, if the person can name and take ownership of ‘root’ problems that might be behind their concern, and asks you to help them sort that out so they are not out of order in their objection to the colour of the paint, you are dealing with a fairly emotionally healthy person who can be taken seriously. It means they’ve done some deeper reflection themselves before they even came to you. That is worth honouring.

So, that’s a bit shorter, but I hope you get the picture. There is a difference between someone who is raising issues because they are chronically anxious, and those who do so because they truly see a danger that might be worth addressing. It takes time to learn the difference. But a council, and especially elders, who are not equipped to identify the difference will be at the whim and behest of the chronically anxious in the congregation. Those anxious ones – if presented with an opportunity to  explore and heal from the deeper issues driving their anxiety – who refuse it or deny it exists, need to be loved, and treated with compassion, but the congregation and the Lord are not served well by the leadership continually bending to their stated needs.

It’s really all about maturity in the Christian walk, and we all have a lot to learn there. I feel like I myself have just begun. This too is a learning process for me, so if you have questions or need clarification, ask me.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Elza Bouwman
    Jul 12, 2014 @ 16:00:23

    An emotionally healthy person knows the importance of taking responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Since I have control of these, nobody can make me think, feel or act in any way unless I give them the right to do so. This was one of the hardest lesson I had to learn, and occasionally still fall into the trap of blaming others. I always refer to it as the difference between a victim and a survivor. Two people can have the same thing happen to them For instance, I tripped over a uneven spot in the sidewalk and hurt my toe. A victim will immediately start to look for someone to blame. They will blame the shoe company for not putting thicker toe guards in the shoe, they will blame the city for negligent for not fixing the sidewalk cracks. I will blame my parents for not insisting I learn to walk without shuffling. The list of people to blame are endless. A survivor will take responsibility. I wasn’t picking my feet up so hit my toe. Next time I will not shuffle. I chose to wear shoes with exposed toes, thus running the risks of hitting them. I might still choose to wear those shoes but understand the risk. If the uneven sidewalk is really bad, I can write a letter to city council, outlining the issue to make sure they are aware of the problem. I may not be able to control the things that happen to me, but I can always control how I respond, and if I respond badly, well there is a lesson to be learned in that as well.


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