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.
Anxiety has ruined my life, keeping me stuck & not fulfilling my dreams. I’ve overcome relationship anxiety but fear of childbirth (Tokophobia) has left me childless. Fear of change has prevented me moving house. Anxiety always got in the way.
I’m so sorry, Lynne, and please know that you’re not alone. I encourage you to use the daily tools that you used to overcome relationship anxiety and apply them to the rest of your life. Anxiety is manageable when we work with it effectively.
Thank you so much for your willingness to shed light on the reality that everyone experiences pain and anxiety, even when it seems one has it “all together.” I’ve always meditated upon the adage, “comparison is the greatest theif of joy.” This has brought me great comfort in times where I feel isolated in my ruminations and perseverative fears. I’ve come to realize that the pursuit of happiness that the American culture tends to focus on cannot be mutually exclusive from the reality of setbacks and emotional valleys that accompany times of great joy. It’s so comforting to know that those valleys of despair and ragged terrain of anxiety are not all for nothing- we are refined through our struggles and can rise above to become even stronger. You blog is a gift!
Beautiful Andie 🙂 Thank you 🙂
It is, indeed, through our pain that we grow the most!
One of my teachers used to say “Comparison is depression”. It really helped me come out of this habit I had.
Thank you for your work! It has helped more than you could ever know
I discovered you about a year ago when i was suffering intrusive thoughts and ROCD as i began seeing my boyfriend as a life partner,
my question is- it has been a year now, i still have thoughts everyday but they are a lot more controlled/less intense thanks to meditation and your articles (also your conscious bride program) – but is it normal even after a year to still have them? will they ever go away completely?
I’m so glad my work has been helpful, Ali. If your thoughts are still focused on relationship anxiety I would highly recommend considering the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety E-Course as it goes into much more depth on intrusive thoughts than my blog or the CW course. With effective tools and daily practice it is entirely possible to heal from intrusive thoughts.
Would you call waking up on a morning thinking “he’s just not right for me” or having a feeling that you are settling an instrusive thought? Even when you know your partner is a good match, you have a lovely relationship for the most part. Or is this another aspect of RA that’s not an instrusive thought (it doesn’t come with anxiety) Its over 3 years, lots of dialoging, journaling, meditation, working on our relationship, therapy- but I’m still worried I’m missing out on being with the right partner by being in this relationship. It’s difficult to put into words exactly I just wish I felt more content being here.
So beautiful Sheryl!! Love this. This week I struggled with so much anger I had towards a insight timer meditation about self trust and the divine path. According to the author the divine path is free of struggle, free of pain and is pure excitement and that anything less than that is a lower form of consciousness. Honestly, it made my blood boil as I believe that pain and love are synonymous and that you have to actually approach your pain and love it and hold it to release it. Looking for a path free of pain and only joyful is absolutely a destructive message to be broadcasting to the masses. But then, each to their own I guess! What do you say to these messages in spiritual/self help culture?
It’s obviously not my approach, and I believe that those kinds of messages can be damaging as they reinforce shame.
“Isolation breeds shame.” This could not be more true in my life. My anxiety is at an all time high after deconverting from a faith I’ve been a member of since birth. I’m fear, I have isolated myself from all those who are still a part of that community. My anxiety is killing friendships and I cannot get the words past my lips that I no longer believe in god anymore. It is slowly killing me, this shame that I am a failure and a disgrace to those I once professed my faith to. How can I lower my anxiety and rise above my fear of being completely rejected and abandoned? More than that, how do I deal with my inner shame directed toward myself? I see myself as shameful, and I don’t want to be stuck in that mentality forever. It is so lonely. Thank you for reminding me I’m not alone. I need to find others who feel this loneliness too.
This is a very painful situation, and you’re not alone. On every round of my courses – particular Trust Yourself and Grace Through Uncertainty – there are members who have recently left their faith community and struggle with exactly what you’re struggling with. I encourage you to do everything you can NOT to isolate, which means finding people in similar circumstances, even online, and making connections.
Thank you for your continual blog posts. I love reading them every time a new one come out. It is soothing for my soul and I love your openness about also not being “perfect” or “having it all together”. I strive to be as full of wisdom as you one day, but until then I’ll continue reading and investing in these life-changing courses.
I am still waiting to receive information about my login to the course.
It would be great to hear back soon from you or your assistant.
Thank you and Best wishes
Anja! I’m so glad you wrote to us here as we’ve been trying to get in touch with you but the emails have all bounced back. If you have another email address then the one you’ve been using can you please email both me and Kathryn from there? In the meantime, keep checking here so that we can stay in touch until you receive the course material.
Thank you so much, Sheryl!
It has all worked out now and I have been able to start the course today. Until soon, Anja
I struggle with relationship anxiety.. however it only rears its head with a man where theses a possibility of a future.
At present I’ve just begun to see someone, anxiety high find it very difficult to be out of my head worrying what’s going to happen..at same time feelings of grief around my partner who died almost 24 years ago.
I keep checking how feel in new relationship with how I felt with late partner, sense I’m grieving for idealised relationship going back and forth in my mind trying to compare then with now!! Mad I know given the time frame. This anxiety has meant I have ended 2 possible relationships as felt so panicked and tearful or waiting for shoe to drop.
How can I ever feel normal?
Consider the course!