A subset topic of the million-dollar question – is my anxiety/doubt evidence that my truth is that I’m with the wrong partner or does it mean something else? – is the issue of intuition versus anxiety. In other words, embedded inside every question of the mind suffering from relationship anxiety is, “Isn’t this anxiety really my intuition telling me to leave?”
That’s certainly what the culture says. That’s what most of your well-meaning friends and relatives will say. That’s even what many therapists will say. The mainstream message about anxiety in a relationship clearly reads, “Doubt means don’t.”
But that’s not what people say who are well-versed in the language of fear, those who know how it can sneakily show up in relationships through the back door and masquerade as doubt, anxiety, and numbness. That’s not what people say when they’ve traveled the dusty back roads of relationships, the ones behind the shiny Hollywood sets, the ones where people tell the truth about what they really feel when they’re asked to stand vulnerable in front of an available, loving other.
Here they tell a different story. They tell the story of doubt that appeared from the first date. They talk about struggling with sexual attraction or physical attraction. They share, often in whispers, the barrage of intrusive thoughts that hammer into psyche waking and sleeping, everything from “What if I’m gay?” to “What if I’m a pedophile?” When anxiety hits full-steam, it constellates an inner torture chamber where the only escape seems to be to leave.
Escape hatch screams “leave!” but the thing is: you don’t want to leave! You have two choices at this point: To give into the fear and remain in inner paralysis or to actively and consciously move past the messages that say “doubt means don’t” and “anxiety is your instinct telling you to leave” and instead learn to discern between normal fear about being in an intimate relationship with an available partner (which, truthfully, terrifies most people to their core) and true red flags. It’s a tricky dance, without a doubt, but one worth sitting with and wrestling with until the deeper truths emerge, clear and radiant and guiding the way.
A course member recently emailed me to share her experience of engaging in direct action with her fear, specifically around the intuition versus anxiety question, until she wrestled it to the mat and emerged victorious. Here’s her email, shared with grateful permission, as I know that stories like this can help like nothing else when you’re trapped in the tarpit of anxiety. Keep in mind that, while this member’s anxiety hit during her engagement, relationship anxiety can appear at any time: from the first date to ten years into a marriage. It knows no boundaries around geography, age, sexual orientation, religion or length of time together; it hits when it hits and it always, always carries within it the invitation for healing, growth, and a true education about what it means to love and be loved.
I hope this finds you well. I’m happy to report I haven’t been in touch with you or with the message boards over the past three years. Instead, I’ve been enjoying married life. I wanted to send this email to thank you and to encourage anyone struggling the way I did if you think it might help them.
When I was first engaged nearly 5 years ago, I was elated. A few months later, for no reason I could name, I had intense stomach roiling worry about my future. What I now understand was anxiety was screaming at me: RUN. LEAVE. BAD. YOU CAN’T DO THIS. At the time, I mistook this anxiety for intuition. That was the biggest trouble.
Because you see I didn’t actually want to leave my husband. I wanted relief. From my worry, and my racing thoughts telling me horrible things, from the questions: did we really love each other? How could I be sure we’d make it? From the intense fear and the belief that I simply could not do it. Except, the thought of leaving didn’t grant me any relief; it was the opposite. It made me so much worse. I was consumed by anxiety. I missed work. I could neither eat nor sleep nor socialize. I shook. I was an absolute mess, stuck in an endless cycle of false thoughts and false conclusions and powerlessness. Then I found your website and other women and men going through what I was going through.
I cannot tell you the relief I felt to find that, at least, I wasn’t alone. When everything else says “if you Doubt it don’t do it,” or “if you’re freaking out, you have to end it” I can’t tell you how helpful it was to hear that I didn’t have to do anything. And it was like a shining light to consider the ways in which society allows for complex feelings during every other life change — moving, new job, new baby – but for some reason you’re not “supposed” to be anxious as a bride. Pardon me, but that’s bulls**t.
I’m so grateful for the tools I found on your site and for the stories of women who had come out the other side, and so I wanted write one in thanks.
I fought for probably a year and some to gain control of what was happening to me, to recognize my own false thinking, to confront the deep fears I had about the pain I might inflict or receive, to learn to acknowledge my anxiety and not attach any meaning to a destructive false thought, and ultimately to live in the present. I spent a year of my life in and endless “what if” cycle and I cannot tell you how good it feels to have broken through.
Finally, I understand that my intuition is gently affirmative and easily ignored, whereas my anxiety is a screaming feral animal and I cannot ignore even if I try, so best not to.
Looking back on it now, almost-stupidly-happily married for three years, it feels as though the person who went through that incapacitating anxiety isn’t even me anymore. I remember it all as I remember dreams. And whatever happens in the future – even if it’s bad – it will not undo me.
It’s my hope that other women going through it understand that they’re not alone, and they’re not messed up, and their fears are not rational and it really gets better on the other side. By the time I’d been married about six months, I was relaxed and happy and loving life and my kick-ass husband and even on the tough days I remain steady. I am so grateful I worked hard and hung on. It was all worth it and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
I then wrote to Victoria and asked if she could elaborate on the line about anxiety versus intuition. Could she share with my readers how she came to that clarity, and what work she did from the e-course and anywhere else that was helpful for her?
As far as my arriving at a sense of clarity regarding what was intuition and what was anxiety, it took years and patience and a lot of stepping back in the moment and examining the way I was thinking. I’d ask myself, “Okay, is this a momentary or an ongoing thing?” and “What, if anything, occurred to make think this?” and “Does this thought begin with ‘what if’?” For example, I hate flying. I didn’t do it for the longest time because I always think the plane will crash. I know now it’s anxiety and not intuition because it’s repeating. It always happens and nothing ever occurs specifically to make me afraid. And I know, for example, any time I have a thought that begins with “what if” or I start feeling like something is already happening when it hasn’t yet, it’s anxiety because I’m focusing on what might happen and intuition lives in what is happening.
I also know that if I’m turning a single moment into “this means something!” it’s anxiety. For so long, in the throes of fear, I would have a thought in one instant and be convinced I had to act on it. For example, I remember one time my now husband came home early and I thought, “Oh, I don’t feel excited at all” and it morphed into the idea I hadn’t loved him enough ever and wouldn’t in the future, as opposed to what it really was: I was enjoying a rare moment of my much beloved solitude and I was interrupted.
Also, I’ve determined that my intuition comes with far fewer physical symptoms. If I have a “bad feeling” about something and it’s intuition I might feel a whisper of a traditional gut feeling and that’s about it.
When I have “bad feeling” and it’s anxiety, I have serious physical symptoms: heart pounding, sweating, stomach aching, can’t eat, and if it goes into full on panic, I feel like I’m choking and I can’t swallow or breathe properly. It’s not dangerous, but it’s extremely uncomfortable and frightening. Intuition has never rendered me dysfunctional, anxiety has.
Lastly, both the e-course and therapy reminded me that I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do. And if it turned out I didn’t want to get married, it would have been difficult, but I would have survived and ultimately been fine. That might have been the hardest thing because you really do have to confront your worst fears about pain and loss, and it was real test, but I think it was the singularly most important step in feeling like myself again because on the other side I concluded that I did want this which made the rest easier.