As I wrote about recently, at the core of anxiety and OCD lives the fear of death: either literal death or social death (humiliation, being shunned, rejected, losing your place of belonging). If we’re going to address anxiety at the root, we have to talk about the fear of death and ways to meet it.
I’ve shared the story in a few places of our older son, Everest, and how his love of flying overpowered his fear of death, and that it was when he faced his fear head-on by sitting in the cockpit of a plane for his first glider lesson, and then later when he soloed, that the fear receded. We could have had him in therapy for years talking about his fears, but it wouldn’t have reduced it as powerfully as taking action does.
When we look back on it now, it wasn’t only that he faced the fear of death, it was that he said YES to his passion, to his love of flying, and in saying yes to life the fear of death receded.
This is why, if you suffer from relationship anxiety, one of the most powerful actions you can take is to keep moving forward in your relationship by taking the next steps: saving “I love you”, living together, getting married (not necessarily in that order). Every time you say “yes” to love, you are saying yes to life, which means saying to death, “I know you exist but I’m not going to allow my fear of you to rule my life,”
It’s the love of life that puts death into its rightful place. And, paradoxically, it’s the fear of death that can sometimes inspire us to say yes to life, for it’s when we can keep death forefront but not allow it to run the show that we find the motivation to say yes to each precious moment of this life.
Is the fear of death, in some way, an invitation to embrace life?
Is death, like fear itself, an ally in disguise – the ghoulish character in fairy tales that lures us with its waggling finger into the dark forest so that we can embrace our myth, our passion, the genius that lives inside everyone?
But here’s the most difficult piece and the one that prevents people from moving forward: anxiety and OCD attack the things we love most in the world. It attacks our romantic relationships, our sexuality (which is really about self-trust and integration of qualities that we’ve stuffed in the shadow box), career, health, friendship, belonging. It only attacks what matters to us. So as much as we might want to face our fears, it’s when we move toward the thing we love that the anxious voices get louder.
How, then, do we work with this?
One aspect is allowing the fear to be there but moving forward anyway. I loved in our recent Patreon interview with Stuart Ralph of The OCD Stories when I asked him if he still considers himself someone with OCD he said (I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t let OCD stop me from doing anything that I love. It’s there, but it doesn’t control my life.” In other words, he has enough tools to work with the intrusive thoughts so that when they arise he can meet them and continue to do the thing he set out to do.
He talks about it in this clip from our recent Gathering Gold episode on OCD, where he shares his first intrusive thought when he was seven years old on a family vacation in Florida:
This is a powerful way to live, and speaks to another core spoke on the fear of death wheel: making the choice to tolerate the imperfection of an intrusive thought being present and continuing to move toward your values. The OCD brain is also the black-and-white thinking brain which says, “If it’s not perfect, what’s the point of doing it?” The more flexible brain says, “Choosing to do the things I love, even imperfectly, even if OCD is telling me that an intrusive thought will ‘ruin’ the experience, will move me toward LIFE. I choose to embrace life, even with imperfections.” This connects to what I wrote about here.
None of this is easy. In fact, I would say it’s nothing short of a spiritual task: to face the fear of death is the stuff that initiations are made of. Yet, here we are, those of us on the anxiety-sensitive-spiritual spectrum, faced with this choice every single day:
Do I choose to tolerate imperfection so that I can move toward the place of flow and love where true and deep perfection exist or do I choose to stay trapped in my rigid world?
Do I choose death or do I choose life?