The Critical Moment to Break Free From Anxiety

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  – Viktor E. Frankl

If we could slow life down to micro-moments, if we could literally alter time like a movie turning it into sloooooow moooooootiiiooon so that we could elongate the critical moment when our mind veers off like a runaway locomotive and instead redirect it to stay on the smooth track of clear thinking, everything would change. As challenging as it sounds, that’s exactly what we must do if we’re going to rewire the brain to respond to the stimulus that sends the anxious mind into overdrive.

Let’s break this down with a common example of how this shows up in relationship anxiety:

“I’ll receive a text with a loving gesture, maybe a flirty emoticon or something sexy, and I’ll feel my chest tighten.”

“How do you respond when that happens?”

“I usually freeze or recoil in some way, and then I tell myself that he’s not right for me.”

“Right. So you see it’s not the freezing or recoiling that’s the problem. It’s the story you tell yourself that determines what happens next and next and next. When you tell yourself the story that recoiling from his flirty gestures is evidence that he’s not right for you, you send yourself down the rabbit hole of anxiety. What would happen if, instead, you told yourself something like, ‘This is a fear response. When I close up or tighten like this I know I’m in fear. And when I get very honest with myself I know that I’m terrified of real closeness.'”

“I can try that,” my client says. “But then I can hear my mind say something like, ‘But what if it is my truth? What if that response if my body telling me I’m with the wrong guy?'”

“You need to put that thought on hold and see this new response as an experiment of assuming that your trigger response is coming from fear. What you’re doing isn’t working, so it’s time to try something else. And you can splash your inflamed doubting mind with a cooling truth like, ‘I’ve had a lifetime of anxiety. Why wouldn’t it show up in the riskiest endeavor of my life?'”

We pause here to remember that ego-fear – the part of us whose life depends on remaining in control and seeks to avoid risk at any cost –  will throw up every roadblock it can think of to try to get you to avoid taking the risk of loving. Your job is to name every obstacle as fear and not bite the hook.

When you don’t bite the book and instead name that voice as an intrusive thought, you’ve done the hardest part of this work. Now there’s a space inside. Now you have the power to choose what comes next instead of being a victim to your runaway thought trains that lead you into the same dark ditch every time. Now, with the headlight of curiosity strapped to the engine of your mind, you can own your fear and inquire about its roots. You can ask questions like, “What does this remind me of? When did I first start feeling it?” which may invite a storehouse of memories to percolate up to the conscious mind.

For this client, once we disentangled from the thought and slowed down enough to access another part of her being, a memory arose and she shared, “This tightening in my chest. It reminds me of the time I was at a friend’s house when I was 8 years old and I was horribly homesick. I felt like there was something literally sitting on my chest, and I would cry and cry of homesickness.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. There’s always a palpable shift in the session when the client drops down out of head space and moves into her body-and-heart memory. Oftentimes, words will cease altogether, and we’ll sit together in pregnant silence. Time slows down here; there’s no need to rush. There’s no need to figure it out or escape. We’ve landed in the timeless realm of the heart, where the feelings of an eigth-year old girl at a sleepover are as present now as they were then. We’ve walked through a portal together, and I’m transported into her world. Miraculously, the anxiety, at least for those moments, is gone.

Here’s an example from another client:

“At least a dozen times a day I have the thought, ‘I want a different life.’ By different I mean not with my husband but with some fantasy guy that will make me feel alive and worthy.”

“How do you respond to that thought?”

“I usually try to douse it with some truth-water and say something like, ‘Yes, that’s your old single self that needs to grieve. And it’s okay to feel jealous and want a different life.'”

“How’s that response working?”

“It’s not.”

At this point we pause and I remind my clients that she’s already grieved the single life plenty of times. If this was the first time I was speaking with her I would say, yes, do your grief work, write the letters to your single self and ritualize them in some way (burn, rip, dissolve), but this client has gone down that road a hundred times. Now it’s time to go deeper, which means she doesn’t need to meet the thought on the level of thoughts. As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” This means that, after we splash the thought with cooling cognitive truth, the problems of our thoughts taking over can’t be met with more thoughts. We must go deeper.

So with this client I guided her through the steps of breaking free from intrusive thoughts:

“The first step is to name that thought as intrusive. Once you name it, you’ve created a space between you and the thought. You need to say something like, ‘This is my escape hatch fantasy. It’s not my truth even though it feels like my truth in this moment. I am addicted to this escape fantasy because I don’t want to feel the messiness of being human.’ And remind yourself over and over again that we can’t escape the messiness of being human.”

“What am I trying to escape?” my clients asks.

“Your feelings. Not the feelings that are attached to your intrusive thought and which you project onto your husband but your core, fundamental feelings of being human: loneliness, boredom, emptiness.”

“So all of the mental torture is because I don’t want to let myself feel that one moment of boredom?” she asks with more than a little skepticism in her voice.

“Amazingly, yes. It’s harder than we think to let ourselves feel that moment of boredom or emptiness without wanting to escape. When we really let ourselves feel it, it’s a death moment. It doesn’t last, of course, and the more we practice breathing into our painful moments, the easier it becomes. But we really have to train ourselves to do that because it’s human habit and cultural conditioning to run from those moments. And there are a million ways to run these days. So the question really is, ‘Am I willing to experience the messiness of being human?'”

