Flags Versus Red Flags

One of the most common questions I’m asked during a coaching session is, “What are red flags? You say that if I’m suffering from relationship anxiety and I’m in a healthy and secure relationship without red flags then the anxiety is a manifestation of pain that needs attention as opposed to intuition that I’m in the wrong relationship. But what exactly are these red flags?”

It doesn’t matter that I list the red flags explicitly in my course and succinctly here on my site; people need to hear directly from my mouth that whatever particular hook they’re struggling with doesn’t constitute a red flag. I understand this completely. When fear takes hold, one of the stories it spins is that you’re unique and that the messages that you’re reading about anxiety don’t apply to you. Fear can do this around health anxiety, money anxiety, social anxiety, any anxiety. When fear sidles into the driver’s seat, rationality jumps out the passenger side window, and we become desperate for reassurance that we’re okay and that we don’t have to leave our loving relationship.

The confusing aspect is that flags and red flags can feel very similar. This is where the inner skill of discernment enters the picture, for we must be able to say clearly “yes, this is a red flag” or “no, it’s not a red flag, which must mean it’s my own flag”. To this end, it helps to have these terms clearly defined so that you can, at least for a moment, experience the sense of clarity that arises when fear is contained by the Wise Self and, as a result, shrinks even just slightly.

 

A flag lets you know that there’s more work to be done inside of you.

 

Some examples of flags are :

Intrusive thoughts about your partner:  he’s not attractive enough; we don’t have a strong enough connection; she’s not intellectual enough. I’ve discussed intrusive thoughts repeatedly on this site and in the Break Free course. If you need to review those articles, enter “conscious-transitions + intrusive thoughts” into your search bar or just search for a specific intrusive thought. The work here is to learn to attend effectively to your thoughts, which means naming them as flags (not red flags) and asking, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”

Somatic symptoms: Stomach lurching, tight chest, headache, can’t eat, can’t sleep . The work here is to name these symptoms as messengers of fear and explore what scares you about real love (aside from the fact that real love is inherently scary no matter what your history).

Feeling blank or numb: If you’re feeling blank or numb about your relationship I would venture to guess that you also feel numb in other parts of your life. Blankness is a sign of internal disconnection, and the work here is to learn how to drop out of the safety of your head and come back down into your body.

 

A red flag alerts you to areas in the relationship that need attention.

 

Red flags are the following:

Addiction: alcohol, drugs, spending, sex

Abuse: emotional, physical, one person is deeply controlling around how the other person spends their time, behaves, etc.

Personality Disorder: shows signs of narcissistic personality disorder (is unwilling to sacrifice themselves for another person; isn’t willing to let go of lifestyle of a single person in terms of time commitments – i.e. doesn’t really want to be married and would rather continue in the free and unrestricted lifestyle of being single); compulsive lying

Irreconcilable differences in core values (having children, child raising practices, religion). Having different religious beliefs is only a red flag if you haven’t been able to come to agreements regarding how you’ll raise your children and other practices that may affect your family life.

Let me be clear: Even red flag issues don’t necessarily mean that you have to leave your relationship. If both of you are committed to working with the issue, having a red flag can often lead to more growth and intimacy. We typically learn through challenge, not through ease, and every relationship will hit challenge at some point. What matters foremost is that you’re with a partner who is willing to grow. Growth can manifest in many different ways and doesn’t necessarily mean that going to therapy, but rather that there’s a fundamental desire to soften one’s edges, to learn, and to grow one’s capacity to love.

57 comments to Flags Versus Red Flags

  • Cindy

    Such a great piece! Thank you for the reminders Sheryl! There is actually a movie on Netflix, called ‘Happy Anniversary’ that I think relates to a lot of what we’re all going through. It depicts how imperfect relationships are and how more people go through relationship anxiety than we think. It normalizes alot of what we feel. Check it out!

  • agnes

    Another brilliant one, Sheryl. Thank you. I’m paying particular attention to how fear makes you believe you’re alone in your experience and how numbness is a sign of internal disconnection.

