Take Care of Your Anxiety Like a Scared Child

I’m reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s brilliant little book called Anger. With his signature simple and poetic style, Hahn elucidates the Buddhist views on managing and healing anger. If you’re like most of my clients and people who follow this blog and struggle more with anxiety than anger, simply replace the word “anger” with “anxiety” and you’ll have a prescription for handling your difficult emotions.

For example, in one section called “Caring for Your Baby, Anger” Hanh writes:

“Embrace your anger with a lot of tenderness. Your anger is not your enemy; your anger is your baby.

“You have to be like a mother listening for the cries of her baby. If a mother is working in the kitchen and hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she is doing and goes to comfort her baby. She may be making a very good soup; the soup is important, but it’s much less important than the suffering of her baby. Her appearance in the room is like sunshine because the mother is full of warmth, concern, and tenderness. The first thing she does is pick up the baby and embrace him tenderly. When the mother embraces her baby, her energy penetrates him and soothes him. This is exactly what you have to do when anger begins to surface. You have to abandon everything that you are doing, because your most important task is to go back to yourself and take care of your baby, your anger. Nothing is more urgent than taking good care of your baby.”

The first step in managing difficult emotions is to find the willingness to take move toward your painful feelings .You recognize that no one can save you, rescue you, or fix you; as an adult, you and you alone must find the willingness to care for and attend to your emotional life. You must recognize that it’s only through embracing and exploring the entire range of human emotions that you find the serenity and freedom that you seek.

In the above quote, Hanh is saying that we need to attend to our anger – or anxiety – the way we would attend to a baby crying in the next room. This is an interesting point because many of you were left to cry alone as babies and, later, as young children. Your emotional blueprint says, “I don’t need to attend to my difficult feelings because no one attended to me when I was a baby. It’s not safe to have needs. No one will come anyway. It’s not that important.” Our culture’s dominant parenting philosophy still supports the idea that babies and kids need to be left alone to “cry it out.” Whether we’re discussing sleep or discipline, we still maintain the (in my opinion) damaging belief that if we embrace a crying child we’re teaching that child that crying will “get them what they want.” This belief assumes that babies are trying to manipulate adults into caring for their needs.

Now I understand the difference between not giving in to a toddler who’s crying because he wants another scoop of ice cream, but I still don’t support the notion that a parent should ignore the child or send them to their room for a time out. From my perspective (and I know I’m in the cultural minority here), this communicates to the child that they’re bad or wrong for having a desire and that if they cry they will be punished in some way and banished to solitary confinement. It sends them the message that their form of communication is manipulative and not to be taken seriously. They absorb the belief that says, “My feelings don’t matter.”

So what happens as adults when we’re faced with an anxiety-provoking situation? Most people, following their own historic parenting, banish their scared inner self to solitary confinement with a good dose of shame and judgement to accompany them out the door. They’ve simply never learned to do otherwise. They don’t know how important it is to take responsibility for their anger or anxiety as they would take care of a child. They don’t prioritize their emotional experience and recognize that there’s essential information locked inside the feelings, if only they take the time to sit with themselves with compassionate curiosity.

I’ve come to understand that a large portion of anxiety is a sacred inner-self left out to dry with no wise adult-self present. It’s the young, scared, emotional, uncertain part of you that doesn’t know how to manage life and doesn’t have anyone to put a loving arm around your shoulder and say, “I’m here. I’ve got you. It’s normal to feel scared when you’re about to do something brand new. Oh, you think you can’t do it? You think you don’t deserve this new job (or marriage or baby)? Of course you deserve it! You’re a shining, loving, smart, delightful person and I won’t ever let you forget that!”

Anxiety is the inner self screaming out for attention, guidance, reassurance, and nurturing from your own stable and wise self. It’s a terrified child left alone with her scary thoughts or, even more harmful, she has a scary thought and the adult says, “Yes, you’re right to have that fear. That’s what’s going to happen.” Imagine if you had a child who was experiencing bedtime fears. She says to you, “I’m scared a T-Rex is going to eat me”  and you said, “Yes, you’re right, a T-Rex is going to eat you. It’s coming through the door right now.” Not only would your little girl feel terrified, you would also be lying to her. This is what you do to yourself when you let your anxious thoughts run away with you.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s because you’ve let your inner self drown in the currents of a river without a lifeline. You tell your inner self a lie and do nothing to replace it with the truth. You watch as she drowns in her anxiety without realizing that you are, in fact, causing it. A loving inner parent would say, “Of course a T-Rex isn’t going to eat you. Come here, sweetie. I’ll hold you until your fear goes away,” but instead you corroborate with the fear and the two of your drown together in the river. This is anxiety.

