Love is Like Flying

IMG_5643It’s 2:20 am. We’re on a red-eye flight on our way back from a family vacation when the captain announces, in a very calm but urgent voice, that all passengers must fasten their seatbelt. Nearly everyone is asleep anyway. For the past three hours I’ve been nodding in and out of consciousness while sitting upright with a six-year old splayed across my lap. Not exactly the position most conducive to sleep. But now I’m wide awake.

The pilot did sound particularly urgent (or is that just my hyper-vigilant, highly sensitive mind reading into things?). And that’s a strange sound coming from the engines (or are those my highly sensitive ears crossing into fear territory?). And then the turbulence hits. It feels like the plane dropped about ten feet and we’re rocking side to side, like a roller coaster. But this is no roller coaster. We’re 33,000 feet above the ground and I’m scared. I look around. Everyone is still asleep except for me and my 11-year old son. How can they sleep when we’re about to die? Fear asks.

I hate flying, my mind says, but even in that moment I know that’s not an entirely true statement. I don’t like the anxiety I have leading up to a trip. I resent being smashed in like a sardine in the increasingly smaller airplane seats. And what I really dread is the few minutes of turbulence we invariably hit each time we fly. I loathe each wild tremor and drop of the plane as we pass through rocky air. Well, even that’s not entirely true; what I hate is where my fear mind goes, sending me images of the four of us plummeting to our death. This is it, fear tells me as we jiggle and drop and quiver through the air.

I hate flying, fear says, but my other mind responds with but I also love flying. I love where flying takes us: on new adventures, to new vistas, broadening our horizons and, by exposing us to other lands and people, helping us grow beyond our limited ways of seeing and being. I love the miracle of being in the air. I love being able to see our beautiful earth from this vantage point.

I hope you’re seeing the analogy to relationships ;).

I know from my work with clients, course members and readers how many of you share my fear of flying. And I also know that there are people who relish every minute of the travel experience. My son is one of them. Which is why he’s wide awake at the moment, staring out into the blackness with a look of pure joy radiating his face. The turbulence doesn’t interfere with his joy. For him, in fact, the rougher the ride, the bigger his thrill. Whenever I’m petrified, like right now, I look at his face, bright with ecstasy, and feel reassured. He plans to become a pilot one day. Through some form of intuitive ancient memory, he know these machines and these skies in his bones. If his face shows that we’re okay then I guess we’re okay.

Are we safe? I whisper to him. Yes, he whispers back. Then he proceeds to give me a detailed explanation about how, because we’re sitting in the back of the plane, we’re going to experience the turbulence more intensely. “If we were sitting in first class right now we wouldn’t be feeling it so much,” he tells me. Even in my anxious state, the hint doesn’t escape me.

As I take a closer look around me, I notice that not everyone is asleep. Some people are gripping a small glass bottle of alcohol in their hands, while others, I’m sure, have taken a pill before we even boarded. These are other ways of getting through fear: we anesthetize.

I’ll give you the metaphor now: Intimate relationships are like flying. And fear is the turbulence most people hit when the relationship is real and true. Fear shows up in many different forms: as intrusive thoughts (I don’t love her; I’m not attracted enough; he’s not smart enough), as indifference (the protective defense mechanism of fear convinces us that we don’t care), as numbness (fear freezes the heart), and as lack of sexual desire (believing that we simply don’t have enough – or the “right” – chemistry).

Because we live in a culture that doesn’t understand or validate the intimate relationship between love and fear, when we hit turbulence, we must look to people who know how to weather the storms and have no fear of rocky patches. On the plane, my son is my guide and safe harbor. In the rest of life, I am his.

And for many of my blog readers, clients and course members, I am their smiling guide and safe harbor when the relationship seas turn rough. They bring me their stories – convinced that they’re the exception, that their symptoms are indicators of truth instead of classic manifestations of fear – and unless there’s a true red flag I smile and nod, undaunted, unconvinced by fear’s tactics, just like my son on the plane. “That’s fear,” I calmly say, having swum in these waters with thousands of people. And in the naming, something is calmed inside.

