When we spiral down into the deeper layers of anxiety – whether relationship anxiety or any other form that anxiety takes – we find some universal root causes that live at the center. These exist on both the emotional and psychological/spiritual planes, and they all need our attention if we’re going to heal. It requires tremendous courage and fortitude to peer directly into the root causes without the filters of projections or defenses protecting us, as when we peel away the hardened shell that has protected our hearts our entire lives, we come face-to-face with our own soft and defenseless vulnerability.
On the emotional level we find a fear of “enoughness”: Am I lovable enough, good enough, worthy enough to be loved? Of course, as I’ve discussed extensively in other posts and in my courses, this fear often first manifests as a projection onto your partner’s perceived imperfections, but when you commit to your inner work which, in essence, means learning to pull back projections and assume full responsibility for your well-being, you find that hidden inside the elaborate protection of your partner’s perceived failures is your own fear of loss.
On the psychological/spiritual level the fears manifest differently, from a different part of us. Here lives the fear of losing control, the fear of groundlessness, the fear of annihilation, the fear of death. These fears don’t arise from the experience of being human in relationship to human others, which is often the source of our emotional pain in that we learn to seal over our hearts after we’ve been hurt by caregivers, peers, siblings, or teachers, but instead seem to exist as part of our human experience regardless of circumstances. In other words, we could have the most loving childhood without any significant emotional pain and still struggle with the fear of groundlessness and death. From what I understand, one of the primary challenges and tasks of being human is to wrestle between the ego, which is the part of us that demands to retain the status quo and fears change because it’s terrified of losing control, and the part of us that longs to grow and evolve, which, by its very definition, requires that we learn to embrace change.
Pema Chodron speaks to this fundamental fear of change and the associating feeling of groundlessness that accompanies it in her book, When Things fall Apart:
“Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limits. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
“To stay with that shakiness – to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge – that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation – harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.” (p. 10-11)
There are many way that life teaches us to become more comfortable with losing control. When I’m working with anyone in the midst of a transition, we’re at the very heart of change and uncertainty, which means it’s a potent opportunity to breathe into groundlessness. But, as Pema Chodron teaches, while transitions highlight our sense of being out of control and peel away the illusion of control that we can hold onto during calmer times, the truth is that life itself is one constant experience of change. One moment to the next is never the same. We don’t know what will happen five minutes from now. When we tap into this subtle yet constant undercurrent of awareness, we can feel a sense of loss and panic. The work is to recognize it and breathe into it, and the more we learn to do this, the more gracefully we can ride the waves.
One of the common manifestations of the fear of losing control is the fear of throwing up. I’ve had several clients over the years who have struggled with this fear, and it never surprises me that they’re always people who fall into the category of the highly sensitive, perfectionist, analytical, conscientious people who comprise my audience. The official psychological diagnosis is emetophobia, which literally means the fear of vomiting. If we poke around we may find an early incident that constellated a fear of choking, but oftentimes the fear manifests independent of a trauma and speaks more to the fear of losing control than anything else.
What is contained inside this fear of losing control? When we pare down again, we see that it’s ultimately a fear of death. And when we pare down even more, we see that the fear of death is the hub of it own wheel, the spokes of which contain the fear of feeling our feelings (which can be translated as the fear of life). So we arrive again at one of the core tenets of healing work, which Pema Chodron speaks to above: becoming aware of the micro-moments when grief, hunger, hopelessness, and groundlessness rumble up to consciousness and, instead of hardening against those raw feelings through various addictions and projections (including the mental addiction of worry and intrusive thoughts), we soften into them and breathe into them.
We cannot address and heal all of the spokes of this wheel by reading a blog post, but we can start by learning to name the fear of death and its accompanying offshoots when it arises. In doing so, we claim what is ours instead of siphoning off these root fears onto our partner or any other projections screen. When a projection hits in the middle of a transition, for example, we can say, “I’m in a projection. What I’m probably really feeling is groundless, out of control, scared, vulnerable.” In the naming, we take the first step toward owning. And once we see and claim what is ours, we’re well on our way to healing. It’s theoretically simple but, but because we’re habituated and perhaps even wired for blame and laziness, the practice of owning and feelings these states is one of the hardest things we can do: naming, breathing, owning. This is why Pema Chodron says it’s the path of the spiritual warrior.
Living a meaningful life is not about overcoming the fear of loss or the fear of death. Life includes loss and life includes death, and these are not realities that we can escape from despite the ego’s attempt to do so. Rather, we find more equanimity when we extend our table of psyche and make room for all of the uncomfortable characters that long to be seen and known. We make more for Vulnerability. We make room for Fear of Loss. We make room for Fear of Losing Control. When we get to know them by greeting them with compassion and and curiosity, we continually soften into the experience of being human, reminding ourselves that healing is a long, long process and that we’re all in it together.