Anxiety: Ambassador of Wholeness

IMG_4896Dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.” – Jeremy Taylor, author of “The Wisdom of Your Dreams”

A few weekends ago I attended one of the most inspiring, nourishing, revelatory workshops of my life. It was a workshop on dreamwork facilitated by the world-renowned Unitarian Universalist minister, author, and spectacular human being, Jeremy Taylor. Jeremy has spent nearly fifty years studying the world of dream, symbols, metaphors, archetypes, and the unconscious – and if you’re familiar with my work and mindset you can see from that list alone why the workshop would knock my socks off. I was sitting there the whole time thinking, you mean, I get to sit in a room with twelve other people who are as excited about dreams and metaphors as I am? People who understand that life – including dreams and symptoms like anxiety – cannot be taken at face value? Have I died and gone to heaven?

I understand that not everyone is charged up by the world of dreams. But for me, having been a dreamer since I was a young child, faithfully recording my dreams and sharing them with my mother and the random psychics and tarot card readers we would meet at the 70s hippie fairs we would occasionally attend, then following up this passion by attending Pacifica Graduate Institute in my early 20s where the focus is on the realm of the unconscious, this was pure, delicious delight to me.

As I sat rapturously taking notes and nodding my head, I thought of all of you – my readers, course members, and clients – many times throughout the weekend. I thought of you every time Jeremy reminded us of the above quote, that dreams comes in service of health and wholeness, that there are no “bad” dreams, “only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.” Sound familiar? This is exactly how I talk about anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts and all of the other deeply uncomfortable symptoms that grab our attention. If we don’t pay attention to the inner realm, our psyches, who are in service of healing and wholeness, will do whatever it takes to get our attention. And if we don’t listen during the day, it will pipe up at night.

Now I can hear the audience shifting and grumbling with questions like, “But what if my anxiety is telling me to leave my relationship?” or “What if my dreams that I’m having sex with someone else are telling me that I’m with the wrong person?” Here’s the point that I make over and over again, which Jeremy corroborated with his five-decade work with the unconscious: Dreams don’t speak literally. And neither do the symptoms of psyche. Jeremy says that one of the biggest mistakes we make in our attempt to decipher the messages in our dreams is mistaken literalism. YES. That in our “rationalist-materialist culture” (I love that phrase of his), we are conditioned to read life in all of its manifestations literally. We aren’t taught to listen in terms of metaphor. We see a stop sign and it can only mean a stop sign. Aside from the possible literature class in high school where we were asked in some kind of monotonous voice what so-and-so image could mean in so-and-so archaic poem, we are doused in literalism at every turn.

And that’s exactly the mistake me make in analyzing our anxious thoughts and symptoms. When we take life – whether waking or asleep – at face value we miss the messages completely. We circle around at the surface level like a wind-up mouse chasing its own tail and getting nowhere. We must go deeper. We must recognize that psyche and body and heart speak in the language of metaphor.

I’ve said it a hundred times before and I’ll say it again: Your anxiety is a gift. When you turn to face it and ask it what it wants to teach you, putting aside the obvious interpretation (you’re with the wrong partner; you shouldn’t feel anxious), you will begin the process of delving into your inner realm and deciphering what lives underneath the anxiety. Anxiety is the ambassador, just as “bad” dreams and nightmares are. It’s psyche’s way of leading you by the hand down the labyrinth of your inner world, shining the light on the dark and scary places, and saying, “Here. Look inside. This needs attention. This needs helps. You have old pain that is sitting like a scab inside your heart, and streams of tears inside that scab. This isn’t pretty work. This isn’t fun work. But it’s work that must be done if we are to heal and move toward wholeness.”

At the heart of all spiritual traditions rests the belief that we are here not only to heal ourselves but to help the world and the universe move toward wholeness. Along these lines, everything I teach rests on this premise that you are already whole, and that your symptoms and struggles are pointing the way for you to repair the wounds and false beliefs you’ve collected on the way and regain the knowledge of your intrinsic wholeness. I bristle at any indication that the sensitive, loving, compassionate people that I see every day – the people who, as children, didn’t quite fit into the system or, almost worse, squeezed and contorted themselves to fit into a system that they knew didn’t reflect and celebrate their essence – are anything less than exquisite manifestations of the divine.

