This is One Way to Resolve These Common “What If” Questions

by | Jan 23, 2022 | Anxiety, Relationships | 35 comments

One of the hallmarks of the highly sensitive brain prone to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms is the need for one perfect answer. This particular brain often thinks in black-and-white terms:

  • I’m either in love or not.
  • I’m either healthy or sick.
  • I’m either going to live or I’m going to die.
  • I’m either on the right career path or the wrong career path.
  • I’m either with the right person or the wrong person.
  • I’m either a good person or a bad person.

It’s a brain that tends toward rigidity and gravitates toward needing to find one perfect answer with the belief that arriving at this place will offer a guarantee that you’re going to be safe, loved, and happy.

But this isn’t how life is. Life is messy. Life is mysterious. There isn’t one perfect path, one soulmate, perfect health, one dazzling career that will land you in a life of perpetual fulfillment. There is “close enough” and “good enough.” There are people, places, jobs, and cities that are more or less well-matched and aligned with our values, needs, and temperaments, and rhythms.

When it comes to relationship anxiety, I’m often asked: “So do you think I can make it work with anyone?” No, I don’t. Just like I don’t think you could be happy at any job or in any city. The idealized, Dalai Lama version of ourselves can fall prey to the spiritual bypassing mindset that says, “If I was evolved enough I could be happy anywhere or at any job,” but this isn’t reality for most people. We left Los Angeles fifteen years ago because our souls said NO to the lifestyle and resonance of that city. Is Colorado perfect for us? Nope. But it’s close enough, and underneath my escape-hatch that often arises this time of year and leads me to scroll Zillow listings in Los Angeles, my soul sings with gratitude to be able to live where we live.

But you can see even in the last paragraph how I walk through paradox and imperfection. My experience of living here is both this and that. When we expand out from the rigidity of the anxious-brain, we arrive at the both/and place where there is more mystery, spaciousness, and ultimately more freedom and joy. Perfection is a cage. Needing a single, right answer is a trap. When we can step into the space of allowing for imperfection and the multiplicity of experience, something in the soul exhales and we find more ease.

Hence, one of the primary tasks of having a brain that can get stuck in rigid patterns is to learn how to tolerate uncertainty, messiness, and discomfort. It’s learning how to shift into the both/and mindset when we notice we’re spinning on the hamster wheel of “one right answer.”

Again, on the theme of relationship anxiety, we can often get stuck on one random thought that pops into the brain then view that thought as the totality of our experience. For example, let’s say you’re thinking about how you recently moved in with your partner and the thought arrives, “Maybe we’re only together because it’s easier to pay rent and share responsibilities with a partner than it is by myself.” If anxious brain latches on, you’ll tumble down a rabbit hole of questioning your motives – “Am I here for all the right reasons?” – and even questioning your morality – “Maybe I’m a terrible person by staying with my partner for this reason.”

But what happens when a wise, loving, grounded part of you shows up (your inner parent)? This part might say something like:

“Okay, sure, maybe this is one reason why we’re together, but is that so terrible? After all, humans are pair-bond animals and there are very good biological and practical reasons why we pair up. Can there be multiple reasons why I’m with my partner? This is one of them AND I also love this person, feel safe with them (when anxiety isn’t in the driver’s seat), and trust they’re someone with whom I can learn about love.”

Then notice how that feels in your body. What happens to your breath when you shift from the mindset of “only” into one that allows for multiplicity and complexity?

Here are some other common rabbit hole relationship anxiety thoughts that can take over the anxious brain:

  • Am I only with my partner because I’m scared of being single?
  • Am I only with them because it’s more convenient?
  • Am I only with them because It’s easier to share the responsibilities?
  • Am I only with my them because I don’t want to hurt my partner?
  • Am I only with my partner because I feel safe?
  • Am I only with my partner because it’s familiar?
  • Am I only with my partner because they love me so much?

The reframe that can help release you from the one-track “only” brain is:

Can there be a multiplicity of reasons why I’m with my partner? Can all of the above carry some truth AND ALSO:

  • I’m with them because I love their essence.
  • I’m with them because they feel like home.
  • I’m with them because they’re someone with whom I can learn about love.
  • I’m with them because safety is home and home is good.
  • I’m with them because familiarity is comfort and comfort is good.

