Feelings are Managable; Anxiety is Not

IMG_4004“Mommy, lets look at some rain boots for Asher,” my 9-year old, Everest, says as we head to the sales counter at our favorite children’s clothing store.

“Oh, great idea,” I respond, and hold Asher’s hand as we walk to the display. Asher immediately grabs a pair of ladybug rain boots, an almost identical replica of his big brother’s pair that has cracked open to the point where they need to be replaced. Asher tries them on, they’re a perfect fit, and we start to walk to the counter when Everest grumbles, “It’s not okay that Asher gets new rain boots before I do.”

“But you just suggested that we look for new rain boots for him! I don’t understand why you’re upset,” I say, annoyed.

“Because I don’t want him to have new boots if I don’t have new boots,” he grumbles all the way to the cash register.

It’s a classic case of sibling envy, but it takes me a while to see it.

A few minutes later, as we’re driving to our next destination, Everest complains, “It’s not okay if Asher wears his boots in the creek before mine arrive.”

“It’s not okay…” is an oft-used line from Everest when he’s trying to control outer circumstances. I used to try to convince him why it is okay until I realized that arguing with the fear-and-control driven ego is pointless. I’m becoming more adept at naming his experience then directing him down into his feelings.

“It sounds like you’re trying to control instead of letting yourself feel envious,” I said.

“What’s envious?” Everest asked.

“It’s kind of like jealousy. Jealousy is when you’re feeling left out, like when Daddy plays with Asher and makes him laugh really hard. Envy is when you want something that someone else has. They’re both really hard feelings to let yourself feel,” I explain.

“You mean the green-eyed monster?” Asher pipes up. “Humphrey was jealous of Og the Frog.” He’s referring to one of their favorite chapter book series about Humphrey the classroom hamster, and how he feels jealous when the teacher brings in a new pet, a frog, and all of the kids go ga-ga over him.

“Yes, that’s jealousy. It’s called a monster because it feels so big inside, like it could just swallow you up. Most people try to deny it when they feel jealous or envious because they think they shouldn’t feel that way, but everyone does feel those feelings sometimes. They’re part of being human.

“But they really are extremely difficult feelings to feel. A part of you (ego – although I don’t use that term with my kids yet) doesn’t believe that you can handle such a big feeling so it tells you to control other people so that don’t have to feel it. But it doesn’t work! You can’t control people and circumstances, and it takes a lot of energy to try. In the end it’s much easier to let yourself feel the envy. It’s just a feeling – an energy – and it’s very uncomfortable but it will pass through you. When you try to exert control you turn tight inside and the feeling can’t get out. Then it becomes trapped inside of you and actually grows bigger. If you just let yourself feel envious it will pass through you and eventually you’ll arrive at acceptance.”

Everest seems to hear me. They both do. Everest’s complaining and controlling quiet down and I can visibly see him exhaling. The tightness of control released into acceptance.

I was teaching my kids a simple equation, one that I teach my clients every day:

Feel your feelings = acceptance of what is = flowing with the river of life

Versus

Avoid the feelings = control what is = fight the river of life and feel stuck inside

This was one of my better parenting moments, but I admit: I get hooked into trying to talk Everest out of his difficult feelings just like everyone else. Well, let me rephrase that: I get hooked into talking Everest out of his controlling ways when I forget to identify the root feeling. Before I launched into my inspired speech above, I launched into a lecture about how he’s focusing on the wrong things. He’s grumpy about a pair of boots when some children don’t have enough to eat, or clothes, or even parents. (Yes, I really said that and cringed at myself even while saying it.). It just goes to show what a mess is made when two egos spar for control: Everest trying to control Asher and me trying to control Everest. And beyond that what happens when we hook into the storyline of control and forget to ask: what is this attempt to control covering up?

For as soon as I identified the feeling encased in the control, the tension broke open for all of us. I stopped trying to convince Everest to focus on something else and Everest stopped trying to control me and Asher.

