Chelsie Hightower: What My Battle With Anxiety in Hollywood Taught Me About God's Love
She competed on two of the most popular dance television shows of all time. She taught a rodeo cowboy, a rapper, a “Bachelor,” and Michael Bolton how to dance with millions watching. But on this week’s episode of “All In,” Chelsie Hightower discusses the anxiety she faced when the cameras stopped rolling.
I think that I'd felt like, whether I could articulate it at that time or not, I felt like I'd lost God's trust in me and His love for me...I learned that His love is far different than I thought it was.
Watch Chelsie's "So You Think You Can Dance" iconic performance of "Bleeding Love" here.
Follow our new "All In" Instagram account by clicking here.
Learn more about Chelsie's dance camp, Dance Elevated, here.
Read more about Chelsie's story in this article by Morgan Jones published by the Deseret News in 2016 here.
Watch Chelsie and Derek Hough's Emmy-nominated choreography here.
Read Elder M. Russell Ballard's "Stay in the Boat and Hold On" general conference talk here.
1:06- The Story of Morgan and Chelsie's Friendship
6:38- Guided to Dance
15:02- "So You Think You Can Dance"
16:45- Anxiety Resurfaces
23:00- Losing Footing on the Foundation of God
36:12- "Dancing With The Stars"
42:28- Running on Empty
44:14- A Prayer in New York
47:59- The Love of God
51:52- What Does It Mean To Be All In The Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Morgan Jones: You may remember watching Chelsie Hightower's iconic performance of "Bleeding Love" on Fox's hit TV show, "So You Think You Can Dance." You know the one with the briefcase? You may have even voted for her all night long. But today I talk with Chelsie about the anxiety she faced when the cameras were off. Chelsie Hightower won her first dancing national title when she was 11-years-old. She is best known for appearing on "So You Think You Can Dance" and competing on seven seasons of "Dancing with the Stars." She is an Emmy-nominated choreographer and the founder of Dance Elevated, a camp which seeks to "change the way dancers view themselves and their journey in dance from the inside out."
This is "All In," an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, "What does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" I'm Morgan Jones and I am so grateful to have my friend Chelsie Hightower here with me today. Chelsie, welcome.
Chelsie Hightower: Thank you so much. I'm happy to be here and yeah, it's gonna be fun.
MJ: Chelsie's over here mimicking me doing the intro because she's been force-fed these episodes as a result of being my friend.
CH: I have listened to every one of these episodes...after every single one, I'm like, "Morg, that was great. Another doozy, loved it," thinking secretly in my head I'm like, "She's gonna ask me to do this one day, just one day be patient" and here I am!
MJ: So when I asked her, I was like thinking "This is Chelsie doing me like a solid by coming on this podcast." And she responds back and says, "I've only waited my whole life for this."
CH: In actuality, I've been waiting six painful months.
MJ: Chels, You can't crunch on your ice while we're doing this.
CH: I'm so sorry. No, but can I say, I'm sorry, this is my favorite podcast, obviously because it's you and I think you're amazing. And I just think you're the best but I love this podcast so much because I think it's so important. And so I'm happy to be able to be here and to be able to share whatever insights I have that might resonate with people.
MJ: I didn't even pay her to say that.
CH: I really mean it.
MJ: Well, I feel like first of all, we should probably establish as people have probably already picked up on but my boss Erin Hallstrom, was really concerned about whether or not we were going to disclose the level of our friendship. Chelsie and I are best friends. We have been for five years now.
CH: Should we go back to the beginning?
MJ: Yeah, let's go back. Do you want to walk them back?
CH: So there we were...visiting teaching, walked into this basement apartment. I don't even know whose apartment it was.
MJ: I don't either. I couldn't. I feel bad that I don't remember whose apartment it was but yes.
CH: Yeah. The third person was there.
MJ: She was.
CH: She was there. And there was Morgan Jones and you had your curly long...it was more curly back then I think. I feel like this is gonna sound like weird. Like, I remember what you were wearing, but I feel like you were wearing something bright.
MJ: That is a little bit weird. But um, yeah. RIP visiting teaching, but we have visiting teaching to thank for bringing us together. And I remember Chelsie had a friend that had just moved to North Carolina. And so I said that I was from North Carolina. And instantly...
CH: Did I? Who was my friend?
MJ: Yeah, it was Camille Gardner.
CH: Oh, that's right. Shout out Camille if you're listening what's up? But yeah, I remember that.
MJ: And then after this visiting teaching visit, we both arrived to sacrament meeting at the same time. And here I was thinking this girl just got off national TV. I wasn't really a "Dancing with the Stars" fan but I knew enough to know that she had just been on national television. And I was like, "She's not going to want to be friends with me," and Chelsie at the same time...We've relived this before but Chelsie at the same time is thinking...
