The Anxiety of Loving: Part Two

IMG_2194A few nights after Tashi’s initial escape she vanished into the night again. And again, Everest felt terrified and quickly descended into a puddle of panic. This time my husband and I were calm, realizing that Tashi is young and fast and would likely be able to escape the predators in the night. We also realized that we can either trust that she’ll be fine or stress about it every time she refuses to come in before dark. We both chose the former, but Everest was unable to follow suit.

“Mommy, I just can’t relax until she’s inside,” he whimpered.

“I know it feels like that, sweetheart, but we need to start to work on trusting her. If you were a cat, would you want to be trapped inside every night?”

“No, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to her. Is she going to be okay? Can’t we just look for like we did last time?”

“I really believe she’s fine and that she’ll come inside soon. We can look for her for a few minutes but then we have to go to bed. It’s getting late,” I responded.

“I’m just so worried, Mommy. I don’t want anything to happen to her!” And he puddled again into a ball of fear and tears.

At that point, I knew I needed to teach him some tools for managing this level of worry. I picked him up and asked him to look me in the eyes.

“Everest,” I said with my calmest voice. “I know how scared you are and I can completely understand that. When I’m scared that something bad might happen to you or Asher, like when you’re really sick, it’s hard for me to think about anything else. But that’s the time that we need to ask for help in letting go of the some of the worry and pray for protection.”

I validate what he’s feeling and let him know that I empathize and “get it.” Then I offer the tools.

“Where do you feel the worry?” I ask.

“In my heart.”

“I want you to put your hands on your heart, breathe into the worry (Tonglen) and breathe out a sense of calm and safety. Let’s do that together for a few breaths.”

We breathe in and out. Everest is familiar with this practice as it’s been a cornerstone for helping him accept his awareness of loss connected to life and the passage of time.

“Now imagine gathering up the worry like a cloud. Gather it all up until it’s cupped in your hands. And now toss it into the sky and say the prayer that’s in your heart.”

Everest is a willing participant. He wasn’t always this way, but in the past couple of years he’s been increasingly receptive to learning tools to manage and heal from anxiety. So he breathed with me, gathered up the storms clouds of worry, and tossed them into the open, starry sky while saying a silent prayer.

We climbed the stairs and he got ready for bed. He was still worried when he got into bed but he was willing to try to sleep. After about ten minutes, we felt some furry, starfish paws making bread on his blanket and looked up to see our silver rascal purring and mewing in bliss. Everest was ecstatic, of course, and he fell asleep more quickly than normal.

A few days later we went for a swim at the rec center and he said, “Mommy, I’m scared Tashi’s going to go out again tonight and not come home.”

“She might come back after dark but I think we need to practice developing some acceptance and faith about it. We need to trust her, Everest, or else we’re going to be living with a lot of worry.”

“But how do you not worry about creatures that you love so much?”

Well, that’s really the central question, isn’t it? When you love someone, you take the risk of losing them. Sometimes the risk feels utterly unbearable and we would rather erect the walls and reasons that convince us to walk away. This is at the heart of my work with relationship anxiety: each anxiety-thought adds a pebble to the wall of fear, and if you don’t understand that this is what is happening you run the high risk of walking away from a loving, healthy, fulfilling, relationship. We’re so scared of being hurt. We’re terrified of taking the risk of loving. But it’s the only way to live a full, multi-dimensional life.

So I answered my son.

“Everest, one day you’re going to want to fly airplanes, right?”

“Yes!” His entire face lights up just at the mere mention of piloting planes.

“So I might feel scared when you fly, but I’ll need to find a way to trust you and trust life and let go, otherwise I’ll be living with a lot of fear and worry in my life. Flying planes for you is like climbing trees in the dark for Tashi. Would you like it if I tried to keep you earthbound? Would Tashi like it if we kept her inside all the time? It would certainly keep her safe, but her spirit would wilt. When you love someone, you have to set them free.”

He seemed to take it in. I don’t know yet what will happen next time Tashi refuses to come inside after dark, but I imagine it’s like anything else: It takes time and practice to create and concretize a new habit. Eventually he’ll see that Tashi is clever and resourceful, and that she’ll come back inside when she’s ready. He’ll trust her and he’ll trust life. Can I guarantee that Tashi will be safe? Of course not, and I’ve told him that. He wants a guarantee just like we all want a guarantee. He wants a way to safeguard against uncertainty and vulnerability. But there is no such thing. To be human is to be vulnerable. To be human is to live with uncertainty and the unknown. To set Tashi free will be his own path of setting himself free, for it’s only when we develop some tolerance for uncertainty that we can love with our whole heart and soul. And it’s when we love with fearless abandon that our spirits soar to the stars.

14 comments to The Anxiety of Loving: Part Two

  • Ali

    Sheryl,

    Thank you. Every post you write has a gift of wisdom within. Love seems to be the ultimate dilemma… the deepest desire … which brings the biggest fear… consequently the largest risk that we will walk away… from the deepest desire. Oh la la, the complications of life!