    I’ve not been as involved in this site and this work lately and I have to admit that Ive let the part of me that became cynical about this work take over in the past few months. I think I’ve let my cynicism show and I apologise for that. Deep down, I am always very grateful to you and will always be drawn back to this work. I think my cynicism grew from my impatience to make some tangible process and instead of doing my work, I wrote it off to some degree instead. The truth is, I have not worked hard enough at taking care of myself. I have become obsessive about my inner work, but I have danced around the matter by driving myself mad with reading, instead of ACTION.

    I’m so happy and thankful to have found you and your work, and for the ways in which you have helped me personally. I need to learn to call out the parts of me that create isolation for myself. I’m

  • Dana

    Love the clear differentiation between flags for ourselves & red flags for the relationship. I think 1 other red flag is committing to a relationship based on the hope your partner will change. If you only want your partner if something fundamentally changes & you keep working thru anxiety while banking on the change you wish for, it’s an endless process & unfair to your partner (& yourself)!

  • Hannah

    Hi Sheryl!

    Thanks for the helpful reminder! Something in your post did spike my anxiety. My husband and I have a one year old daughter, and we do have fairly different parenting styles, as was expected from our different cultural backgrounds. I am more laid back and he intervenes more on things that I don’t think require it. Is this what you would define as a red flag?

    With Appreciation,
    Hannah

    • Every couple has somewhat different parenting styles. I’m talking about if one of you believes it’s okay to hit a child, for example, and the other one doesn’t. Or you haven’t agreed on the role of religion in your child’s life.

  • Being with a partner who is willing to grow is everything. I wouldn’t have really “got” this even five years ago.

  • Bianca

    “Love the clear differentiation between flags for ourselves & red flags for the relationship. I think 1 other red flag is committing to a relationship based on the hope your partner will change. If you only want your partner if something fundamentally changes & you keep working thru anxiety while banking on the change you wish for, it’s an endless process & unfair to your partner (& yourself)!”

    WOW. That comment just hit home for me. I was involved in this work many years ago and it made a huge difference for me. It saved me. I see it coming up again in a new relationship and I think at the crux of it I do want him to be different. I want him to change and I know I dealt with that with my ex as well. If you want them to change, is that a sign you are with the wrong person? Or that the crux of the work is that you just need to accept them as they are?

    • Marlene

      Yes I agree, this comment spiked me a bit too…awaiting clarification

    • It depends what you’re wanting to change. We can make requests of our partners in certain areas but if we’re asking them to change fundamentally who they are doesn’t work. Most importantly, one of the hallmarks of relationship anxiety is the belief that if only your partner were more _________ you wouldn’t be feeling anxious, and I’m hearing this anxious voice in these comments ;).

    • Anna

      I somehow understood it this way, because I had the same reaction reading this: “but I DO want certain things to change!” – of course we do, there is a place we want to grow towards.

      I try to explain what I mean with an example: Sheryl names compulsive lying as an example of a red flag. From my perspective, it is normal to work towards changing the activity of compulsivley lying within a relationship, because its not healthy or respectful. The target for change here is changing a pattern of action, as compared to the desire to change the person or personality. I think this might be what Sheryl means when she writes “asking them to change fundamentally who they are doesnt work”.
      Changing a way of acting or a pattern does not mean I have to change as a person. It targets what I do as compared to who I am.

      From my point of view wanting the partner to change who they are fundamentally would refer to personal traits or inherent passions, i.e. the love for a certain kind of music, being introvert vs. extrovert, needing alone-time, having a drive to pursue a career, wanting to be in a monogamous relationship etc. – I doesnt work to ask our partner to change these traits, because they really can’t.

  • Marlene

    If two people are both willing to keep excavating their highest selves (and that’s not easy I know) then there is hope. I manifested some of the mistreatment/lack of coping skills I experienced as a child. I felt horrible and was determined to change. I remember commenting that I was the red flag issue. Sheryl was so kind and reassured me that as long as I was willing to do the work there was hope. I was and am eternally grateful that she held a space for me in that dark moment. I hope that helps others.