Since many of you here are struggling with relationship anxiety, I’ll give you a concrete example from this area:

You feel anxious. You make up in the morning with a knot in your stomach. You didn’t sleep well the night before and you haven’t been able to eat much lately. Anxiety is consuming your daily and nightly existence. You’re miserable, and because the anxiety has come on the heels of moving closer to committing to your partner, you form the thought, “I’m anxious because I’m with the wrong person.” The anxiety intensifies because you’re telling yourself a lie. (I’m assuming that you’re with a loving, kind, open partner who fulfills most of your non-negotiable relationship needs.) You’ve misinterpreted your anxiety and are now convinced that if you left the relationship, your anxiety would disappear.

But if you sat down with yourself and embraced your anxiety like the scared child that it is, you would ask, “What’s underneath this anxiety? Let me hold myself with compassion and curiosity and explore what’s underneath this fear. Am I scared of growing too close to someone? Why does that scare me? Am I scared of feeling engulfed by my partner, or feeling responsibility for his or her feelings? Am I scared of being abandoned, of losing my partner in some way? Am I grieving an old relationship or a fantasy of “perfect love”?” Once you can contact the underlying fear and sadness, the anxiety will start to dissipate. You can then explore the false beliefs that are informing many of the fears and sit with the grief that’s inherent to any life transition. Then the real work begins.

It’s not easy work. As anyone experiencing anxiety well knows, it’s terrifying, exhausting, and will shake you to your core. You will wish with every prayer that something or someone would reach down a hand and save you from you misery. And then one day, after falling to your knees in despair, you realize that the hand you’re wishing for is attached to your own body, that you, in fact, can lay your own loving hands around your own heart and take the necessary steps that will break open the encasement of anxiety to reveal the scared, sad, alone child that lives inside. You learn to hold the child the way no one ever held you. You make room for the difficult feelings. You embrace your sadness, your fear, your vulnerability, your helplessness, your loneliness. You explore the false beliefs that are creating your anxiety. You learn that you can handle what you thought was unmanageable. You learn to rely on a source of spiritual guidance. You learn that your negative feelings have nothing to do with your partner, your job, your city, or your family. Finally, you’re free.

17 comments to Take Care of Your Anxiety Like a Scared Child

  • ScottishBride

    What a fantastic post. Most of us are so ashamed of having doubts, fears or anxieties that we try and push them down, or punish ourselves for our feelings, instead of embracing them and working through them. Acknolwedging my anxiety and attending to it through a mixture of the e-course and journaling has resulted in me finally being able to break the cycle and work through my engagement anxiety. I would encourage all others with anxiety about their relationship to do the same.

  • brooklynbride

    oh how i love this post! There is so much comfort from sitting with your Inner Child… As a child I never was sent to the time out chair, too “senstive” and “good” for that… but my sister was. And it was heartbreaking for me to watch her cry. Sometimes I would go in there and just sit with her because I knew she needed to be comforted… and as I think of this memory I cry. For both of us. And for the relief knowing that I can be a good inner parent to myself as an adult… and share this wisdom with my sister today.

    • Thank you, both. And you’re both a big inspiration for others to make the leap into committing to the process of attending to their feelings. BrooklynBride, your story brought tears to my eyes, too. It’s heartbreaking to think about kids sitting alone with their grief, heartbreak, and shame.

  • Sheryl, great post and great timing for the holidays! One of the most difficult things for me was to learn how to self soothe, but what a huge difference it makes! Thanks again

  • StephyN

    Sheryl, I love this post. I was one of those kids that was left to cry herself to sleep because that was the only way I’d learn to sleep without a parent in my room. I was that girl that was forced to go to sleep away camp for 8 weeks against my will because all the other girls my age were going and I needed to learn how to “act my age.” I know my parents always thought they were doing the best for their children, but I’ve learned to feel numb since my feelings as a child were ignored (to make me stronger, or so they thought). Thank you for your very well written post.

    • When you’re turning inward, start to move toward the feeling of numbness. You shut down at an early age because it was too painful to feel your feelings and it was the only way you could cope, but once you start to approach your numb self with compassion, the pain will break through. And yes, our dominant parenting model encourages parents to push their kids past their comfort zone so that they find their strength. This may work for some kids, but for the more sensitive among us, it creates the opposite result. Have you read the Highly Sensitive Child? It sounds like you were and are a highly sensitive person and reading the book would help you develop compassion for yourself, which would help break through the numbness.