After we name the fear, we douse it with a cool splash of water. Where fear is hot and inflammatory, information cools the fear flames. We know now from science that accessing our prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain, calms the emotional turbulence. We need accurate information to calm our minds. When my son explains to me why we’re feeling the turbulence so intensely, I calm down. When I explain to my course members and readers the reasons behind the many manifestations of fear, I hear an audible soul-exhale.

The turbulence always passes, both in the air and in relationships. When we reach calm on the plane, fear leaves my body and I’m at peace. Then I can marvel at the magic of flight and enjoy the richness of the night. Sleep eludes me, so I soak up the rare and relative quiet. Words play a dominant role in my life; to sit in a wordless place for six hours is a treat.

Likewise, when the fear-waves pass in relationships, we can see clearly again. Suddenly our partner’s face looks visibly different: clear, radiant, beautiful. Now we notice a flicker of sexual desire, a seed that, when watered, can open our love-valves and bring us closer to each other. The irritations that we thought would send us out of our mind don’t seem so spikey anymore. Life without fear in the driver’s seat is a much different experience. We see clearly instead of through the filter of fear-eyes.

We have choices when it comes to fear: We can try to remove ourselves from the turbulence by not flying at all (staying single), we can anesthetize through addictions – both of substance and of the mind, or we can learn to work with our fear so that we can embrace the ride.

If you would like to learn how to work with your fear so that you can open the channels of your heart that will allow you to see clearly, please join me as I pilot you through my next round of Open Your Heart: A 30-Day Program to Feel More Love and Attraction For Your Partner, which will begin on March 12th, 2016.

It’s 3:20 now. We’ve been in seatbelt-required turbulence for an entire hour. Still fun? I ask my son. He nods his head vigorously and smiles. I smile back and feel my body relax. Smiling at fear always helps. I’ve been writing this post for most of the hour and I’m no longer petrified, only mildly anxious. Finally, we find calm air, and I can breathe. And before we know it, we are home, landing safely on solid ground in Denver. Thank you, I whisper. Thank you. And I exhale even more deeply, finding my clear place of calm and joy once again.

P.S. I’ve embedded at least three tools for working with fear in this post. Can you identify them?

57 comments to Love and the Fear of Flying

  • Silver

    Thanks for this post! It hit the right time when I needed motivation to stand up again and look the good side in my relationship and the loving side of my partner.

    The tools are recognizing the thoughts behind anxiety, learning that the thoughts are not always true and deep understanding and knowledge sets us apart. And lastly the intense amount of work needed.

  • Yes, those are a few of the tools. Do you see any others?

  • Lea

    Three – find a wise guide, name the fear, use facts and information, journal, breath deeply and lean in. Smile? And gratitude.

  • Jenny

    Incredible! I literally walked in the door returning from dropping my fiance off at the airport, and looked at my phone to see this email. I have been so afraid all day for him to fly. Afraid that the plane will crash and I’ll never see him again. Afraid that the argument we had two days ago will be one of my last memories with him. All the while trying to reach that part of my brain that knows this is just fear running rampant. I’ve been meditating for a few months now and I am finally able to see how the urge to start small arguments at times like these, are really just my fear taking over (if I’m mad at him I won’t care as much if he leaves). It’s a long journey but it’s becoming increasingly clearer what I need to do, and that feels really good. I can’t help but smile and laugh a little when coincidences like this happen. It’s a small reminder to me that God is listening. Thank you, Sheryl.

    • Beautiful, Jenny! And it’s a testament to the power of meditation that you now have a choice-point and can watch that urge to start a small argument without acting on it. Keep going!

  • N

    Loved this! It was great to read a new blog 🙂 I look forward to them weekly! This was also needed as I have found myself getting a bit anxious the last couple days (but with the help of the ecourse, it is nowhere near what it was like before.. And I believe I have been able to see WHY the anxiety).