Everest is far from alone in trying to control his outer circumstances in an attempt to avoid painful and uncomfortable feelings. We all do it. We seem wired to do it. I’ve watched Everest try to control others or circumstances from the time he was a baby as a way to avoid pain. And as newborn parents, we caved into his attempts more often than we should have, allowing him to have more control than any baby or young child wants. But I will say here (although it’s not really the main point of this article) that when a child is highly sensitive (or off-the-charts, over-the-top sensitive, as is the case with my firstborn sweet love), the mainstream rules about “don’t coddle your child” don’t apply. You must coddle. You must attend. You must listen very closely to their needs and attend to them as much as possible. But at a certain point, when the inner strength and outer body have solidified, it’s time to allow the child to come into contact with the powerlessness of being human, which means learning that you have control over very little outside of you in this life. Instead of trying to protect them from their powerlessness, you hold them through their pain and agony. You love them through their rage. And you guide them lovingly through this almost unbearable lesson, over and over and over again.

It’s what all spiritual traditions teach: the attempt to control circumstances as a way to find happiness will only land you in misery. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes about in this way in Torah Journeys: “It is an incredibly radical realization when we discover that it is the inner state of consciousness, and not outer circumstances, that determines whether our lives are an expression of Heaven or Hell [she’s writing about heaven and hell as inner states of consciousness, not actual locations]. Personally, this realization stands as the foremost challenge to my own ego, which has struggled for nearly half a century to manipulae my outer circumstances.

“The fear-driver ego says, ‘If only I had these things, this job, that lover, a slimmer body, nicer clothes, a good teacher, friends who were more loyal to me, or more time… then, everything would be OK. The wisdom of my soul says, ‘I will find Heaven here regardless of circumstances.'” (p. 131)

And one of the golden keys, one of the ways that we learn to let go and flow in the river of life and find heaven in each moment, is to allow ourselves to feel our feelings. It’s a satisfying moment in a session when a client says to me, “I finally understand what you’ve been saying. Today I noticed by brain swimming and churning and the anxiety building up and I took a few deep breaths, turned inside, and asked myself, ‘What am I feeling right now?’ It’s usually something like grief or envy or maybe fear of the unknown, and when I just let myself feel it, the anxiety fell away.”

That’s it. That’s everything. Feelings are manageable; anxiety is not. The more you practice cutting through the habit of spider monkeying up the vines of anxiety that entrap your brain and instead drop back down into you heart, where your feelings live, the less anxious and more peaceful you will feel.

37 comments to Feelings are Manageable; Anxiety is Not

  • Lalalove

    Well this is just perfect. And when I have kids I’m printing out all these blog posts to make The Book of Sheryl parenting book. 🙂 🙂

  • Tina

    My heart is broken anew each time I wrestle with envy and jealousy. To give up trying to manipulate (exploit) the world and its people into doing my bidding is hard. At the root is grief. No superpowers, no control…damn.

    • So hard, Tina. I think it’s one of the hardest things to do: accept powerlessness and let ourselves puddle into the grief of that realization.

  • Angie

    I love this article I’m buying the recourse right after I leave this comment. I’ve been engaged for 6 months and couldn’t wait to buy land and build our first house together (never lived anywhere besides home) we have been together for 5 years and I couldn’t imagine a life without him. Well until fear took over the drivers seat, now I am terrified to leave my house I’m scared I can’t get married that I’ll be stuck at home forever.. Anxiety has crippled me it’s a bad place, but the truth is whenever I’ve felt change or been this scared I thought it meant I didn’t want it. In reality I feel like I just don’t know how to cope with anything. Hopefully the e-course will help me get through this time. Looking forward to starting.
    Thank you sheryl!

