Last fall, I had several panic attacks as I broke up with my boyfriend. My housemate suddenly moved out days later. Our church plant had a dramatic leadership crisis.
I prayed to see what God was teaching me. Flipping through my journal, something caught my eye. I’d prayed to grow in emotional maturity in 2017. What did I do that for?!
Being in these relationships taught me emotional awareness, communication, and empathy. When these relationships ended and I needed social support, God also faithfully used these difficulties to grow my emotional maturity.
Just as maturing into an adult involves taking responsibility for my physical well-being, emotional maturity means taking responsibility for my emotional needs. As a single extrovert who works remotely in a foreign country, I intentionally seek out social time to maintain emotional stability. When I moved to Kenya post-college, though I wished people would reach out, I learned to initiate since I’m organized and need company. I developed a baseline of regular social events on my calendar and a list of friends to call. Unlike with college friends or family, I had to schedule two weeks ahead so Friday night I wasn’t disappointed when everyone already had plans.
This time, I had to initiate my social support. I didn’t have panic attacks when I was around people, so I scheduled something social every day. Once, someone cancelled on me and my housemates weren’t home. I felt panic rising, but I picked up the phone. My friend didn’t answer. I called a second person, a third. Finally the fourth person came over. It wasn’t my friends’ fault they couldn’t be there for me when I needed. I had to persevere to get the support I needed. (I realize this can be too much to ask in some mental illness situations).
When I felt unloved during this difficult time, I questioned my worth to others. But I knew how self-pity could turn me inward to nurse my pain alone. I countered with truth and love. I stood up to my insecurities and reminded myself of all the other people who loved me. I realized their comments reflected more on other issues than who I was.
It also took courage to reach out for social support. My boyfriend and housemate were both suffering from burnout and personal issues, which made me feel my needs didn’t matter in comparison. So when those relationships ended, I worried my friends wouldn’t want to be burdened with my neediness. I felt vulnerable receiving rather than giving comfort and advice. I reminded myself that real friends don’t resent you for struggling, but care about you. I accepted being needy for now. I stepped out, trusting my friends would welcome me for tea and a hug.
Even when you reach out, people may not know how you like to be comforted. I had lost two close relationships. So, I could Skype my best friends and family, who knew just what to say but were in a different time zone. Or, I could reach out to friends next door who didn’t know me as deeply. I sometimes had to explain how I wanted them to comfort me. For instance, I tried going to a life coach, but later realized I needed counseling, and looked elsewhere for that support.
Needing someone to talk to also didn’t give me license to unload indiscriminately. I felt overwhelmed by my concerns about our church plant, but given the culture and my demographic, the pastor wouldn’t respond well to me. I didn’t trust myself to confront him in a godly way either. To avoid spreading gossip and dissent, I couldn’t talk to my church friends. Finally, I called pastor friends at other churches for advice, who persuaded me it would be biblically and culturally appropriate to talk to a church elder. I learned to process my feelings with the appropriate people.
So far, maturing emotionally has been more painful and exhausting than I expected. Often God allows and uses difficult times to shape us into his image. Romans 5:3-4 says, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” As I look back, I thank God for how my heart is growing up and hope in his continued goodness.