Lessons from the (Emotional) Arctic Tundra

Have you ever struggled with a weighty sense of failure, a belief that no matter what you try, you’ll make the wrong move?

Have you ever found yourself feeling uncomfortable in a group, thinking: I don’t belong with all these happy people. I’d like to cheer up, but I’m just tense and miserable. Wish I could be like them … ?

If so, dear friend, you are not alone.

I could talk about our current survey all day — 58 of you have filled it out as of this writing! — but I’ll just share these findings:

53 out of 58 respondents (91%) report measuring their self-worth by their productivity and accomplishments (or lack thereof) on any given day.

And 46 out of 58 respondents (79%) report considering their mistakes or misunderstandings not as learning experiences, but as indications of their failure as people.

polar bear, when you feel alone at church

Alone on the emotional Arctic tundra. Image courtesy of nokhoog_buchachon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So many of us are walking around with a judge and jury in our heads. We’re not resting in a sense of sufficiency, in the belief that we’re enough as we are. Instead, we’re putting ourselves on trial, everywhere we go.

And the verdicts often leave us feeling unworthy and alone.

When You Feel Alone at Church

Once upon a time, I struggled with a pervasive sense of disconnection at church. Every few Sundays, the feeling would descend without warning. I’d sit there wishing that I could go home, or that I hadn’t come at all.

The core of what I felt was alone. There in church, surrounded by friends, I found myself on an emotional Arctic tundra: frozen, lonely, and potentially lethal.

Needless to say, this was troubling. I really like the small church I attend. The people radiate love and acceptance. There’s a sense of fun and inclusion, and everyone’s participation is valued. People drum, dance, and tell their stories, and it is beautiful.

So why the sense of doomed separation?

The Breaking Point

One Sunday, I came home and heard myself say to my husband, “I can’t do this anymore.” I didn’t want to give up on church, but I didn’t want to keep feeling horrible either.

So I did what we perfectionists do as a last resort: I asked for help. It would be great if we could get off our emotional Arctic tundras by ourselves, but in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. I usually have to admit that I’m lost to get found.

Reluctantly, I described the problem to my counselor. She asked helpful questions. Slowly, a picture began to emerge.

It was a picture of a young woman who was taught to sing without moving, to keep her hands by her sides. Someone who wanted the freedom and spontaneous praise she saw in others, even as she believed that it could never belong to her.

Thinking “I’m the Problem”

My counselor asked, “In church, do you feel like you have permission to do what feels right for you? That you can choose to clap or not clap, to stay or to leave, if that’s what you need to do?”

There was only one answer that felt true.

“No,” I said. “No, I don’t feel like I have permission to do any of that.”

Words started spilling out.

“If everyone is clapping and dancing, then it seems wrong, disloyal for me not to join. But sometimes I feel guilty about joining, because it doesn’t feel authentic. I end up thinking I’m the problem.”

“So you feel that you have to do what everyone else does, in that context, and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t,” she said.

“Yes!” I said. “And I feel self-conscious because I don’t know what I’m ‘supposed to’ do. The assignment is, ‘Go with the flow,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Where are the rules? Can I get a checklist?’”

“Do you think that this may have to do with past experiences?” she asked.

“I think so. When I was young, I didn’t learn to be spontaneous and playful in church. Instead, I learned to act grown-up and self-contained, the same as others. So now … I guess I’m trying to do both. I’m trying to be authentic and the same as. And I just end up feeling lost.”

Until that day, I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in spiritual achievement.

I’ve been ‘good at’ going to church all my life. I filled out every Bible coloring book in children’s church, and I could be counted on for answers to thorny doctrinal questions in youth group. I was the first of my friends to be baptized, and I never missed a day of devotionals. Then came leadership positions, scholarships … the list goes on. In other words, “Hi, my name is Caroline, and I’m a religious performance addict.”

So when I came to a place that encouraged me to let all that go and just be myself — the place I’d always secretly longed for  — I didn’t know how to handle it.