  • Lauren

    A huge spike for me is that my boyfriend used to be addicted to drugs. I worry so much that he will relapse and overdose. He is committed to staying clean and works on himself and tends to his passions (gardening, cooking) so inspires me to work on myself as well. But he fear still exists. This is very clarifying for me and my fear.

    • Anne

      I deal with the same issue, Lauren, and it is a hard one! I still have those intrusive worries about my husband, and it’s still something my mind jumps to sometimes when he is late getting home or doesn’t answer his phone right away, which sucks… But on the other hand, I think it’s pretty cool to be with someone who has been to rehab and is committed to staying clean because he has had to learn SO MUCH about personal growth, humility, being in touch with his feelings, recognizing issues/patterns in his life that need to be addressed, etc. It’s like he’s a step ahead of most people who haven’t had to learn how to grow and change in such a dramatic way, and it definitely helps me a lot on my own journey 🙂

  • It means that when anxiety isn’t in the driver’s seat you feel safe with your partner.

  • NN

    Absolutely loved this article as it helped differentiate the red flags from just the flag.
    You mentioned intrusive thoughts such as “he’s not attractive enough” usually spring about from our own way of protecting ourselves. Could you give an example or two about what such a thought could be protecting us from feeling?
    Thank you!

  • J

    Thanks for these elaborated thoughts. Might you also please explain what you mean by a “secure” relationship? Healthy I suppose goes without saying. What does security look like even with anxiety? I’m navigating this. Thanks!

  • Rachel

    Thank you Cindy. I just watched that movie and that is exactly how I have been for the last 3 years.

  • Natalie

    Hi Sheryl. Was great to read this today. I can’t remember which post it was, but awhile back I added a question oriented comment around red flags re my partner’s marijuana use. Your intuitive response to my particular situation was supportive and encouraged me to keep doing the work on myself. It hasn’t been easy, and still isn’t. But we are still together, and the growth is evident, in me, and my partner. I have found more inner stability and have less anxiety and loneliness. There is more space for ‘being’ inside, free of endless rumination and projection. My partner is seeing a counsellor and facing his past pain. I am so pleased for him. He is smoking less and finding his voice, speaking up for himself in situations that previously would have been very difficult for him to do so. I am proud of me for putting in boundaries that honoured me, even when it was hard, and there was no guarantee that we would continue together. I am proud of myself for facing and embracing the loneliness that surfaced when I stopped trying to control everything. I am proud of him for stepping up and healing so that he (and we) can continue to heal, grow, and feel free together. I thank you kindly for your work, your wonderfulness. Your grounded truthful approach helped me to trust in my ability to face and dealing with my own internal programming (which is so absolutely levelling at times!) It’s an ongoing process full of ups and downs, but the ups are becoming more frequent, and evening out into times of calm, comfortable love and peace. And I do ‘trust myself’ more…I found your site when I needed it the most…and I trust that I was meant to! Thank You, Sheryl.

  • JK

    Thank you so much, Sheryl.

    As always, your timing is impeccable and spookily significant. My husband and I are in the process of buying our first home together just now and yesterday we visited it for only the second time since viewing. As opposed to the elated feelings of calm, connection and joy I felt when we first viewed, yesterday I felt my stomach lurch, a fearful feeling of uncertainty and the weight of responsibility come over me.

    I resisted the urge to ignore it but, due to having worked a 12 hour day on my feet the day before and having been diagnosed last year with an endocrine disorder which I know affects my stress hormones levels, I was aware that the tiredness I was feeling would exacerbate my fear and bring on intrusive thoughts (“he’s not attractive enough” “what if we’re not connected enough” “what if the new house just highlights how little chemistry we have” “what if it all goes wrong?”) and so I struggled with that all day yesterday (although, thanks to your work, not to the same unconscious degree I did when we got married). I then went to bed and slept poorly, had terrible nightmares about people I trusted being mean to me, not being able to find a secure and private toilet cubicle, being judged and having my personal space and boundaries violated – they were awful nightmares and I felt so alone in them all, like I had no one. Even those I trust the most in real life were horrible to me.

