A client sent me a link to a brilliant article by the wonderful Brené Brown, where she clearly illustrates how it’s the stories we tell ourselves more than actual events that create our anxiety and negative reactions. She relates the story of a couple busily getting ready for work:
“Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!” “I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?”
“I knew exactly what was going on: I had turned his comment into a story about how I’m a disorganized, unreliable partner and mother. I apologized and started my next sentence with the phrase that’s become a lifesaver in my marriage, parenting and professional life: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.
Steve said, “No, I was going to shop yesterday, but I didn’t have time. I’m not blaming you. I’m hungry.”
It’s the story she told herself that created the problem, not the event itself. She goes on to explain that we make up these stories to try to gain some control over a moment of emotional pain. It’s a misguided attempt, of course, that usually only creates more pain, and ultimately the work is to soften into the original moment of wounding and let ourselves feel that vulnerability. This is extraordinarily difficult work that requires immense self-awareness. It’s the work of heart-warriors.
Nowhere do I see this phenomena more painfully than in the realm of relationships, especially for those suffering from relationship anxiety.
Here’s an example:
It’s the end of the day and you go to hug your wife goodnight. Your wife is, as always, available to you and happy to receive you in her warm embrace. But as soon as you start to hug, something inside of you tightens. What is that? you wonder. Is there something wrong with me, with us? Shouldn’t I feel peaceful when I’m hugging my wife? I doubt anyone else feels this way. This is a bad sign. Something is definitely wrong.
Let’s break this down: You feel the tightness inside of you and, instead of recognizing it as a normal response in a loving relationship and becoming curious about it, you tell yourself a story about it. But this is where it becomes more complicated because when we’re dealing with relationship anxiety we’re also dealing with the stigma about telling the truth in relationships. In other words, we simply don’t know what the truth is in that moment and are left to create a story to try to make sense of it.
Can you imagine if, instead of selling a Hollywood-and-Disney-inspired fantasy, mainstream media told a true and honest story? Imagine yourself into that moment, hugging your partner and your body tenses, and instead of the negative story trolling through you brain, you hear a loving, wise presence, like an older marriage partner who’s been married for thirty years say:
You’re expecting ease every day? Hah! That’s an illusion. Love grows over time. Ease happens after years, sometimes decades, of getting to know yourselves and each other. You have to work at ease; it doesn’t just happen. You have to devote yourself to learning about love; it’s not something you just know when you marry. Anyone who tells you that love in early years is effortless is lying. Your body tensing is not a sign that you’re with the wrong person. It’s a sign that you’re human, and that you have much to learn. Be patient with yourself. A good marriage takes a lifetime to grow. Hang on, be curious, reach for each other and reach for yourselves. It’s all okay!
Along these lines, a reader recently left this comment on my blog:
I have found through counseling and your blog that most mature adults know what real love in a long-term relationship entails. One annoying thing our culture tends to do that doesn’t help the anxious ones is how they react to their friends and family meeting the “one”. We tend to celebrate the early parts of a relationship. Get excited for them when eyes just met across the room, or butterflies after the first date, or the engagement stories. We don’t acknowledge their fear though. We tell them there should be none. We don’t celebrate post marriage relationships much. We all party on the big day, but then walk away and just assume the couple lives happily ever after with no problems, or gets divorced. We don’t offer advice or lend an ear when our friends are troubled that the loving feeling has gone away. We tell them it’s a bad sign and they should reconsider their relationship. We aren’t honest with them that many of us feel the same way, that feelings ebb and flow in a relationship, and we shouldn’t expect fireworks every waking moment. It’s like confessing you’re anxious about your relationship is somehow a sign to others to give advice that you should leave. It’s very hard. It’s very troubling. When you need support, you get the opposite disguised as the pursuit of happiness.
What a different relationship world it would be if we could all tell the truth. Our internal stories would then follow suit and we wouldn’t feel jailed by the unrealistic expectations and false information we’ve all received about relationships.
When we can slow down our reaction (one) and identify that we’re telling ourselves a story (two), we can then open with curiosity to the world of possibilities that live in that one moment. Instead of being locked into one narrow and restrictive interpretation of what’s happening (my body tightened therefore I’m with the wrong partner), we can explore what may be living in that moment. Then we grow, life becomes a lot more interesting, and we find true freedom from the habitual thought-patterns that keep us imprisoned.