This is what it means to say that our dreams, our symptoms, and our anxiety come in the service of healing and wholeness. They are coming to point you in the direction of remembering who you really are. The come bearing gifts, even when we wake up scared or uncomfortable. Your dreams aren’t here to torture you. Your anxiety isn’t a sign that you’re broken in some way. But you won’t know this unless you turn to face what scares you most, when you turn the mindset of literalism on its head and instead trust that your dreams, depression, and anxiety are ambassadors bearing gifts and clues on how to heal. Embedded inside the language of unconscious and the body lies your wisdom, your health, and your wholeness. It’s time to listen.

27 comments to Anxiety: Ambassador of Wholeness

  • Emma-lou

    You write so beautifully, your words calm the anxious storm within.
    Thank you!

  • Ann

    How strangely serendipitous (and not for the first time) this post is!! I’m in a relatively new relationship and have been suffering a bout of anxiety lately which led to a ‘bad’ dream last night. I had been running away with this dream, considering all sorts of negative things it might mean in relation to my relationship. this post has reminded me, as your posts usually do, to look deeper and approach it with curiosity rather than fear. Thanks Sheryl 🙂

  • Tracy

    Sheryl,
    One connection I’m making with my anxiety — and this comes up in my dreams a lot — is that if I assert myself and ask for what I really want and need, my boyfriend will see me as weak or needy and think less of me, and might leave me. This is related to my core fear of abandonment. I made some big steps this past weekend in talking to him about some topics that were important to me. But it represented a big shift in the relationship because he told me he saw a side of me that he has not seen before. I admitted to him that I am not perfect and I hope when I show weakness that it will not change his feelings for me. I am trying to face what scares me most, but sometimes I’m afraid that if I do I will “rock the boat” and ruin my relationship. Can anyone relate to this?

    • Renee

      Hi Tracy,
      I can definitely relate to your thoughts about feeling needy and the possibility of your boyfriend leaving you. I have often felt this about my husband and if I assert myself that he will no longer love me, or even worse, I will outgrow him and not want to be with him any more. That is where I find myself getting stuck and feeling very anxious–thinking maybe if I become my best and biggest self, I will no longer want to be in my marriage with an incredibly wonderful, loving, kind-hearted and generous man who wants me to succeed at everything I do and is my biggest cheerleader in life.

      What I suggest to try to remember is that if this is a man you can see spending your life with and learn about love with, as you accept him, he will accept all parts of you as well–even the “weaknesses” as you see them, although in reality, speaking up and saying what you truly want and need are not a weakness at all–they are essential to your happiness. A lot of men probably want this more from their girlfriend or wife–they can not read our minds! Remember, nobody is perfect and it is ok to speak your mind! Sending hugs Tracy!

      • Lindsey

        Wow Renee! I can definitely relate to that feeling of being afraid that if I make myself better, I will discover that my “truth” will be that I must be alone and I will leave my relationship with my husband. Tracy, one thing I must say is that when I started verbalizing what my wants and needs were to my husband, I found that he very much wanted to meet them because he loves me. The same is true when he expresses his needs/wants to me. I am still very anxious about the “rightness” of our relationship and I would be happier if he was funnier or better looking or had more of my similar interests, but I’m trying to view him as an opportunity to love better and receive love better than I ever have before. He is certainly not perfect, and I have issues not feeling love for him at times (sometimes “a lot”) but I’m trying not to let these feelings run my show. Good luck to you!

        • Renee

          It’s so nice to read your response, Lindsey. May I ask how long you’ve been married? I’ve been married to for almost five years and this year the anxiety started for me. After a lot of soul searching, I think what the anxiety is really attributed to is my fear of loss/death, as well as the fear that as we start thinking more seriously about starting a family, a strong sense of incompetence as a wife and caretaker. I don’t have full confidence that I will be a good mother, will be able to handle everything that comes with it, and therefore my marriage and everything else will suffer. Everyone says how difficult your marriage becomes after you have children, and frankly I am terrified that having a child is going to tear my marriage apart–I think this is why I’ve been pushing my husband away in my mind.