  • Hi Sheryl,
    What a brilliant post! I love how you talk to your kids about letting them move towards and through their feelings. I try to do the same with our wee one too. Of course, it’s sometimes very difficult in the heat of the moment, first of all recognising that very human tendency to control and then, secondly, making a conscious decision to take those few deep breaths and stand back, let go…Sounds simple, but, as you know, it’s actually very hard….yet enormously liberating when you manage it. I love Pema Chodron’s words, “This very moment is the perfect teacher”, because it reminds me that even on those days where I’m berating myself and falling into the trap of equating negative emotion with weakness, a sense of losing it/falling apart etc…it reminds me that these are the VERY moments that I need in order to learn how to exercise self-compassion and that ability to explore my feelings with curiosity! Something I never did before having discovered your work! 🙂 Thanks so much for your heart-warming words. Lots of love, xxx

  • AN

    The part I struggle with is feeling the emotion. When I let myself feel the emotion it immediately turns into a panic attack. The most I can do to ‘feel’ is acknowledge that “yes it’s scary but in the end he is worth this leap of faith and trust” and then I try and distract myself with feeling like I’ve moved on when really I think I’ve just buried it deeper. I’m going onto 5 months of anxiety, I’ve done the whole wedding e-course and I’m still having panic attacks on the weekly. My only moments of salvation are when I look at my partner and feel this feeling of pure happiness and love. I just don’t know how to manage this anxiety anymore…

    • If the emotion immediately turns to panic my guess is that you’re not showing up for yourself in that moment with a loving inner parent. In other words, my mother (co-founder of Inner Bonding®) often uses the analogy that when you’re in a self-abandoned state and you’re feeling sad, it’s like a child that’s drowning in a river while the adult stands on the banks and then jumps in and drowns, too. On the other hand, when you’re taking full responsibility for yourself and learning to show up for yourself with a reliable source of love, comfort, and guidance, the child feels the big feelings and the adult/parent throws the child a rope, pulls her out of the river, and holds her closely. It sounds like you need to work on growing that loving adult/parent part of you so that you don’t drown in the feelings.

      • AN

        Thanks so much for the response! I am trying really hard, I guess I am just afraid that if I feel this way after 4 years and it is this hard, what happens in 10 years if I come across this same hurdle. All I want to do is crawl under a rock and not address any of these emotions! I will try harder at growing the loving adult/parent, I still run to my parents when I experience those ‘big feelings’ which would make sense as part of the transition from reliance on parents to reliance on partner for grounding and a sounding board.

  • Jen

    Sheryl,once again,a succinct,beautiful and authentic walk through the “minefields”-teaching,learning,being..You’ve such a gift.Thank you.

    Jen

  • Leigh

    I love this. Thank you Sheryl for explaining it this way. I have been reading your blog for some time and am also on the e-course, and this concept is making more sense to me now than ever before. If I can let myself feel my feelings rather than worrying about what they “mean” then maybe the anxiety will fall away. Thanks again.

  • Kelsey

    Sheryl,

    I’m not sure if this will make any sense but what if I feel as though others are and have always been trying to control me so that they are not uncomfortable and don’t have to deal with their feelings? I identify with being highly sensitive and I have received a lot of criticism from friends and family my whole life because I have always been different than them and they can’t accept me. Does that mean I need to accept they are trying to control me and that I can’t change that? I really hope this makes sense:)

    Thank you for your posts every week-I always look forward to them!

    • Yes, it sounds like you’ve hit the nail on the head: their discomfort causes them to judge you and try to control you – and you have no control over that! The work of feeling your core feelings in this case would be letting yourself feel how painful, lonely, and powerless your situation has been, and still is.

      • Kelsey

        Thank you for taking time to write back with such a heartfelt response, as always 🙂

        At first I felt like I was thinking into that too much but then I realized that everyone seems to be controlling everyone else! I have been spending time and energy trying to get them to accept me as I am my whole life (I guess I just assumed family and close friends should naturally). It’s a big weight off my shoulders that I can see I have been doing that and knowing that I can’t control how they view me or that they are trying to control me. It is a deeply sad and lonely thing to accept but I am sure I will be happier once I can.

        Do you think you will ever do a course on anxiety in general (not related to relationships)? I would definitely sign up!:)

  • Candie

    I love this post too! I have cut through the majority of my anxiety. However I keep finding myself feeling flat, not depressed or sad just neutral. Now my ego starts with a few thoughts like I should be happy all the time, then I search for joyous feelings, try control how I feel and ponder idiot have some sort of mood disorder. I too realised that in my effort to control how I feel I’m not flowing through my feelings I’m getting stuck and even adding some anxiety to the mix. It usually happens if I’m feeling exhausted then I begin questioning rather then accepting these moments as natural and normal.