When You Feel Alone at Church … Remember This

“You know,” my counselor said, gently, “Growth is not a strictly linear process. Just because you don’t want to clap on a given day doesn’t mean you’re somehow failing spiritually.”

laughter, when you feel alone at church

The polar opposite of the emotional Arctic tundra. Photo credit: Sarah Bayot

So where does that leave us, we who measure our spiritual self-worth by our accomplishments? What do we do when we’re stuck on that emotional Arctic tundra, swept away by self-blame?

The first thing to do is to bring our hidden rules to light. If we don’t recognize or acknowledge them, we can’t see how they’re impacting our lives. Ask yourself: do any of these statements ring (uncomfortably) true?

If I spend time with this group, I really have to have my ‘act’ together.

If I show up for this event, I have to be at my best – that is, superhuman.

If I attend church, I have to act exactly like everyone else.

Once you see your hidden rules for what they are, have the courage to ask: is this really how I want to live?

I know – it’s scary to see that we have choices. When we realize that we’ve been imagining those prison bars … that we can turn the keys … it brings up all kinds of fears and anxieties.

But what happens when we embrace our freedom, even though we’re afraid? It’s revolutionary. As Anne Lamott writes in Operating Instructions:

“[We] decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.”

Can we show up for our lives and not be ashamed? I believe that we can. It will take some work and some help from our friends, but it’s possible. That’s why I took a risk and told this story at a church service.

Instead of pretending to have it all together, I told my friends the truth. And guess what? They didn’t reject me. Instead, they laughed and cried and held me close. Thanks to them, I know that recovery is possible.

It’s possible to step out of the cold and into the warmth … the warmth of waiting arms.


Do you struggle to believe in your own worth? What do you do when you feel alone at church? Join the conversation in the comments!

Today’s the day! At noon CST, I’ll be contacting the randomly-winner of our survey contest. Missed it? Don’t worry, the survey form is still open, and I welcome your response. I’ll close entries at noon CST tomorrow, Tuesday, July 1.

Finally, A Wish Come Clear will be taking a brief 4th of July holiday hiatus, returning with a new story on Monday, July 14. Until then, dear friends!


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22 thoughts on “Lessons from the (Emotional) Arctic Tundra

  1. Judy says:

    I almost laughed and cried at the comment ‘So I did what we perfectionists do as a last resort:I asked for help” I often wonder what it is that makes us this way, and I see my young adult children, especially one of them, struggle with this. The only thing I know is Anne Lamott is on to something, and it does get easier the older I get. Not easy, but easier. Your blog is so courageous and full of life and love. My respect and admiration goes out to the bloggers I follow, I am a very good reader, but just trying to post a small comment can be daunting. It is nice to know there are fellow perfectionists out there making the effort towards showing up each and every day. Have a great holiday.

    • Judy, thank you so much for sharing this! It is daunting to press “post” and I’m glad you did. 🙂 And I agree about asking for help – it seems like the hardest thing in the world sometimes, like this insurmountable climb … and then once I do ask, I feel so relieved. Invariably, I think, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?!” Perhaps with time, and trust in the process, we can get there a little faster. Hope you and yours have a great holiday too!

  2. Hi Caroline,

    I enjoyed your post – I think this kind of fear affects many people, but it’s often “invisible” because people who feel embarrassed, avoid such circumstances, leave or never participate – and often those people are seen as “snobby” or aloof, or responding to current threats – when it would be better for all if the honesty about upbringing or past fears were made more open – as you did.

    I happened to join a black gospel choir (I attended so many of their practices that members saw from my sitting down movements, that I was learning and loved the music, so they invited me). When we performed on stage, I was really grateful for the simple foot movements we did in synch, just side, stop, side, stop – on cue from the conductor. Simple enough, and since we did not use written notes to learn the music, a glance at others beside me, could cue me in to pick up the movement if I got lost for a minute. I learned in those experiences, that it’s only those basics that help to show fitting in – learning African music means learning to listen to the whole, and fit one’s part in it – and it’s a process learned in the listening and doing.

    Takes a little practice, but only the simplest movement is enough to show one cares and is enjoying the song and the experience. And in church, sitting and tapping one’s fingers, or bobbing head is fine! Certainly in their churches, I also saw some who did not stand when others did, and being real is understood as the value, and if that means sitting out a song or some active moments, real is what is valued.

