It’s a thought that arises frequently for those struggling with relationship anxiety: “I have to be single in order to heal.” Offshoots and extrapolations of this thought sound like:
• “I have to backpack by myself across Europe.”
• “I have to live in a loft in New York.”
• “I haven’t dated enough.”
• “I have to leave my partner in order to find myself.”
At the core of these thoughts is a misguided and culturally supported belief that we can’t find our “true selves” while in a relationship. It’s a belief strongly supported by our current mainstream culture that carries a blaring strain of “me, myself, and I(phone)” at the center. In our selfie-and-Instagram media world, we’re in danger of creating a generation of narcissists whose self-esteem primarily stems from seeing themselves reflected back on their screens and checking their numbers of likes and hearts. There’s a message that says, “Do whatever you need to do to please yourself and fill yourself.”
It’s a distorted message. Every spiritual tradition knows that one of the most powerful cut-through actions that dissolves anxiety and fills emptiness is to give to others. This doesn’t mean that we give in order to fill ourselves up or that we abandon our inner work and only focus on others. Rather, it means that when we peer outside the compelling web of thoughts and obsessions that keep us in a perpetual state of sticky anxiety and consider how we might offer compassion and generosity to others, we tap a source of that leads to true fullness. One of the most potent places to practice giving love is in our relationships.
Furthermore, while we can certainly heal on our own, there are certain wounds that are only activated in a relationship. Mariana Caplan, in her important book Yoga and Psyche: Integrating the Paths of Yoga and Psychology for Healing, Transformation, and Joy,” writes along these lines:
“Human beings are relational at their core. John Wellwood suggests that ‘relational wounds’ (the wounds that occur within human relationships) are most effectively healed in relationships with others. People often assume that their core sufferings and traumas – many of which occurred in childhood and in various relational contexts throughout our lives – should be healed in the solitude of our own heart and minds. Teachings of self-sufficiency and the dictate to meet one’s own needs are often celebrated on the yogic path [And I would add on the self-help journey in general]. I believe this is another way in which we use our spiritual ideas and practices to avoid the vulnerability of our humanity and our needs for intimacy and community. Solo meditation practice and inner work are not often the most effective remedies to relationship wounding. Therapeutic relationships, intimate relationships, close friendships, and spiritual mentorships can provide a context for healing that solo yogic and meditative practice cannot address in the same way.”
If we resist the urge to take these thoughts at face value and instead take the time to decode them by asking what’s needed, we quickly see that the arrows are pointing to a longing to connect more deeply with oneself. These thoughts often arise for people who struggle to know themselves, who have spent a lifetime outsourcing their self-trust, and often describe themselves as a chameleon.
There’s also often a fear embedded inside the thought that they’re not able or allowed to be their true selves within a relationship, which often stems from a pattern with an early caregiver in which they were asked without words to subsume their true needs and nature in order to please the other. The invitation, then, is both to work with this core fear/belief that says, “I can’t be myself and my needs won’t be met in an intimate partnership”, and embark on the journey to reconnecting with the lost core of self-trust and self-knowledge. All of this work can and must be done within a relationship.
As I wrote in last week’s post, love is why we’re here. I would add that fear is also why we’re here, for every time we walk through fear’s door we grow our capacity to love. In this sense, love and fear are not only cousins in the heart-pocket of love, but also allies, and while you will encounter one kind of fear while backpacking across Europe or living in a loft in New York by yourself, it’s not the fear strain that is triggered in intimate relationships. We need each other to heal and grow. We need each other to draw fear out from its underground hiding places so that we can walk with it and through it where we discover love, again and again, on the other side.
Note: I welcome your comments, insights, and thoughts that are directly related to each week’s post. If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and are a member of the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course, please bring your questions there.