It’s not easy to name the thoughts or to feel the feelings. In fact, I would say, especially when we’re trapped on the hamster wheel of addictive/intrusive thoughts, it’s one of the hardest tasks we can face. Addictions of all kinds are difficult to break, and addictions of the mind are particularly challenging because, unlike drugs or alcohol, we can’t simply remove thoughts from the kitchen cabinet and begin the work from there (not that there’s anything easy about recovering from an alcohol or drug addiction). This is why I often refer to people who commit to this work as warriors. It’s a match between love and fear on the battleground of your mind and the field of your heart. It will require all of you, and more.

And it begins with that one critical, transformative moment, the space between the stimulus (your trigger/intrusive thought/anxious feeling) and your response, as it’s your response that makes all the difference. This is why some kind of practice that turns our attention inward and helps us slow down our thoughts – mindfulness, meditation, yoga, breathing, journaling – is so crucial, and why I teach those practices in nearly all of my courses. We can’t expect to change our mental habits unless we’re working daily with our minds in some way. We can’t change what we can’t see, and the only way to see how our minds work is to spend time in self-reflection. The answers aren’t in seeking reassurance from your mother. They’re not in Dr. Google. And they’re not in a Netflix binge. Changing our mental habits is a mental discipline that requires as much dedication and perseverance as changing our physical habits. In other words, just as we’re not going to develop strong muscles by sitting on the couch so we’re not going to discipline our minds by seeking outside reassurance or scrolling through screens. If you want to break free, you have to devote real time and energy to the practices that will facilitate your ability to first notice that essential space between stimulus and response, then act on your power to respond differently.

74 comments to The Critical Moment to Break Free From Relationship Anxiety

  • nikki

    Hi there Sheryl, This really resonates with me because I find that I do often shy away from the hard work if I don’t get immediate relief. For instance, I will start the course work and then always seem to stop it as I think it must be my fear trying to reject the work as I worry that if I get to the end of it, the anxiety will either remain or I’ll realise i’ll have to leave. I was wondering if you could give any insight as to why this line spiked me so badly.”You need to put that thought on hold and see this new response as an experiment of assuming that your trigger response is coming from fear.”…..Could it because I’m so scared that my truth is that my relationship won’t work

    • Brooke

      Hi Nikki – I had a similar reaction to that line in this blog! Also looking for insight 🙂

    • Your achilles heel is here: “I will start the course work and then always seem to stop it as I think it must be my fear trying to reject the work.” That’s not fear trying to reject the work; that’s resistance/ego trying to protect you from moving forward because it doesn’t want you to take responsibility and grow. As long as you’re hooked in by any of those thoughts, you’re going to remain stuck.

  • Anon

    Hi Sheryl,
    I have been having some worries about my current relationship. There is some distance involved and because we haven’t been able to see each other as much, we have been fighting a lot, sometimes unfairly (e.g saying things we don’t mean out of anger). I feel scared and worried because of this and I feel like the relationship is doomed because according to family members, “nobody goes through this.” I am going to see him later on this week and my worry is that things aren’t going to get better. I have been in a state of depression lately due to distance so I wonder if that is why I feel hopeless/feel like it is wrong? I am scared that the “lashing out/blaming each other” means it is doomed. We are slowly working on things, but I am still having worries. There aren’t any major problems or major red flags like physical abuse or addiction, and he is usually a nice person most times. Whenever I feel uncomfortable with something, we talk about it and compromise. We have both been hurt by other people in the past, is it possible we are projecting past hurts onto each other? And can a relationship “come back” after these types of fights? I try to think of the positives but I still feel hopeless.

    • nikki

      Hey there!! I know i’m not sheryl, but I can totally relate :). Distance can cause people to come up with ways we think our partners are being cruel or mean and we let ourselves run with these thoughts because we aren’t in the same place to really see the reality! My partner and I have been going through this as well and I can tell you it’s super common! Just next time you feel like the distance is causing issues, ask yourself are you in any way projecting stuff onto your partner? Hope this helps 🙂

      • Anon

        Thank you so much. We did have some issues before (space, rumors, etc.) and there is also a bit of a language barrier. It seems like whenever he tries to or does something nice I keep thinking about our terrible arguments and feel irritated/angry with him. I feel like we are both protecting ourselves from getting hurt and then hurting each other’s feelings. I want to stop this destructive pattern.

    • Kyle Beers

      Hey there Anon,
      I’m not Sheryl either, but I feel like maybe I can give you a little hope and comfort? My guy and I have been together for two years and for 12 months out of those 24 we were long distance. Like…the entire northern Atlantic between us long distance. And we had those fights too! I was in the thick of my relationship anxiety at that time and I can’t tell you how many phone calls there were with me crying, and not only did we come back, but we came back feeling stronger and closer! I think Nikki is absolutely right. It’s those projections stirring up your insecurities and worries and fears on both sides I think as well as you too learning how to communicate. If you guys are both putting in the effort and taking, I have faith you’ll grow and blossom and beat this! Hope this helped!

  • agnes

    Brilliant post, I love checking this blog on Sunday evenings to see a new post. That first example resonated with me…I’m thinking I might do some journaling about where I might have felt this feeling or gone into this thought pattern before (out of pure interest!). I know that twice now I’ve gone through rough times with POCD and it can’t be a coincidence that it’s come up strongest with available partners. For the second, maybe even third time, I feel like the bad guy in a relationship (not kind enough, empathic, emotional, supportive enough). As if one of you HAS to be the bad guy?!

    Thanks, Sheryl. xo

    • Anon

      I’m in the same boat as you, especially with feeling like the bad guy. It sounds like you are projecting your fears onto your partner. Next time you feel like that/project, focus on the positives about your partner and yourself. Sometimes the way we see others is how we see ourselves.