Of course, this doesn’t only apply to relationship anxiety. Whenever we can shift from narrow to expansiveness, from either/or to both/and, we offer a salve to the anxious brain and we grow our capacity to accept the ambiguity and mystery of life.

***

Note: If you’re longing for a comprehensive roadmap to help you shift from doubt to clarity, consider my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety Course. The course includes fourteen in-depth lesson with videos, PDFs, visualizations, and exercises to guide you step-by-step through the landscape of relationship anxiety, and also includes ten, 1-hour interviews with people who were able to break free from their relationship anxiety and shift into a place of clarity, ease, and love. Several times a week I receive emails like the following from course members:

“To anyone wondering if this course is right for them, I want to share my story.

“This time last year I was in my own personal hell – the hell of being trapped in a mind that is a slave to every anxiety-inducing thought that popped into it. I’ve dealt with anxiety (relationship anxiety in particular) on and off for most of my life, but had doing pretty well until the beginning of December 2020. The anxiety started out related to a new job I took that moved my husband and I to a new state in the middle of a pandemic. Thoughts of “am I good enough to do this job” quickly bled into my thoughts about my relationship. On Christmas Eve, my husband and I got into an argument and I went into full blown anxiety – the kind, which I’d experienced before, where I can’t function – can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t think about anything but the anxious thoughts, frequent panic attacks, etc. On Christmas Day, I was questioning if we should get a divorce…

“…I cried through most of the Welcome video and knew immediately I was in the right place. I worked through the course slowly so I could digest everything I was hearing and reading. Slowly, but surely I started to feel the anxiety loosen its grips and my mind be more in control of its own thoughts. With the help of the course, I was able to recognize my own stuff that I was projecting on my husband and my marriage – childhood wounds, false beliefs of what love is, and most importantly – never feeling like I was good enough and that I needed to earn love. As I started to heal myself, my marriage started to heal. In March 2021 we bought our first home together and moved into our new home in April. A month later, we learned we had conceived our first child who we are now expecting in just a few weeks.

“I think everyday about what I almost gave up, what I almost lost, a year ago. If I had let my fear and my own unhealed wounds and insecurities win, I would have missed out on so much joy. I love my husband more today than I did the day we were married and I know that love will continue to grow as I focus on his wonderful, beautiful traits instead of the few imperfections in himself, myself, and our marriage. I know my husband and I would not be in the joyous place we are today without you and your work and I am forever grateful to Sheryl and her work for this gift.”

To read Sarah’s full comment, click here then scroll down to the end of the comments. 

Categories

35 Comments

  1. Hello Sheryl!

    Beautiful article, as always. Your work always hits my inbox at the perfect time.

    After about a week straight of worrying and overthinking since our last date, I saw the person I have been going out with again last night. We had a wonderful time, I felt good and once we finally had to part for the night, I didn’t want to let go. It was a nice reassuring night.

    One thing popped up post date for me. We have similar humor, dry and sarcastic. Even though I have that humor, sometimes it hurts to hear it directed at me. I’m very sensitive in that way.

    A couple times throughout the night, I kept thinking “what if this person is horrible and rude” even though she is nowhere near that. Does that count as an intrusive thought to push me away?

    I also feel like while we were very intimidate and close in certain moments where I felt safe, I also felt like a barrier between truly connecting. Could that be fear shutting me down with just leaving enough room to feel slightly connected?

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s a textbook intrusive thought that comes from the black-and-white brain. How might you respond to both of your questions from your wise inner parent?

      Reply
      • I think I’d say something like: “you’re scared. You don’t want to feel the same things from your previous relationship. You’re brain is coming up with every reason to escape even though this human being is beautiful, kind, and sensitive. Hold on tight through this emotional storm. You’re not always going to feel connected especially with fear in the way. You’re not always going to like everything your partner says or you may even be hurt by something they said, but that can be fixed with communication. Push through, Theo. Your mind is at war. Take cover and wait for the storm to pass. You will be okay.”