CH: Well, I was thinking, "This girl is really cool. I don't know if she's gonna want to be my friend." And anyways, that could go back to like, we could like break down the psychology behind that...
MJ: But I do think there's like a lesson to be learned there, right? You know, which is that a lot of times people want to be your friend and all it takes is being willing to take the first step which in this situation Chelsie said, "Can I sit with you?" in sacrament meeting. And I was like, of course you can and from then on.
CH: Then you came to my house that night. This is back when they also had word prayer. RIP ward prayer. Do they still have that?
MJ: I think some people still have ward prayer, we just don't go to it.
CH: Oh, shoot, okay. Crap. Now I just outted myself. Yeah, back when I had hosted a word prayer at my house. And then we just talked for like two hours after that. And I remember thinking, it's so nice to find somebody who I feel like I can connect to on a real like gospel basis level.
MJ: I remember thinking, wow, like, here we are having a conversation about like scripture and a love for the Lord. And that was like so refreshing I think just because I think there's no better way to connect with people than to connect on a foundation of believing in Jesus Christ. And the cool thing with our friendship has been that that's kind of been the foundation all along. And so Chelsie and I do have some things where we're the same, like our faith is very important to both of us. But we also have some things were we're pretty different.
CH: Yeah, pretty different, like, scheduling things.
MJ: Chelsie's always late.
CH: I'm always late.
MJ: I'm always...
CH: Always on time. But it's good for me because it does help me to like think about "Okay I need to be more on time," like I need to like, except for dinner the other night. I know. I was 15 minutes late.
MJ: But then there are other things where I'm, I've learned a ton from Chelsie. And so I just am so excited for listeners to have the opportunity to get to know you today through this conversation, hopefully.
CH: Thank you.
MJ: It's an honor to have this chance to introduce listeners of this podcast to the Chelsie Hightower.
CH: Thank you. I'm actually really excited to be here because the gospel has been, it's one of the things I'm most passionate about. It's a vulnerable place to be sometimes, but yeah. I love it. So I'm excited.
MJ: Perfect. Well, first of all, just before we kind of dive into a deeper conversation, I'd love for those who are listening that aren't familiar with your background and your story, which I feel like is kind of it's a very faith-promoting story just because you can kind of see God's hand throughout it. Can you give people just a little bit of background on you, Chels, where you came from, the kind of family you grew up in. And then kind of how you started to have these incredible opportunities, the kind that little girls all over the world dream about having.
CH: Yeah. So I was raised in a family of five older brothers. People often hear that and they think, "Oh my gosh, she must have been so protected," and it was just the opposite. They saw me as their punching bag as their, you know, their person to practice their tackles on in the hallway. But it was great. And I love them now. So yeah, I was raised in a family that very much preached the gospel.
MJ: I found this out the other day, Chelsie's family was like the family that sang in church together on a regular basis so that gives you a little bit of a visual.
CH: Yeah, that's right.
MJ: Little Chelsie, the only girl with a bunch of boys.
CH: That's right. We sang "Families are Forever," families can be together forever, and me and my brother just completely missed our whole line "While I am in my early years," just didn't come in—the rest of my family's like, "What? What was that?" Anyways, great story.
So anyways, home life was good for the most part, you know and I think the gospel always makes things a lot better. But we definitely didn't always have the easiest of paths. And I think I saw from an early age, this idea of a perfect family and what I thought was a perfect family and have a complete paradigm shift in the experiences that we went through and the things that I found out and the things that we found out from a young age. So it definitely wasn't this perfect Mormon family and I'm grateful because of that because it taught me the reality of God and it taught me the reality of His love for us and what that actually means and how that sustained me throughout the rest of my teenage years and into my career. And that really gave me the foundation for who I wanted to be. And not just that, but my mom was a great example of the type of woman that I wanted to be. But those experiences really taught me about God and the Atonement and how you can be strengthened through all of that. Those experiences were not the typical LDS, Mormon family experiences. And that was a little bit earth-shattering for me as a 12 year old initially, in first finding certain things out. So then I had started dance when I was about 9-years-old at an elementary school in Utah, which is the only elementary school at the time to have a ballroom program.
MJ: In the country.
CH: Yes, in the country. Did I say that?
MJ: I don't think so.