  • Valentina

    Sheryl, such a great post, such great truth. And just a perfect reminder for my day, thank you for sharing your wisdom and your spiritual guidance with us. It is so easy to forget and to abandon ourselves. As Ghandi says, we cannot hurt anyone without hurting ourselves.

  • StephanieG

    This was a great read for me today. I have felt like I am drowning the past few days and found myself wanting to cry and just thinking “I want my mom”. Instead, I guess it is actually myself saying that I need my Inner Loving Adult. I am scared and drowning in the river. I need myself to step up and throw out that life line. My own mother can’t help me right now. In fact, no one can except myself.

  • cwb

    I cannot tell you how comforting your site is. I was having some trouble tonight – feeling odd and nervous and scared and I knew that if I came to your site, I would be able to read posts about what I was feeling. I found so much comfort here. I often re-read your posts too!

    Thank you for doing this, and for sharing your wisdom with us.

  • CWB: I’m so glad you found your way here, and thank you for taking the time to share your appreciation. It’s one of my deepest joys to write these articles and share the insights I’ve received over the years.

  • katy

    Hi sheryl I write again, I am in a tangle and back at your site after thinkin I’d kinda got it together doing my inner work and feeling able to work through my stuff however I have stumbled again and am findin it hard to pick myself up. Briefly my fiance left to work away due to financila problems and to enable us to still have our wedding next year he had been gone six weeks and although gutted about him going I have been saving every penny excitedly and I was havin the opporyunity to visit him and this was my commitment to it. I got there last sunday and as soon as I saw him I went straight into projection,’what if I don’t love him’ what if he’s not good looking enuf? Do I fancy him ? Theses are things I had stopped doing and they were back smack me in the face ! I’ve tried to ask myself what fear I am tryig to hide from in doin this and have come up with being abandonned again ? I then spent two days ruminating these thoughts until I was taken ill and bed ridden for three days while there , my mood plummetted and I felt no connection to him at all . All I have done is cry I have tears after tears I am home now alone and need to get myself back to my positive self wanting to marry my fantastic commited man ? Where to start ? Please advise ? Katy

  • Christina

    Oh my goodness, that hit it on the nose for me. Thank you so much for what you do. I have always heard the phrase, “Love/ Embrace your inner child,” but this explains it in a way I was never conscious of.

  • Dee

    Thank you I’m here crying for the little girl within who learned that adults couldn’t be trusted and that everyone leaves. Today I was trying to find out why I wasn’t living only surviving and it hit me that my inner child won’t let me live because she is terrified of the world and the people in it she only feels safe around little children. She doesn’t trust me (I’m an adult now)and she doesn’t believe in best friends (hers abandoned her when she was 12, so now she doesn’t let anyone get too close the moment she feels herself getting close and believing they are going to stick around she gets anxious because to her that means they are going to leave soon)so I have cried and apologised to her for abandoning her, She’s still mad at me but at least now there is communication happening I came on to look for inner child healing and found this and it resonated so much I cried again while saying saying yes to what I was reading. Thank you so much for this post.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    What I’m struggling with is my bad moods. You mentioned that things will get better until we find the underlying cause.
    wounded inner child. Which I know I have.. But how do I find the underlying cause.. These feelings are so overwhelming.

  • Stephanie

    This so perfectly captures my childhood experience–I always joke that I was raised in the “Suck-It-Up School” and am a master of negating my own feelings. For so long, I didn’t really have or experience a full range of emotions because it was easier to tamp down the sadness, anger and hurt in favor of numbness. Once I acknowledged the damage being sexually abused had caused, I was finally able to open myself up and begin feeling a broader range of emotions. This has been both a tremendous blessing and a curse at times…

    For me, being in love feels a little like having a raw nerve exposed: I feel tremendously happy, but love also opens the door for the other emotions I had been suppressing, particularly a deep sadness that sometimes feels like a bottomless well. If I start crying (which happens more often now that my heart is open through a loving, safe relationship), I generally try to shut it down immediately, otherwise I fear I will never stop. Obviously this is not true, but that’s a key difference between what the adult self knows and what the child self understands. I also fear that my partner will grow weary of my emotions and decide I’m too much trouble/too dramatic and that he will leave. That’s the dichotomy: everything my boyfriend says and does demonstrates committment, love and acceptance, but in some ways those are the the hardest things to accept since I’ve never felt worthy.

    Thanks to your work with relationship anxiety, I’m going to try and be mindful of holding my inner child close and giving her the love and comfort I rarely felt growing up. Thank you for reminding me of this critical step in my personal growth–let the tears fall when needed and the healing continue…

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