People often ask me why they’re struggling with relationship anxiety or social anxiety or any other kind of anxiety when other people seem to glide through life more effortlessly. The subtext embedded in the question is, “Is there something wrong with me?” or “Why am I being singled out or punished?” In our culture that is dominated by the pursuit of the happy face and the false correlation of vulnerability with weakness, these questions and assumptions are understandable. But when you’re on a healing path, swashbuckling through the forest of anxiety and trying to find your way into more clarity and wholeness, the question only leads to shame. And nothing shuts down the essential resources of compassion and curiosity faster than shame.
So let’s dispel this shame by stating clearing and up front that everybody suffers. People suffer in different ways, at different times, and under different circumstance, but it’s not possible to go through life without enduring pain, loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression, and heartbreak. Jack Kornfield expresses it beautifully in A Lamp in the Darkness:Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times:
“Being alive is finding ourselves in the midst of a great and mysterious paradox. The one who knows realizes that there are ten thousand joys and sorrows in every life, and at one time or another we will be touched by all of them. We will all experience birth and death, success and loss, love and heartbreak, joy and despair. And in every moment of your life there are millions of humans just like you all over the world who are being confronted by situations that are equally overwhelming and are struggling to learn how to survive them. As George Washington Carver said, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong… because someday in life you will have been all of those.”
Knowing that you’re not alone with your suffering reduces shame. One of the big exhales that occurs when people find my work, especially around relationship anxiety and intrusive thoughts, is the realization that they’re not alone. It’s not that you want other people to suffer; it’s that you need to know that you’re not the only one suffering, the only one to have doubt about your lovely partner, the only one to think dark thoughts in the middle of the night or randomly throughout the day, the only one to perseverate on your sexuality or on the possibility of harming someone. Isolation breeds shame. Normalization reduces shame and opens the pathways to healing. As Brené Brown emphasizes repeatedly, it’s through our willingness to be vulnerable that we can come into closer contact with other human beings, and it’s this close contact that creates the true connection that we all long for and need.
A few weeks ago, at my birthday ritual, the focus of our ritual circle was my fear about leaving my kids in a few months when I start to publicize my new book. We’ve led a very homegrown, home-centered life, and the thought of leaving them for extended periods of time fills me with anxiety. I know it’s time. I’m ready to launch into this next stage of my life and the next stage of motherhood where my kids aren’t the center of my universe and I’m not the center of theirs. I’ve been the sun in their orbit and it’s time for them to find a new sun. It’s not that I’m leaving them completely; far from it. It’s that a change in our contract needs to occur, a change that I’ve been feeling since my hormones started shifting a few years ago. Yet, as much as I know all of this, shifting contracts never happens easily.
After I shared some of my struggles with my friends last week, one of them, a younger woman and newer friend, said, “It’s amazing to hear you talk about this. I think of you as someone who has it all together, but it’s incredibly relieving to me to know that you struggle, too. It makes me feel better about not having it all together, especially with my kids!”
It’s exactly how I feel when I hear people like Brené Brown or Pema Chodron talk about their vulnerabilities. We tend to carry a idea that some people have it all figured out, but it’s not so, and we naturally breathe a sigh of relief and self-compassion when we learn that even people who seem to carry wisdom still struggle with their demons. The truth is that, as long as we’re on this planet, we’re always learning. At each stage of life, we’re offered new opportunities for growth, which means we come face-to-face with places in our wounding that still need attention. I’ve often used the visual description of healing as happening in layers and spirals: we have about five or six core stories, like spheres or orbs constellating around the center of psyche, and at each transition or life stage we have an opportunity to heal another layer of these stories. That means, hopefully, we’ll always be learning.
Clients sometimes ask me, “Will I ever break open to the center of the orb?” I believe that we do for certain stories, whereas others distill down to a core point of pain that may always be with us. We need not fear this small jewel of pain; it, too, is part of being human. And when we meet it with love and hold it with care, it becomes the launching pad from which we connect to other human beings, the still-point of compassion that reminds us that we’re all connected, we all carry ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. And perhaps in some inexplicable way, when we meet these joys and sorrows while holding hands with others, they merge and meld and unite into one.