One of the most challenging elements of anxiety is to understand is that the anxiety is projection. This means that the parade of intrusive thoughts that tortures the anxious mind and sensitive soul are actually pointing to areas inside of you that are crying out for your attention. This is such a reversal of our literal, read-everything-at-face-value culture that it can take a while for the shift of mindset to sink in.
There are many areas that need our attention: old pain from early abandonments, loss of loved ones, faulty beliefs that form as a result of being the child of a narcissist or suffering from bullying or teasing, unrealistic expectations about love and relationships that we absorb from the mainstream culture, fissures of psyche that were created because we didn’t receive the guidance, tending, and rituals necessary to cross over life’s transitions successfully (going to school, starting menstruation, adolescence, graduating, first sex, getting married, having a child, etc). We cannot be human without suffering from the pain of loss.
It’s become increasingly clear to me as I walk through life tending to highly sensitive souls that the simple act of being alive – of navigating big and small transitions of all kinds – can be traumatic. For the highly sensitive person who feels everything, daily living can either feel like an assault or a symphony. And often both.
This tends to show up in spades when it comes to relationship anxiety, for nowhere are we more vulnerable than in our intimate relationships (both romantic and friendship). We can say that jumping out of an airplane or hiking to the top of Mt Everest is risky – and it is – but the emotional risks we take when we open to others is unparalleled.
We can perseverate on a myriad of questions when it comes to relationship anxiety. But there is one question that underlies almost every other spoke of the wheel, and because it hides deep inside the inner recesses of our hearts it’s very difficult to identify and even believe. What I’ve seen over and over again, including in my own process, is that nearly all of the following projections –
- Do I love them enough?
- Am I attracted enough?
- Is she smart enough?
- Is he funny enough?
- Am I in love enough?
- Is he handy enough?
- Is he manly enough?
- Is she social enough?
- Is she witty enough?
- Are they beautiful enough?
- Do we have enough chemistry?
– are designed to mask one question:
Am I enough?
What a brilliantly designed and complicated labyrinthian maze our psyches can be! Instead of feeling and experiencing our deepest insecurities directly, they mask in the reverse. Instead of asking, “Am I smart enough for you?” we end up asking, “Are you smart enough for me?” Instead of daring to peer into that most vulnerable region of our hearts and saying, “There’s a place inside of me that’s terrified of being rejected and abandoned. There’s a belief inside that says I must be broken in some way and I must be too dark for anyone to love,” we defend against this exceedingly raw feeling by focusing on our partner’s or friend’s areas of perceived lack. It’s an effective defense mechanism because when we focus on our partner’s “enough-ness” we put ourselves in the position of power; if we’re constantly wondering, “Do I love you enough?” we don’t have to touch down into our deepest pain, which, if it could speak would say, “Am I enough to love?” It’s a “power position” because the mindset behind it says, “If I reject you first, I don’t have to expose myself to the risk of being rejected.”
Now I can hear my readers denying and dissenting: “I’m not scared that my partner will leave. I’m not scared of being rejected. My partner is as solid as a rock; she’ll never leave. And I feel pretty good about myself. I like who I am. I’m not afraid of being exposed as not enough.”
I urge you to suspend disbelief and breathe into those first layers of dissent as you remember that it’s impossible to be a human on this planet without having some fear of loss and rejection. Why? Because we’ve all been hurt in some way. We’ve all been shut out of the hearts of our caregivers for any variety of reasons. We’ve all been rejected by friends, spurned by lovers, overlooked by teachers or employers. To be human is to experience loss and hurt, and once we know how painful it is to lose someone we love or feel rejected in any way, we spend the rest of our lives defending against it.
Any intimate, real, present, available, committed relationship will activate this place of unworthiness because any healthy relationship will invite you to expose and share your true self. While your true self is NOT the part of you that believes you’re broken, the ego-defended part doesn’t know that, and so it lives with the constant yet carefully hidden terror of being found out. The way it protects from being found out, and thus, rejected, is by convincing you that the other person is broken in some way.
So now we arrive at the question of why would it be so painful to touch down directly into the pain of our unworthiness. For a child to believe that he’s unworthy feels like death. It’s a pain like no other, and one that, as a young person, we rarely touch into directly. Even as children we develop elaborate defense mechanism – fortresses and shields – to protect against the feeling that arises from the belief that we’re fundamentally unworthy of love. We need love as much as we need food and water. We need to know that we’re good and worthy, and if we begin to doubt our intrinsic worthiness we likely harden our hearts in some way or siphon off the excruciating pain into a more manageable realm of thought like, “What if I don’t love my partner?”
Fast forward to our current, intimate relationship, and the core belief of unworthiness now manifests as a projection onto our partner’s perceived unworthiness. Because we’ve developed the well-worn habit of siphoning off the core belief, we now siphon it onto our partner. And this is where the true work of breaking free from relationship anxiety begins: the moment when we understand, at the level of our bodies, beyond the realm of thought, that the projections are protections.
At this point we know that we must turn inward, and we realize that at the core of this inner work is a dedicated willingness to break down the fortresses and cross the moats that protect us from feeling into the belief that we’re fundamentally unlovable and unworthy of love so that we can grieve through this belief and begin to dismantle it. Like most pain, it’s not a one-time grieving process. We dip down, feel the rawness of the pain, and come back up for air. Weeks or months later, we tentatively submerge again, cry the cries of heartbreak and loss, and resurface. We may do this many, many times over the course of several years before we soften into a new awareness that we’re okay, we’re lovable, and even if our partner sees our deepest, darkest selves, he or she isn’t going anywhere.
This is how we heal, and this is how real love heals us. As I’ve written many times, it’s not a journey for the faint of heart, but it’s one that yields a richness and depth of intimacy that we can only experience when we soften our defenses and allow our partners to peer directly into the heart of who we are. It’s a journey of courage, of insight, of healing, and – always – a dance between fear and love where love ultimately takes its position as the guiding light in our lives and we learn to live with a softness and vulnerability that creates a closeness with others that we always longed for but never knew was possible.
**This post has been updated and re-published from a 2017 post**
Note: I very much value your comments as they pertain to each post and I love hearing about your insights and breakthroughs. However, if you’re struggling with relationship anxiety, I know it’s tempting to ask for reassurance or guidance, but unfortunately, I’m not able to offer advice in this format. I encourage you to read through this Collection, consider the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course, and, as always, work with a skilled and loving therapist who can be a guide and witness for your healing. If you’re struggling with other anxiety themes, please see my book, The Wisdom of Anxiety, and read through my hundreds of free blog posts on a variety of topics. The next round of my 9-month course Break Free From Anxiety will open for registration next month.