Living God's Will

I just received the following email, which is a question that I’m frequently asked both in sessions and on the E-Course forum:

I’m with a loving, wonderful partner but my anxiety started a few months into the relationship (once I realized that it was serious). We’ve been together for five years and I’ve been struggling with anxiety the entire time. Is my anxiety a sign that God doesn’t want me to be with this person? I can’t figure out what else it could be – although finding your site has helped me start to put some pieces into place. I’m so scared that I’m not following God’s will by staying with my partner but the last thing I want to do it leave him. Help!”

Let me start by saying that if there are any red-flags – abuse, addiction, or misalignment of core values – your anxiety may, indeed, be carrying a message that it’s time to get out or, at the very least, telling you to put on the breaks and seek counseling. But of the thousands of people who have found their way to my work over the years, only a tiny percentage of them fall into this red-flag category. The rest of them invariably describe their partners as honest, loving, caring, kind, hardworking, available, and, before the anxiety hit, had a sense that this was someone with whom they could spend the rest of their life. When that’s the case, the anxiety is not a sign from God to get out, but a sign from the soul to go inside and address the fears and false beliefs that are trying to prevent you from making yourself vulnerable by taking the risk of loving.

If you’ve been raised in organized religion, you likely developed a belief that God exists outside of you as an all-knowing and guiding force, and your job is to determine God’s will and allow God to lead you to your destiny. While this belief may have helped as a child to create a sense of safety and predictability, as an adult on the threshold of the biggest decision of your life (who you’ll marry) this belief abdicates your responsibility and, consequently, leaves you disempowered. In other words, it puts you in a childlike position where God is the all-knowing parent who holds the cards about what’s best for you and you, by some unknowable method, need to divine the “right” answer.

Let me break this down according to another belief system:

God, in a word, is love. If God is love and we were created in God’s image, then God wants us to manifest love in Earth. What better way to manifest love than through choosing a loving, supportive partner with whom you share values, vision, and connection? Are you with a loving partner? Do you support each other’s highest good? Then choosing to marry this person is what God would want for you.

God lives inside of us. God is also around us all the time, like swimming in a pool of invisible love, but the essence of God lives inside each of us. When you ask the question, “Is it God’s will that I marry my partner?”, what you’re really asking is, “When I’m most connected to my loving and truthful self, do I believe it’s a loving choice to marry my partner?” I understand that when you’re in an anxious state your wounded, fear-based self will try to undo this deeper sense of knowing and convince you of all sorts of lies (you never loved him enough, you’re settling, you’re just staying with her because you’re scared to be alone), but if you think back to times before your wounded self slid into the driver’s seat of your mind you’ll quickly remember that inside of you lives the knowing that you’re making a loving choice.

God gave us free will, which means that each one of us has the power to make choices for our lives. God is not your parent; God is a source of guidance, truth, and love. Because most of us were raised by parents and educational systems that failed to nurture our innate sense of self-trust but instead encouraged us to abdicate our authority and knowing to the big people, as adults we naturally attribute God as another “big person” and assign the same belief that “God knows best” (just like Father knows best). This isn’t what free will means. Free will mean you have the will to choose. As one of the my E-Course members shared:

One thing I have really been touched by is the idea that God blesses your choices but doesn’t force you down only one path. God can work with in you wherever you are. What would be the point of grace (and free will as you point out) if there is only ONE path? If a person walked away from a loving, caring relationship, that doesn’t mean God would never give them the chance again. And if a person chooses a relationship that needs some work, that doesn’t mean it is doomed.  
This brings up another challenging and interesting point: many people don’t want to choose! Many people, because their innate self-trust was annihilated in their early years, haven’t learned to trust themselves, especially when it comes to big decision. They struggle with where to attend college. They agonize about which job to accept. And they constantly bring these choices to their parents or friends with the hope of being told what to do. So when someone is hooked on the thought that their anxiety is a sign that they’re living out of alignment of God’s will, I point out that, as long as they’re in a loving relationship, the anxiety is more likely a sign that it’s time to grow up, which means learning to take full responsibility for their choices, beliefs, and actions.

And that’s one of the many gifts of going through the marriage transition (and all transitions) consciously: if you embrace the invitation to grow, you learn how to step into your adulthood. You learn how to trust yourself. You learn that there are no mistakes and no right or wrong choices but only opportunities for growth and learning. And hopefully you learn how to relate to God not as a an authority outside of you but as a loving source of wisdom and guidance, a piece of which lives inside of you.

63 comments to Living God’s Will

  • MEG

    Another wonderful article… The “Am i making the wrong decision” and wondering if I’m questioning like that must mean that God or the Universe is telling me “it’s not going to work out” is definitely something I’ve thought about. I had a question about one of the points you make in your article about knowing before that you were supposed to marry the person you’re engaged to before the wounded self was in the drivers seat. I’ve been with my fiance for 7 years… After the first month of dating I knew he was the person I would spend the rest of my life with. We very openly discussed marrying and beginning a family as well. Ironically waiting for him to propose after all of these years angered me a bit… I thought he would never ask, and i actually began resenting him. The weekend before he proposed, I had this feeling he was about to ask me, and instead of feeling elated, I felt scared. I remember having the thought, “I dont know if he’s the right person for me”, etc. Since these thoughts came before our actual engagement I’ve always been plagued by them and have wondered, since I had those thoughts before my wounded self truly took over, that it must be a cry from my higher guidance that it just isn’t meant to be. I of course know now that I felt scared about commiting to marriage/loving someone so fully and getting so close to him, but because this fear came before the engagement I can’t help but feel puzzled by these thoughts still.

    Any thoughts, Sheryl?