    So it was a great relief and spiritual comfort to awaken this morning to your email and this article. It comes, as always, at just the right time. Grounding my thoughts in how fortunate I am to have a loving supportive partner in life with whom I share core values and beliefs, who makes me laugh and just wants to share joy with me. It has helped me remember to tend to myself, take good care of myself, listen to myself and think honestly about fear and what it means and it’s natural occurrence during any big life transition.

    When it came over me during our wedding planning I felt so lost and out of control, so disconnected from myself and my husband-to-be. I was overwhelmed with family and the needs, wants and opinions of others and I was ignoring myself and my body’s own cries for help. It was your articles that slowly helped me gain the insight and awareness I needed to address and heal from those fears enough to eventually visit a doctor and have my levels tested, which resulted in my diagnosis of Metabolic Disorder. To heal from it I have to address my management of fear, my stress responses and my inner dialogue and your thoughts and wisdom are invaluable in enabling me to do so.

    So, as always, I am so grateful. Thank you 🙏🏼

  • Ginny

    I just love the way you wrote Sheryl and the way it speaks to me. I’ve had debilitating anxiety on and off for the past year about my wedding and up coming marriage (amongst other things!) I’m now two months away and I feel good. I still have moment of fear and anxiety but I’ve learned how to drop down and feel the feeling, it’s terrifying but passes much quicker. For anyone still on their path (I still am too!) keep going, it is worth it. Of course I’m terrifed in the next 2 months the terrible anxiety will come back but I’m going to keep working through it, and right now I cannot wait to get married.

  • An

    Sheryl, can a feeling of home around your partner be cultivated? If so, what does it consist of and how do you cultivate it?

  • Katy

    This has spiked me. Me and my partner are on the same wavelength with pretty much everything. But I would like to know what you mean by agreeing on how we will raise children. Me and my partner are still quite young and would not be planning to have a family for a long time however we were raised very differently and I have noticed that my partner will probably be stricter and more firm with children than I will be, I have always been worried about this but I put it down to my anxiety blowing it slightly out of proportion, now I’m worried it might be a red flag. I feel like we’d be able to work together well as parents as we’re good at compromising however this has slightly spiked me because I can see him being more strict than I’d probably like him to be and now that you’ve mentioned it as a red flag I’m worried for the future

  • To anyone who was spiked by any aspect of this post: I encourage you to respond to your anxiety from your Wise Self, even imagining what I might say. You all have access to your source of guidance and wisdom and the work of healing from anxiety isn’t about seeking momentary reassurance for the spike of the day but about learning to respond to your anxiety in effective ways that offer both cognitive truth and emotional tending. If you have my course then you have all of the tools at your disposal that will teach you how to do this. And if you don’t have my course I highly recommend that you consider joining.

  • Emily

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thanks for the lovely post. I have been finding my anxiety has been less intrusive thoughts and more somatic/ feeling numb. I have been so stressed about my job and feeling like it is no longer my purpose. I’ve become ambivalent to things that bring me joy, like my relationship, the more detached I feel from my career.im grateful that you mentioned in this post that these physical and emotional feelings could be an indicator of other areas of my life being off. I am a teacher, and I feel my highly sensitive/ introverted personality type is always on overwhelm and I just don’t know if I can do it anymore. I can’t seem to ever find control.. Do you recommend any of your articles to people who are struggling with this type of transition/ career impacts on anxiety?

  • Lyndsey

    Hi Sheryl,

    It’s almost spooky how the timing of your articles coincide perfectly with what we’re all going through!

    Could you expand upon the red flag issue of determining the role religion will play in raising kids with your partner? Is this for people who are devoutly religious and place a huge importance on it? You mention it in your Break Free course and it’s really spiked me so wanted to see if you could clarify.