          One thing I read the other day that helped me a lot was an article about soul mates. I tend to focus on differences between my husband and I rather than the many similarities we have and things that do work for us, so the idea of him being my soul mate often sends me into a spiral of anxiety because I get fearful that he isn’t “the one.” But this passage really opened my eyes and gave me a different perspective on the idea of a soul mate and what true love is all about. A lot of your response to Tracy’s post reminded me of the words written in the post, especially the last third of the article. People are put in our lives to make us better people–and you choosing to love your husband and receive his love is a wonderful way of growing and becoming a better person.

          http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-6779/How-to-Know-When-Youve-Found-Your-Soul-Mate.html

          So nice to connect with someone! 🙂

          • Lindsey

            Renee, it’s so weird to hear you say these things! So many of your feelings with your husband ring true to me and I am definitely feeling the pressure to “be a mommy” soon despite feeling SO not ready. We’ve been married for 16 months (this last Monday) and I noticed that these periods of fear and anxiety would come and go, but the last 6 months have been mostly anxiety ridden days. Part of that, I’m sure, was that my husband’s brother and his wife had twin girls in December. These girls being here has added a lot of anxiety to my plate because my brother and sister in law are the “perfect” couple. They are both attractive, got married right after college, had the “perfect” wedding, bought a “perfect” house immediately after, and now have the “perfect” two little girls. I remember asking her while I was engaged if she had been afraid of her marriage when she was engaged and she said “no… I just knew”.

            I also have been focused on all of the ways my husband isn’t right for me. I’ll focus on how his sense of humor is so different, our interests aren’t as aligned, and he’s just not that attractive in some ways. When I find myself thinking in this way, it becomes harder and harder to remember why I love him. I’ve just been trying to love him despite how I feel. The gratitude lists help but that anxious self likes to say “you don’t believe in any of this crap… You are just too stupid and scared to get out.” I’ve decided that i will not listen to any voice that is so unkind to me… Even if that voice is my own.

  • Rae

    As always Sheryl, your message is thought-provoking and encouraging. In my dark night I’ve been connecting a lot to my dreams and trying to maintain an open curiosity toward whatever shows up that can help with deeper layers of healing.

    The hardest part of the process for me is when I see how “x” makes sense but then “z” makes sense too, but then so does “y,” and yet nothing in particular seems to resonate or offer clarity even when I bring it out of my head and into my body/emotions or just sit still with it. It literally feels like my entire body is forced to engage in a never ending Ping-Pong game. Back – forth – back – forth. When I try to walk away from the game, the anxiety messages only scream louder with me feeling helpless to decode them.

    So I am accepting the invitation to receive the messages, I am open to exploring them, but experiencing a disconnect in terms of finding meaning that fits/resonates/makes sense and allows me to release a bit more.

    • Are in a dark night, Rae? I’d like to hear more. What I’m learning about in this new dive into dreams is that it’s VERY hard, if not virtually impossible, to work with your own dreams. I would suggest bringing the dreams to your therapist if you’re in counseling and/or looking for a local dream group. I have found that the a-ha moments almost only come in reflection from others. Sending you love.

      • Rae

        I’ve been in a dark night for 7 months now, instigated by a slew of physical symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as Sjogrens. My body was going through chaos, and I came to believe that it was a metaphor for what had been going on with me internally. I refer to the experience as a dark night because every fiber of my being has felt sucked into a dark dungeon. I believe I ended up there for a reason (not punishment but an opportunity to grow closer to and reconnect with Self) which is why it became important to invest the energy being curious: about dreams…messages from others…etc.

        I agree that a-ha moments are mostly born out of interactions with others and like the idea of trying to find a local dream group (therapists can be great if you find the right one, but the ones I tried lacked a spiritual lens which I didn’t find helpful). What I was alluding to in my post is that sometimes I find that my openness and curiosity to messages can inspire thoughts/ideas that may only serve to further confuse and muck things up. THAT is a challenge.

        Thanks for the love….sending it right back at you for all that you do. You are such a precious treasure.

        • Kim

          Hi Rae, my name is Kim and I related so much to what you wrote. I have compassion for you because I have experience with autoimmune disease, too. I was diagnosed with lupus 14 years ago and it was the catalyst for my personal growth seven years after the diagnosis. I don’t know if you’d like to connect, but if you do, maybe Sheryl can help make that happen. Another thing we have in common, our adoration for SP. 🙂

          • I would love to connect the two of you: two of the most heart-centered, wise women I know.

          • Rae

            Yes – I would love to connect Kim. Thanks for the offer.

            Sheryl – please feel free to give her my email information and thanks for the compliment as well! It means so much coming from you.