    I also do something similar if my partner is busy working and I feel lonely, I often think I’m wrong for feeling this way and focus on my feelings trying to escape them and the odd time I have even ranted at him for not spending enough time with me! Of course I know I can’t control my partner to satisfy my needs as that is selfish and unloving expecting him to not fulfil his own needs to keep me happy. Sheryl would you say we should have compassion towards ourselves in moments of selfishness, allow our emotions and then we can naturally let go?

    • It doesn’t sounds like selfishness; it sounds like loneliness and a desire to connect. So yes, if you can bring compassion to those feelings you will allow them to pass through and will find that you can let go with greater ease. From that softer place, you can also connect to a need – more connection – and you can find loving ways to meet that need.

  • Emma

    Sheryl,

    I’m 22 years old and I’ve been dealing with anxiety since I turned 20. I’ve been in therapy ever since. I was doing quite well until January when my anxiety lifted but instead I began to experience what I would classify as depression. It becomes more moderate during hormonal times of my cycle. How can I attend to the “sadness” that descends upon me. The feelings of emptiness and grief are coupled with the feelings of fear, making for a strong cocktail of unease. When the sadness and emptiness hits me, I catastrophize and envision myself spiralling down that horrifying dark place of depression where everything is painted in black and every second is so scary. I fear that place so much because I’ve been there. How can I attend to sadness when it brings me such angst and has lead to so much terror and despair?

    Thank you Sheryl,
    Emma

    • It’s not your sadness that’s leading to terror and despair but your fear of the sadness and your beliefs associated with it. Pure sadness is manageable – just like every other raw feeling. My guess is that your hormones are amplifying some core beliefs you have about pain.

  • sonakshi

    All of your posts come when I need them the most!!But I don’t understand what to do with my feelings after I try to feel them.The anxiety does decrease but being an anxious and thoughtful person that I am,I give much stock to all thoughts I have and that becomes a huge problem.I am also suffering from relationship anxiety and though I have been able to control the anxiety by reading your articles(you are second only to god for me) it doesn’t go away permanently and that gets a bit scary as I think I won’t be able to feel truly in love with my boyfriend again.I can’t afford to buy your e-course(school student)but I know it’s true love and want to save my relationship.Please help.Please.

    • It takes time to learn to really feel your feelings and fill up your well of Self with clear waters so that you don’t have to attach on to every single thought. When you learn to fall in love with you and discover your own anchor points of well being, you will fall in love with your boyfriend. Hang on!

  • abc14

    I’ve been struggling with the concept of how to feel my feelings. Last night after I read your article I found myself wrestling with this, as I’ve been reading some books on similar things, too, and I can’t even tell if I’ve been doing this thing or not. I start to think I need to act on my feelings; how do I just sit with them without taking any action? My partner has Crohn’s disease and things have been so hard financially, my brain starts to spiral thinking what I should do, and then I panic because I don’t want to leave him, both because I care about him and also because I don’t want to go through that whole separation debacle. I know it’s normal to have these thoughts when we’re going through adversity. When I’m not around my monthly cycle, everything is manageable and I don’t worry so much, but every month I go through bouts of hopelessness and I can’t really get a handle on myself, because I tend to beat myself up, I guess.

  • Christy

    As a first time mother in the making, I really enjoy reading your posts about your children. Having taken your wedding e-course, which was life changing – I’m beginning to wonder how I would handle different scenarios you write about with your children. Do you have any books to suggest reading to help channel what we learn from you to our kids? How to help your children feel their feelings, identify and work through them, etc.? Any good motherhood/parenting books you could recommend would be really appreciated!

    • Everyday Blessings by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
      Parenting from the Inside Out

      Syliva commented below on Hand in Hand Parenting, and I trust her recommendations completely.

  • Katie

    Hi Sheryl, what a wonderful post! I agree with Christy, I’m also a first time mom and would love to hear your sugestions! 🙂

  • lennonpie

    Hi Sheryl, nice post. Although something confused me at the very end.