    • You’re not the bad guy; you’re the distancer, which is what happens when you find yourself with an available partner (he’s the pursuer). But the bigger point is that you’re going to journal from a place of curiosity; huge YES to that, agnes!

  • Bettina

    Oh Sheryl, again you write words that touch the deepest of my heart.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Crissy

    I love your posts they are so amazing and so informative that I look forward to your posts every Sunday. My biggest problem is I fear that if I work on myself to make myself look better or feel better, that my ego will also become greater and it may overshadow my feelings for my husband. That it will make me feel less love and desire for my husband. how can I control my ego so that it does not get in the way of me working on bettering myself? The connection between me working out and feeling good about myself is that I feel like he will desire me more and it will cause me to get anxious and curl. Any advice? Anyone else going through this?

    • It’s about your mindset: are you working on yourself to try to control someone or an outcome or are you working on yourself to grow and heal? Your mindset makes all the difference.

  • Alise

    Hi sheryl,
    Thanks for this post. I’m wondering whether it’s possible to experience these fear symptoms and relational anxiety without normally being a person who experiences a lot of anxiety? My partner’s family members have had (mostly unattended to) anxiety issues, but she hasn’t. Whenever we reach a new level of closeness or understanding together she’s often voiced worrying that she may not have the right feelings for a lifelong relationship. We both say that we’ve had a very meaningful, close, loving, red flag-free relationship. Recently this feeling (she doesn’t attach it to any particular negative experience or pattern between us, and shares deep anguish the few times recently that we’ve discussed separating) brought us to a place of taking a week of space to reflect separately, at which point she said that the feeling’s intensity had taken over her ability to enjoy our relationship, and she felt that we should break up. So this past week we’ve passed many long hours at her initiation with each of us sharing of all the things for which we’re deeply thankful for the other, and all the things we love about each other. We’ve spent so many hours this week laughing and crying together (though she is more distraught than I, because I don’t see her worry of this feeling as our needing to end things). After many evenings together of thanks, love, and tears, and some laughter about each of our shortcomings that are both frustrating and endearing, she still noted that the intensity of her “feeling” that we would break up someday caused her to request that we break up. So, we did, with me reiterating that although we need to go with how she’s feeling, I am still in this and don’t in any way feel we need to break up. How does one handle this? She read some of your articles, and felt that although they were similar to her current experience she has not had much anxiety in the past. She’s a very sensitive, intelligent person, and generally very level headed, but lately this idea of whether or not we will stay together (we’ve only been dating a year and some) has consumed her, and she’s been sobbing readily about the thought of parting ways.

    I feel deeply calm (perhaps numb?) despite having broken up. If someone expresses such deep affection and love for me so often, and appreciation for our relationship and how meaningful it has been, and we speak openly when we have differences, laugh sillily at each other’s shortcomings, and tearfully and joyfully reflect on each other’s futures and interests, coupled with many gripping and gut wrenching tears at the thought of parting, that this is surely a fear and not intuition. But I can’t say this right now. I can only focus on letting the time pass as we separately continue with our lives. I hope that someday she’ll be able to look at the heap of deeply meaningful things we’ve shared, that this breakup has been expressed as being based on a worried feeling, so that we can continue approaching life together.

    Ive experienced my own relationship anxieties, which brought me initially to your blog. They’ve taken a turn as I’ve been working really hard. Why is love so meaningful and complex?

    • Love is, indeed, profoundly meaningful and complex, and we live in a culture that teaches exactly what love ISN’T supposed to be, which makes it even more confusing. It sounds like your partner (ex) was/is suffering from classic relationship anxiety, and it can certainly hit without a history of anxiety. I, too, hope that she sees that she has allowed her fear to dictate her choice, and that, sadly, she’s allowing herself to walk away from a loving, meaningful, well-matched partner.

      • Alise

        Thanks, Sheryl. This week I’ve felt really calm about it. I can only be with someone who is willing to continue choosing me, and working with me on our feelings of uncertainty. I think you call this a “growth mindset,” which together we’ve shared, though if one of us now has chosen to break up it can no longer be this, at least for as long as she continues choosing not to be together.

        The past few days worries that initially brought me to your site have intermittently returned. Can I trust my own perception of how things are/were? Are/were some of the concerns I had actually indeed red-flags, and not merely an overactive mind reacting to worries and past emotional experiences? Is it okay to still feel confident about what we shared, if now she has chosen to separate? Am I “allowed” to feel that it was the right thing? I believe that we had a deep connection, which was reaffirmed by her words during our final conversations about how deeply she loves and cares for and will miss me, and how she had no explanation except for a havoc-wreaking feeling within her.

        Do you have any suggestions for how to navigate this?

        • Ann

          Sheryl, is there anything that *can* be done in such scenarios? If one person genuinely feels that what was shared was good, and worth keeping, and another person chooses – out of a feeling or a worry, or whatever constellation of feelings- to separate? Do you have any suggestions? Space and reflection? Writing a letter? Creating a list of reasons for and against continuing to hope?

          • You can send them to my site, then all you can do is your own work around letting go.

          • Alise

            Hmm, I appreciate that you respond to endless quandaries in these threads (such a beautiful, draining endeavor on your part!), and understand that that’s what you’re supposed to say (to direct someone to your website). In this case however I feel that the advice was not carefully reflected or meditative, that there is a more nuanced and case-specific suggestion than what has been briefly indicated. How about “reflect on this with a therapist or close friend who knows you both well,” “carefully reflect on where you are in this moment, give yourself and each other time and space, … perhaps consider writing a letter in the future that shares where you are” or: “without knowing the story fully, I’m unsure that I could adequately offer advice.” This is about two someones’ intricate lives and well-being, a partnerships that has been going well, and two people who are hurting and confused! There are patterns to many scenarios, but surely there is a more considered, less pat response then to direct someone to your website, and move on.