    Breathing into the fear, dousing it with truth water, calling fear to the mat and of course smiling at fear!

  • Angela

    Another great post😀Sheryl!!! I totally relate to smiling at fear. I am an expert at that. Not only do I smile but also laugh and that was my way of coping. A coping mechanism. When i get nervous i laugh. I feel i am confronting fear head on. Rather than hiding in my bedroom and think away until i feel so lost, scared and feel like a victim. Laughing is the best medicine. I have felt silly laughing but I didnt care what anyone thought. Does anyone feel the same way?

  • Angela

    Also a question for you Sheryl
    One thought i have been struggling with since I was sixteen was the fear of laughing at inappropriate moments. I get nervous around my family because I feel I am going to laugh for no reason at all….. Where does this fear come from?
    I havent expressed this to anyone before. I feel safe here. Xx

    • My guess is that it’s just another intrusive thought, and you would work with it the same way: smiling at it, learning to diffuse its power, saying, “So what?” meaning, “So what if I laugh at an inappropriate moment? Most people are so self-centered they probably wouldn’t notice anyway!”

  • Angela

    This fear is constant 24/7

  • Angela

    How do i break free from this debilitating thought and fear?

  • Brian

    I love your words Sheryl.

    But if only it was that easy.

    I really wish I could have counseling with you. Someone who’s intimately aware of anxiety and how it manifests.

    My best to you and yours.

    • There’s nothing easy about wrestling with fear, Brian. It takes true courage and heroic persistence to work with these powerful places in our minds until we learn how to reclaim our power. But with enough commitment and the right tools, it’s entirely possible.

  • Bra77

    Hi Sheryl! I keep having this thought of me leaving my love of that we won’t be able to work out and that I need to leave as we are about to be an hour and a half away for the next year, possibly four. Is this just intrusive thoughts or is this something I have to deal with

  • Meggan

    Thank you for another insightful and reassuring post! It helps so much to know that I am not alone in my fear struggles. It is a constant battle but I am learning to identify when I am allowing my fear and intrusive thoughts to dictate my mood. Although I haven’t quite learned to smile at them, I figure that realizing when my fear is trying to rear it’s ugly head is a good starting point. Thank you so much for your wisdom, Sheryl!

    Have a great night and I hope you had a wonderful vacation!

  • Kelli

    Sheryl, I have been an avid reader for nearly a year now. Your words have kept me strong and forward thinking in tumultuous times. As a concept I am beginning to understand very deeply this relationship we have with love and all of its twists and turns. But my critic and my investigator has a question for you, (he has so many questions for everyone), if fear is masking our love through indifference, numbness, lack of attraction (all of those things you have stated above), doesn’t it mean we can in fact be in love with anyone or everyone? What is the difference? How do we know love? Or is it simply a choice you make with a healthy partner? I am recently going through a break up myself, the patterns of fears and tears were too great to break through. Although I keep wanting to push forward with him, but sometimes I don’t know if this is the right thing to do. I’m fairly young (27) and have been told by so many I will find love after him (possibly a greater love). How do I know which way to turn? I love him, I am fairly certain, but I am not sure whether to keep trying or to begin mourning and start healing.

  • Angela

    Thank you😘, I know this nervous laughter comes from when I was 16. My single uncle was having dinner at our place and he was crying about something and I laughed and my dad yelled at me and he belted me. I apologised to my uncle then and later at his grave. I carried alot of guilt. I was bullied at school and I took it out on him. Also Im not very good at showing empathy. I deeply care for people and I do show empathy with my family and friends. I am a confused person. There i said it..

  • Tee

    Hi Sheryl,

    I love the way you write – I laughed out loud at your son’s hint at flying first class, so funny!

    Encouraging and inspiring, as always x

  • SF

    Beautiful. I was just flying yesterday–returning from a family vacation, and I love the parallels you were able to extract from the experience of air travel to relationship anxiety.

    Upon our plane landing, my hyper-acute focus on surviving the flight shifted to another familiar subject: my loving relationship.