CH: Yeah, in the country. Yeah. So it was pretty miraculous that we even ended up in these boundaries to be able to be in this specific school and we ended up there because I really believe that my parents were prompted to go to this specific place, to this specific school. So I started dance at my elementary school, and I hated dancing previous to that, like, despised it. Like, I remember crying before going to dance class and my mom forcing me to get in the van. I was just like, "No, I can't do it. I hate it." But I was also really, really shy when I was young. And so I think that definitely played into it. And yeah, and I was just had five older brothers and so I just wanted to be a sports star in a sense like my older brothers, you know, not really a sports star, but I wanted to play sports and I was a big tomboy. And so anyway, so fast forward, fell in love with dance, several more opportunities were opened up for me. The place that I ended up attending, or when I first started jazz and ballet was a studio that I ended up going to on a whim I just had a friend that was going to dance auditions one day and she was like, "Hey, come with me to dance auditions." And I was like, Okay. Never had thought about it before my whole entire life. At that time, my family really didn't have the type of money to be able to support that. But my mom, let me do that. And then through that experience, I was able to train in in some other styles. And then during that time, my mom forced me to stay in a BYU ballroom program, which I have nothing against BYU, but I just did not want to be doing ballroom at that time in my life, because I just wanted to dance. And she forced me to keep my foot in the door and she just said, I don't really fully understand why you just need to. And I was like "Fine, I guess I will," I did not want to at all. And then this family called BYU and they said, "Hey, we need a recommendation for a girl to come and to dance with our nephew who we pay for all of his training for" And I remember thinking why is, his name is Keith Barton, nice guy, "Why is Keith Barton calling my mom? This is so weird." And they were pretty like well known in Utah at the time, because they were doing dance on a whole different level. We were all getting our dresses made by like the neighbor down the street. And they were getting their dresses made in England and getting coaches from LA and New York. And so it was a pretty unique opportunity. And one for me to be able to walk into, coming from a home that did not provide those opportunities and was not even able to even start to provide or begin to provide those kinds of opportunities. To be able to have this opportunity was huge. And it was just something that I knew that it wasn't anything but God opening doors for me, Heavenly Father opening doors. And I do think it's important to mention that I do think that he opens doors when we put our trust in Him. And even as from a young age and as a young girl without really fully understanding the Atonement or anything, I did the little things, I did the small things. And I did say my prayers and read my scriptures and write in my journal. And I think that it is by those things that He's able to bless you as you put your trust in Him, He puts His trust back in you. So they were good habits to build from a young age and I believe that because of those things that he was opening doors for me to be able to walk through those doors and potentially lead to what I ended up doing later on. So I competed for the next two years in ballroom on a national and worldwide scale. It was both awesome and not awesome and treacherous at the same time. That's when I first really started to understand or deal with anxiety and performance anxiety. Not really being able to put a label on it but really competing on a very, very high level. And knowing that I felt different than other kids, knowing that I was struggling with something that I didn't see anybody else struggling with because you don't really see anyone struggling with anxiety, nobody's talking about it. And so as a 15 year old, it was the first real hit to my self worth, I think, and my self esteem, not really understanding what I was dealing with and feeling very isolated in that struggle, and still having to perform and compete on this high level, which I'm sure just added into it. But then fast forward, "So You Think You Can Dance" comes on air, and I was like, "This is my chance. This is like, this is the thing, this is what I want to do." I didn't know if I wanted to dance ballroom professionally, because it's pretty harsh world and it's a world that is pretty promiscuous, and it really doesn't align well with LDS standards. And up until that point, I was able to easily remain and hold my standards because I wasn't...and it's not that I wouldn't be able to at that level either but I didn't know if I wanted that challenge.
MJ: It has to be something you want to take on.
CH: Right. Yeah, in that space, I didn't know if I wanted it enough to have to fight for that. And previous to that there was plenty of those times where I had fought for, or not even fought, but I had had the opportunity to stand up for my faith from a young age and from you know, 15-16 to be able to talk about my faith to people that I really looked up to and people who, you know, were world champions and, you know, in that realm, and I got that chance to be able to defend my faith, but I didn't know if I wanted to do that, in that space, in a world champion ballroom space. So "So You Think You Can Dance" comes on air and I'm thinking, "This is definitely my jam like this is what I want to do. I've like done all of the other styles. This is fantastic. I love the other styles, I want to do more of the other styles and I get to go on as ballroom dancer. It's perfect." In my heart of hearts. I felt like it was what all of those doors had been open to me for. And I still believe that. I still look back and I think, yeah, like, it makes sense. And I got the opportunity to be prepared. I feel like I was prepared for that experience. And then how much more do you want to know? Do you want me to keep going?
MJ: Yeah, keep going! You're doing a great job telling it.
CH: You already know all of this. So I went on to "So You Think You Can Dance." And it was everything my heart dreamed of and more. I absolutely loved it. It was the best experience of my life. And I do think that so much of it was because of where my mindset was at, where my faith was at, how much I relied on Heavenly Father through every single step of that process. Like I had said previously, I'd had some major performance anxiety and issues with performance anxiety and knowing that if I was going to be on "So You Think," that I would have to learn how to overcome those things for that journey, and through the help of the Spirit and taking me kind of step by step, I was able to do that. I was able to go on to "So You Think," and I felt like I had really overcome these major vulnerabilities that I'd had to be able to go on to that show and to be able to dance to my fullest. So I was stoked about that.