  • Carebear167

    Hi Sheryl, thank you for your lovely and insightful post, as always. I was wondering if you could say anything about prophetic dreams? When I was a young teenager I had a dream that one of our neighbors died in a crash as a pilot, how his life would relate to my brother’s in certain ways and about some other things that occurred in my brother’s life. I was terrified when I woke up. I had this knowledge and wanted to tell our neighbors to prevent his death from happening. We were not very close with them and my parents did not think it was a good idea to tell them, as I was hysterical. They didn’t believe it made sense to make significant choices in your life based on something that might happen. In reality, my neighbor became a pilot and died in a crash many years later. I’m not sure he would have changed career paths based on anything I would have said to him, as he loved what he did. However, I carry with me a lot of guilt, fear about my dreams and how to interpret them, and issues with trusting myself.

    • I do believe that dreams can be clairvoyant, but that they also exist on multiple levels with multiple meanings. So on the one hand your dream foretold the future but it was also showing you something about your own life at that time. My guess is that the root causes of your guilt and issues with trusting yourself extend far beyond this one incident, yes? And it sounds like you also know that even if you had shared the dream he wouldn’t have changed his career path. Have you had other prophetic dreams?

      • Carebear167

        Hi Sheryl, thank you so much for your input. You are correct, the root causes of my issues with trusting myself extend far beyond the one incident. I have not had other prophetic dreams I have a hard time figuring out what this incident had to do with my life at that time since it was explicitly about my brother and my neighbor and things that would happen to them.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I really love your work. And how you like to dig deeper into our wholeness to find the truth. As we find you inspiring you also look to others to give you answers. I remember my mum once told me she had a dream about losing her teeth and she also said it doesn’t sound good. Well, her thoughts were correct… A couples weeks later my father died of a massive heartatttack. I also believe dreams are clairvoyant. I do believe most of us have a six sense. IHave been told from a clairvoyant I have a strong intuition. It’s in my star sign. I’m a Leo.

  • Brianna

    I’ve been very anxious lately about my boyfriend and his female friend. To make a long story short they met in school, after two weeks she posted a picture of him which caused a huge fight because I was not ok with it and he told her I wasn’t ok with them being friends and said “she needs to know that we are friends im trying to make her realize” she sent pictures of herself to him and also got him a Christmas gift which was just a comic but he know how against it I was and I begged him not to give her anything but he did cause he felt it was right. I feel like this girl makes me out to be a joke and basically tells him without actually saying it. She had a boyfriend when they met but I knew there was something up and they broke up. Then invited my boyfriend to hangout with her and her gay friend but he didn’t go. She has a new boyfriend and basically told my boyfriend their sex stories. But even though she has another one now I’m still anxious about her. I know he loves me and wouldn’t do anything but I don’t trust her. My boyfriend even said she acts different now then when she was single. They don’t hangout, they only text but I still don’t feel right about it. And I can’t forgive him for hurting me these last few months when he knows how much this upsets me. This is only a shortened story it’s a lot longer, but I really need some help please!! Sheryl did you ever make a blog about anxiety over significant others friends?

  • Chrissy

    If anxiety/depression is a gift, then once we become whole and complete will we still have it as much?

  • Scared

    Hi Sheryl, and really thank you for beeing the insightful you!
    I’ve been having an extremely difficult time lately, and i pray that this post will lead someone (and please Sheryl) to reply.

    I love your posts and wisdom Sheryl, and every time I read your blog I feel like I understand what you are saying. The problem though is that it doesn’t calm my anxiety! I think that this may be because I’m having difficulties transforming the wisdom in to my own life….

    The last two years of my relationship I’ve been suffering from relationship anxiety with thoughts like: is he the one? Will our relationship end one day? Is this real love?
    My boyfriend is a beautiful person, we share a lot of interests, have the same values in life, match each others energy-level (if that makes sense) and as much as I can trust anyone I really believe he would never do anything to hurt me. He is really devoted to our relationship and is confident that our future together will be great.
    This gives me extra anxiety because of guilt, when I’m thinking thoughts of doubt…

    We have a son together, and after the birth my anxiety has been more intense, longer lasting and has come more often. I’m wondering if this is because we are now more serious. My son is also the reason I pray for answers, because lately I haven’t been capable of being the mother he deserves, due to anxiety.

    My question is simply how to convince my brain to trust my choise of partner? Because in my head I know that no relationship is constantly filled with happiness and butterflies. So I choose him because he is a wonderful man, partner and father. So why does my anxiety still giving me a hard time?