    • Andrea

      Hi Meg,
      I too, was/am in the same predicament. My boyfriend and I have been together 6 1/2 years. We were never shy about our commitment nor our future in the beginning as we continue to be (we talked about marriage, children, etc.). It wasn’t a wedding/ engagement that threw me into a pit of anxiety; it was buying our first house together. Perhaps Sheryl will have a better answer for you as to why you are so puzzled by your feelings but what I have learned on this site and by starting the e-courses is that these feelings may be more normal than we realize. Questioning your partner during life-altering situations like an engagement, buying a house, etc., is seemingly more common than I might have thought. I think even the happiest couples have doubt or anxiety but what matters most is what we do with it. I think that majority of us on this site know that there is something not quite right about the anxiety we are feeling. I sometimes ask myself when I am feeling very anxious about our relationship, “How could I have gotten this far without knowing that this is a good place to be?” I am an anxiety prone person and although the anxiety does shake me to my core, I know that I am in a loving and beautiful relationship that should not be jeopardized by my growing fear or anxiety. There is a saying that I though could be applicable to you Meg and all of us on this site and it goes like this:
      An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside each and every one us all. One is evil; it is anger, fear, jealousy, greed, resentment, anxiety, lies, and ego. The other is good; it is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.” The boy thought about it and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”
      I think what Sheryl is sharing/teaching us is to feed the good wolf, to embrace love even if it is terrifying because love is the greatest human experience that God has granted us yet more importantly that we allow ourselves to have.

      • MEG

        Andrea,

        Thank you so much for the insightful message. You brought me to tears. It’s so wonderful having a group of people who know exactly what I’m going through right now and can so poignantly speak about it. I am six months into my fears and anxieties… and I have six months before our wedding. And each day gets better and better… there are even days in wish I thank God that I’m going through all of this. As Sheryl has written, now is the time to shed parts of ourselves that no longer serve us. As for me, it’s shedding the scared child who doesn’t believe in herself; the girl who needs her mother to tell her that everything’s going to be okay. I’m now learning that, at the delayed age of 25, I am the one who now gets to provide solace to myself. When I’m Inner Bonding with myself, there are times when I cry that I grab my chest and hug myself almost as if a little girl was next to me. It’s during those times that I know I am making great progress.

        Bless you, Andrea and your wisdom and I wish you well as you continue your mission in life.

  • Goobs

    I had struggled with these thoughts of “maybe god is telling me something” i was always taught to turn towards god and he will give you an answer that a warm feeling of truth would wash over you. i was literally shaking waiting for that truth to wash over me. i still struggle with it somedays but as im still learning, i see this is about me learning to trust myself, me being afraid, and me not waiting to lose one of the best thing that has ever happened to me. i fight back tears just thinking about how i almost allowed such a gift in my life to slip away because of some bad habits and false beilefes to run the show.

    maybe we can look at this as god giving us a curve ball so we can better ourselves =)

  • Laurelle

    I once heard a pastor say in his sermon about marriage: “It’s not WHO you marry that God cares about, it’s HOW you marry them.” In other words, God is concerned with the way you love and treat the person you make the choice to marry. But you can make the choice.

    • Clara

      I too LOVE this idea, Laurelle. Thank you so much for sharing. I cuts through all the anxiety we can harbour around ideas of ‘the one’ and ‘living in alignment with our destiny’ and ‘getting it right’, and goes straight to the fact that we always have a choice about how we act and how we love. Making loving choices is all God cares about in the end. I feel I will hold this idea in my heart my whole life.

  • Erik

    Before I make my criticism, let me say that I enjoy your site very much and that it has helped me IMMENSELY in my recent marriage (and transition anxiety!) I love your work and hope you continue. It played no small part in saving me.

    Now. My criticism (kind, I hope).

    “If you’ve been raised in organized religion, you likely developed a belief that God exists outside of you as an all-knowing and guiding force, and your job is to determine God’s will and allow God to lead you to your destiny.”

    I have to take issue with that because it represents the worst type of generalization. I myself am a “revert” to Catholicism. One of the tenets of this religion is that it represents true freedom. What that means is that true freedom does not consist on doing what you feel is right, or what feels good. It consists of doing what you know to be right. If you simply follow your feelings (I’m sure you would agree), you are not truly free because you are doing what you are compelled to do. Being free means doing what you know to be right, even when you don’t feel like doing it. Even when it is scary.

    The other point I would like to make is in response to “While this belief may have helped as a child”. That assumes that the same way of understanding things as a child applies to being an adult. It doesn’t. Many people believe that this child-like view of God is what is wrong with organized religion, but that is because they most likely abandoned organized religion when they were a child. When they reach their 20s or 30s and begin searching for truth, they still have a child’s understanding of the religion they were raised in. Naturally it seems childlike. They never grew in it. I defy anyone to read Merton, or Aquinas, or Augustine, or Ronald Knox, or St. John of the Cross, or Theresa of Avila and say that Catholicism does not have an exceptionally nuanced and wonderfully rich understanding of the nature of God. And ALL of them were part of “organized religion.”

    Thanks for reading my email.
    Keep up the good work, and God Bless,
    Erik

    • Criticism received : ). I’ll look forward to hearing how others engage in this dialogue before I offer a response.

      • Andrea

        Hello,
        Just to begin, I am not being argumentative in the slightest so I hope my online tone (lol) does not come off that way but rather I am just trying to elaborate to Erik for those of us who do understand Sheryl completely.
        I was raised as a Catholic and attended Catholic school my whole life. I can say in my experience, in those 12 years, I was lead to believe that God is not only outside of me but also as a sacred being apart from me. I think Erik that you are saying you do not agree with this sentiment but for those of us who were brought up as Catholics this really hits home in an indescribably way. In addition, the reference to the child-like understanding is not a condescending point but rather an analogy as to how we all, even as adults who are searching for God, have a child-like way about us. We are oftentimes like lost little children on our quest for God’s love even if we are well into adulthood. Hope I gave you a different way of reading this post. Thanks :)

    • Clara

      Thank you, Erik, for speaking your mind and generating some good discussion.