MJ: Because you're like, "I've beat it. I've I've conquered performance anxiety, I've conquered anxiety in general.
CH: Yeah. And I my confidence level was like at an all time high, because I was like, "This is fantastic. I will never have to struggle with this ever again. This is so great. Anxiety: Check. What else you got for me life?" In my head, like "Yeah, I'm ready for the next step, for the next hard thing like bring it on." But then I moved out to LA so I went through the tour for "So You Think," moved out to LA and pretty soon after that I started feeling the anxiety coming back. And when you think you've overcome something, and then it comes back, you just think you've lost. That's how I felt. I just felt like I had already lost. And I think that that was a, I think it was a seed that was planted by the adversary to make me think that I would never have to deal with this again. Because, look, I mean, logically, it's like, yeah, of course, like, your your brain or whatever of your body chemistry is wired in that way, you know, is it ever going to just going to be a one and done kind of thing? Well, there's always different circumstances in life, and you're always going to have to figure out how to handle that challenge in a different circumstance. And it could be the same exact challenge, but with different circumstances, you're gonna have to learn how to conquer it again. And I didn't understand that at the time. I thought, I just I've lost this battle with anxiety, you know, and so I felt defeated immediately, as soon as I started to feel it coming back. But I continued to move forward. But I think that there was a seed there that was like I've already lost. And as much as I fight, I'm still going to lose eventually, which is a really terrifying thought.
MJ: Yeah, you're just waiting for when,
CH: When I'm finally going to lose. And so that was like the beginning of the journey, of the real journey of the last like 10 years of my life in which I've learned so much more. But I think that, through that, this secondary journey, I guess, or this journey in the last 10 years, I've learned a lot about what's real, what's realistic, what's not, and what it means to kind of break and be able to trust the journey that the Lord takes you on. I think, when I had initially felt that, and this is right before I started "Dancing With The Stars," when I initially felt that anxiety, I'd felt like everything I'd worked for had just been broken, in a sense. And so I felt like I'd ruined my plan in a way here was this perfect plan in my head that like,
MJ: God had all these things in store for you and you had messed it up.
CH: Right. Yeah. Which is really really really intense. And I can understand how intense that is. And there were several underlying things that were adding into that intensity that was also making...I mean, part of my childhood and part of this lack of foundation that I'd felt and part of. I mean, look, I mean, I've gone to therapy for like five years. Thank goodness. Hallelujah therapy, I love you. But that's really helped me to piece like many of these pieces together and maybe we'll get to some of them but but there were several pieces that were going into it but yeah this idea that like, I was working towards this plan, and God had prepared me all along the way. And He'd opened doors and He'd done this and He'd done that. And then I'd done "So You Think You Can Dance," and in my head, it was just supposed to keep going up from there. And it didn't work that way. And so for me, it felt like I had really messed up in that plan. And through that just kind of started questioning everything, started questioning my whole foundation, started questioning, you know, if there is not a God, what will I have? What will I have to fall back on? Because it felt like, I wouldn't have anything. And even in that questioning, I think I felt like I had messed up. And I had felt shameful, because I'd messed up because I was questioning something that I once knew so strongly, and in my heart of hearts probably did know. But anyways, yeah, yeah.
MJ: But I think that's an important point to touch on is that it's okay to have moments where, or long moments, where we're questioning things, that it's okay to explore our faith and to not be afraid of that but instead to embrace those as opportunities to draw closer to God and to figure out what we really do believe. And so for you when you started experiencing that anxiety, what shape did that kind of take? What did that look and feel like?
CH: When I moved out to LA?
CH: It felt like chaos.
MJ: And how old were you at this point?
CH: 19 and I had known, like I said, there were several factors leading into this. The fact that I knew that I was about to perform in front of 20 million people every single week, that probably underlying all of that didn't know if I was truly good enough for. And it's funny because you look back and you like, if you watch my footage for my first season, you'd probably be like, You're crazy. But it doesn't really matter sometimes what the reality is, it's what your belief system is. And I think I had gone back to that 15 year old girl that had struggled with anxiety so much that had felt like I wasn't worth it or not worth it, but I wasn't good enough for that space of competition that came back now looking into going into like another ballroom competition type thing. And so that part of me, I think, had come back along with the first time that I'd moved out by myself, being 19, I wasn't with my family and my safety zone anymore. And the first time that I was really being challenged in like, my beliefs, and yes, I had built this whole foundation based off of my belief in God but now is the first time that I'd really had to stand alone and not just stand alone in a city but stand Alone with pressure underneath it, because that was really what I relied on to succeed always.