    Thanks so much for all your work; like all the others in this community of readers, I look forward to each new blog entry. Your words are so soothing.

    Until next week,

    Shannon

  • Dee

    Sheryl,
    It never ceases to impress me how perfectly well your words fit into the most subtle nooks and crannies of the anxious mind. I say this because although I read various fabulous wellness authors, often times their writing ends up spiking my anxiety instead of soothing it. For example, I feel that many writers promote the idea that when you are loving yourself and are on “your path” that is when you manifest abundance and the love that is meant for you. Another notion is that if fear is involved and you find yourself in it’s grip, you must be in a codependent entanglement; because love and fear are opposites. I also find so much emphasis on “letting go of things and people that no loger serve you.” Reading these things prompt my anxious mind to say: “I feel stuck in life, my partner must be an obstacle” , “I’m too weak to let him go”, “I must not be honoring my highest good”. These thoughts simply add to my resistance and willingness to begin doing the work. Reading your
    work however, gives me the courage to start and eases these self judgements. So thank you, I’m sure so many others can relate! I am always in awe at how much your work reaonates with me, I trust it’s for a reason!
    <3/darlene
    Ps. My savings to purchase the break free course are almost complete I'm so excited!

  • RP

    Sheryl, I too share your fear of flying. And the way you have described so succinctly in this post, it’s not the I hate the FLYING per sey, it’s that I hate the thoughts and the fear associated with taking a journey through the sky.

    Recently I have begun to employ a technique to see me through turbulence. I’m not quite sure what I’d categorise it as (perhaps letting go and handing my fears up to a higher place), but I do believe it could also be utilised in managing relationship anxiety.

    Whenever the plane hits turbulence, or at any other point where my anxiety seems to be peaked I close my eyes and try to communicate with the pilot’s Higher Self. I ask of the pilot to please guide us safely and calmly through the bumpy skies and all the way to our destination. I will often repeat this many times to myself, all the while remembering that it’s of no use communicating with the pilot’s highest self, if I am not also coming from this place.

    I hope someone else can take something away for themselves with this strategy

  • There’s one more tool that nobody has commented on yet, and it’s perhaps the most powerful of all. Would anyone like to take a guess?

    • MohTA

      hi Sheryl,

      this is a great post, and I feel happy that with time am able to make more sense to your words than before, I hope this is a sign of healing.

      for me the strongest and most important tool you used was the metaphor creation.

      This tool is really powerful and not only helps us to understand many important deep concepts more easily, but develops in us with continuous practice a sense of not taking things at face value; a very very important aspect to break free from relationship anxiety

      love
      Mohammad

  • alison

    I LOVE this analogy because I have struggled with travel anxiety as well as relationship anxiety for years (even though I used to love flying and all the ups and downs like your son, Sheryl), but never made a connection between the two. I daydream about traveling to so many places, then as soon as the tickets are booked I live in dread. I am still working through my fears but the big theme that applies to both my marriage and traveling is TRUST and releasing my need to try and control the future. I have no idea if my marriage is “forever,” because something may happen to one of us. I have no idea if the plane is going to make it safely to my next destination. But think of all the things you miss when you don’t trust, just let go and expect the best. It’s hard work but it’s a worthwhile effort 🙂

    And for anyone considering Open Your Heart, I can’t recommend it enough. Just 4 months ago my husband and I were discussing divorce after years of unhealthy, unproductive communication and lack of problem-solving skills. We did OYH as a last-ditch effort, and even just doing the simple loving actions Sheryl teaches in the first week turned things in a new, more positive direction. We’ve continued our work over the past 4 months with an EFT counselor and things have never been better. It’s amazing how your perspective changes when you’re equipped with the right tools and you approach things with an open heart and mind. So many people are so quick to give up when things “just aren’t working” but they don’t realize they haven’t even tried.