      My sense of what you write is that you and Sheryl are in fact in heated agreement! Sheryl is advocating for a more nuanced and adult understanding of God and faith than many of us developed as children through our childhood interaction with organised religion. You seem to be advocating for the same. I don’t think Sheryl is suggesting that organised religion is necessarily to blame for the unhelpful beliefs many people have around God (creating God in the image or our parents or as a vengeful, punitive judge being common ones), nor that it is impossible for a ‘religous’ person to develop an adult understanding of and relationship with God – and for this understanding to indeed be supported by the religious community and doctrine. I think she is saying, and I think you are too, that there are both emancipated and unemancipated ways of approaching religion. We have to separate the false beliefs from the loving and true messages of God.

      I am reminded as I write this of the observation made by Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in “The Road Less Travelled”, that oftentimes personal growth requires rejecting the religious ideas of one’s youth, but then, eventually, often after a period of agnosticism, personal growth requires a return to religion, or spirituality, or God – only with a more mature understanding of what that means.

      I personally believe that is the case. I would be very interested in your views. And Erik, you refer to yourself as a ‘revert’ to Catholicism… what made you pull away initially, and what made you return?

      • Thank you, Clara, for chiming into this conversation with your ever-intelligent insights. I, too, think that Erik and I are in “heated” agreement : ).

        • Erik

          In answer to Clara’s question, trying to explain my “reversion” would take pages. In a nutshell, I was not really “raised in a religion”. No schooling, little exposure to faith except the occasional Sunday mass, and then nothing after the age of 15. I “reverted” in my 30s after years of reading and exploring, following arguments and discerning, apologetics, prayer, seeking, etc. The whole thing took 6 or 7 years. I suppose it might have happened sooner if I had had some sort of director, but being a natural skeptic I always did things the hard way. I came to it kicking and screaming sometimes. When you run up against the Truth it can hurt if you try to deny it. Talk about “transitions.” Hoo boy.
          So, I guess, the answer to the question “what made you return?” might be as simple as: if you seek for the Truth, you’ll eventually find it. Sometimes that’s the easy part. Often the hard part is following it.

  • Cori Maffett

    Hi Sheryl and everyone!
    As someone who has benefitted GREATLY from Sheryl’s work but is also a Christian who seeks The Lord on a daily basis, I would love to give some input. The verse that comes to my mind is 2 Timothy 1:7, which says that God never gives us a spirit of fear (or anxiety) but a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. Know that God will never lead us in a direction that goes against His word, so before basing any decision off of what you think God is trying to tell you, check your decision against scripture. God also gives us the Holy Spirit, who lives in us and convicts us and guides us with wisdom in the way we should go. So, while as a Christian I believe we need to seek Gods will for everything in our lives through prayer (prayer being the keyword here), I also know that God does not give us answers in the form of fear or anxiety. On the contrary fear and anxiety are from the enemy (who seeks to destroy our lives) and often is a sign that we ARE pursuing Gods will, as satan does not want Gods will to abound in our lives and often attacks us when we are on the right track. So my advice to whoever wrote that email or any believer struggling with engagement anxiety is to dive into some scripture and prayer and arm yourself with the truth of God :) From my own experience I can say that is what got me through my engagement anxiety (with Sheryl’s insight as well of course) :)

    • Erik

      I agree completely. Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and prayer are EXACTLY what brought me back to Catholicism, and in turn what relieved my anxiety. But my point here was not to argue in favor of Catholicism – it was to take issue with the criticism of “organized religion,” whether it’s Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, or what have you. “Organized religion” often seems to be used in a way that makes it too easy to dismiss what we grew up with, and feel the need to rebel against.

      And as for Sheryl’s work, I endorse it. Recommend it, in fact!

      • Cori Maffett

        Absolutely! I wasn’t arguing, sorry if it came off that way. Actually very much in agreement with you :)

    • Cynthia

      Wow, Cori! 2 Timothy 1:7 is a scripture I referred to over and over as well during my engagement anxiety. We’ve now been married almost 9 mos. I am in total agreement with your comment. Not only did I have to learn to trust myself, but I learned to trust God with my fears. I reminded myself, and still do, that He will never leave me nor forsake me. We must learn to put Him first. He must be our first Love. Yes, God IS Love. We never know what struggles may lie ahead of us. He must be our anchor and we must be willing to honor the sanctity of marriage. Marriage is one of God’s greatest mysteries. I believe marriage was created by God and He produces within us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.
      Sheryl, thanks for your insights. They have also helped sort through many unproductive thoughts. I have shared your website with others experiencing engagement anxiety.

    • Colleen

      Cori-

      Thank you so much for your comment. I am also a Christian and seeking God’s plan for my own life. I am not engaged yet, but my anxiety hit when engagement/marriage was becoming a reality. Prior to this, I have had no anxiety about our relationship and have felt that God was blessing our relationship, so when my anxiety hit me (out of nowhere it seemed), I was (and still am) terrified that God is telling me that our relationship is not right. I am struggling to read Scripture and pray without projecting my fears and anxieties into what I read and without jumping to the conclusion that because I have this anxiety, God must be trying to tell me something. I feel that my judgment and my understanding of Scripture is so clouded by my anxiety that I can’t see clearly what God is saying through His word and prayer. I was hoping you could share more of your own experience of working through your anxiety while still seeking God’s path, or some wisdom or advice for me. Thank you so much for your Biblical perspective. :)

  • Cori Maffett

    Also, in agreement with Something Sheryl said and with Goobs, the anxiety is also likely stemming from some issues you have deep down that need some attention and work. I have been married just over a year and a half now and in hindsight I can see many of the issues that caused my anxiety, although I’m still not clear on all of them, I am a work in process. Goobs… I too think of what I would have missed if I had let my anxiety be my guide… My husband is exactly the man I prayed for all my life and can’t imagine my life without him.