CH: Well, it was always God. And He was always my source of, of strength. And He was always my source of success, I guess. And so if I didn't have that faith with this pressure kind of building up, what would I have? And so I think there were several aspects to it. A little bit of like, feeling kind of shameful that I had doubted those beliefs, but then just feeling so scared. I was just scared as a 19 year old, I was just so scared. And I had already put self-inflicted pressure on me. But then I think this past of my childhood was kind of like creeping in as well. And in those some of those more traumatic moments in my childhood and scary moments from that, were kind of threatening my life almost is what it felt like. At one point, I think it really felt like a matter of life or death. Because that was, I think a part of me was like this idea of like, either me as a child like because there was several moments, I think in my, I think, but there were several moments in my childhood where there were times when my family didn't know if we would have a house the next day. And so our lives were threatened, our foundation was threatened, of whether or not we were going to be homeless or be able to survive in a sense. And so coming out of like, those experiences, it was my success was a matter of life or death. It wasn't just like, you know, we're having fun on national TV was like this is this is a really serious matter for me. Yeah, it's very intense, survival.
MJ: Well, and one one part that I think is fascinating about your story, and every time that we talk about it, I'm reminded of how interesting this is. But you were on "So You Think You Can Dance," your whole goal was to like glorify God. Right? To like, give glory to Him.
CH: Yeah, but because of all of those experiences that I'd had, that when I didn't have a foundation at home, He was my foundation. And because I I had had those intimate experiences with Him from a young age. Yeah, I wanted to glorify Him and I wanted to do it. And of course, live out my dreams because that's awesome. But being able to do that and being able to do it for God was about the best thing in the world, but keep going. Okay.
MJ: So then this is where you start to realize how we know each other, front and back. But so then you're on "Dancing with the Stars," and you start to feel like you're losing a sense of yourself, and you're losing your footing. And so then there's like this sense of panic. And instead of giving yourself credit for the fact that you were handling something at a very young age, that was a lot coming at you. Instead, it's kind of like you started to lose yourself even more. Is that right?
CH: Yeah, yeah, I think at one point, like, so that seed that I talked about that was planted, initially, like when I first started feeling that anxiety coming back, that seed that was planted, that was that seed that in my head, I thought I'd already lost. And that it was only a matter of time, until I would completely lose the battle. And I think sometimes you have to go through that and you have to go through the whole spectrum of it to be able to get on the other side. Because if somebody had told me in the middle of that, like that's not true, I wouldn't have been able to let that belief go because I had built up so much on the other end. So like the positive side of things I built up so much of this whole psyche and I'll just say, I read the book, "The Secret." And I think it can have some really great...They have some really great things in a book like that. But it's not the full truth. And the part that's the issue is that it takes away God's will and it takes away His plan for us. And so if you think that you have control over everything, I think that's how I kind of built my psyche is that I had control over everything and that if I just said this prayer that God would give it to me immediately and because I believed that that would happen, and that because I was faithful and because I knew that He was there, all those things. But then when it started working against me, it was that I was responsible for all of the negative things happening to me. It didn't matter what they were. It didn't matter if it was somebody else coming at me...I was responsible for all of those things. And so it hit me and hurt me and it like would just pound into me 10 times harder. And so I think that's just one way that that something like that can work against you. For me, it really didn't help in that situation where it was like this intense pressure. I needed the Atonement. But I was also almost scared to even access the Atonement, because I had this idea that I had to control everything that I didn't want to lose, I didn't want to try and then fail, if that makes any sense at all. So I just kind of put my faith like in a glass cupboard, just away, because I didn't want to tarnish...I didn't want to try and then fail and then be in a worse place. I think anyone who's dealt with anxiety might understand how that feels. Sometimes you shy away from the things that can help you because you're afraid that they'll actually just make you worse if they don't help. And I think that's just another way that the adversary can work. I think he works in such devious and deceptive ways.
MJ: Well, he's so good at what he does.
CH: Well he's such a jerk. I hate that guy.
MJ: He is such a jerk. He knows exactly how to attack our strengths and turn them into weaknesses. Just like our weaknesses can become our strengths, our strengths can become our weaknesses. And I think with you, I'm always struck by the fact that here was this little girl trying so hard to do what she thought was right. And that Satan used that to make you feel like you had already let yourself down. You'd already messed up, you were past the point of return. And I think that's the way that he works on a lot of us. He tries to make us feel like we are past the point of return and the reality is there are very few points of no return. And so I love that in your story, Chels, you woke up to that and recognized that Satan really was just a jerk. But I want to touch on one other thing that you said before we go on, which is this idea of "The Secret," or really any self-help type thing becoming out of balance in our lives. I think self help stuff can be so positive, it can be such a tool used for good. But the downfall comes when the adversary uses it to his advantage. And so I just think it's so important that we recognize and are always aware of the balance in our lives and whether or not we're involving the spirit in these things that we're doing to help ourselves. I think when we take the spirit out of it, that's when it has the potential to become detrimental.
