If anxiety is denied, shamed, or judged, it often shows up at the back door, as what demands to be known will always find its way into awareness for the purpose of consciousness and healing. A backdoor arrival of anxiety often sounds like:
I don’t love my partner enough.
What if I end up alone and destitute?
What if I die?
I don’t love my partner.
My partner irritates me all the time.
What if I never get pregnant?
Why do I call this “backdoor anxiety”? Because these what-ifs and concrete statements that sound like facts are projections, secondary manifestations of root pain that need attention. Relationship anxiety is the distress flare that alerts us to the deeper, hidden pain. Intrusive thoughts, when worked with effectively, are arrows that point the way into the dry patches of our well of Self. When we listen and work with the core pain instead of falling into the trap of following and believing the siphoned-off, backdoor anxiety, we heal at the root.
A client recently talked about Sunday anxiety*. Sunday anxiety is a common experience that strikes many people who struggled with school as a child, or work as an adult (similar to Fall anxiety). It’s the anxiety that hits when we know we have to show up on Monday for a life that currently triggers anxiety or causes us to recall past anxiety. But instead of acknowledging the anxiety directly, my client found herself projecting it onto the familiar screen of her partner’s face and listening to the well-worn song on the track of her psyche called “Not enough.” She started analyzing their day (were we connected enough), analyzing his face (is it cute enough), and analyzing herself (am I enough). She was able to recognize this as the hypervigilent part of herself: the part that is scanning the horizon looking for the lurking danger.
As we talked it through, I encouraged her to give her character of hypervigilent Sunday-anxiety a name. It’s a character who has accompanied her through decades of life; now it’s time to invite her out from the shadows and make her real so that she doesn’t have to make a sideways appearance, demanding her attention by banging on the backdoor and making a ruckus about her lovely husband. Once she has a name, I encouraged my client to make a preemptive strike, which means instead of waiting for the anxiety to project onto the screen of “not enough” next Sunday, to invite her in through the front door for tea and conversation. Then she can dialogue with her directly and ask what she’s needing. With a loving adult at the helm of the dialogue, do they need to time travel back to those painful Sundays as a child when she knew that the separation of school was on the horizon? Do they need to sit on that single bed together, loving adult and young child, while the child tells the adult her story and buries her head into an imaginary loving shoulder while she cries?
We don’t know what we’ll find when we invite anxiety to the tea-table of psyche, and, thus, it takes great courage to do so. Left to its own devices, the untrained mind will follow any juicy thought to its panic-provoking conclusion. If you’re suffering from relationship anxiety, the conclusion is, “I’m with the wrong partner”. If you’re trying to conceive, the conclusion is, “I’ll never be a mother.” If you’re struggling with health anxiety, the conclusion is, “I’m going to die.” But when we head anxiety off at the pass by proactively seeking it out, we send the fearful and pain-packed parts of ourselves the message that there’s an adult at the helm of the ship that can handle the rough currents. It takes courage to travel into these uncharted waters. It takes courage to trust that you can handle what you find there. It takes courage to become your own friend, the one that can cradle your pain and seek comfort when the pain feels too big to handle alone.
Inviting anxiety to tea means becoming aware of our common triggers, which, for highly sensitive people, are often weekly and yearly transitions like Sundays, May/June (end of school year), Fall (beginning of school year), holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, moving, and, of course, the major transitions of becoming an adult (20s), getting married, becoming a parent, and losing a loved one. These are moments when we must pay particular attention to the churning of old and current pain that these times ignite. But inviting anxiety to tea also means that we develop a daily practice, like journaling or mindfulness, so that we can become more fluent in our personal language, more comfortable charting the storms and eddies of our inner seas. There’s no way to know ourselves unless we spend time knowing ourselves. It’s the class that was never taught in school, but one that we must sign up for now in order to break free from anxiety and find ourselves on a warm and solid beach more often than not.
*shared with permission