    • This is SO wonderful to hear, Alison! I’m thrilled that you and your husband are doing so well, and that you’re benefitting from the EFT therapy. It’s an extraordinary model for couples in crisis. Here’s a link for anyone who would like to learn more:

      http://www.iceeft.com

      And Sue’s book (which blew my mind):

      Hold Me Tight

      • Trustin

        I just wanted to say THANK YOU for recommending that book to me some time ago… My mind was also blown after just first chapter! I cried whilst reading it because it was based on actual FACTS and not just abstract things…Reading it literally feels like somebody, who truly understands you, is holding you tight and you feel SAFE and that is the most soothing feeling! My relationship anxiety is dramatically reduced so far, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it! What a book! Thank you again! Kisses

      • Hmmm…there’s something about not taking the fear at face value. This may have been mentioned, but it’s connecting me to heart-space right now. It’s seeing beneath the fear, connecting to the core of what’s truly happening. It’s actually sitting in and with the fear, creating space for it to live so it can soften into cuddly arms of love. That fear, in it’s own crazy way, guides us toward love if we can let it.

  • LABride

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post as always Sheryl! I realized that recently I am no longer petrified from being married, but things have simmered down into this hum of uneasiness, like constant low-grade anxiety. It’s interesting that you brought it up in this post; I was wondering, is there anything specific we need to do to deal with this new kind of anxiety? I am willing to walk into it to heal, I just can’t find the pathway in!

  • Nat

    Hi Sheryl!! You’re blog has been such a blessing in my life and since I started reading it over a year ago, I have grown so much and am forever thankful to have found your site. I have been trying to turn inward and focus on self love and growing in confidence as I find that insecurity is something that tends to build a lot of anxiety and fear in me. Do you have any posts or advice on how to deal with that and overcome insecurity in ones self and in the relationship? I’ve also realized that because of insecurity and anxiety, in my childhood I never allowed myself to fully trust people out of fear of what they would think if they saw every raw aspect of me and I’ve always been very afraid of getting hurt (which is something I have gotten better at with growing my self esteem) but yes anything you have to say or any direction you can lead me in would be great. 🙂
    Thank you!!

  • Angela

    Im guessing it is the best tool ever, BREATHING, EXHALING and closing your eyes with beautiful imaging of the sky as we breathe in and breathing out to feel the the ground below us, river, ocean, grass or garden with beautiful greenery. Xx

  • Angela

    Not to fight the pain of fear but embrace it.

  • Another tool you used, I think, was reaching out to another human being, in this case your son. Real love between people has the power to melt fear – you know this well I’m sure.

    I enjoyed this post. When I was 12 I developed a fear of flying. As a young adult, I needed to fly a lot for my work and at some point made a conscious decision to enjoy it. In fact this enjoyment at the ‘miracle’ that you describe crossed into a real love and excitement around flight and airplanes (sometimes I think fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin). I still don’t ‘love’ turbulence but instead of scaring myself when it comes along by thinking -as I used to do – that my level of vigilance could somehow ‘control’ the outcome, I have my own tool, recitation. I also do this on take off and landing and it calms me as I feel a connection with something far greater. So I guess that would be another tool, in whatever form it takes. Connection.

  • Angela

    Amazing Sheryl, looove it. XO

  • M

    Hi Sheryl,

    I’m recently experiencing a “relapse” in my fear and anxiety, after doing much better for about 3 weeks. I recently saw a comment on one of your posts while browsing your site that someone had wrote, and it said something along the lines of “if you really didn’t love him, you’d feel calm when you think about not being with him or loving him”. This really spiked me, and I feel like my fear has latched onto that comment and now whenever I think of leaving my boyfriend (who is EVERYTHING I want and is absolutely incredible), I feel calm, emotionless, and even just numb sometimes. Is this also fear and anxiety manifesting itself, just in a different way?

    Beautiful article… Signing up for your Break Free eCourse tonight.

