Can you relate when I say I’m good at being hyper-vigilant? Wikipedia defines hyper-vigilance as, “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.”
The hyper-vigilant person most often thinks, “If I let down my guard, I will get hurt. Therefore I must do everything I can to evaluate what’s going on around me. I must watch for cues and clues as to what other people are feeling and make sure I respond in a way that protects me from pain–or protects them from pain.”
Although many things contributed to my hyper-vigilance, the experience that seems the most obvious to me is when I was around eight years old. We had a lot of kids in our neighborhood and we played together. If there was some game where an individual lost, the consequence was often having to crawl on the ground through everyone’s legs and get spanked.
When I lost a game one time, that punishment seemed like an innocent, fun thing. But as I crawled as quickly as I could, I felt someone’s finger push against my clothing into my rectum. I was horrified and crawled even faster. At the end of the line, I jumped up and said I was going home. And simultaneously, I thought, “See what happens when you’re not careful, Kathy? It’s your fault. You should have prevented that.”
Of course, that was a lie but since I took responsibility for everything in my life, both bad and good, I took responsibility for that molestation. And another layer of hyper-vigilance was added. My vow was: “I must protect myself by being aware.”
Any number of ideas or experiences can contribute to hyper-vigilance but hyper-vigilance adds stress to our lives. It also diminishes our trust in God because we have to be in charge.
Do you identify any of these thoughts as you are with other people?
- Am I smiling too much?
- Does she/he like me?
- What is she planning?
- What is her/his intention?
- What’s going on that he/she is not revealing to me?
- He/she doesn’t really like me.
- Protect! Protect!
- Why is he/she acting like that?
- Am I safe to share my heart and my problems?
- What did he really mean by that?
Dan Allender writes that the hyper-vigilant person’s life “…is centered on taking in as much evidence as possible. The goal is never to be surprised. If one knows the enemy and where he is at all times, a measure of control can be attained.” (The Wounded Heart, pg 134)
Yet, how does this show a lack of trust in God?
- I’m in charge of my reputation.
- I will perform to appear loveable.
- I’m in charge of preventing danger.
- I’m afraid of secrets.
- I need to be self-absorbed to stay safe.
- I’m in control of making the opportunities I want available.
Hyper-vigilance tries to take control over life with a grip that says, “I will not let you, God, be in charge. It’s too scary to believe He wants the best for me.”
Those who are not hyper-vigilant find it hard to believe that someone can be so adept at reading the intentions of other people—or at least thinking they are reading them accurately. Since I, Kathy, can succumb to this Strategy, I can mention to Larry, “Did you notice our friend’s subtle reaction to her husband when he talked about her being overweight? She was so unhappy.” Larry will reply, “Really? I didn’t notice.”
My hyper-vigilance can take the form of wanting to step in to help or be whatever another person needs without seeking God’s guidance. I sense a person is depressed and I feel tense thinking I need to do something to draw them out of their misery. I feel responsible rather than making sure I’m the one God wants to respond. Over time, I’ve learned to seek God’s leading before assuming I’m supposed to be another person’s protector or provider. I remind myself: “an opportunity isn’t necessarily God’s open door.” God may want them to seek only Him for their situation or maybe I’m just supposed to be praying for them. I’m sinning if I think I’m the answer to their prayers—and the only answer.
I’m also sinning if my motivation is, “But what will they think about me if I ignore their pain?” Because then it’s not really about seeing God glorified, it’s about protecting how I’m seen by others.
I’m tempted to say I’ll form “Hyper-Vigilance Anonymous” but I don’t think that’s God’s plan. But I do believe He wants us to trust Him that in His love for us, He can protect us. That doesn’t mean we aren’t aware, but it does mean we trust Him as we decide how to respond to life’s seeming threats.
Do you have some wisdom to share about this topic? Please do so. I’d love to hear and so would my readers.