          • Point taken, Alise. You’ve made some very thoughtful suggestions and hopefully Ann will benefit from them.

  • Amanda

    Hi Sheryl,

    A beautiful Post as always! thank you.
    I have signed up for the break free from anxiety course YAY! i have only watched the introduction video which made me feel better just by listening to it ( i just purchased it yesterday ) i was wondering if you could help me understand how sometimes il wake up in the morning and just feel anxious, a ball in my tummy of anxiety, then the thoughts will follow. is this normal?

    Also i have fears about starting a new job and potential meeting someone else through work and just so afraid and scared to change. what do i do about this?

    Anyone’s feedback would be great.

  • Anne Marie

    I agree. The space between the stimulus and the response is definitely critical. About a week ago, my mom said something to me that triggered one of my intrusive thoughts. Instead of meeting the feeling with compassion and trying to understand it, I met it with irritation. I felt a whirlwind of panic coming upon me, and I was irritated at my mom and myself. For months, I was doing so well with anxiety surrounding my relationship (though I felt anxiety in different areas), and my mom’s comment thrust me back into my worry zone.

    I’ve noticed that when I stop perseverating on the thought, and drop into the feeling, I am face-to-face with a deep fear of loss and an uncertain future. I have had relationship anxiety with my boyfriend (all of my boyfriends, actually) from the get-go, though it has changed (afraid of being attracted to someone else, of being trapped in a relationship, etc). In the past 8 months or so, my boyfriend and I have talked about marriage, and I have a feeling that he will propose soon. When I’m not in a fearful state, the thought of being married to him excites me and warms my heart. In my moments of clarity, I feel tremendous peace. When I stop to think about it for too long, however, I start to panic. I don’t know if anything has ever scared me more, the deep love that I am involved in, and I have had many anxious episodes in my 23 years.

    In your article, when you mentioned the initial feeling of anxiety, I can remember it. From a young age, I would often worry about not being able to fall asleep, and I have periodic insomnia to this day – but the initial full-blown anxiety began when my “good” friend at the time accused me daily of being a lesbian. I was 13. About a year later, I didn’t understand why I was so afraid of sitting next to a lesbian girl in my class – why I was terrified that she would make me become lesbian, that she might reveal my “true feelings”, which could be homosexual. This was the time when I began to compulsively “check” my feelings when I was with men and women, trying to make sense of who I was attracted to most. It wasn’t until I read my journals of the previous year that I realized where my fears were born.

    Reflecting back makes me realize that if we aren’t careful, we can take our fearful thoughts and feelings for the truth. They can be very tricky and convincing, and completely grip the psyche. It can be very difficult to master, and I’ve had several intrusive thoughts that have lasted for years.

    I have grappled with fear for about 10 years, in various forms. It’s not exclusive to my relationship, though my relationship anxiety disturbs me more deeply than other anxieties. I long to heal this part of myself, but it feels like it will always be lurking there in the shadows. My anxiety is never absent, but it is more manageable some times than others.

    • You’ve learned a lot in your 23 years, and the learning will only continue. This isn’t easy work and it’s not information that we’re taught in our early lives (what a difference it would make to learn that just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true!), so the re-wiring can take time. Keep going!

  • -C

    Dear Sheryl, great timing as usual. How do we know when we have already grieved enough and its other deeper feelings we might be avoiding? I still feel the sadness from my breakup and I’m not sure if one year later this is still grieving or it’s something deeper that I’m not correctly identifying…or maybe both.

    • Jaybee

      i relate to this. and its been 7 years since the breakup, AND im married to someone else now. personally for me i know it was grief that i never allowed myself to fully feel. but just this weekend i ran into his mother and we talked and that helped with the healing/grieving process immensely as I never had closure with the family. our circumstance was odd as we didnt breakup because we didnt get along, he had a brain injury and became someone else. so this helped more with processing the “death” of him. stay curious about the grief and i hope you find healing peace soon xo

    • It’s probably both, C. Grief about a loss is different than grief around a shift in identity, which is the example I share in this article. With loss, grief happens in layers and layers, and there’s really no timetable around it. Also, since I’ve worked with this client for many years, I know that for her, the “I’m grieving the end of my singlehood” story is really just a story at this point, by which I mean it’s a way to distract her from doing the deeper work of taking responsibility for her aliveness.

  • Alison Kolinski

    Hi Sheryl,

    I have been working through your conscious wedding e-course, and am on lesson 5. I have worked through much of the initial anxiety about if there is something missing, but now am anxious about the numbness and loss of feeling for my fiancé. My partner doesn’t have any red flags – but my mind keeps shifting to when will my feelings come back. My wedding is 6 weeks away, so my anxiety related to the resurfacing of my feelings is rather high. Do any of your clients ever get these same thoughts? How do you suggest they deal with it?

  • K

    I’ve noticed, the fear of loss is more direct with my brother and appears in a distorted way with my partner. With my brother, whom I love so much, I dont feel anxiety, I just feel sadness and grief over the possibility of something happening to him. Its just soul crushing. The acute awareness of the unpredictability of life. With my partner, its often anxiety. Do I love her enough, Is this “love”? Maybe I am yet to find “true love”? and so on and so forth. The good thing is I am able to name it these days. But I don’t know why this particular fear of loss appears in different forms with different people.