CH: Yeah, and I think that with anything that isn't the the fullness if you base your...I always think of that stupid Primary hymn, it's not stupid, it's great but the Primary hymn that when what's his name? Somebody built his house upon the sand.
MJ: The wise man? Or the foolish man built his house upon the sand, the wise man built his house upon a rock.
CH: The wise...it's been a minute since I've been in Primary. But yeah, so the wise man, the foolish man built his house upon the sand, and that's kind of how I look at my that journey is that, yes, I'd had this foundation in God. And if anybody would ask me to put my life on it, I think I would be one of those. And I don't expect every person be like this, but I would be one of those people that would be like, Yeah, I would die for this because this is everything to me. This is what I believe. When it comes to God asking me to do things and I know it's God. It's like, okay, yeah, for sure.
MJ: No brainer. I'm in, sign me up.
CH: That's not a problem. And I think that that's one of my strengths. But for me, when it came to understanding how to deal with my anxiety, "The Secret" was kind of where I turned to to learn how to deal with that. And because of that, I think a lot of untruths were planted within my psyche. And I thought I couldn't let go of this because look at what I'd overcome with "So You Think" and I look back and I'm like, well, it was the grace of God, it was the Atonement. But I think the adversary can take that and go, "No, no, that was that was 'The Secret.' Like, you can't let go of this." And so it started becoming this obsessive, can't doubt, can't fear, then I'm fearing my fears and I'm fearing my doubts, and it's like this and then I'm like, but I'm dancing on national TV in front of 24 million people every week, and I still I can't be dealing with this. I can't be feeling this way. And so that only...exacerbates the issue. ...So I think that when that seed was first planted, and then I had experienced what a panic attack feels like. And that was pure terror. Like, if anyone's experienced a panic attack, you know what I'm talking about when I say you feel like you're going to die. And I went into my roommate's room that night, and this was probably three weeks before "Dancing With The Stars" started. And I went into my roommate's room with just on my hands and my knees. And I just thought that if I were to, like, if something were to happen to me, this girl would have to take me to the hospital. She like wakes up in her bed. She's like, "Hey, is everything okay?" I'm like, "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm just having like this faith crisis, just go back to sleep in my head, but like, I couldn't explain that to her, or what I was feeling what I thought I was feeling because she wouldn't understand. And anyways, it's kind of funny now looking back, but at the time, it was
CH: Yeah, it was terrifying. But you do you feel like darkness is like closing in on you slowly. And if you don't get out of this space that you could potentially die is the intensity of the feeling and so that intensity was what was like just like creeping on me from behind, where it was like this feeling of what death feels like if I don't pull myself together and that was I think the like cracking open period of like this is when it felt like I just fully like broke right and anyways these viewers are like getting a lot more than they probably bargained for right now they're like, "This chick's got issues."
MJ: We've all got issues.
CH: I got issues.
MJ: You got 'em too.
CH: Julia Michaels said it best. But yeah, so that was like this feeling that I was fearing that I would, when I eventually lost that that place was the place that I would go back to, which is very intense.
MJ: Right. That it would overtake you.
CH: Yeah. It could.
MJ: So we talked before we started this recording about how we want to make it very clear that this is still a process. That it's not like after "So You Think You Can Dance," where it's like, I beat it. That is still something that you're dealing with and working through. But I do want to talk a little bit about some of the things that helped you come out of that to get to a place where you're able to recognize, call it what it is.
CH: Yeah. Well, first we should we should recognize that I took those experiences and like I had with every other bad thing that had happened in my life previous to that and I was like, You know what, I'm going to use this as ammunition and I freaking crushed my first season of "Dancing With The Stars," you should go back and watch it.
MJ: You and Ty.
CH: Maybe second, maybe third.
MJ: Yeah, yeah, no, I'll do that.
CH: You probably haven't even watched, have you?
MJ: I have. I have watched some, I've watched some dances.
CH: I'm not mad. I'm just kidding.
MJ: Pause really quickly we have to acknowledge this. I was recently on a road trip with my mom and my grandma. And my grandma knows Chelsie as the girl that has come to our home for Christmas and Thanksgiving. She had never seen Chelsie dance.
CH: Sweet, sweet Judy.
MJ: And so my mom was like, "Morgan pull up one of Chelsie's dances and let grandma see." And my grandma could not get over it. She was just like, "Wow, that doesn't even look like the same person." But like Chelsie when she gets in her element. I do think that's important to acknowledge even when you're dealing with these things, that doesn't mean that you can't turn it on and turn it off and like do your thing on national television and then go home at night and struggle with these things.
CH: Yeah. Well and I think that first few seasons had very much honed into all of the tools that had helped me in what makes a great performer, which is letting go of the uncontrollables and being able to release the pressure and being able to just focus all of your energy on you know, only the things that you really can control. And again, because it was a matter of life or death I did it really really well.
