I am thoroughly delighted and honored to share this guest post by a beautiful young man named Jarrett. Like many of you, Jarrett found me through the portal and dark night of the soul of relationship anxiety – one that rendered him unable to sleep and led to hours of morning doom in the early stages. But as he tunneled more deeply into his inner work, he began to heal and address other layers, including social anxiety.
After listening to Jarrett eloquently and bravely share about his recent breakthroughs around social anxiety in which he challenged his lifelong fear that “other humans are not to be trusted” and found himself moving towards others – including strangers – in an entirely new way, I asked him if he would be willing to write a guest post on his journey. What follow is his generous, thoughtful, insightful, and courageous essay. Thank you, Jarrett, for sharing your words with us. You are a gift.
I never would have considered myself an anxious person. I actually would have considered myself pretty laid back and I guess on the outside I always was. People told me I was very calming, very mysterious, very quiet. My mother always told me I was very sensitive, even though I had little to no idea what that meant. I was just me after all. One thing was for sure, I really didn’t like interacting with new people. I never knew why but having to interact with new people came with immense stress for me. I found it easier to stick with the people that I knew, and I therefore received the label of “shy” growing up. This didn’t make too much sense to me because I was anything but shy around my friends – I thrived on making people laugh! It was my superpower, and it was the way that my family operated. To this day, my family unit is stabilized on the bedrock of humor – who can out-joke who? Who can make everyone else laugh the hardest? Our family motto is quite literally “you have to laugh to keep from crying”.
With this approach to life, I developed a skilled team of militant defense mechanisms to protect me from this fear of other people. Humor was the obvious first choice and with that came the biting sarcasm as my sense of humor matured and then the all-out cynicism and nihilism as I grew up. Other people scared me, the world scared me, it still does! But that truth was not going to work for me in life and I simply couldn’t live with the idea that I was somehow a coward. Real men are not afraid. And so, the walls were built – I’d rather shut everyone out than immerse myself and live in fear. Of course, along with this simple truth was a much deeper and sinister one, one that I would not uncover for years and years to come – I really didn’t think I was deserving of anything in this world. I truly thought that everyone else just had a certain something that I did not have – a social ease, a sense of fulfillment and a fundamental sense that they belonged. I felt like an alien, someone on the outside looking into a world full of people who were somehow “right” while I was somehow “wrong”. And the cynicism worked incredibly well to completely flip the narrative! The ego just couldn’t handle the idea that everyone else was completely “normal” while I was somehow “different”, so a low hum of persistent judgement took hold to numb the pain underneath. If I could dismiss someone or something with a quick witty flick of the tongue then I was basically invincible. I use the past tense for all of this but, of course, these thoughts still live with me every day. There’s no quick and easy way to completely re-write your entire perception of reality!
Deep down though, it all worked to obscure the underlying belief that I didn’t deserve anything. Especially something like love. So naturally when love threw it’s grappling hook over that protective wall and climbed right over I suddenly realized that there are actually things beyond it. I had quite literally institutionalized myself in my own prison. Of course, it didn’t look like any prison that I’ve ever seen on TV or in a movie – it had all of my favorite things! But in a life-upending moment the real world, the truth, stormed the castle. At the age of twenty- seven I got pulled under the riptide of anxiety and, two years later, I am just finding the surface for a big gasping breath. For a while there I was swimming around underwater, panicking and punching in every direction, desperately reaching around to feel the air on my hand. And after years I think I may have found it, I just needed to stop frantically reaching and let my body slowly float to the surface towards the air.
Everything about her terrified this person behind the protective fortress. She cried and yelled and danced and made loud noises in public in front of *gasp* other people. She made small talk with strangers and friends easily. She didn’t know my tongue-in-cheek pop culture references or celebrities or movies that tethered me to my fantasy world. She asked for things that she wanted at restaurants. She took me to a nude beach. She would break down into pools of hot tears and cries in expressions of all-out grief. She would howl with laughter and delight. She loved and cared fiercely and, most importantly, she was sincere as one could be (sincerity being the polar opposite of cynicism). She was everything I was afraid of and I thought she was so different from me. How could this ever work? Why am so drawn to her and at the same time so afraid of her?
The reality of my inner landscape though, behind the outward-facing veil of nihilistic humor, was one of tumultuous shifting patterns and textures, of emotional depth that ebbed and flowed, seemingly with the minutes on the clock. The humor was on the outside but I never was able to even remotely quiet the turbulence and the sensitivity inside. I loved animals, I loved music more than anything, I loved dancing, I loved sad and romantic movies, I would be jealous one minute and overjoyed the next followed by a tidal wave of nostalgia which was punctuated with a burst of rage – I was simply an emotional and highly sensitive person trying to cram myself into a box. She was out of that box, she was way out of that box, and it took some serious time and work to realize it. And throughout this entire discovery process, I was plunged into serious relationship anxiety unlike anything I had ever experienced before in my entire life. My thoughts were screaming at me. I could not sleep through the night. The first hours of my days felt like what I could only describe as doom. My mind was dissociating into a dream-like, two-dimensional world half the time – a literal animalistic psychological freeze state! It was freaky stuff. It was frankly terrifying.
My friends and family have celebrated my “choice to do the work” but I must say, this was no choice. It was thrust upon me. I moved into an apartment by myself (I had never lived alone before) and over the next several months of ongoing suffering I came to stop drinking alcohol, I unplugged the TV and left the phone by the door. I ate all of my meals by the big beautiful window in my bedroom that looked out over the backyard behind by New York City apartment. I committed myself to meditation every single day. I bought, read and re-read a small collection of self-help books. I went for a walk through Central Park and silently sat at the same bench daily. I got a personal trainer three days a week before work in the morning. I joined all of Sheryl’s courses that I could and showed up for all the calls. I journaled. I did weekly therapy and joined a men’s group. I sat in silence in my home and on the train to/from work and just watched and listened. I cried some of the first tears of my life in this past year. I was called to question everything I had known about myself and about the world.
The number one component of my healing journey was working with the thoughts in my head. For as long as I can remember, my brain (along with my emotions) has felt like an egg in a frying pan. It jerks and jumps and spasms and sprints through every single possible outcome and fantasy and disaster scenario before I even know what hits me. If I were to try to chase the thoughts, any thought, it would be like chasing the wind. The daily anguish and suffering was
fueled by my endless obsession with trying to figure out a solution in my mind. It simply is impossible. I cannot recommend Michael Singer’s The Unthethered Soul enough, I have read it over five times in the past year and continue to re-visit it often.
I committed to unearthing and connecting to a sense of healthy masculinity. Like Sheryl says often, this lays outside of our concept of physical gender but in the realm of spirit that we all hold as human beings. Healthy masculinity encompasses honor, commitment, sacrifice, service, honesty and courage. I found these qualities easiest to connect to in my physical body, in my shoulders and at the back of my neck where my spine ends. When I brought awareness and healthy tension to these areas, these physical anchors became my path to stepping back from the tornado of thoughts and feelings and into relaxation.
The first winds of change carried off layers of my social anxiety and awkwardness. I found myself making conversation with strangers, making clients laugh at work and smiling at folks walking down the street. I asked for a big raise at work with my head held high and my shoulders arched back. My mornings were getting easier, slowly but surely. My mind began to slowly relax when the same thoughts were not met with fear. Fear literally stamps the thoughts into your brain on the physical level to come back to at a later time, obsessively and intrusively.
And I haven’t even mentioned my partner! Because it never really was even about her. She was and is a lens through which I saw the world differently when I let the love in. The thoughts are merely convulsions of your past self and messengers to tell you to keep digging!