    (Please excuse my English, I’m from Europe) 🙂

  • Sal

    Sheryl,
    I m writing this with a hope of good advise from your goodself.
    i m marrying a girl soon whom i love and she loves me like anything. our families also know each other since long. All ppl are very happy and excited including both of us. Suddenly, an old thing came in my mind that a guy sent a request to my girl and she accepted it. It was before our friendship.. the guy loved my girl and he said this too her but she rejected her and removed her from friendlist. Since she is in my life she loves me madly and never thought abt any other guy. She said that she had a regret that why she even added that guy. Long story short she has put all her energy to keep our relation strong. But suddenly this came in my mind and i got irritated that why she even added her..and is causing me anxiety…i love her lyk hell but this thought is just acting as a wall to stop my love towards her. i felt so sad that i doubted her 🙁 please help stop thinking negative about her.

  • Sb

    I am literally I the grips with anxiety. I met my partner shortly after my first love ended our 5 year relationship. I had my doubts and reservations initially as it was too soon for me to enter a relationship I kept things casual and at a distance for over a year to give me time to heal. After that year my partner still showed me kindness love and compassion and was so lovely I decided I would give the relationship a go as he was and is so wonderful to me. I still had doubts and fears but we have developed and I have grown to love this man greatly over the last 5 years and he is the most important person in my life. However as a naturally anxious person and having suffered many losses as a child with family breakup my brother moving away from home me moving away from my wider family to a new country I really struggle to let go in relationships and something in me fears so much to really be happy and my fears are telling me he isn’t the one for me, he’s an amazing man we get on so well and are very compatible and committed to each other but I can’t shake this fear I have to leave. That I’m missing out on being a whole person. It has of to the point where I can’t even be intimate or truly hug my partner without feeling anxious that I’m a fake and betraying him for havig thoughts and feelings like this. I’m truely scared I will loose out on living a life fulfilled if I stay or if I go. My anxiety is so bad I cannot eat or sleep or function. How do I really get to the bottom of this. I tried to do some inner bonding work and it appeared to work but then my anxiety came back full force and I felt it was a sign that my thoughts/feelings were telling me to run. Please any help you can give me would be much appreciated. I don’t want to leave this relationship but I can’t decide whether that is because I cannot bear to break a heart or it is genuinely because it’s a fantastic relationship and it is a great relationship no red flags to be seen anywhere. Why am I so afraid and anxious.

  • Louise

    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart

  • Alice

    Hi sheryl
    I’ve been reading your blogs for 2 years and they always brought me such comfort after start of my relationship
    When the throws of anxiety really hit home as I have terrible relationship anxiety
    I’ve been with my partners 2 years and he loves me in every way and never bats an eyelid when my anxiety cripples me
    However I’m the past 2 months my partner had a car accident in which I ha to take care of him , emotionally, financially and everything else which I did with such ease and didnt panic once! I had to look after him for just over a month
    We live apart and only can see each other weekends so ferrying him from mine to his was difficult and money wise even more so
    And I didn’t realise how hard it really was until two week after he went back to work
    I am now seeing him only the weekends again and have mentally an emotionally shut down!
    Since bein apart again we’ve had niggly arguements which caused me a lot of hurt and so my anxiety crept in and crippled me once more
    I was so stressed that I couldn’t stop telling myself to leave the relationship
    That’s it I’m done it’s too hard
    And as we’ve stopped argueing and things seem to be finally getting back to normal
    I feel happier but I’m completely closed off!
    Almost numb but I don’t even feel numb!
    I feel like I’m stuck in limbo
    Am I shut off because I’m needing to now heal myself?
    Or have I shut off because I’ve really had enough ?
    I almost don’t really feel like I care at the moment
    We’ve been saving to move in together in his town which is what I’ve longed for since beig together
    However I’m still shut down
    And it frightens me more than I don’t feel even my anxiety at this moment
    At least then I knew I cared and loved him
    I still continue loving actions and tell him that I love him
    Which I know really deep down I do
    But I just want some kind of softness to shine through so I know that it’s true 🙁
    Why have I shut off? And feel nothing sheryl?
    I’ve had counselling before so my relationship anxiety and it’s all from being hurt
    However she is on holiday and I need some kid of guidance that I havnt given up? 🙁
    HELP! Xx