    Thank you,
    Best wishes from my Alps to your recovering home and life,
    Ali

  • Joan

    Love the wisdom and tools in your post as well as the picture of Tashi who reminds me of my Sparky–loving, funny, adventurous, and when he wants to go out night, he will despite my protests, and when he’s ready to come back in he lets me know by crying outside my bedroom window.

  • Tina

    This may not be appropriate for a young child, but I was once comforted with this: “Even if the unthinkable happens, you’ll handle it. You will. Trust yourself.” That message has helped me through many worry attacks in the middle of the night. Thanks again, Sheryl. <3

    • That is extremely comforting, Tina, and is the ultimate level of inner freedom. Even in the midst of the scariest part of the flood, I said to my husband, “Even if we lose everything, we’ll be okay.” I tried that with Everest and it didn’t go over very well, so I’m thinking that there may be an age at which that knowing starts to kick in.

  • Kim

    Sheryl, we went through a similar process with our cat when our son was about 8 years old. We had taken our cat in as a stray, and on the advice of the SPCA, the vet, and everyone we knew, we tried to keep him inside. I knew our cat was miserable but our son was terrified of something happening to Kitty, and I was terrified of my son being terrified!

    I ended up contacting an animal communicator about what to do. She told me that our cat trusted himself and he trusted life. He was not ignorant of the risks, but did not dwell on them; he accepted life on its terms. I was left with a deep sense of peace that it was the right thing to let Kitty go out and talking about this with my son somehow changed things for him.

    Looking back, I think you are right, that letting him out was actually a process that we got used to over time and it was truly transformational for all of us, learning to see life through Kitty’s eyes. He has been going out for six years now and stays out more nights than not. Now we love his connection with the night and “the wild” and it brings us joy to see him living so freely.

    Sending you prayers for an arrangement that brings you all peace, whatever that may be!

    Kim

    • That’s an amazing story, Kim! I love this: “She told me that our cat trusted himself and he trusted life. He was not ignorant of the risks, but did not dwell on them; he accepted life on its terms.” For now, Tashi is quarantined to the house until our yard is mud-free (post flood), but then she’ll return to her free and wild life outdoors.

  • noelle

    Wow, always so profound. I love this analogy. Thank you so much!
    I’ve had a couple miscarriages and next time I get pregnant I will try my best to let go and love my baby even if I don’t know the outcome.

  • Jay

    Another article that hit close to home, Sheryl.

    It’s ironic that it popped up in my inbox when it did; I’ve hit the six-month mark in my relationship with a woman I absolutely adore, but almost every day I constantly worry about how things are going with us. Things have been doing nothing but getting better; we are closer than ever, making a lot of steps in the right direction, and generally everything is positive but my thinking is so negative.

    Last weekend we had the ‘insecurities’ talk where she wanted to learn more about my ‘other side’; the part of me I keep hidden, that is scared, scarred from a rough childhood, and anxious. I told her about it and while it went well, and she appreciated it, I’m left a week later wondering about if this might have scared her or if by opening up I created more problems for myself.

    I guess the reason for my story is to ask if this is a normal aspect to a relationship (I’m new to them), and how your point about having faith in the other person and letting go plays into this, if at all? I always worried about scaring her accidentally, but I’m realizing it’s me that’s been the most scared along the way..

  • Nina

    Thank you, all of you good people.

  • I love this sharing, such an important life lesson. I have often felt that the institution of ‘marriage’ and I say this both as someone who marries people and is married, is used to control love and make it safe. Couples tie each other into an agreement of what love should be.

    But love like your cat is unbridled, untamed, and ever ready to explore new terrain. Love knows no boundaries, it is only interested in calling forth our most sacred self and experiencing that essence as it is expressed in relationship to another. Love is a doorway to expansion and growth, it is many things but it is most definitely not ‘safe’. Blessings, blessings on this wonderfully juicy topic x x

  • Beth Bennett

    As much as your posts always bring me to think about myself and how to be a better parent (so eternally grateful for this), this post kind of made me think about something else.

    Birds.

    Although Tashi is a cat and by nature a predator, the animals around her did not evolve under threat of domestic cats.

    “Predation by house cats (Felis catus) is one of the largest human-related sources of mortality for wild birds in the United States and elsewhere, and has been implicated in extinctions and population declines of several species.” (If you’re so inclined, the article is here: http://www.ace-eco.org/vol8/iss2/art3/

    Truth be told, keeping her inside would be a real blessing for the wildlife near your home, particularly if you also have a birdfeeder in the back yard.

    Much bright thoughts.

  • D

    I was wondering if you had any articles on what to do when the tables have turned and your partner now has relationship anxiety and isn’t sure. I have it but I’m better able to manage it but now that I see how hard it is to be on the other side I’m not really sure how to manage it. I’d love to do your course but I can’t afford it at the moment.