  • Jennifer

    Dear all, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I really appreciated Sheryl’s article on the ways we are conditioned to believe God as outside of us, and often the portrayal of God in a parental role with a set of answers to decisions that are right for us. I think this actually doesn’t speak to fully the free will that we have the incredible privilege to live–that is to know ourselves as deeply as possible and understand that God lives inside of us, the kingdom of God is within, and that God is indeed love.

    If we accept that this is indeed so, or at least a possibility, I really see how searching for a voice, a “sign” outside of ourselves in a way relieves us of a certain responsbility in choice. I can always assert, it was “God’s will” that I marry this person, not taking into account that there was a certain consciousness, an awareness of what drew me to this person. The qualities I recognized as valuable and a good match for me. And to also feel the sense of stress and anxiety that accompanies great change.

    4 years ago, I went through several major life changes–getting married, moving within 2 months of marriage to a new state, for a new job and leaving our family and friends in my home town. I did so because I thought about what it would mean to stay in a town where my now husband was unhappy. And I wanted to choose from a place of love and hope. The years since then have been challenging–went through a job loss last year and a loss of our baby at 4 months–a very wanted pregnancy. So it has been transition after transition and loss after loss, and honestly, there have been times that I wondered whether God would want me to leave my partner, whether God’s will was for me to have a different life.

    And yet, I can acknowledge the blessing of this past year. Of the blessing that our daughter brought us in only 4 months. Or the time that was allowed by the job loss that I hadn’t had for 13 years in working non-stop. Or to feel my husband’s support in a period of such vulnerability–that he had never before seen me as anything less than a professional woman making just as much money as he was. And yet, it was this part of the power couple that stepped in to care for me, during losses that felt too difficult for words. Who lent comfort even in the midst of his own loss and dissolution from the transition.

    As he enters into his own inner journey (he turned 50 this year), and myself to step into a new way of being and knowing that is able to provide more comfort than before to my own inner children, this capacity I see as needed too by my partner–the ability to contain my enormous fears and uncertainty, the weight of responsibility for my choices, to reveal more than ever God expressing as my life.

    If we are indeed God’s hands and feet in the world, than the concept of free will and responsibility does not lessen our role in the world. In fact, it enhances it. How does God’s love express as my very life and being? How do I choose this, even in difficult days and moments–time of uncertainty and change?

    These are not easy questions, and each of us must ask within our own hearts. But I do believe that we are loved and supported in the greater field of life, that every decision to love is courageous, and cultivating faith is such a gift. I love Merton, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Moore–mystics that saw God is every little thing, and our ability to express this love as a sacred gift.

    Not sure if I answered anything, only to say that all your voices add a richness to the discussion on things worth contemplating about.

    with warmth, Jennifer

  • What a beautiful, heartfelt, vulnerable comment, Jennifer. I love this: “But I do believe that we are loved and supported in the greater field of life, that every decision to love is courageous, and cultivating faith is such a gift.” Thank you.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you Sheryl. As always, your thoughtful and soulful articles inspire movement towards the inner self, and more conscious living and loving.

    blessings to you.

  • Clara

    I really loved this post, Sheryl. As you know, the question of whether my anxiety was a ‘sign’ that I was not living in aligment with my ‘destiny’ or with ‘God’s will’ was a big one for me for a time. Even though I was raised by atheist parents, I have always had a strong religious bone in my body… and I guess my atheist upbringing meant that I didn’t even have a framework for approaching inner work and all the big questions that come along with it.

    I would read much into my feelings, and into what I took to be synchronicities in my life… and this line of inquiry often lead me to the dreadful conclusion that I was on the ‘wrong path’. A whole host of ideas constellated around that thought, like I would be punished for not finding my destined path, and worse: that I would die having only half-lived.

    Practising Inner Bonding was very powerful, as it gave me a forum and techniques for teasing apart my false beliefs from Truth, which is of course a very difficult and life-long exercise. And also helped me realise the ways in which I was putting onto ‘God’ the responsibility of making me feel better, rather than genuinely taking responsibiliy for my pain and my happiness. I am so grateful for that wisdom. A galaxy of fear evaporated when I realised that my peace didn’t depend on me finding the perfect ways to avoid pain, but rather on my willingness to learn and grow, even if it involves pain.

    A big piece of my healing was about recognising that there is no fool-proof method of knowing what is ‘right’. Feelings are helpful sometimes, but certainly not always. Common sense is also helpful, but can lead you astray. Gut instinct can be powerfully true, but also a purely fear-based reaction. When I recently went through a period of severe depression (my only so far, and very clearly transitions related)the last thing I could trust was my feelings, and possibly even less my thoughts. The best I could do at that time was put my faith in the advice of caring people who I trusted. What we call our ‘conscience’ or our ‘knowing’, may seem fundamental a lot of the time, but I know from experience that even these most basic aspects of who we are can be easily hijacked by fear and our inner critic. When we talk about doing what we ‘know to be right, even when it doesn’t feel good’ – what do we mean? How do we ever ‘know’ what is right?

    I was speaking recently with a friend who is very into health, and has for some years now been a raw food advocate. She says she has now clensed her body to the point where she can totally trust her feelings about what she needs to eat: if she feels like an egg, it must be an egg that her body needs. But of course, for less healthy people, what they feel like eating is often the worst guide (I feel like a Big Mac, my body must need a Big Mac?). I occured to me that a similar principle applies to inner work. As we do the difficult and painful work of clensing ourselves of our false beliefs (challenging our reactive thoughts and feelings), and replace them with mature loving understanding, our feelings and thoughts will become increasingly aligned with the Truth… we will be increasingly able to trust our feelings, thoughts, instincts as genuine guides, not sirens that could last us astray.

    This seems to me to be the point of inner work. To learn to play the instruments of our mind and body, to get to know them, to refine them, so that they can be instruments of truth – a clear channel through which loving guidance may flow.

    • MEG

      Clara,
      What an amazing message you send. Just what I needed when I woke up this morning. Sometimes those fear-based thoughts can be so powerful, and the feelings in your chest can be so tight that you feel like you cant find what you once knew was the Truth.

