As I’ve opened up about my struggles over the years, I have had numerous people—ones that know me fairly well—tell me that if I hadn’t said anything, they never would have guessed that I struggle with social anxiety. I can understand why they would say that. I know that I can tend to come across as confident and extroverted. But the truth is that I’m actually just a really good actor.
Acting has been a coping mechanism for me almost all my life. For those of you who read my blog titled Dark Island Moments, you are already well-acquainted with the fact that I have an outstanding imagination. I have always loved the world of make believe, and have spent most of my life pretending in one way or another.
As a child, I would whisk myself off into imaginary worlds where I could be someone else. I would put on accents, dream up characters and storylines, and create magnificent inventions from discarded junk or the treasures of nature that I came across in the woods.
Life was simpler back then, when pretending was fun. In those days, pretending was just a part of my job description as a child. It was about twinkling eyes and imagining the impossible, not about hiding the truth and numbing the pain.
Like every new teenager, I struggled with questions of identity, self-worth, and acceptance in junior high. But when I was in ninth grade, I genuinely started to hate myself. I entered the dating game young and made compromises in my relationships that, as a girl who had grown up in a Christian family, I had been taught to believe were wrong. I was overridden with guilt, shame, and disgust for myself. But I wouldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t talk about it. I had to be perfect.
So I put on a façade. I became an actor. Every day, on the outside, I would arrive at school as an outstanding student, a promising musician, a gifted writer, a caring friend. But at home, when I would close the door and look in the mirror, I would see nothing but a fraud and a failure. And nobody knew.
I think it was secrets like these that made my social anxiety grow and flourish over the years. Having a secret eating disorder and sneaking around to hide the evidence was bad enough. But then, when it all came out and I had to leave school for the final 6 months of my grade 12 year to receive treatment, it only got worse. Now all of my secrets were laid bare before the world. Now, when I walked into a room, I felt like every eye was on me, watching my every move, scrutinizing what I ate, judging the way I looked. It was horrifying. My act had been exposed and my coping mechanism, destroyed.
I started to hate going to parties. I couldn’t stand being around crowds of people. Church was a nightmare. Youth group was worse. Family gatherings, which I had always LOVED, became agonizing. And all I could think of to do was run. In fact, I spent years on the run. I left home when I was 16, and over the course of the next few years, I moved at least 9 times between 4 different cities, all in an attempt to outrun my past, my fears, my depression, my anxiety.
It never worked. I thought that if I just recreated myself enough times, eventually I would get it right. Eventually the act would just become real and the anxiety would go away. But that never happened. All that happened was that I lost more and more of myself at each stop along the way.
You may have read in A Story and an Invitation that God started to do something miraculous in my life at the end of 2007. He convinced me that it was finally time to stop running. This time, I willingly surrendered the act and laid it down at His feet. And He brought so much healing to my life. He restored my sense of value. His love gave my life purpose and meaning. I discovered that I was made in His image, which meant that my worth was immeasurable! I started to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with this loving God who, at this point, was the only one who actually knew who I truly was.
I still believe that the work of healing that God did in my life in 2007 and the years following was, and is, complete. Though I am still struggling with anxiety today, I have not regressed. Rather, God has simply revealed new information and brought attention to the areas of my life where healing had not yet taken place. I needn’t be discouraged that I am now facing these challenges, because God isn’t finished with me yet.
I no longer struggle with self-hate. I have learned to love myself because of God’s relentless love for me. But sometimes I am still unsure of myself. I do still struggle with insecurity. I do still get inwardly anxious in social settings. On Sunday mornings, when 700 people come and go through the front doors of my church, I am still often tempted to hide out in my office (and sometimes I do). And sometimes… I still have to act.
Maybe you are somewhere on that spectrum today. Maybe you are at your lowest point, and no matter what you do, you just can’t manage to love yourself. Or maybe you are learning to love yourself, but are still really unsure of your identity and find it scary to let people know you don’t have it all together. Maybe being around other people freaks you out because you know you’re not okay inside, and acting gets exhausting after a while. Maybe you’re insecure. Maybe you’re afraid of what people would think if they knew the real you. And so you go through every day the same way I have gone through so much of my life—acting.
I want to tell you that you are not alone. And I want to invite you, today, to lay down the act. This is something that you have to choose to do. No one else can choose it for you. If it is not your choice, it will feel like a violation. But when you choose it—when you surrender it—you might find just a little bit of freedom waiting for you on the other side.
Let’s get real with each other. What are some of the underlying struggles that cause you to feel like you have to put on an act? I’m praying for you today as you ask yourself that question. And as always, I would love to hear about it.