    • Anna

      I also feel different about imagining losses. But here you are describing different things. You imagine a bad event with a bad outcome about a person you’re not usually anxious about and you feel grief. But with your partner, you’re trying to find an ultimate answer to your anxiety (which doesn’t exist) and this extended search just causes anxiety, not grief.

    • Anna

      Also, I say “you” but I also mean “I”. I’m not lecturing you or anything. I’ve been through this specific mind loop often so I just shared how I perceived it 🙂

      • K

        Thanks a lot Anna. It’s just so easy to externalize and project our anxiety and so hard not so. We are habituated to shirk responsibility for our inter states and place the blame on the outside.

  • Klo

    This is bit of an ‘aha-post’ for me. I’ve always thought of loneliness, boredom and emptiness as pathologies. Maybe because I have felt them more than most people. My heart always sinks when ppl say: Well I’ve not really felt that lonely. So I think: It IS only me?

    But to read, no, you’te actually not sick. No, you don’t some sort of drug to remove your pain. The pail is also a core part of being human. Wow, thank you.

    • I don’t think it’s possible to grow up in Western culture and not feel loneliness. I’ll be writing more about this in a few weeks. You’re not sick AT ALL and you’re not alone!

  • Angela

    I love how you gave us examples Sheryl. Your an incredible writer. So inspirational, such a gift you have. Allowing ourselves to feel all our feelings, release it and feel the freedom. This culture ruined us, but from doing this work I feel i have been reborn. With practise im discovering calmess in the mind. I journal, breathe, lay down my feelings from my core honesty. I notice that when I am not around my mum, i dont feel anxiety. She is definitely a trigger.

    • You’re doing wonderful work, Angela. When you’re a daughter of a narcissistic or borderline mother, she will be a trigger for a long time. A different set of tools is required to break free from the patterns that arise when you’ve been raised by someone with a serious psychological disorder.

  • LightAtTheEnd

    All recorded. So beautifully. In words. Thank you so much. I’m going to read, practice, repeat. Read, practice, repeat x

    One of my biggest resistances is understanding that my ego has FEAR. Because I don’t feel scared, frightened, or feel like I’m trying to avoid danger. My mind tends to reject ‘fear’ as being applicable to me.

    I know that fear can be masked though. In irritation, in restlessness, in rejecting others. In false evidence appearing real. I guess in my case I can feel like loosing him will be easier than loving him…Is that how my fear is working…more work needed in this area.

  • chicadelli

    “At least a dozen times a day I have the thought, ‘I want a different life.’
    WOW this resonates so much with me. This is one of my biggest intrusive thoughts and juts a huge escape fantasy that gets build up when I’m feeling anxious, not attracted, overwhelmed and all these other feelings.
    It used to kill me but now as I’m getting better I can let this thought co-exist without freaking out.
    I always thought it must mean something. Although I’m not engaged or married YET we talk and joke about it. And a part of me has decided, about 6-7 months ago, that I will probably marry this guy. And that is when all this anxiety started. Simply knowing that you are currently with the person that you’ll spend the rest of your life with is just insane and terrifies me. but I know now that it’s normal and doesn’t have to mean anything. I’m still escaping to other lives when my current one isn’t going well because of work or whatever but it’s a lot less scary than it used to be

  • Anetij

    Sheryl,thank you. How would you advise to deal with sadness underneath, that has no explanation. Sadness that comes from difficulty to accept the life. How do you move towards acceptance and gratitude in your heart if you know in your head what you have is wonderful?

    • Great questions. Quite often, sadness doesn’t have an explanation. It’s what Pema Chodron calls “the genuine heart of sadness”:

      “Bodhichitta is our heart–our wounded, softened heart. Now, if you look for that soft heart that we guard so carefully–if you decide that you’re going to do a scientific exploration under the microscope and try to find that heart–you won’t find it. You can look, but all you’ll find is some kind of tenderness. There isn’t anything that you can cut out and put under the microscope. There isn’t anything that you can dissect or grasp. The more you look, the more you find just a feeling of tenderness tinged with some kind of sadness. This sadness is not about somebody mistreating us. This is inherent sadness, unconditioned sadness. It is part of our birthright, a family heirloom. It’s been called the genuine heart of sadness.”

      And what Martin Prechtel calls “the holy bath of grief”:

      “We must drop unguarded into the holy bath of grief, inside of which all truly happy men and women must bathe to transform the great losses of life, in war, sicknesses, the loss of homelands and the loss of one’s confidence in human decency into a wailing that ends in poetry and elegant praise of the ability to feel. For desire, mistaken for love, without the capacity to truly feel the losses that actual loving entails, is what makes murderers of people who have no home friendly enough to allow them both the complete sadnesses and joys their love can feel”. — Martin Prechtel, Stealing Benefacio’s Roses

  • Eve

    Your posts really bring both intense comfort and an expert guide on how to take responsibility for our own emotions. I appreciate them so much! I struggled with relationship anxiety for nearly 8 months during my engagement period until about 5 months after being married. Then, for reasons I think are connected to the work I was doing on myself, the feeling itself lessened, I began to feel like myself again, and was able to see my relationship clearly again and enjoy it immensely. A few weeks back though, my husband and I were doing some shopping for home renovation stuff, and I noticed the feeling of fear creeping back in. At the time i was able to name it for what it was (fear of closeness, fear of things one day not working between us, fear of hurting him), but then I noticed in the few weeks since then my anxious triggers have come up many times (my go to intrusive thought is “is my partner moral enough?” Which is triggered when I’m feeling anxious by a million little things or comments, like if we don’t agree fully on a political view, if he says something odd at a party, etc.). It’s in these times that I notice myself becoming overly critical and controlling, and let me tell you… that does wonders for our relationship (not)! So, we spoke about it last weekend and he reminded me that I can try to notice the thoughts without spiralling to the worst case scenario and accept the uncertainty inherent in life (and accept the differences in our personalities without then assuming we’re doomed). It was a helpful and encouraging reminder and has allowed me to slow down my thinking and try to feel more what is happening inside, without necessarily biting into the thought itself. Ugh but it is still hard sometimes when each thought seems so powerful and “true” and “important”! Alas, a work in a progress!

