One of the Greatest Invitations of Relationship Anxiety

by | Mar 17, 2024 | Break Free From Relationship Anxiety, Relationships | 12 comments

After twenty-five years of working with the theme of relationship anxiety, it’s still the most common way that people find their way to my work. Luckily, I’m still endlessly fascinated by the underlying drivers of this particular anxiety theme, as well as ways to work with it to help people find their clarity and their freedom. I’m also endlessly grateful to receive daily communications from people who have been able to find their way to the other side of fear into the arms of love.

It’s that last sentence that carries one of the most powerful keys to engaging with this – and every other – anxiety theme: fear and love are not opposites but are intimately connected to one another, and, in fact, it’s through the potent energy of fear that we find our way to love.

What does it mean to walk the doorway of fear and find love on the other side?

It means that fear is not our enemy but is an ally in disguise.

The Wisdom of of Relationship Anxiety

With relationship anxiety, fear arrives in the form of doubt, irritation, rumination, and compulsions. It often arrives with the thought, “Do I really love them [enough]?” or as a somatic response of clenched stomach, tight throat, insomnia. Whether it starts or continues to manifest as thoughts or somatics is irrelevant; what matters is how we view and work with the fear.

The typical response is to (mis)assign meaning to the fear-based thoughts and feelings. We hear “Am I really in love?” and we immediately assume that we’re in the wrong relationship, despite a wise part of us who trusts that we’re with a loving, well-matched partner with whom we can grow and learn about love. We feel the clenched stomach and we recognize it as a sign of danger (truth), then (mis)assign the source of danger to our partner.

Why is it dangerous to be in a committed, romantic relationship? Because we know the we can – and will – get hurt. (I’ll be writing more about this next week, but if you’d like to learn more make sure you listen or re-listen to our Gathering Gold episode on Trauma Collisions.) Will this hurt result in loss of life? No! But our amygdala doesn’t know that. This reptilian part of our brain is designed to keep us safe, and when it registers threat it can’t differentiate between physical and emotional danger. It only knows that we need to run.

The task, however, is to stay and learn how to widen our capacity to love and be loved, which means widening our capacity to feel pain and move toward fear. This is one of the greatest invitations of relationship anxiety: to learn how to work with the fear/love revolving doorway.

Resisting Pain

This is no easy task, as we are hardwired to resist pain. It rises up in us and we want to push it down, run from it, do anything we can to get away from it. There is an ancient belief inside of us that says, “It’s too much. I can’t handle it. It will overpower me.”

I believe that this hardwired response is both biological – every sentient being recoils from pain – and cultural –  most of us were raised with familial and societal message to “get over it” whenever any difficult emotion arose.

I also believe that part of our task at this stage of our evolution is to learn how to soften into pain. We are being asked to grow our collective emotional intelligence by widening the capacity of the heart to feel grief, fear, and uncertainty, and one of the most powerful ways to do this is through the portal of relationship anxiety.

In order to do this, we must know that this is our task, otherwise we mistakenly interpret that fear-based thoughts and feelings as evidence that we’re with the wrong person. How else could be interpret them when we’re never learned another way?

Another Way

Imagine what it would be like to feel or hear the fear and instead of jumping on the first train of interpretation to instead pause and learn how to be with the fear instead?

And what if every time you did that, you harnessed the power of fear’s fire and realized, over time, that it was enlarging your capacity to love?

We think that doubt and love have nothing to do with each other. But everything changes when we learn instead to scoop the doubt into the great cauldron of our inner world and allow it to do its work: the warrior work of alchemizing fear into love.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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12 Comments

    • Thank you, Joshua. The poem is very beautiful. The last line gave me chills.

      Reply
      • Thanks so much, your feedback means the world. Thanks again for your great blog post

        Reply
    • Thank you for another great article Sheryl! The part that jumped out at me was:

      …’despite a wise part of us who trusts that we’re with a loving, well-matched partner with whom we can grow and learn about love’

      For me, I realised my anxiety was actually pointing to the opposite of that – that my partner was not behaving in ways that were loving, nor were we well matched. It’s taken time in therapy to see that his behaviour was borderline abusive, yet due to my own past patterns, I really struggled to see this and kept trying to earn his love and kept blaming myself for being anxious and overthinking. Instead I told myself I just needed to push past the fear and kept suppressing my anxiety, which only caused it to spiral and left me unable to detect what in hindsight was a very toxic dynamic.

      I’ve learned since to ‘make friends’ with my anxiety and truly listen to what it’s trying to tell me, rather than suppress it or discredit myself. In this case, its helped me to walk away from that relationship which really was NOT serving me well. It’s left me very bruised and scared to try again, but I’m learning to be open to other relationships, this time honouring my anxiety. I don’t want to miss out on something potentially great because my past experience taught me that anxiety = bad (which simetimes WAS the case!) Instead, I’m learning to be curious rather than knee jerking, and sit with the fear to see where it truly leads. To see whether the fear is triggered by my internal patterns and trauma, or a genuine concern around my partner and the healthiness of the relationship.

      My therapist has a great analogy that fear and anxiety is like a smoke alarm – sometimes it can be hypersensitive where there’s no fire, only things we need to pay attention to, or adjust the internal ‘settings’. Other times we ignore the alarm, or assume its just ‘playing up’, when there IS a real fire and it’s actually trying to save our life.

      Thank you again for all the work you do to support this!

      Reply
      • Your therapist sounds very wise, and I’m so glad you’ve found your clarity and self-trust so that you could discern anxiety’s message of true red flag.

        Reply
  1. This feels expanding and beautiful to receive into my body and heart, thank you, Sheryl! And it feels so true, and healing and warming, to receive the invitation to be with the pain and soften to it. And that this opens our capacity for love and is part of our task in societal evolution now. ❤️

    Reply
  2. Thank you yet again for this beautiful wisdom, Sheryl.

    I love the reminder to reframe fear as the underside of love and truth. It feels resonant for many types of anxiety. In the moment, it can be so difficult to face fear as anything other than what it presents, so I love your analogy of the train. Mindfully watching a few pass before getting caught up in a literal interpretation of the fear.

    Reminds me of related wisdom you’ve written about to appreciate sensitivity as a gift. That our fear can be overwhelming, but also a channel to a deepened attunement for appreciating love and seeing truth with more clarity and pause once we can walk through that door. Thank you,

    Reply
    • Yes to every word, Tali. I am endlessly fascinated by the connections between what we typically view as opposites, like fear and love. It’s a way that we can view all parts of ourselves and all emotions as allies in disguise.

      Reply
  3. Thank you again and again for your wise words and insights, Sheryl! I appreciate them a lot – especially since I am just on the onset of a new spark and connection. It is interesting as the person I fall for is a beautiful, amazing woman, for the first time in my life (“fun” fact: this used to be one of my earlier “What if?” scenarios in a relationship with a man which send me spiraling.) Now it is just beautiful, very open, very funny, transparent and respectful, all I ever asked for in another person. And still: after the first very exciting weeks my anxiety’s starting to raise up some fears. I look forward to taking time to unpack my underlying fears of vulnerability, living in my authenticity in my early 30s and the courage it takes to fall in love and love deeply.

    Reply
    • Onward to unpacking and growing! ❤️❤️❤️

      Reply
      • Thank you! ❤️

        Reply

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