IMG_6169 (1)I could have titled this post with any of the phrases I hear every day from my clients and course members:

  • “I wish she was thinner.”
  • “I wish he was more successful.”
  • “I wish she had better skin.”
  • “I wish he was more assertive.”
  • “I wish she had a different voice.”

But this is the one that came through a few weeks ago in a session with a client (*shared with permission), so we’ll start here: I wish he was taller. What’s embedded in that sentiment? How we respond to the unbidden or undesirable thought once it arrives determines whether we walk down the path of learning and discovery or get stuck in the tar pit of anxiety. It’s that one crucial moment that defines the choice-point and makes the difference. Here’s how our dialogue unfolded:

“When I first saw him I thought, ‘I wish he was taller,’ my client shared with me. “And then I immediately felt guilty. Why am I so judgmental? Why can’t I just feel happy to see him and focus on his wonderful qualities? He’s such a sweet, good man and he loves me so much. I feel like a terrible person for having that thought.”

“So there’s your self-judgement, which I’m much more interested in than answering those questions. We’ve been talking a lot about your self-judgement lately and how it’s the first place you go when you have an unwanted thought. Do you see it?”

“Yes, I see it. And the next place I go is to the assumption that because I had the thought that must mean that I’m with the wrong person. After all, shouldn’t I feel as wildly attracted to him as he does to me?”

Let’s stop here. The two achilles heels of relationship anxiety (or any anxiety or intrusive thought) are:

  1. Meeting the thought with judgement, shame or guilt.
  2. Assuming that because you had the thought it means… (assigning meaning to the thought itself)

Once you attach on to either of these points, you’re usually headed down the waterslide of anxiety that ends in the tarpit of muck. If, on the other hand, you can:

  1. Listen for the self-judgement then
  2. Respond from kindness and wisdom

you will set yourself down a very different path that will result in learning and healing.

We continued our dialogue in the session:

“How would you answer that question from your place of wisdom?” I asked.

My client thought for a minute, and tried to wriggle out of it by saying that she really didn’t know. I know her better than that and trust that she has vast wells of wisdom inside of her buffered by a big, loving heart. So I waited until she found her voice.

“I guess I would say something like, ‘Attraction can be confusing and I don’t have to feel attracted to him every second. It’s a normal thought and it doesn’t mean I have to leave or that there’s anything wrong with me or our relationship for having it.'”

“Yes, beautiful. Can you take that in?”

“Yes, I can.”

And this is how we set into motion new neural pathways in the brain: we respond differently to the same thought. We respond from the place of wisdom that we all have. We answer the questions in the way we would answer a dear friend. This is how we become friends to ourselves.

My client and I continued our conversation about the thought “I wish he was taller,” but now the tone had changed to one of curiosity and discovery. If we could unpack that thought, what would we find? I always encourage my clients and course members to use a simple tool called A Wheel (I include several wheels in my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety E-Course), which is basically a circle in the middle of a piece of paper with several spokes coming off the hub (like a bicycle wheel). Inside the circle is the thought or topic that we’re dissecting and exploring, and the end of each spoke contains what is embedded inside the primary thought. If I were to make a wheel for the thought, “I wish he were taller”, I would write that thought in the center of the circle, then at the end of each spoke write the following (based on this client’s story):

  • Desire for a typically masculine man (rich and successful)
  • Faulty definition of masculinity
  • Attraction is confusing (this likely will need its own wheel)
  • I would get here with anyone (the fear of real intimacy lives inside of me)
  • The thought is a defense against truly committing to my partner because if I believe the thought I would have to leave (since he’s not likely to get any taller)

Every time the thought arrives, the work is to name it for what it is (an intrusive thought), then ask, “What is needed? What is embedded inside this thought?” Each spoke speaks to a possibility, but even just asking the question removes the focus from the thought and, thus, gives it less energy. Whatever we water will grow. If we want the thoughts to stop growing, we must stop watering them, change the channel in our mind, and learn to focus our energy on what truly needs our attention. This is how we grow a different, and more peaceful, garden in our minds.

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