        Reply
        • Beautiful. Notice how that response feels in your body.

          Reply
  2. Thank you for sharing this Sheryl. Learning to live in the *this* AND *that* space is really helpful and important. But so hard!! My mind wants an answer NOW and I feel like I absolutely can not move on with my day unless I get one. This makes doing most things really really hard.

    My mind just wants to jump back with: but maybe you’re making TOO MUCH of a compromise.

    This is all just really hard and my mind just wants a definitive answer, which I know does not exist…

    Reply
    • It’s really, really hard, Julia. You’re not alone, and with time it gets easy to rest into the gray and murky place of both/and. Eventually it even feels liberating.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for validating, Sheryl, it’s always comforting to hear. <3

        Reply
  3. Timing is always so perfect of these articles, I love reading them every time. I feel like they always provide a safe space for my mind and soul.
    I was actually just about to fully break up with my partner for the probably 6th time now because our relationship is FAR from perfect, and I can never tell whether my low mood is just because I wanted a perfect relationship but it’s certainly not what I have got and I think I try to leave the relationship every time because it’s not perfect. The only thing I do know is my partner and I could both learn what love is through being together, he’s always willing to make changes to improve the relationship and so am I. My problem is feeling so hurt from past actions, I have no idea if this is me just using these reasons to get out of the relationship. I never seem to know what the truth is with this mind. But sorry for the rant! And thank you again for your articles, every time I read them I want to stay in my relationship that bit longer until I go into a negative spin. So thank you for giving me just that little bit of hope that makes me feel better for a while.
    I did have an “ah ha” moment this weekend though, usually when my partner is busy doing something and only provides with short snappy answers I feel very hurt and think to myself how I can I remain in a relationship with someone like this; but this weekend just gone I went camping with some friends, two of which are engaged. I noticed them both have a little snap at one another but they came back together very quickly and lovingly and it must be because they don’t dwell on the thoughts of “I can’t be with someone whose snappy with me”. Im not sure if this realisation makes sense but thank you for reading ☺️

    Reply
    • I’m glad you’re here, Katie, and that the blog brings you comfort. It’s important to differentiate between relationship challenges – like not liking when your partner bising snappy (these will arise in every long-term relationship) – and relationship anxiety. The two often intersect but they’re also separate.

      Reply
      • Thank you for getting back to me Sheryl 🙂
        That makes complete sense. Would you say that this is not relationship anxiety?
        Thank you

        Reply
          • Hi Sheryl,

            Would you be able to expand more on the line, “ well-matched and aligned with our values, needs, and temperaments, and rhythms”. What does it look like to have these things be well-matched in this way? I have had many bouts of ra in different relationships. Almost all of them have ended and just never felt truly “right” for me. I can understand why mismatched values can be grounds to leave, but I’m curious to know what you mean by temperaments and rhythms. I’m currently In a long distance relationship that started good but has slowly been drifting apart for me in terms of not having strong enough feelings/feeling in love-It just doesn’t feel “right”. We have matched values, but I wonder if a mismatch of our temperaments/rhythms could be contributing to me feeling like it’s not the right relationship for me.

            Reply
            • Those two words apply more to doubt around living in a certain city or a certain job than a relationship. You can have vastly different temperaments and rhythms than your partner and still be very well-matched. I wrote a post years ago about Tigger and Eeyore – if you search you’ll find it 😉.

              Reply
              • 💓💓will do

                Reply
      • Beautifully written, always so insightful and compassionate. I feel like I’m getting a hug when I read your posts.