MJ: Dancing like your life depended on it.
CH: Because literally in my head at the time it was and and so it's not that those those strengths were lost on me it was just that there was this thing that was haunting me a little bit that I would at some point need to address. And so, yeah, I mean, I really enjoyed much of my first three seasons on the show, and I feel like I felt God in my life a lot and I was able to rely on on the strength of the Spirit. I think the biggest thing when I look back on my journey and I'll go back to your question is that and it's kind of what I said initially, but it's that your life rarely ever goes as planned. I never saw myself on a national stage, feeling those feelings. And I think just like, I was always the type and I am the type of person that I think will always figure it out. Instead of feel like I was in a place where I couldn't figure it out. It was the first time in my life where I felt like I could not control what was happening in my life. And so that was the first I think that's been my, my own like...my own cross to bear. My own battle.
MJ: For sure.
CH: But yeah. And your question, let's go back.
MJ: Yeah I was like are we gonna come back to that or do you want me to ask it again? This is about to get really awkward.
CH: So I just for the next and like, there were a lot of really great moments and, and yes, I was dealing with this thing that was so unique and so different that I think that was part of the hard part is that I felt very isolated in that kind of struggle and what I was dealing with and the different elements and I think anyone can feel that way. If you feel like you're dealing with something that nobody else can really relate to that isolation can make that thing that much harder and scarier. And then it got to a point where I felt like, because I would stop at nothing to make sure that I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish and I think that is another strength of mine is that I will do things the right way and I don't want to leave anything feeling like I could have done something more. And so whatever I had to do to fight through those feelings and to put those feelings aside or use those feelings as motivation, I would do that until I reached that place that I felt like I was trying to get to. So it was my third season of the show. I was nominated for an Emmy, along with Derek Hough on a piece we co-choreographed together. And I remember just feeling elated. And I'd felt like I'd gotten to that point where I'd accomplished and proved the things that I was trying to prove to myself and maybe to those around me, and I just felt so tired. I felt tired of feeling like I was pushing and pushing and pushing and I didn't even know what I was pushing for. And what I was, you know, I was I was trying not to let this feeling come back. So I'd gotten to that point and I was just, I was just tired. And I felt like for the next two years, I continued to dance on that show without really like with like, no real fuel, in a sense, like, I felt like I was kind of like this train that was moving forward because it was a lot of work and you're having to push through a lot of pressure and you're having to push through a lot of things. But like, I didn't have the coal that was like driving me like it was just like going forward on an empty thing.
MJ: Running on empty
CH: Running on empty because I wouldn't give up. And I'm resilient. If I've got anything going for me, it's resilience. I wouldn't give up no matter what space I was in. And I think that's what brought me to this next point is when I was in New York. At this point in my life, I had really lost because I'd felt like...I had lost touch with the Spirit and the things that really made me who I was at my core and the things that... lost touch with my, my, yeah, just like God.
MJ: Yourself and God,
CH: Yeah, all those things. And then obviously, like you're in the entertainment world, which is, when you're in the heart of it, it takes that much more to fight against it to, to stay, to keep your...I'm being very not eloquent right now, but to try and hold your standards and to try and hold and to try and keep your testimony. And I remember actually, when I first moved out there, I talked to my Bishop and I was like, "Bishop, I'm feeling anxious and I'm feeling this anxiety and I'm really, I'm just scared." And I remember him saying to me at the time that it takes a really strong person to go into the entertainment world and come out the other end a stronger person. And in my head, I was like, that's me. Like I have that type of, I believed that I had that type of strength. And so to be in this place where I had lost touch with that was devastating on many levels, and it felt like I'd lost touch with who I was.
MJ: And you felt like you'd let yourself down.
CH: In big ways. Totally. So I was in a congregation in New York City. And I heard this man give this beautiful testimony about his conversion story. And I remember feeling the Spirit for the first time in so long. And that was so sad to me that I hadn't felt that way in so long. And I think that that happens sometimes when we get off the path that we, we don't even know quite how we get there until we're at the bottom of it looking up and thinking how the heck did I get here? You know, it just happens steadily and over time. And it wasn't that I was doing bad things. Like it wasn't that I was like, out, you know, I think I was still doing all the actions and I was still trying to live my life in accordance to the gospel standards, but I wasn't thriving by any means. And I didn't even feel the spirit really at all in my life, because I was so consumed by so many other worries and priorities and other things that had taken my attention. And all of this just like muck that I already have talked about and explained. But I was devastated in that moment. And I remember crying, kind of an empty cry. It was just like this, like tears falling down my face and still feeling the same way but knowing that I needed to change and knowing that something had to give at some point, because I could not continue to live the way that I was living and in that state of like, just in that state. And so I didn't know what it was going to take. But I prayed to Heavenly Father, that if it was the career that he needed to take away from me that He just needed to do it, because I didn't have the strength to walk away at that point. Because how can you walk away from an opportunity like that by yourself? And when my faith was already struggling so much, I just needed Him to take it from me. And I was very clear about that. I was just like, "I just need you to take this if that's what this is going to take." And I cried some more after I said that, and I had two friends sitting next to me. And I don't even know if they realized that I was. But it was after that that started the path to get me out of that place. So I wasn't on the show the next season. Soon after that I had met somebody that had inspired me to move home. It was a person, it was a guy that I dated, dated him for a few years, met Morgan Jones.