      For anyone who doesn’t identify with any specific religion or who has lost the idea of having a Higher Guidance, I suggest listening to Dharma Talks (buddhist teachings that give beautiful insight on fear, love, and seeking truth). Coupled with the buddhist practice is meditation, which has helped for me these past few months significantly. I wake up first thing in the morning, listen to a guided meditation from Dharmaseed.com, feel a huge sense of love and kindness toward myself and the world, then sneak back in bed and kiss my fiancé until he wakes up. This morning ritual has made me feel more connected to my Higher Guidance than I have ever felt before. Good luck to everyone on your religious/spiritual journey.

      • Meg: I LOVE what you’ve shared here. What’s particularly interesting to me is that I woke up this morning and in a half-sleep state I thought about my clients who don’t have a spiritual framework or any belief in God. The Dharma is often the way that helps them connect to something bigger without the triggering words that appear in more Western spiritual or religious resources. Thank you for posting that link and sharing your beautiful morning ritual!

      • Clara

        Thank you, Meg. I’ve just had a look at Dharmaseed, and will follow your morning ritual for a time. Yes – connecting with my Higher Guidance is right at the edge of my inner work at the moment, and while I love Christian ideas, I struggle a lot with the associations and imagery. Bhuddism is less familiar and hence less loaded, I suppose. Very best and warmest wishes to you on your path too.

    • Wow, Clara. WOW! This paragraph deserves an entire blog post (perhaps a guest post by you…?!):

      “I was speaking recently with a friend who is very into health, and has for some years now been a raw food advocate. She says she has now clensed her body to the point where she can totally trust her feelings about what she needs to eat: if she feels like an egg, it must be an egg that her body needs. But of course, for less healthy people, what they feel like eating is often the worst guide (I feel like a Big Mac, my body must need a Big Mac?). I occured to me that a similar principle applies to inner work. As we do the difficult and painful work of clensing ourselves of our false beliefs (challenging our reactive thoughts and feelings), and replace them with mature loving understanding, our feelings and thoughts will become increasingly aligned with the Truth… we will be increasingly able to trust our feelings, thoughts, instincts as genuine guides, not sirens that could last us astray.

      This seems to me to be the point of inner work. To learn to play the instruments of our mind and body, to get to know them, to refine them, so that they can be instruments of truth – a clear channel through which loving guidance may flow.”

  • amore

    One of my favorites… I listen to it often and find that it addresses Sheryl’s words above in a different context, maybe one that’s more easily interrupted. I hope this was ok to share Sheryl … It brings tears to my eyes each and everytime I listen to it.

    http://conscious-transitions.com/autumn-2011/

  • Sarah

    Great post! And a much needed topic to address (based on the comments). I remember thinking the exact same thoughts while I was entrenched in engagement anxiety. Something a friend told me that I remember clinging to was that God would never use doubts, fears, and insecurity to speak truth. Truth by nature is a thing of clarity and light…nothing wrapped in “maybe’s” and “what-if’s” and shadowy confusion would turn out to be truth. It was something I clung to a lot.

    I can also relate to your last paragraph about not wanting to choose something. College was a hard choice for me, what to do after college was hard, making a decision to marry was surprisingly easy…until anxiety hit. Even now, as my husband and I are talking about starting a family I often find myself hoping I’ll just get pregnant by accident so I can work on accepting it, rather than making a decision to start trying. It is easier to have someone else make a decision for me. Thanks for this post and some good reminders!

    • “Something a friend told me that I remember clinging to was that God would never use doubts, fears, and insecurity to speak truth. Truth by nature is a thing of clarity and light…nothing wrapped in “maybe’s” and “what-if’s” and shadowy confusion would turn out to be truth.”

      YES!

  • KD

    Sheryl,
    Your timing is remarkable. This is what I needed to read. Beautiful article. Wonderful commentary here.

    I wanted to add a quote for those who might have trouble discerning what this anxiety means, and if it’s coming from God (or higher guidance):

    “For a person trying to do good, the evil spirit discourages you with what-ifs and if-onlys [...] Those what-ifs lead to a dead end. The enemy proposes only the worst about the future, which is unknowable. That’s the evil spirit causing “gnawing anxiety,” and it should be avoided [...] If-onlys focus our worries on the past. You might be derailed by thinking, If only I had started this years ago! If only I hadn’t wasted so much time! [...] The evil spirit is causing “gnawing anxiety,” this time centered on the past. That’s a dead end as well: the past cannot be changed. Ignore that feeling too [...].

    Sometimes what-ifs and if-onlys can help us dream, or they can move us to sorrow for our sins. But when they move you toward fear, prevent you from moving ahead in healthy ways, lead to dead ends, and “cause gnawing anxiety,” they are most likely not coming from God.[...] God’s “pulls” on the other hand – gentle invitations that beckon in love – feel different.”

    -Fr. James Martin, SJ.

    Although this was written by a Jesuit priest, the sentiments above can apply to almost anyone. God’s love is not anxious. God’s love is not confused. God’s love does not make us feel sorry for ourselves (as I have felt lately). Trust that God’s love guides us toward warmth and peace.

    Thank you for this post.

    • Stunning, KD. Thank you for sharing this extraordinary quote.

    • Erik

      THAT is exactly what I needed to read this morning. I’m always amazed that what I know to be true can be so unconvincing at times when it’s me talking to myself. Hearing or reading it from another source helps.

  • Jamie

    Sheryl–

    One of the things I’ve continued to struggle with as I read your site is feeling like my anxiety set in too early in the relationship for it to be anything but a sign. We weren’t (and aren’t yet) engaged; we had just exited an amazing four-month period of limerance and were preparing to settle in for the long haul of a serious relationship when bouts of severe, disheartening anxiety overtook me. I’m only 24, I thought — this is so early in the relationship, I thought — but at the same time, I believed strongly in my soul that this person had all of the qualities I sought in a future partner, and I loved him deeply when I was at my truest state. Things have gotten much, much better since, but my mind has also dropped at times into pits of despair so black I saw no end in sight, where it took all my energy to dredge up those memories of clear-hearted love (and even then, they were tainted with the lies and doubts of anxiety!).