  • Silver

    Why does it always lacking feelings? Like I’m not in love as much as possible? It really feels that she’s not important to me. But for her I try to drop everything as I can and do everything to change myself from building up communication and my bad habits that causes red flag for our relationship. I tend to follow everything that she says cause I understand that it helps me to become a better person. I want to give up everyday because of the constant worry. It feels that I’m agreeing to whatever she wants just to keep her not upset. I find it hard to hear what my voice saying from the inside.

  • Onedayatatime

    I have this fear that I could almost label as an emotion in the moment, that once I embrace fear and “not care/worry” then the fear (whatever it is) is going to happen. I get it while flying too. And the one about death is the most difficult (but doesn’t cause the most physical anxiety for me). But nothing can argue against death. When I think of embracing the pain of losing my partner its almost like I feel as if it means it’s going to happen sooner. I also feel that way about my own death. And also that if I embrace it, there will be more to lose. But then there’s the fear of regret which can motivate me but still keeps me in a fearful state. I am having a hard time especially accepting that I will die. I will even imagine ways to die (and causes a lot of fear as well) I guess as a way to try figure out how it will feel. He process scares me more than what might be after. And I’m having a hard time with addressing these thoughts because death is true and inevitable. I think about it probably every day.

    • Have you taken the Trust Yourself Extended program? The entire first week is on death anxiety. What you’re describing is classic ego: the belief that if you let go of the fear that you will make it happen. Ego is all about having a false sense of control!

  • Denise

    Hey Sheryl. Your blog has helped me so much. This summer I had a huge bought of relationship anxiety that I managed to work through. I want to take one of your courses sometime soon because I think it would be helpful too.

    Lately I’ve been having the relationship anxiety again. I just moved out of my parents house 3 weeks ago so I’ve been attributing it to my transition but right now, at 3 in the morning it’s bad and has a hold on me.

    To give some background, my love and I have been together about two and a half years. I have felt a lot lately like I really wanna marry him, but he’s not ready and not entirely sure yet. When I brought this up to my therapist she made her disapproval of young marriages very clear (were in our early twenties ). This bothered me but I didn’t let it bother me too much.

    But now as I was wrestling with some angry feelings related to another part of my life, I had a thought that went along the lines of “its a good thing me and him don’t live together now because I’m working through this and it’s so much at this time in my life. Maybe it’s a good thing we’re not married
    Maybe one day we’ll split and I’ll find someone else who better fits the time in my life”

    It seemed so out of the blue and terrifying and scarily freeing too. I absolutely love my boyfriend so why am I thinking that it could be a good thing that we could split up one day??? Why was this thought somewhat freeing????

    Sheryl I’m so scared right now. I can’t sleep and I’m so disturbed by this thought. I need some reassurance and I don’t think I could find any from my therapist or family or anything.

    Please let me know if this could be normal relationship anxiety. And would one of your courses help?

    Thank you so much for what you do.

  • Rachael

    think I’ve done something terrible. I’ve just woken up in a panic and can’t seem to stop it. But it’s not like a panic, this isn’t like a proper panic. It’s a brain panic I guess.

    What if I am not over my ex boyfriend and I just like my boyfriend as a rebound? I might just like the attention, I can’t really name things I like about my boyfriend. I don’t know? Maybe I can. This is horrible. I enjoy spending time with him & he makes me laugh, but is that enough? Is this what it’s supposed to be like, we don’t love each other yet it’s too soon for love. I just know that we have a good time together, is that enough? Am I doing something wrong? Sometimes I remember stuff about my ex, I mean, I will just remember stuff or still talk about it maybe? But that’s because me and my partner started dating really quickly after me and my ex split. I mean it’s complicated.

  • My anxiety and self doubt had disappeared for while (so i stopped doing the course which was not a good choice ) because it just came back same as before. Am i the only one that has anxiety for a while and then it disappears ? I would be helpful for to hear from others ! Any tips for helping to clam you mind and tell yourself that it is just fear and not the truth, not knowing whether how i feel about my boyfriend whether or not it is the truth or just fear is my main struggle. This is very hard for me any advice would be greatly appreciated.