    AND, when I know that’s valued, and that my pace is accepted, I can relax more – and guess what – when a song or beat that I enjoy comes up, I feel free to join in, with small movements – my confidence grows during a song – as does that of many others, and I may feel more comfortable moving more openly – later becomes hard to sit completely still – my foot is always tapping, or fingers, whatever!

    • Cassie, thank you – what a fitting story to share here! I can just picture you there in your seat, learning the music, and then becoming a part of the group – beautiful. And I love your point that small movements do matter, that they show you are present to the music and the moment. Thank you again for sharing from your rich experience here!

  3. Caroline – you write such valuable posts! Your genuineness, vulnerability, and honesty just come shining through. I don’t know about anyone else, but I need to see those kinds of things from others. I look forward to every post you publish. Thank you!

    • That is so encouraging – thank you! It helps to hear that the stories resonate with you, because the more vulnerable the post, the more I struggle with doubt about pressing publish! 😉 I’m thankful to be writing to you, Laura – your kindness and support comes through your words as well.

  4. Dauna Jendrek says:

    I was totally feeling this way yesterday at church. I was able to push and pull myself to stop fitting into the form of what church was asking of me and stepped out of service and took a moment to be with myself, and find myself. Glad I’m not the only “sane” one. Thanks for the post Caroline, love getting to know you more 🙂

    • What a sweet synchronicity – I’m so glad the post came along at the right time for you, dear Dauna. And I appreciate you sharing from your own experience – those small moments when we step out to take time to refocus and breathe can be so powerful. I’ll be following your example! 🙂 xo

  5. Great post, Caroline. I’ve always said that perfections is a socially acceptable form of a abuse. I’ve worked hard to change my ways and it’s still a challenge, but I’ve come a long way, baby. Thanks for your wonderful insights.

    • Here’s to coming a long way! Great to see you here, Marcy – I’m glad that the post spoke out to you, and that you’re moving forward with your writing too – your FB page is taking off! 🙂

      • You’re so sweet that you remembered my FB page, Caroline. I will ALWAYS, ALWAYS be grateful to you for giving me that last nudge of encouragement I needed to JUST DO IT! Your blog is beautiful, informative and inspiring. You’re definitely going to go places. xo ~

        • Anytime, Marcy! It’s all about taking small steps forward, even though we’re probably going to be afraid a lot of the time! 😉 And you are most welcome – so many people have helped and encouraged me along the way; it’s an honor to pay it forward. xo

  6. cindy says:

    I have the same experience but with a different perspective. I find I am ok with “doing my own thing”, but end up judged for being that way…even by my family, who have known me for my whole life…. (as the weird one!) Thanks for the posting….it made me have new thoughts, which I love…..

    • So true, Cindy – it can be really tough not to internalize other people’s judgments, especially those of people we love. Brava to you for sharing here, and for the courage it takes to ‘do your own thing’ and be YOU. 🙂

  7. Your post reminded me of a book I am half-way in reading. It is called, “A Confident Heart” by Renee Swope. My sister-in-law already completed one woman’s home group program using that book. Last I heard she may start again with a new group who wanted to join already. Perhaps you already have heard and read this book. It is loaded with Scriptures.

  8. Caroline, this site, your story, your writing, your words are truly beautiful.

    I have been a “religious performance addict” as you called it since as early as I can remember, and have only started on a journey out of that addiction in the past 2-3 years. My journey out of it started to happen several years before, but it wasn’t till about two and a half years ago that I started to really see how truly afraid I was of being myself, of belonging, and of being vulnerable. It all started when I read a couple of books, one was called “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Brene Brown and the other is now known as “Faith Unraveled” by Rachel Held Evans. These two books shook me to my core and led to me finding the courage to take the key I had been clasping for years and finally open up my closet of doubt, fear, unanswered questions, hurt, and disillusion with my faith, the church, the community I grew up in, and my own life.

