It’s 2:20 am. We’re on a red-eye flight on our way back from a family vacation when the captain announces, in a very calm but urgent voice, that all passengers must fasten their seatbelt. Nearly everyone is asleep anyway. For the past three hours I’ve been nodding in and out of consciousness while sitting upright with a six-year old splayed across my lap. Not exactly the position most conducive to sleep. But now I’m wide awake.
The pilot did sound particularly urgent (or is that just my hyper-vigilant, highly sensitive mind reading into things?). And that’s a strange sound coming from the engines (or are those my highly sensitive ears crossing into fear territory?). And then the turbulence hits. It feels like the plane dropped about ten feet and we’re rocking side to side, like a roller coaster. But this is no roller coaster. We’re 33,000 feet above the ground and I’m scared. I look around. Everyone is still asleep except for me and my 11-year old son. How can they sleep when we’re about to die? Fear asks.
I hate flying, my mind says, but even in that moment I know that’s not an entirely true statement. I don’t like the anxiety I have leading up to a trip. I resent being smashed in like a sardine in the increasingly smaller airplane seats. And what I really dread is the few minutes of turbulence we invariably hit each time we fly. I loathe each wild tremor and drop of the plane as we pass through rocky air. Well, even that’s not entirely true; what I hate is where my fear mind goes, sending me images of the four of us plummeting to our death. This is it, fear tells me as we jiggle and drop and quiver through the air.
I hate flying, fear says, but my other mind responds with but I also love flying. I love where flying takes us: on new adventures, to new vistas, broadening our horizons and, by exposing us to other lands and people, helping us grow beyond our limited ways of seeing and being. I love the miracle of being in the air. I love being able to see our beautiful earth from this vantage point.
I hope you’re seeing the analogy to relationships ;).
I know from my work with clients, course members and readers how many of you share my fear of flying. And I also know that there are people who relish every minute of the travel experience. My son is one of them. Which is why he’s wide awake at the moment, staring out into the blackness with a look of pure joy radiating his face. The turbulence doesn’t interfere with his joy. For him, in fact, the rougher the ride, the bigger his thrill. Whenever I’m petrified, like right now, I look at his face, bright with ecstasy, and feel reassured. He plans to become a pilot one day. Through some form of intuitive ancient memory, he know these machines and these skies in his bones. If his face shows that we’re okay then I guess we’re okay.
Are we safe? I whisper to him. Yes, he whispers back. Then he proceeds to give me a detailed explanation about how, because we’re sitting in the back of the plane, we’re going to experience the turbulence more intensely. “If we were sitting in first class right now we wouldn’t be feeling it so much,” he tells me. Even in my anxious state, the hint doesn’t escape me.
As I take a closer look around me, I notice that not everyone is asleep. Some people are gripping a small glass bottle of alcohol in their hands, while others, I’m sure, have taken a pill before we even boarded. These are other ways of getting through fear: we anesthetize.
I’ll give you the metaphor now: Intimate relationships are like flying. And fear is the turbulence most people hit when the relationship is real and true. Fear shows up in many different forms: as intrusive thoughts (I don’t love her; I’m not attracted enough; he’s not smart enough), as indifference (the protective defense mechanism of fear convinces us that we don’t care), as numbness (fear freezes the heart), and as lack of sexual desire (believing that we simply don’t have enough – or the “right” – chemistry).
Because we live in a culture that doesn’t understand or validate the intimate relationship between love and fear, when we hit turbulence, we must look to people who know how to weather the storms and have no fear of rocky patches. On the plane, my son is my guide and safe harbor. In the rest of life, I am his.
And for many of my blog readers, clients and course members, I am their smiling guide and safe harbor when the relationship seas turn rough. They bring me their stories – convinced that they’re the exception, that their symptoms are indicators of truth instead of classic manifestations of fear – and unless there’s a true red flag I smile and nod, undaunted, unconvinced by fear’s tactics, just like my son on the plane. “That’s fear,” I calmly say, having swum in these waters with thousands of people. And in the naming, something is calmed inside.
After we name the fear, we douse it with a cool splash of water. Where fear is hot and inflammatory, information cools the fear flames. We know now from science that accessing our prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain, calms the emotional turbulence. We need accurate information to calm our minds. When my son explains to me why we’re feeling the turbulence so intensely, I calm down. When I explain to my course members and readers the reasons behind the many manifestations of fear, I hear an audible soul-exhale.
The turbulence always passes, both in the air and in relationships. When we reach calm on the plane, fear leaves my body and I’m at peace. Then I can marvel at the magic of flight and enjoy the richness of the night. Sleep eludes me, so I soak up the rare and relative quiet. Words play a dominant role in my life; to sit in a wordless place for six hours is a treat.
Likewise, when the fear-waves pass in relationships, we can see clearly again. Suddenly our partner’s face looks visibly different: clear, radiant, beautiful. Now we notice a flicker of sexual desire, a seed that, when watered, can open our love-valves and bring us closer to each other. The irritations that we thought would send us out of our mind don’t seem so spikey anymore. Life without fear in the driver’s seat is a much different experience. We see clearly instead of through the filter of fear-eyes.
We have choices when it comes to fear: We can try to remove ourselves from the turbulence by not flying at all (staying single), we can anesthetize through addictions – both of substance and of the mind, or we can learn to work with our fear so that we can embrace the ride.
If you would like to learn how to work with your fear so that you can open the channels of your heart that will allow you to see clearly, please join me as I pilot you through my next round of Open Your Heart: A 30-Day Program to Feel More Love and Attraction For Your Partner, which will begin on March 12th, 2016.
It’s 3:20 now. We’ve been in seatbelt-required turbulence for an entire hour. Still fun? I ask my son. He nods his head vigorously and smiles. I smile back and feel my body relax. Smiling at fear always helps. I’ve been writing this post for most of the hour and I’m no longer petrified, only mildly anxious. Finally, we find calm air, and I can breathe. And before we know it, we are home, landing safely on solid ground in Denver. Thank you, I whisper. Thank you. And I exhale even more deeply, finding my clear place of calm and joy once again.
P.S. I’ve embedded at least three tools for working with fear in this post. Can you identify them?