One of the defining characteristics of relationship anxiety is the propensity to perseverate on a “what if” question regarding the amount or legitimacy of your love for your partner. “What if I don’t love him enough?” or “What if I’m not in love anymore?” or “What if I’m not attracted enough?” With accurate information about the difference between real love and infatuation and understanding that love can’t be quantified, these intrusive thoughts usually fall away with time.
And then the next set of intrusive thoughts arise, carrying within them the need for more accurate information as well as an opportunity to develop more tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. These next thoughts comprise a subset of these initial questions and are perseverations regarding the reason why you’re with your partner, like the following:
What if I’m only with him/her because:
- I’m too scared to leave.
- I don’t want to hurt him/her.
- I’m scared to be alone/scared I won’t meet anyone else.
- I feel sorry for him/her
As you may know if you follow my work, I deeply believe that each challenge with anxiety – whether in the form of physical symptoms, panic attacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts – carries within it a profound opportunity to learn and heal. Anxiety, as uncomfortable as it can be, is a messenger – a friend from your unconscious delivering an important message about an area inside of you that needs attention. Anxiety, especially in the from of intrusive thoughts, is an attention-getter, a flare from your inner self that points to needs, not dysfunction. Anxiety is a sign that everything is working as it should be, meaning that just like your stomach hurts when you’ve eaten something that your body needs to reject, so your psyche hurts when there’s something inside that needs your attention.
So what’s needing attention when these subset questions regarding why you’re in the relationship make an appearance? What’s usually needed is to develop tolerance for ambiguity. This means that when the thought, “What if I’m only with him/her because I don’t want to be alone?” bangs on the door of your mind with relentless persistence, the healthy response is to make room for the thought and then allow for the possibility that it could be partially true. Let’s break this down into digestible steps:
I’m only with my partner because I’m too scared to be alone (or I don’t want to hurt him/her by breaking up).
1. Notice the thought and let it in.
Most people are so disturbed by intrusive thoughts that the habit is to push them away. We call them “unwanted” thoughts because we don’t want them, but when we make room for them instead we can soften some of the spike that usually accompanies their appearance. This allows us to notice the thought instead of pushing it away, thereby sending the message to ourselves that, perhaps, the thought is nothing to be scared of.
2. Name that your ego-self is vying for control
When you recognize that the word “only” indicates that you’re thinking from your ego-self, which sees the world in black and white terms, it’s easier to see that the part who’s asking this question isn’t your true self. Word like only, never, and always are clues that your ego is at the helm. The ego is the part of us that desperately needs to control the world around us, and believes that it can do so by parsing life into a world of certainties and definites. But, as that world doesn’t exist, the ego ends up creating an environment where anxiety festers as we attempt to find certain answers to unanswerable questions. Saying to yourself, “This is my ego needing to control” creates a space between you and the part of you that is vying for the driver’s seat. Once you name it, it loses power and your true self can slip back into the driver’s seat.
3. Allow your true or clear Self to make room for uncertainty.
Life is gray and full of ambiguity. See how it feels when you can respond to the thought and say, “So maybe there’s a part of me that is with him because I don’t want to be alone. So what?” Usually when I walk a client through these steps and I watch her make room for a more gentle and encompassing version of the thought, there’s a visible exhale that occurs. Instead of fighting the thought, she has just accepted it into her conceptualization of the reasons why she’s with her partner and the thought loses all its charge.
The three steps are:
1. Notice the thought
2. Name the ego
3. Allow for uncertainty
In order to embrace these three steps, it’s essential to understand that our psyches or selves are divided into parts. We have a true Self (what Carl Jung called the self with a capital S), which is the seat of our wholeness. When we connect to that place, we feel connected not only to ourselves but to the people and world around us. The Self allows for ambiguity and uncertainty and has tolerance for the inconsistencies of life. The Self is connected to the flow of energy that permeates all creation, and, for many people, is often experienced most clearly and directly in nature.
Then there’s the ego or small self with a lower case s, which is the part of us that fears, above all else, death in every form: change, formlessness, transitions, death of our bodies, and its own death. We die ego deaths every time we walk through a change consciously and allow the habits, beliefs, lifestyles, and identities that are no longer serving us to fall away. The ego will resist this at all costs and come up with elaborate and convincing arguments about why we shouldn’t step into the next stage of life, or even the next moment.
And then there are the off-shoots of ego, the archetypal characters like Judgement, Fear, and Intolerance that are like ego’s emissaries enacting its need to keep others at a safe distance and protect the vulnerable heart at all costs. We all have these parts of ourselves, and when you understand that ego or one of its emissaries is at the helm of your ship, it’s a lot easier to name it, expose its life or half-truth, and dismantle its power.
Like all inner work, the key in dismantling the habit of believing every thought that enters your psyche as the gospel of truth is practicing, over and over and over again, a new habit. And new habits aren’t created in a day. Commit to practicing these steps as many times a day as you can and within a few weeks you’ll notice a difference inside: more spaciousness, more calm, more clarity. The hooks will begin to unhook and, as a result, your heart will open.