        I’m newly married and struggle with relationship OCD for which I receive treatment with a counselor. I still struggle going over in my mind every day the mistakes I made early in the relationship and struggle with confessing over and over every minor detail where I could have been inappropriate or emotionally cheated. I even have intrusive thoughts of thinking about a scenario where I went out with friends to a club and wonder “could I have cheated and not remembered?” The thoughts are sometimes so relentless that I’ll ask friends for reassurance or even confess to my partner that I’m not sure if i did something bad or inappropriate. I’m checking/ruminating all day if I’m a good or bad partner/person. It’s exhausting. The interesting part is these thoughts only started when we became engaged, I had never questioned myself before this point if I was faithful. and I started reviewing memories from 3-4 years ago making sure I didn’t do anything wrong, it became a 24/7 task with no clear answers. My engagement was such a low point for me, I thankfully found your conscious bride book which helped but I deteriorated mentally and physically with these thoughts thinking I couldn’t get married unless I figured everything out and made sure I “deserved” marriage and my wonderful partner.

        Happy to report I did get married and I’m slowly getting better but thoughts are always there, just not as loud.

        Thank you for listening ❤️ I enjoy your books and posts, you truly have such an incredible, insightful gift.

        Reply
        • I’m so glad my work and working with a counselor have been helpful, and thank you for your kind words. Big love to you! ❤️

          Reply
  4. Sheryl,

    Thank-you so much for your article! A friend recommended your website to me a couple months ago, and I love coming here when my anxiety peaks, because usually something in your articles helps me refocus and calm down.

    So many thoughts…but I’ll try to keep it brief! 🙂 First, I love how you mentioned the black-and-white mentality of anxiety and perfectionism. I’ve probably struggled with this my whole life, but it only came out in the past couple of years in romantic relationships….and particularly now, in my current relationship. So I’m guessing it’s relationship anxiety?? My boyfriend and I have been together two years and I want more than anything to get married! He also wants to get married, but whenever we try to talk about it, I feel like there’s this wall that immediately comes up between us (in my mind) and I go into major freak-out mode, quickly! My mind tortures me with constant questions like,
    “What if I’m settling?” “That thing he does that annoys me – what if it gets worse in marriage?” “What if I can’t handle the stress of wedding planning?” “What if I would get along better with someone else?” “What if we’re unhappy/distant/always fighting in marriage?”

    Sheryl, my boyfriend is the most loving, kind, patient man I have met and I do love him! But the questions above lead into these spirals that cause me to lose all emotion and actually consider breaking up with him! I don’t REALLY want to do that, but I just seem paralyzed by fear whenever I think of marriage! I’ve dreamt of getting married since I was a little girl, but it’s like now that it’s close, I can’t do it.

    I do go to counseling and I have talked about this with friends, but sometimes they seem to agree with my anxious thoughts, that if I doubt that must mean I need to break up? So I thought I’d see if you had a different opinion. Or anyone else reading this, if you have any advice I’d appreciate it 😀

    Reply
    • You’re describing textbook relationship anxiety and I highly recommend the course :).

      Reply
      • Thank-you for your response! It means a lot to me! 🙂

        I was browsing your courses and noticed you also have a “conscious weddings course.” I already bought your wedding planner (LOL… call me crazy b/c I’m not engaged, but it just looked so good!) So do you think the relationship anxiety or conscious wedding course would be a better fit for me?

        Thank-you!

        Reply
        • Break Free From Relationship Anxiety is my most comprehensive course. If you have any history of anxiety that pre-dated being with your partner, I strongly recommend that course.

          Reply
    • Stella,

      I can completely relate to you, I am recently married and had all these thoughts prior to my engagement. Wondering if our relationship was “right” or praying everyday he’ll propose and wondering if we should break up if he didn’t propose.

      The truth of the matter is, no relationship is perfect, even if you start with someone new there will be a different set of challenges. It’s all about finding a partner who will work with you and support you. Unfortunately when it comes to marriage it’s rare both partners decide their ready for it at same time. I was patient and allowed my partner to catch up to my readiness and giving him the support he needed. I always tried to focus on my hobbies and the things that made me happy outside my partner when I felt like I was overthinking relationship.

      And there’s zero certainty if all your what if questions will come true, because they sound like intrusive thoughts. a good way to answer them is maybe I will get anxious with wedding planning or maybe this maybe that 🤔 but I will deal with it when that time comes. My relationship OCD inflamed worse than ever during engagement but it allowed my partner and I to get closer in some ways due to his support.