    Since reading those books, I have become an avid reader of several blogging communities, including Brene Brown’s and Rachel Held Evans, where I learned that I wasn’t the only one like me out there questioning everything I had once believed in so deeply and so strongly. Since then it has been a slow, long journey of self discovery and a long time of being on what you so aptly described as an “Emotional Arctic Tundra.” In the beginning and even for years afterwards, as I found the courage to look inwards and begin pulling at the layers, there were very few I felt safe enough to admit it to. Meanwhile somewhat concurrently, my husband being in the military, had also received an assignment overseas to Japan. We have since been living here for the past three years. When we first got here we quickly learned after a couple of months of searching both on and off base that we had yet to find a church that felt like home — so we approached some new found friends who were in a similar boat about the idea to try starting a house church. We soon found ourselves loving this and continued to be active within the house church for the next two years. In the midst of this though, I read the books, and started to slowly begin to open up. As I did that I only found myself growing more angry, more doubtful, and more lost, and yet on the inside I had never felt so truly honest and vulnerable. Thankfully I had a husband and a couple of friends who have been God sends through this process, encouraging, supporting, and even pushing me to embrace the process and to move beyond the crippling belief that who I am wasn’t enough. In the past year, it all culminated in me finally finding the courage to take a break from church altogether, and to give myself time to rediscover and rebuild my faith without constantly fighting the pressure to model it after someone else’s or according to standards that I thought people wanted me to meet. It’s been a messy, crazy, often tear-filled process, but one that has been utterly freeing in finding the sheer peace and grace that come with just being me — flaws and all. I still have so far to go. We will be moving back stateside by the end of the year, and I have not given up on church altogether. I miss the community of it, and we hope to find one when we move again — but I know now that I want it to be one where I find people who accept me and push me to be me, questions and all.

    Your post brought tears to my eyes in the reminder that this long journey I have been in does not make me crazy, and that somehow again I find that I am not the only one out there. So many times when we struggle to be vulnerable, to be brave, to be ourselves — the first, second, and many attempts after, I have found I still struggle with feeling alone. So I always appreciate being reminded that I am not. Through this last year I also began dreaming about starting my own blog, as there were so many writers out there who I felt had literally touched my life and whose words healed my soul again and again, that someday I wanted to find the courage to someday participate and maybe even find a way to give back. So I began researching, brainstorming, and secretly writing offline saving it in word documents on my computer for months. Part of this was due to a busy work year with working part – time, working on my masters online, and volunteering the rest of my time with a community organization on base. However the deeper reason was more that I was terrified of how vulnerable and honest my writing was, and was scared to see how anyone outside of my husband and select few friends who knew about the project would react. Anyways, long story short, I finally found the courage to start up this summer, after my work commitments ended and I found enough time on my hands that I could no longer run from my insecurities and fears.

    Anyways, I have no idea really why I just poured out a truncated version of my life story in your comment feed, but reading your post felt like you somehow managed to reach through the screen and pin point so much of what I have felt and what I continue to struggle with. I found your site via your twitter account as I saw you were one of my recent new followers, and I am so very glad that you found me. I look forward to exploring your site and reading more. When it comes to the blogging world, given I am brand new at being anything other than a secret observer, I want to take the time now to let other writers know how they can truly change and affect someone’s life. Your words matter. Your message is beautiful. You have so much value, and your site is a beautiful testament to that simple truth. Even to someone who just found it an hour ago.

    I hope I haven’t bored you too much with the super long, messy, wordy comment — but as long as we are not being perfect and allowing for imperfections — wordy is a big one of mine.

    Thank you.

    Kallie Culver

    • Kallie, I stumbled upon Untold Stories via the SheLoves Magazine monthly linkup, and I am so glad that I did! Congratulations on being brave and putting your work out there. I felt immediately welcomed and at home upon visiting your site, and I can’t wait to read more … this is a kindred spirit moment for sure. 🙂 Thank you for pouring out your story – I’m honored that you shared it here. I hope that someday we can meet so that I can say thank you in person! xo

  9. Anne-Marie says:

    “Once you see your hidden rules for what they are, have the courage to ask: is this really how I want to live?” Great question, wonderful humor, and lots to think on. Thanks Caroline, for linking up with this super-helpful and thoughtful piece. I think so many of us, in any group situation but especially church, can have a tough time feeling like it’s ok to bring who we are into the group-think thing. Getting help is a great place to start.

    • You’re most welcome, Anne-Marie! And well said: it is indeed a challenge to bring ourselves to a group, rather than just presenting a mirror image of others, or what we think other people want to see.

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