    ‘Today I noticed by brain swimming and churning and the anxiety building up and I took a few deep breaths, turned inside, and asked myself, ‘What am I feeling right now?’ It’s usually something like grief or envy or maybe fear of the unknown, and when I just let myself feel it, the anxiety fell away.’

    With regards to ‘fear of the unknown’, how can I tell the difference between that and anxiety? For me, I had always correlated anxiety with fear. So right now I’m going through a lot of anxiety about death, wondering what would happen ect. Is this fear of death the core feeling or is there something underneath that? I mean, for me, that fear is the anxiety or dread feeling, its hard to tell the difference between fear and anxiety in that respect.

    Thanks for reading!

    • What you’re describing is anxiety, lennonpie. There is fear of the unknown that may create a momentary lurch in the stomach, but if you’re able to show up for yourself with a loving inner parent and offer reassurance and comfort, the fear dissolves pretty quickly. It sounds to me – and knowing what I know about you – like your current compulsion is no different than any other anxiety spike (what if I’m gay? what if I don’t love her enough? etc), all of which serve as symptoms that point to inner needs. If you can identify the core need, the mental obsession will dissolve.

  • Megan

    Sheryl,

    I usually find great comfort in your articles, however this one today made me feel a little more uncertain. I’ve felt the relationship anxiety that you and many others on your website have described and am trying to learn how to cope with it. However, after reading this article I am confused. Is my anxiety about my relationship (and if I love my boyfriend) simply relationship anxiety or is it anxiety because I’m trying to control the situation and I’m not allowing my true feelings (lack of love) to come out? Now I’m confused and sad, because I care about my boyfriend a lot and he is truly the greatest man I’ve ever dated and I don’t want to give that up, but my anxiety is confusing me. I think that I’ve had the anxiety for so long that I don’t know what’s right and what’s not right anymore. Any insight you might have is much appreciated!

    • The anxiety IS the control that’s covering over the core feelings of grief, fear, uncertainty, the unknown, etc. So the obsessive thoughts – do I love my boyfriend – are the mind’s way of avoiding the deeper wells of pain that have nothing to do with your partner. I hope that clarifies. From your brief comment it’s clear to me that you are absolutely suffering from relationship anxiety.

  • Sheryl, As always I so appreciate your authentic and deeply thoughtful reflections! I especially appreciate your sharing the ‘before’ picture of ‘cringing’ because it is so important and liberating for us all to be reminded that the process is messy/real/moment by moment…but it is the commitment to love and connection that keeps us moving forward in the ‘perfectly imperfect’ journey of growth, love, learning. And I love that in doing so, you modeled in yourself exactly what you are supporting Everest to do. He got a double whammy of awesome mom 🙂 So beautiful! p.s. Have you connected to Hand in Hand Parenting yet? I really love the way they support much of this work too.

    • Thank you so much, Sylvia. I haven’t connected yet with Hand in Hand Parenting but I look forward to doing so now that you’ve suggested it!

  • Erika Z

    Sheryl,

    I’ve been reading your posts for most of the day and feel more hopeful and empowered than I have in the past 3 weeks or so. My brain is still racing and my emotions are still fluctuating, but I feel like I’m starting to accept the unknown a little more every minute (I have been called “panic prone” and an “over analyzer” by 2 different therapists, but I suspect some type of anxiety is at play because I recently experienced a handful of panic attacks when I felt like I was going crazy and would never feel normal again, all due to over analyzing a recent dream I had about an ex boyfriend….

    I am a 24 year old female with some medical issues (ulcerative colitis and recently diagnosed with PCOS). I have been with my boyfriend for 4 years in June, and he is truly my best friend, my confidant and the love of my life. The first half of our relationship was rough – I cheated on him with (kissed) an ex and at times wondered who I truly wanted to be with while in college. About two years ago, I graduated and I left the ex behind and turned to focusing on my current relationship, confessed what I’d done to my boyfriend and haven’t looked back since. I definitely had my moments of feeling guilty, but my boy friend always reassured me that he had forgiven me, was over it, and just wanted to move on with our relationship.