  • Worried Girl

    I really like this article. Wish more people thought like this. I came across your article “38 Hard Truths About Relationships” and realized my expectations of a relationship were unrealistic/similar to that of a fairy tale. I am in a relationship where there are no major red flags (addiction, physical abuse, etc) and if one of us ever felt uncomfortable, we would talk about it and set boundaries/compromise. He does nice things for me, makes sure I am okay, etc. However, we have hurt each other’s feelings in the past (bad arguments, lashing out and saying things out of anger, etc) and I keep thinking that something is wrong with the relationship. I have always worried a lot growing up. Recently I have been planning to go see my partner and while I look forward to it, I am worrying again. My mind seems to be plagued with “what ifs” and thoughts of the bad arguments we had. I notice I do this every time he does something nice for me. I have been having a lot of crying spells, periods of numbness, unable to eat/sleep these past few days and my family thinks it’s because the relationship is bad.
    We haven’t been able to see each other as much due to distance, so I feel like it’s because of that? I also have a tendency to focus on the negatives in many situations. And how do I stop worrying about the fights and think of the positives? And can distance cause relationship anxiety and arguments/lashing out. I am really worried he is mostly nice, has ambition, checks on me, etc. We just have our “moments” sometimes. How can I start focusing on the positives, and is lashing out really normal?

    • Worried Girl

      And we are both very sensitive, as well. I am scared of what this (dwelling on fights, etc.) really means. And I find myself getting really annoyed/anxious/frustrated when people say things like “You’ll know when you know,” “you might not care,” “you were happier alone,” etc.

    • Rebecca

      Worried Girl, I can relate to the anxiety cropping up due to distance. My boyfriend and I are not in a long-distance relationship, but the longer we go without seeing each other, the more the anxiety spikes when we do try to meet up. From what you’ve written, it looks like you have relationship anxiety, which is normal (you’re definitely not alone! There are hundreds of people here and in Sheryl’s courses going through the exact same experiences!). I have it, too, but I’m slowly finding tools to work with it. Sheryl’s Break Free course is amazing, and I highly recommend it. First, let me say focusing on the negative is normal, especially when you have relationship anxiety. Sometimes I fear so much that my boyfriend and I will argue, that it causes an argument. Gah! I have learned not to listen to those intrusive thoughts of “What if we argue?” or “What if the arguments mean we are not well matched?” I thank that little voice for bringing up a concern and trying to protect me, but I choose not to give it a voice or weigh in on what I choose to do next (doesn’t always work, by the way!). I think sometimes we are so afraid of that voice, we either ignore it or don’t acknowledge it at all, and both of those options give it power it doesn’t need to have. Second, it’s interesting you say you ponder the “what ifs” when he does something nice for you. Have you looked into Sheryl’s definition of the pursuer-distancer dynamic? This may be one aspect–I know I tend to close off and focus on “what ifs” when my boyfriend draws closer. It’s my way of protecting myself, even though I’m objectively very safe with him. Third, lashing out is completely normal. I think almost every couple does this at some point. If it gets bad rest assured there are steps you guys can take together to work on that. You said there were no red flags, such as abuse, so that tells me the lashing out is akin to what many healthy couples work through. I’m not an expert by any means, but your post really spoke to me, and I wanted you to know you’re not alone. Everything you have described sounds normal for someone who is sensitive and has relationship anxiety (also normal to have!). It sounds like you have a great guy and although your family and friends mean well, remember our culture still doesn’t understand relationship anxiety. If there are no red flags, it’s not time to run–or to beat yourself up. The Break Free course has a lot of exercises you can do to help overcome exactly what you are describing, but if you browse the blogs on this site, you can find a lot of others as well, such as tuning into yourself, seeking the root thought instead of focusing on the intrusive thought (“what if our relationship is bad because I keep thinking about the fights”), meditating,speaking truth to yourself, using visualization techniques, etc. From what you’ve written, it looks as if you are focusing on the negative because you are scared it will happen again (correct me if I’m wrong) and that’s a very honest, vulnerable, and loving place to come from (If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t dwell on it). Have you ever tried looking at it from that angle? I know this post ran super long, but again, your words caught my eye, and I wanted to reassure you your experiences are shared by others here, myself included, and that there *are* things you can do to move past this and strengthen your relationship. Slowly, slowly, the dynamic will shift as you learn more about yourself and each other and you will have more and more positive moments (and still some yucky ones–that’s how all relationships work, right? ;]). But I do believe everything you described is normal. Not sure if any of it helps, but thank you for sharing! <3

  • Courtney

    Have you done any posts on being single and experiencing anxiety and intrusive/obsessive thoughts while dating? Or on the fear of never finding someone? I’m 29 and went through a break up in January. Giving myself time to be single and trying not to get caught up in comparisons with so many of my friends that are getting married or starting to have babies. Met a guy unexpectedly and we’ve gone on a couple dates. I hate the ruminating I do when I meet someone new. It makes me feel insane to obsess about them and future trip when I’ve only just met the person. I know it’s because it’s both exciting and scary, and I don’t want to accept/feel the uncertainty and the unknown. Trying to relax, feel it out and just tell myself it may develop into something more, or it may not. And either way, I’ll learn and be ok

    • I don’t have any posts specifically on the intrusive thoughts that arise during dating but they’re VERY common and the work is the same: to name the thought and then ask what’s needed. You’ve already identified what’s underlying the thoughts: fear, uncertainty, excitement, possibility. If you stay connected to those core feelings, the intrusive thoughts will dissipate.