MJ: That's a really important part of this timeline. Sike it's not.
CH: It is. It really is! Served in the Relief Society presidency. And it was just all of these little steps. And I think when I'd felt so tarnished, where my faith and my spirituality was so affected by all these things, that these just little things where I felt like the Lord was showing that He still trusted me meant so much to me. Like, it was like something as little as like, you asking me to being in your Relief Society presidency, like that meant so much to me because I wanted to just know that He still trusted me, or I needed to know that He still trusted me and that He was still there. So it's just a bunch of little things that I could continue to speak on that continue to help me along this process.
MJ: So listening to all of that. It's interesting, because they're all things that I've heard before, but there were different parts of the story that stood out to me more this time. And one part was the conversation that you had with your bishop. And I got like full body chills just because I was thinking about it. And I'm like, sometimes I think we get caught up in like, the short term of things. And we're like, Okay, well, in this moment, I failed. But now looking at it, it's like you actually were that person, you know, you went to that place, and you did come out on the other side, and maybe it took a little bit longer. Maybe you took a little bit of a detour. But I think that's the way that life works. And the way that God works in our lives is that oftentimes, it doesn't look exactly like we imagined that it would look but we do make it out and that is through the grace of God and through the grace of Jesus Christ. And so before I get to the last question, Chels, I just wondered what have you learned about God and about God's love from this experience that you've described?
CH: That it's so much different than I thought it was. Growing up in the Church and in Utah, I think you think that you earn His love by being righteous all the time. And by being that picture perfect, Molly Mormon. It's not that I had that perfect family. I mean, if I went into my home life, that would be a whole different podcast, but I think in my head, it was like, well, I can't control somebody else's agency, but I can continue to be faithful always. I just think I never saw myself struggling with faith because it always was a strength of mine. And so to be battling and struggling with something that is your strength was a really hard pill for me to swallow and wrap my head around. And which is why I think I felt like I had I lost because I thought that this was my battle and my weapon against the world. And this was my tool to success and now I'm struggling with like the one thing that I knew that I'd had. And I think that I felt like whether I could articulate it at that time or not, I'd felt like I'd lost God's trust in me and His love for me, which is crazy. If I'm like talking to somebody else about it, cause I'm like, "What? That's so crazy. Like, of course He's gonna love you always. But learning that His love extends to every person, no matter what. And no matter what they do, no matter what they say, or the bad decisions they make, that that love is endless, and that love will never fade. And so I think I learned that His love is far different than I thought it was. In a very real sense of it doesn't matter how many times you've messed up, or how far you fall, that love is always there.
MJ: Thank you. Last question for you. And you know, this question is coming.
CH: I love this question.
MJ: What does it mean to you, Chelsie, to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
CH: I've obviously heard you ask this question on this podcast before because I'm your biggest fan, of course. And I've always thought that my answer would be different than what I feel it is now. And I feel like, for me, what it means to be all in is to just hang on, is to stay in the boat. There was a really good talk about this, but that there might be times in your life like 20 year old me who felt like, or 19 or 18 year old me, who felt like I was crushing it in my faith and who felt like I, you know, putting the Lord first was easy and it was effortless and how could I ever live my life another way? But then there's going to be times in our lives where I think it's just going to take everything within us to just hold on. And I think it's just that commitment to holding on when things are hard. I feel like I'm like bearing my testimony right now. Crying, but I think it's just holding on, no matter what you're going through or experiencing. It's just staying.
MJ: Thank you. Chelsie it has been a delight to have you.
CH: So many tears.
MJ: I'm over here crying too. That's what people can't see. This happens every time.
CH: That's what happens when you're interviewing with your best friend, things just get real, real vulnerable.
MJ: I just am so grateful to you. Thank you. Thank you for your example that a lot of people haven't had the opportunity to see on the level that I've seen it but I am appreciative. And I hope that people got a small taste of just how wonderful you are. So thank you.
CH: Right back to you, Sister Jones.
MJ: We are so grateful to Chelsie Hightower for sharing her story and experiences on this week's episode. For full transcripts of each podcast episode plus related links and resources, visit www.ldsliving.com/allin. Thank you so much for your continued support and for all the love you've shown us. We'll be back with you again next week.