    I was raised in a religious family, more of the fire-and-brimstone type. Despite the fact that I’m no longer religious, I have trouble convincing myself that anxiety is NOT a sign from God that something I am doing is wrong. That my relationship is wrong! And on Monday, as I sat at work in tears, convinced my relationship was deeply flawed in a way I could never place a finger on, that something bigger than me was telling me to flee, to runaway, that I will never be freed from these anxieties and fears, that they were a sign that everything about my relationship and everything about ME was flawed and wrong, this post popped up.

    It was everything I needed then, and in the days since, as I’ve talked to my therapist and my (wonderful, supportive, giving, thoughtful, amazing) boyfriend, I’ve continued to reread it as I climb slowly, carefully back onto the safety of my internal rock. The journey back from the deepest depths of anxiety and fear — to a place where I can let those feelings just be, without getting caught in their waves and eddies — is so terribly, terribly hard, but your words have been so helpful.

    Thank you so much for all the help I’ve found, in this post and across the site. It’s easy for people like me — who fall fast into anxiety once the initial highs of a relationship begin to subside — to find reasons to accept the anxiety is true. For me, I worry that, because we aren’t engaged, or that these feelings didn’t come after an engagement or similar commitment, that they are more valid. But they’re not! And this question, and your answer, are so reassuring in that aspect.

    • Amber

      Yes. This is exactly my situation too. I’m 21, but the anxiety was triggered by my parent’s disapproval of my boyfriend because of his religion being different than mine (which is something him and I acknowledge and know we can work through), and it came 2 months into our relationship but now we have been dating almost 4 months. I feel like we have dated forever (in a good way) and I do feel like he would be great for me as a husband, but my anxiety makes me question whether I love him the way he loves me, and sometimes it even makes me feel distant around him, like I don’t love him how I did, even though I absolutely feel compelled to tell him I love him sometimes because it is such a powerful and beautiful relationship. He knows how I feel and tells me I don’t need to know if I love him or not yet and he will wait for me. The anxiety is getting worse though, even now I am anxious around him sometimes when it was never this way before, which has me even more worried, it is a self-sabotage.

      I was also in a 6 year relationship prior to this which I broke off for a similar anxiety, even though there was a misalignment of values for him and I, so I think that, some self-esteem issues, and the whole parent disapproval when I am normally trying to please everyone thing is what is causing the anxiety.

  • Betsy (blm5126)

    I wanted to add a few things as well to the mix. I grew up going to a Methodist church and, although I have gone and back forth in questioning the extent of my faith, I have always been a Christian. I agree with Sheryl that the dominant message of organized religion is the idea that God’s will is something outside of you and something that you have to divine from God to know what the correct, true path is. However, and I can see Erik’s point in this, it is not the ONLY point of view of organized religion (and even Christianity). Although there are other viewpoints on this from very important thinkers in the religion, as Erik points out, I do think it is the predominant view and the view that we are taught to believe, particularly if you are in the dating/engaged realm. One of the most popular devotionals (My Utmost for His Highest) spiked the bejeezus out of me in the early stages of this because it had a devotion in it that basically said “If you are feeling anxious about a decision and the anxiety never lessens, it is a clear sign you are not following God’s will.”
    Once you get into the married realm, the message does change slightly. One of my favorite quotes from a Marriage Course at my church is a response to the question: “What if I married the wrong person?” The response is: “I can’t tell you if you married the right person or the wrong person. What I can tell you is that you can make the right person the wrong person and vice versa based on how you treat them. The real question to ask yourself is ‘Am I becoming the right person?’”

    I’m actually not sure there is that much of a conflict between the article and Erik’s point of view (or anyone who agrees with him). The biggest conflict he seems to have is that there was an overgeneralization of the idea that organized religions (and particularly Christianity) teach one will, one path, one Truth, when there are of course variants within every major school of thought. I would agree with Sheryl that is the predominant view, and if you do not read those other deep thinkers of the faith, you could certainly (as many do) get the impression that you must first divine God’s will to ensure you are choosing the right path, the right partner, the right life.

  • HJH

    Thanks for this, and your other posts. Sheryl. I’ve read through the ones on this site and the Huffington post multiple times and I always find serenity in them— which, of course, falls away to doubt and questions and nagging voices soon afterwards— it’s those voices I’m trying to understand and trying to get to go away. Many of these voices are the ones you talk about your clients having:
    - Do I really love him?
    - Why would these questions be in my head if I really did love him and want a future with him?
    - What if there is someone else who is “better” (smarter, funnier, more attractive, etc.) out there who I just haven’t met yet? What would happen if I did meet him?
    - Am I only still in this because I don’t want to hurt him?
    - Is is bad that I still find other men I see walking around physically attractive– more so than my fiancee?
    - Is is bad that I sometimes wish I could be as intellectually stimulated by my fiancee as I am by other men and women with whom I work every day?
    - Why are some of the things he says which I used to find funny or charming now slightly annoying/anxiety-triggering? (This is related to the fact that he is more outgoing/louder than me and is also a total goofball at times whereas I’m more reserved naturally)
    -Why do I worry that he might bore me or embarrass me (not for any red flag reasons but just because it’s something I worry about…) or not be interesting to me forever?
    - Am I just too afraid to start over again so I’m going to “settle” for this— and then wonder what could have been forever (which is funny, because as soon as I say this I think that despite the little quirks that he has that annoy me at times I think– wow– it really couldn’t get any better than this)

    All of those things sometimes make me scared to even go meet other people in group settings because I worry that I might find someone else in that setting who might make me really rethink my relationship with my wonderful, kind, smart, handsome, caring, funny, responsible fiancee.. (we’re in a long distance relationship for the time being so we’re not together in lots of social settings)…

    I just want to know that he is the one (in my core I think I do…because when I’m at ease and thinking about being with him or having children with him or just watching tv together or exercising or cooking together my heart it full) and I’m tired of all the anxiety surrounding this next step— I’m scared of closing a door.