    On May 10th, I experienced a trigger about my past. I saw someone who knows my ex and later that night had a dream about my ex which has thrown me into a cycle of over-thinking, anxiety attacks, mild depression, feeling numbness and disconnection, intermittent feelings of solace/acceptance, and then the cycle begins again. I’ve been looking for a reason for the dream, asking myself if it’s possible that I have feelings for my ex, did I not deal with my past transgressions, if I loved my boyfriend would I be questioning all this, etc., and these unwanted thoughts and doubts are horrifying me and disgusting me. I know how I feel but keep thinking these thoughts. I don’t want to see my ex or talk to him, but genuinely wish him well in life wherever he is and hope I never come in contact with him again. Truthfully, I kind of feel neutral towards him – not love, not hate, just in the middle. So why am I making myself feel so badly all because of a dream???

    My current relationship means the world to me and I want to marry this man and make as many babies with him as I can, though that may be hard for me with PCOS! All I want is to go back to being blissfully happy like I was with him less than a month ago. I would have married him on the spot if he’d proposed!

    Does this sound anything like relationship anxiety? I’m truly unsure. Growing up, I was broken up with during every relationship I had, and I had many – this is the first time I’ve experienced real love and will do anything to get myself back to where I was with my current boyfriend – because it feels “Right”, like game over, I’ve found “the one”. I guess I’m wondering if your E-course could help me? Like I said, I have every intention of marrying this guy!

    I’m not looking for a diagnosis, just hoping for the next step to take to get my mind and relationship back and be free of these unwanted thoughts, doubts and anxiety. I know the “unknown” has always been very hard for me to deal with, and I think it’s time to address that it’s become a a pretty big issue in my life.

    I appreciate any and all feedback – thank you, thank you! I will definitely be reading more posts and looking deeper into the E-course.

    -Erika Z.

    • Yes, you’re describing a classic case of relationship anxiety and I have no doubt that the e-course would be enormously helpful to you.

  • AN

    Hi Sheryl,

    I just came across your website by accident and it was the best accident ever! I am 26 years old and have always been prone to anxiety however in the past few months my anxiety has reached a level I didn’t think possible. I began having panic attacks and crazy intrusive thoughts that I began believing, not knowing “just because you have a thought does not make it true”. I am in a relationship with a loving amazing man who is my best friend and soul mate. But since the onset of these panic attacks and intrusive thoughts I have began disrupting our relationship by breaking up with him as I believe I do not love him in those moments. I have tracked the anxiety and it seems to occur at a certain time each month, and at this time of the month I am at war with my thoughts, having self doubt that I do not love him (infact I convince myself I hate him) my vision of him is distorted and he is like a stranger to me, an evil stranger who is trying to cause me harm. This makes me so sad even typing this as he is the most loving supportive person I’ve ever known and he has done nothing but love me unconditionally (even through all this anxiety and madness) sometimes I feel so angry toward him and frustrated over little things that are really not his fault. I then feel so guilty for acting that way and feel so upset and he is so forgiving. I recently broke up with him again after an intense panic attack where I was so lost in my mind I felt ending the relationship was the only option and it would make me calm and stop the thoughts. Of course it did make me calm but once over my anxious state I missed him so much and could see things more clearly and so I restarted the relationship. This breaking up in panic and getting back together has become a pattern in the past few months and it is so unfair on him and it is exhausting me emotionally I feel so consumed by it all. I was so confused by this repetitive pattern until I found you! Now I realise it is most likely relationship anxiety and I feel so relieved. After reading through other comments by people I felt such relief that I am not alone. I want to open my heart and let myself love my boyfriend the way he deserves to be loved and the way I deserve to love also. I know I have deep fear of rejection and love as I had a traumatic childhood where love was very much conditioned and unhealthy. I cannot afford your ecourse but I would love to know if you have a book I could buy or any advice on the type of therapy/counselling I should try get? Does it sound like relationship anxiety? sometimes I wonder if I’m just trying to convince myself that I love him because I’m afraid of being alone. So I’m very confused as to which is my real fear? Being alone or being in love?Thank you.