    Also, while I’m here.. to anyone who has considered purchasing the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course but hasn’t for some reason… DO IT! Seriously, it’s changed my life and I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift. It’s worth every penny and YOU are worth the investment. I was afraid to begin the course because I didn’t know if getting in touch with my “true” self would reveal that I had to leave, that I wasn’t truly happy, that my partner wasn’t who I was supposed to be with, etc. I put off starting the course for months before I finally experienced a true Dark Night of the Soul and realized I’d had enough and couldn’t continue living with anxiety in the driver’s seat.
    Please let me know if you have any questions about my experiences with the course because I think my friends and family are sick of hearing about it ;).

    As always, thank you Sheryl! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    With gratitude,
    Lyndsey

    • Thank you for this lovely post, Lyndsey. As far as religion, yes, it’s a concern when one person is deeply devout and the other isn’t, and even then it’s only a potential issue if children enter the picture.

    • Blessedselection

      Hi Lyndsey!
      I would love to connect with you! Thank you for offering your support. If you’re on the forum you can PM me by this same screen name.

      Cheers!
      A

    • Hannah

      Hi Lyndsey,

      If you’d also like to process more with me about your anxiety, feel free to PM me as well. Religion has been a huge spike for me as I’m not super religious and my boyfriend is.
      My screename is hgolden!

      Hannah

  • Lyndsey

    Hi Blessedselection!

    I’m working on getting forum access and I’ll PM you as soon as I can!

    Hope everyone’s having a wonderful day,
    Lyndsey

    • Abby

      Hi Lyndsey, Blessedselection and Hannah

      I would really like to talk to you all about the religious red flag issue. I am not on the forum but will also try to arrange this.

      Regards

      Abby

  • Also Lyndsey

    Sheryl,

    How different of religious differences? My bf and I are both Christian but sometimes I feel I am more spiritual than him. I feel like I’m further into my faith than he is. We are both believers and were raised in a Christian homes, but what if our paths grow further and further apart? We are both trying to grow in our faith together as well as apart, but I’m scared we won’t be on the same page later on.

    So when we talk about relglious differences, does it mean polar opposites (Christian v. Atheist) or even the slightest difference.

  • Also Lyndsey

    How different do the religious differences need to be in order for it to be a problem?

    My boyfriend and I are both Christians, but he isn’t as devout as me. I’m always told that a relationship needs both partners to be devoted to God and choose Him first before they can choose each other. This scares because I know we differ in this. He is still working on his relationship with God and says he needs time. I’m scared I won’t be able to look past this 🙁 We get in arguments a lot about it. He always says he feels pressure from me because his relationship with God isn’t something that can be forced. But I’m scared for if we get married and we end up having kids. Can we operate with only one of us valuing God?

  • Natalie

    The boy I love more than I believed I could ever love anyone left me yesterday because I was the red flag. My constant reassurance seeking put our relationship (and mostly him) under a lot of pressure. First my thoughts revolved around how he might not love me as much, so he changed his behavior, sacrificed parts of his life, to prove me wrong. However, after an incident with my family, starting on hormonal birth control, feeling safe in the relationship and something I haven’t figured out yet, the thoughts were about me not loving him enough. Now that I lost him, I have screamed in agony, cried, screamed someone, cost every one of my family members a lot of sleep by waking up in the middle of the night by screaming again. I’m not trying to spike anyone’s anxiety. I have gone through periods of numbness and indifference and anger and I still have doubts about loving him. But I’m choosing to believe the part of me that laid down and cried and begged him to take me back while he was breaking up with me. I’m choosing to believe the part that is in agony. So please, do not make the mistakes I did. Maybe it won’t hurt you as much, maybe you’ll feel numb. Most likely you won’t even have to face this kind of situation. You can heal yourself. You can love yourself. And you most likely love your partner so much the idea that the intrusive thoughts could be true scares you to death. I want him back, so I’m going to do the work, get back to a healthy place, so that I have a chance of leading a life with love. I’m just really hoping he can forgive me and we can restart with a healthier foundation.

    • I responded to you on “The Gift of Projection” post. Please read that response when you have a chance.