    I am a very open-minded religious person who believes that God is in all things and people and that everyone has their own equally holy and special path to walk with God but I also get discouraged that despite my prayers, this anxiety isn’t going away— and that definitely makes me wonder if this is something God is telling me— I hope not– and I hope to find peace with those questions and other anxieties so that I can move (hopefully) forward with my wonderful man.

    I’m not sure if this piece from Thomas Merton’s “Thoughts in Solitude” is particularly appropriate or helpful, but it’s something I think about a lot in terms of doubt and moving forward:

    “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road
    ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I
    really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will
    does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire
    to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that
    desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything
    apart from that desire. And I know if I do this you will lead me by the
    right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust
    you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I
    will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to
    face my perils alone.”

    • Cori Maffett

      HJH – I love your quote. I don’t know where you are in your faith, but I want to encourage you that God hears your prayers, you are his precious child, and He will act when the time is right in your life!God sometimes isn’t fixing something in our life right away for a reason, because He may want us to learn something from what we are going through. If you read my comment above I mentioned 2 Tim 1:7, God does not give us a spirit of fear or anxiety, so you can rest assured that the anxiety is not from God. I would encourage you to read scripture the moment you wake up and pray as well. Also let Sheryl help you through any deep seated issues you may have. It’s a lot of work and doesn’t happen overnight but it is worth it! I would agree that we are not perfect in discerning Gods will for our lives and therefore should we begin to go down the wrong path or if we already have, God will gently nudge us in the right direction and/or make something beautiful out of the decision we have made, especially if we are genuine in seeking Him.

  • Calah

    Oh Sheryl:

    You’ve done it again. This article came just in time for my wedding. Which is in 8 days. Even though I still face anxiety in the days ahead, I’ve had the courage to dive into myself to see what I was protecting myself from. I’ve struggled with the thought that God gave me the anxiety to push me towards something other then my husband to be. But then I remember something my mother used to tell me when I would be wrought with anxiety before she traveled for work. I’d run up to her and say “Mom, I just have this gut feeling that the plane is going to crash! I don’t want you to leave! I think God is telling me you’re going to die!” I guess I’ve always been an HSP. Then she’d say “God doesn’t give us anxiety. I bet if you really focus in on your heart, God is telling you not to worry and everything will be ok.” At that moment I felt a warmth in my heart that I’ll never forget. It’s at times when the anxiety hits I hold onto my heart and feel God’s love. God bless you all and thank you Sheryl for all you do. You’re a continued blessing in my life and in so many others.

    With much Love

    Calah

    • Blessings to you, Calah, on your final stretch to the threshold. You’ve done fantastic work on yourself and your stories about your sensitivity and your spiritual connection always amaze me!

  • Hannah Elison

    The best posts that you have ever written!!!! Excellent job on putting the truth out there, this is the greatest blog ever!!!!!

  • Mars

    Please help… I’ve been dating a wonderful guy for three years now, and we intend to marry in two years or so. I’m 20, so I’m rather young, and he’s a year younger than me, but we both have always felt like this was right. I’ve been fighting this anxiety constantly because ever since the beginning of my relationship, my mother has been fighting against it. She’s told me she “knows” it isn’t God’s will for me, that she doesn’t support my relationship, and she can’t accept that I simply don’t agree. I want to stay in my relationship but trying to sort out my thoughts is complicated and I don’t even know what I think any more. I am sure I love him, he’s kind, loving, hard working, and shares my values regarding family, faith, and lifestyle. We balance each other well, I tend to be silly, he tends to be serious, I bring out his light hearted side and he plants my feet on the ground when needed… We’re not perfect people and have made mistakes in our relationship but both of us are willing to work on our problems and learn from each other… but I have this crippling anxiety because from the very start I’ve been told I’m doing the wrong thing and I’m going against God. I know that my mom can’t tell me what God’s will is for me, but I can’t stop thinking about whether I’m doing the wrong thing, making a mistake, mom thinks I should date a lot more people… I need to hear from someone that I’m not crazy, it’s okay to marry someone you started dating young, and that I can feel solid in my relationship even though we have made mistakes in the past.

    • Hi Mars: You can certainly marry someone when you’ve started dating young and you can definitely feel solid even when you’ve made mistakes. It sounds like the work for you is about learning to let go of your mother’s opinion (not easy to do) and trust yourself.

  • Tamra

    Just saw mars post: so addendum, sometimes parents get scared about marriage too. They are not always right, but they are still your parents. Might want to talk to mom and find out why. I’d encourage working through that as mother and daughter not just disowning her view, but encouraging her that you’ll always be her daughter ect.. Sounds like she’s afraid for you to grow up.. If that guy cares about you, he will care about your mother-daughter relationship staying intact though. See if others have red flags. If they do, learn more, evaluate and trust God not your gut!

  • Mary

    HELP PLEASE! Need a response from Sheryl or any of you! :) I’m 45, set in my ways, and have never married but am dating a great guy. I inherited depression from my maternal grandmother for which I take medication and have also dealt with anxiety my entire life. I can’t enjoy this relationship I’m in for the anxious thoughts of : am I doing God’s will, can someone with anxiety issues handle marriage, can someone 45 who’s never been married transition to marriage, etc. I will tell you that the Devil (yes, I’m a Christian) is having a “hey day” messing with my mind to the point that I don’t know what are anxious thoughts or legitimate concerns. I am considering breaking up with my boyfriend because I’m scared and having thoughts like “what if he’s not the one.” No red flag issues other than him having a bad credit score due to some poor decisions in his past that he has taken responsibility for and is correcting. Thank you.