  • Cathy

    Brilliant. I just wish the entire planet could be open to this and take it in.
    On my way home from a hike today I thought: how can I just be friends with this guy that I’ve been fantasizing about for 2 years. It was an earnest and deep possibility I wanted to ponder. Then I got home and discovered a dead bird on my deck. I can’t help but take that to mean that I’m finally ready to deal with this apparent boredom I’m distracting myself from with crushes. Your sexuality course has broadened my mind and shaken some belief patterns and I can finally see a way out of the prison I built for myself. So many walls to tear down. Xox

  • Marlene

    Everything in me resounds with a “Yes, yes , yes!!!” to this post. Once again you’ve nailed it Sheryl. Amazing. Thank you.

  • Daryl

    Hi Sheryl,
    I am struggling with ROCD and I originally fell into an anxiety spiral due to an irrational thought about something shameful I did 8 or 9 years ago. I originally was so scared my wife would find out I fell into a hole of panic and anxiety until I eventually confessed (looking at pornography).
    I expected relief and to be able to get on with my life again but it never came….now I am convinced it is my relationship causing my anxiety and that I have ruined everything and so will never recover and deserve to suffer.
    I feel that I can only escape my torment if I leave my wife and daughter even though I don’t want to. My shame and guilt got me to this place and now I feel I will have to leave to recover……are any of your courses any use to a wretch like me?
    Thank you

  • Lisa

    Sheryl, I wanted to express my gratitude to you for the last couple of posts you have written about intrusive thoughts. They have been so helpful for me to further understand the land mines that my mind tries to throw at me on a daily basis to derail me. Understanding that that is all it is gives me so much comfort. As I have read the last few blogs I find tears rolling down my cheeks as my body relaxes and relief sweeps over my body as I realize, “I am not the only one”, “I am OK”, “I am normal”. I have taken several of your courses and I am so thankful that I found a therapist that teaches about these thoughts and anxieties from a different perspective. The one from this post that connected another dot for me is the ‘fear of boredom’, I think that thought is the start of some of my intrusive thoughts and anxiety but before this post I could not have put my finger on the triggering thought. Ah, the work continues 🙂 Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • futureself

    So wonderful and spot on and timely as always Sheryl. I loved this bit and it resonated with me: “And you can splash your inflamed doubting mind with a cooling truth like, ‘I’ve had a lifetime of anxiety. Why wouldn’t it show up in the riskiest endeavor of my life?’”

    We pause here to remember that ego-fear – the part of us whose life depends on remaining in control and seeks to avoid risk at any cost – will throw up every roadblock it can think of to try to get you to avoid taking the risk of loving. Your job is to name every obstacle as fear and not bite the hook.”

    Where I am struggling now is as I am growing and working through this anxiety, it has made room for my partner to have and express his own doubts (for once in our relationship!) which I thought was a sign of health and movement for us. BUT, his own doubts bring me full circle back to attaching meaning to my original doubts (e.g. are we enjoying each other enough, are we a good fit, do our personalities work well together) as he is now wondering about some of these things and ultimately feeling inadequate. This has made it extremely hard to bat away anxious thoughts without ascribing meaning to them as he is now wondering too about some of these things. So it now feels like another more complicated layer to work through and I’m at a loss.

  • Megan

    Sheryl, I love my partner very much and we have a great relationship, we are never bored when we are together and we are very supportive and always laughing together…he is truly my best friend. However, I tend to nit pick at everything he does and whenever I am feeling anxious it takes over my body and thoughts and turns everything into a fight. Sometimes its the most ridiculous things, that I realize after the damage is done. I can see and feel myself hurting him and pushing him away, and I know eventually he will think I am too much. I cannot control my anxiety, which sometimes tells me “he isn’t right for me”, and “he’s not the one” even though we talk about getting engaged and moving in together all the time. We have been through a lot together and often I think I am just afraid to lose him but at this point I don’t know how to stop being so sensitive, nit picking, and fighting with him.

    • Have you taken any of my courses, Megan? This is exactly what they address.

    • Worried Girl

      Hi there Megan,
      I know exactly how you are feeling. Have you read the article “Projection as Protection?” That could explain the reason for a lot of your fights. Sometimes how we see ourselves is how we see other people. What helps me is to focus more on the positives about my partner (whether physical or personality, nice things he has done, etc.) I know it’s hard when people say, “You shouldn’t fight in a relationship” but believe it or not, sometimes fighting shows that you care enough about the relationship. I found this great article that talks about how projection causes fights in a relationship. It is called and it talks about all of this! Also I recommend and while there is a course you have to pay for, it talks about the most common relationship problems and shows that it’s totally normal! As long as there are no serious issues such as physical abuse or substance addiction, it can be fixed! And yes, definitely read into many of Sheryl’s articles, which are also great. Shows that there are lots of factors to be considered ?