      • Natalie

        Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. And thank you for the work you’re doing.

        • You’re welcome :). I can see by your comments to other that you’re already absorbing the information well. Please keep reading and practicing and you’ll get handle on what’s inside the anxiety.

          • Natalie

            I’ll do my best. I just wish I hadn’t hurt my ex along the way, I realize that it truly wasn’t him, now that he’s gone. But you said once that regret and guilt was another way of not living in the moment, not embracing life. Maybe I’m expecting results too soon, he only broke up with me yesterday, a ten month relationship ended yesterday, I can’t expect myself to just move on immediately. The problems in our relationship (if mostly caused by me) won’t fix themselves in a day. So I need to take care of myself now.

          • You’re showing a tremendous amount of wisdom for a 17 year old. The grief is underneath the guilt and regret, so make sure that you make time and space for the grief to come through. And remember: nobody knows how to do this. Making mistakes is how we learn.

  • Natalie

    Thank you 🙂

  • Natalie

    No chance this might have been caused by going on birth control, is there?

    • Natalie

      Dear Sheryl,
      now that my boyfriend and I are broken up, I am having a very hard time dealing with the doubts and insecurities I have. Another intrusive thought has lodged itself in my head and it is very persistent especially because I have to act the same way even if it isn’t true. After the breakup I’m having a hard time reconnecting to myself, I don’t know what to do with my time (except for school work) and I don’t know what I want anymore. The intrusive thought is: what if I didn’t love myself and receiving love from my boyfriend was the only thing I loved about him. This makes me vaguely remember going on vacation right after me and him got together and enjoying almost every second of it. I followed my interests and reuniting with him was wonderful as well. My theory is that once school started we had to start neglecting the things that were important to us in order to keep up the same level of closeness. Deep down I know I adore him. But towards the end of our relationship it because hard for me to appreciate the person he actually was. This only means that we weren’t giving each other enough space, not that my doubts are true, right?

    • Birth control can absolutely exaccerbate and in some cases even cause anxiety.

      • Natalie

        Right now my anxiety is telling me I never liked him and never enjoyed any of our conversations. I’m scared that it’s true, it’s like having two versions of events happening at the same time. Even though I remember talking about things that really connected us (like a shared future, things we enjoyed, , at the same time I have memories of him telling me about things that I didn’t think were very interesting. I feel like this is a false belief in my head, that a couple always needs to be able to have amazing conversations and that I always have to be interested in every aspect of him. This is confusing because once I say it, it sounds kind of stupid. Am I right not to trust the thoughts?

  • alexandra

    do red flags that both of us are willing to work on mean that I need to break up? is the universe telling me to leave? we’re working on our issues but do I have to leave?

  • Natalie

    Hey, me again…
    Now that me and my boyfriend are broken up, I’m really struggling with relationship anxiety. I spent the entire last week committed to thinking “there’s a way back from this”, “we can fix our issues”, “we just didn’t know how to lead a relationship and now we know, so now we can start again”, but today I started going numb. I thought maybe if I distracted myself a bit I could reclaim my life, so me and him would start on a healthy basis where I’m not dependent on him (or anyone for that matter) and now suddenly I’m having thoughts like “you don’t want this”, “he’s never coming back, you might as well move on”, “you don’t need him, so you couldn’t have a relationship”, “you’ve moved on”, “you don’t feel as strongly anymore”,…
    So my theory is that I’m realizing that love is a risk, especially when it comes to a relationship that failed once before and where there is no certainty that we could retry (as he might not come back). I feel as though me feeling numb and having these thoughts is not what I truly feel, but a way of protecting myself from the pain I felt just yesterday. I also sometimes feel like I suddenly feel a lot of love towards him and then I feel myself shut down. It would obviously be “easier” to give up and move on, meaning I know what the outcome is, however, I also know that I love him very much and that the reason all of this happened is because I loved him more than I loved myself. What I’m asking is, can relationship anxiety continue about an ex and is it reason enough not to pursue a relationship with him?

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