    • Anxious too

      I recommend the book “Just Do Something”, by Kevin DeYoung. It is a short an easy read. he discusses anxiety around doing Gods will and how society has changed so much over the years… You mentioned your grandmother so ill give you an example regarding grandparents. He mentions his grandparents who are Christian and married young (like most people of their time). He talks about how they did not second guess their decisions because marriage was not a decision that was obsessed over like it is today. I cannot remember how he words it but he explains how in our culture, people are afraid to marry, choose a college, a career, etc etc out of fear of doing the wrong thing.. And in turn, end up doing nothing. Feel free to read my post down below, I can relate and highly recommend this book. It helped me.

  • Mary

    Let me add that I have always had trouble with PMS and always feel worse during January and February (this time of year!) because of so little daylight.

  • ScottishBride

    Hi Mary. You should sign up for the e-course. There is a whole community of amazingly inspirational people who struggled/struggle with exactly the same worries as you. I was overwhelmed with anxiety about getting narriage but have apworked through it and I’m now happily married! Hope to see you on the forum :-)

  • ScottishBride

    Narriage = married (darn iPad!)

  • Mary

    ScottishBride – Thank you. I signed up for the e-course, but I don’t know how to access the forum. :)

  • B.

    Hi Sheryl, I was wondering if you offer guidance in identifying “red-flags” and specifically “misalignment of core values” in any of your articles. I am currently experiencing anxiety related to difference in religious beliefs between my boyfriend and I. I am struggling with determining what is fear and what is an indicator of long-term incompatibility. Thank you.

    • Difference in religious beliefs is a common concern but I’ve rarely seen it to be a valid reason to walk away. As long as you’re on the same page regarding how you’ll raise your kids, you should be able to work through religious differences.

  • chelsea

    Sheryl as I make my way through your site an blogs this post is great, I too am Christian an have struggled with this thought from time to time. I agree with how you said god is a part of us to on the inside :)

  • Anxious too

    This post is all too familiar to me. In fact, this type of anxiety has been in my relationship since the beginning. Like many of you, I have been on church my whole life.. My family traveled from church to church over the years, baptist, weslyan non-denominational, etc etc. Regardless of what church they were a part of, my mother taught us to view God as demanding and hard to please. This pushed my older sisters away from faith for many years. There was always condemnation and not a lot of grace when it came to God discussions.

    Today, I’m engaged to be married to a guy who views God much differently, recognizing that God is love as sheryl said. That God trusts us to make good decisions (this is something he tells me constantly). However, prior to my relationship with him, I had been talking to a guy I met in the carribean during a mission trip at age 17. We began talking when I was 19 through 20, for an entire year. He made a trip here, I made one there. What I’m about to tell you is exactly how this anxiety began. During the first week we began talking, he had told me a women at his church told him he would marry someone in the u.s. He told me and said it could be me. So he kept taking to me, every single evening for a year. We saw eachother twice, he told me he loved me but refused to ever make the commitment and all
    Me his girlfriend. At times, he told me he didn’t think it would work. Well, my fiance came along. I felt strong attraction to him (unintentionally). I had just visited this guy and spent my last night there in tears as he again told me he didn’t know how it could work. So, I let it go and began dating my fiance about 2 months later. What came next, the guy I had even talking to told me he would have married me and that the woman was never wrong when she prophesied. Ouch. I had attempted to protect my heart and move forward but was manipulated and condemned and basically told I was talking away from Gods will. I have been with my fiance for 3 years. We will marry in a year. Have I worried about being out of Gods will? Absolutely.. Especially when I feel less connected to my fiance. During those times, I can spiral in a tizzy of anxiety.. Pushing my guy away and feeling so alone. I know what this type of anxiety is like. I hope my story is encouraging to someone. It can be so difficult. The one thing that has kept me going is that I believe what my fiance has told me.. “God trusts me to make good decisions”. “I make good decisions”. I struggle still with guilt , fear, anxiety.. Doubt, but I believe someday I will get better as the time goes on, because somedays I am free of it.

  • Anxious too

    To correct a few words I misspelled, I meant to say walked away, not talked away and I also meant to say call
    Me his girlfriend, not “all me his girlfriend”.

    Also, for other reading .. It can be so difficult to change your view of God and to actually believe that you make good decisions. It is especially difficult if the condemning type of religion has surrounded you your whole life. Make decisions to start viewing God as more loving and trusting of you.

  • EH

    I have been married for 8 months and I started experiencing doubt, fear, and anxiety about two weeks before the wedding. We have been friends since the fifth grade, same school and church. I never really was attracted to him growing up. Until my junior year of high school, we started dating. I thought I would give him a shot. I had just got out of another relationship about 5 months before we started dating. My husband had always tried to date me growing up and has loved me since forever! He is so nice and respectful to everyone and would give you the shirt off of his back, and I guess that is what attracted me to him in the first place. We dated for 3 1/2 years before we got married and all throughout our dating I had a problem with his looks. I am a physically fit woman and will always be, nutrition and exercise is my passion. My husband, not so much, although he does workout and has began to eat better by my influence. What made my final decision on getting married to him is the way he showed me love, he is a christian, caring, humble, and just so many other good qualities that other women probably only dream of having in a husband. I have always wanted to marry someone that is fit, tall, athletic, and handsome. I am doubting my decision based upon physical appearance. I wish my husband were taller and more fit. I feel so guilty because sometimes I wish I would have broke up with him only to date other men to see if I could find those physical things I wanted. Although, I try to keep reminding myself that I would much rather have a husband who loves me unconditionally with every extra positive character and personality trait than a non-caring tall, fit, guy. I have so much anxiety over this issue. I want to love him the way he loves me but I feel like I’m being held back because I look a lot better than he does, and I want something fit to look at too. I guess I feel like he doesn’t deserve to look at my body. I catch myself to searching for other men that look like what I wanted to begin with. I never did his while we were dating, this only began when we got married. I want my husband to be the only one I think is handsome. Thank you for letting me post this on here.