  • Aino

    Thank you for another great post! I find it especially helpful when you include examples from your clients in your posts. The second example (“I want a different life with a different partner who makes me feel alive and worthy”) got me thinking: Is it always “just” the messiness of being human (not that there’s anything “just” about it) that we are trying to escape, or could it sometimes be that we are carrying some kind of extra load of negative feelings regarding ourselves, such as some sort of profound unworthiness, shame etc.? I mean, I really do think that though everyone feels insecure and has a low self esteem sometimes, feeling unworthy about yourself (or about your partner for that matter) most of the time is maybe something that doesn’t necessarily belong to this “everyday messiness”? What makes this SO difficult is that it is so hard to recognize this feeling of unworthiness or shame (because maybe it has been there for so long that it has become your “normal”?) and so easy to think that the problem must be in my partner. Any insights would be appreciated!

  • Britt

    Hi Sheryl,

    It’s been months since I’ve visited your site, and I’m proud that you’re still helping people. I have an unrelated question, however. Have you ever considered writing a book? I know of your marriage books, but I’m referring to a book with every entry here on your site, titled, “Anxiety: Breaking Free.” I think that would be super cool, something like a book if poems. I’d purchase it for sure. Times when I’m on vacation, and “trying” to be “phone free,” the book would do wonders.

  • Florence

    Oh how I relate to this post and many of the comments..AGAIN! I’ve been really struggling with anxiety and what I call ‘awfulising’ situations in an extreme way. I can be convinced that the anxiety is about a particular thing, but then watch it jump onto something else with equal intensity the next day. It’s almost comical seeing how it works, but so distressing when in the midst of it! It was a helpful reminder to pause, and find that gap between stimulus and response – and for me, to re-engage in that space with God’s love – because when I’m in a spin of anxiety, his love is the very last thing I’m thinking of.

  • Gordon

    Hi Sheryl,

    I’m not sure if I should buy your new book or take that 30 day course or both. My girlfriend and I have been together for about 15 months, we just broke for the 3rd time recently. The first time we broke up I feel like it was a gut feeling and also me being shallow and judging on her looks. That night after the first break up, I started doubting the decision and starting thinking for a few days and I think that is when my anxiety initially started. I feel like I do love her but I’m still shallow and judgmental. I’m not sure if our relationship really isn’t working out and me having anxiety because of my shallowness? I don’t want it to be because of that.

    I think we have our differences but a lot of couples do. She is an introvert and I’m more so of an extrovert. I place pretty high importance in health, fitness and appearance for myself and she doesn’t care too much about appearance although she eats pretty healthy and runs on the treadmill a few times a week. Other than those differences, I think we are very compatible.
    She is smart, sweet, pretty, got a good sense of humor, will have a good line of work, we have the same political views and religious beliefs. Overall, I think she is an awesome girlfriend, she is easy going, respectful and thoughtful and I think my family and friends like her as well.

    Sometimes when I get a text from her I get anxiety and I don’t know what is causing it, I guess I was worried about that I’m lying to myself and lying to her that I love her. Most recently, when I received a text from her about a meteor shower I felt anxious because I thought should I be watching that with her when I’m doubting my love for her and not sure if she is the one. I feel like everything goes in a loop, I don’t know what is causing what. Am I feeling the anxiety because this relationship isn’t right and I’m not in love? or am I having the anxiety because of my unrealistic expectations? Or because of my shallowness? If I was in love, would I still be shallow, picky and judgmental? I really want to love her for who she is and the way she is, but I have been judging her since she has gained a few pounds and she has sensed my judging vibe as well.

    Since the first break up to the second breakup, I have seen a psychologist, a relationship therapist and psychiatrist and I’m not sure if it has helped all that much.

    I really want to know what it is, is this relationship really not right and the feeling just isn’t there? If the feeling is there and I’m in love, shouldn’t I not be shallow and judgmental and accept her as she is? Is the feeling not there and there is anxiety because of my shallowness, if so can I change that?

    Hopefully you can get me some insight.

    Thank you!

    • Gordon

      I forgot to mention that during the final straw of discussions, we concluded that I have anxiety because my feeling isn’t there for her and I’m not in love. I also forgot to mention that she loves me very much and in love with me for who I am and that I trust her with everything. I’m not sure if I would be able to find someone who loves me as much as her.

  • October 12

    I began this journey with relationship anxiety over seven yesss ago. The work and magnitude of feelings that came up were the hardest work of my life. I’ve benefited from your work, Sheryl over that time. I’ve recently fallen into another round of Dark night of the Soul; healing. Another layer of becoming free has found me. So naturally I run to the one sacred place I know; to your work. As I read not of your examples above, I found myself relating so closely to both that it felt as if I were reading my own latest intrusive thoughts. And then I received a gift. When I read this part, “We’ve landed in the timeless realm of the heart, where the feelings of an eigth-year old girl at a sleepover are as present now as they were then. We’ve walked through a portal together, and I’m transported into her world.“ that I begin to sob uncontrollably. In short, I discovered the core of what’s happening: I am horrified of closeness, intimacy and love. I asked myself where I felt this same feeling in my life and I found her. The same 8 year old girl who thought getting close to her daddy only creates pain and taught me that if I get too close, I will be left. Just as my dad did when he dated my now stepmom. Thirty years later, that wound is still there. I thought I had worked it to completion but obviously not. So my work is to heal, to change the belief that intimacy and closeness mean loss and pain. I’m so grateful I can now see and name the intrusive thoughts for what they are and identify another piece of my heart that needs healing. Which of your programs would be best for this?

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