      Best of luck to you ❤️

      Reply
  5. ♥♥♥
    Please DO write the book you’re considering to write, as shared with us on the newsletter!

    Reply
  6. Sheryl! Another amazing article. No surprise there :).

    I had a moment with my lovely, sweet partner last night via text. I was talking about how I felt I messed something up related to work and was questioning wether or not this field is even right for me. I was partially hoping she would reassure me and go to great lengths to make me feel better. She was very kind and reassured me, but it almost disappointed me? It is text so of course it’s hard to read tone, but that made my RA turn up the heat a little.

    I thought, similar to Theo, “what if she isn’t supportive or kind or good at making me feel better?” Does this qualify as a RA type thought or may my partner not be suited for my “reassurance/emotional support needs”?

    Reply
    • Sounds like textbook relationship anxiety. I wonder how you would respond to this anxious voice from your wise, grounded, and loving self.

      Reply
  7. Hi there, fellow Sheryl 🙂

    I am in the trenches of RA at the moment with a new partner.

    I had a bit of an anxious moment earlier. Just hours ago my partner and I were relaxing enjoying each other’s company on the couch. I always have connected infatuation with love. I’m learning to uncover that and normally when I feel infatuated I feel relief from the anxiety. I was feeling anxiety AND infatuation though and worried, is there something below this? Are my true feelings showing now that the excited feelings didn’t help?

    Reply
    • Hello fellow Sheryl with an S! Anxiety will keep changing the story until we address the underlying vulnerable emotions: the fear of loss, the risk we take in loving, core shame beliefs about our worthiness, grief. Trying to answer the thought-spin of unanswerable and perpetually changing questions will only land us in more questions.

      Reply
  8. Terrific article! I’m struggling with the lack of infatuation with my new partner. I recently started to see someone, it’s only been a couple months. I definitely had the infamous doubt from the first date and no infatuation stage from the first date.

    Now I’m concerned with realizing I may be better off with someone else. I think of people from my past that I’ve had feelings for, and am concerned I may be better off with them. I long for those infatuated feelings. How does one differentiate between longing for infatuation, thus inner work is needed VERSUS actually needing to leave?

    Reply
    • Hi C,

      I think that one thing that pervasive doubt (including recurring thoughts about exes and other people) does is it prevents us from fully being present and exploring with whoever it is we’re with now.

      Based on Sheryl’s approach and writing on this blog, I doubt she would say that lack of infatuation is ever a sign that you need to leave.

      For perspective, “Needing to leave” is a very strong statement. I can only think of a few situations in which one would “need” to leave, especially immediately. Most of those are if you are in physical or emotional danger. Otherwise, I think it’s worth slowing down, looking inwards, and exploring what’s in front of you… I think Sheryl has lots of posts about the infatuation/honeymoon stage that might be useful to you!

      Reply
  9. wondering if you’ve ever done a post about (any kind of) anniversaries. It’s approaching the one-year anniversary since I went totally cold turkey from Google-based compulsions, and whilst the progress has been great, somehow the idea of the ‘anniversary’ is spiking me a little

    Reply
  10. Hi Sheryl! I loved this article. My whole life I have been looking for a guarantee, that one perfect answer. On the outside, I appear to be comfortable living in gray areas, but my anxiety says otherwise. When it comes to my current relationship with my partner of 1.5 years, I’m completely unsure of what to do – this has to do with red flags.

    My partner is loving, helpful, kind, compassionate, open-minded, and often works on himself. He’s also a recovered alcoholic, sober for 7 years now. He hasn’t relapsed, and his continued use of AA meetings/his support systems help him stay on track mentally. When he isn’t taking care of himself, he tends to self-sabotage a bit in the form of going on his phone too much, distancing himself emotionally, or sleeping in. Yet, because of his addiction struggles, he also often journals, meditates, goes to therapy, and all-around works on himself in a way I’ve never seen someone else work on themselves.

    You list that any addiction is a red flag. Yet, it’s unspecified whether or not there’s a difference if someone is in recovery/managing their addictive symptoms. He always says that the struggles he faces are faced by everyone – the urge to numb out and escape, and addiction is just stigmatized because it’s a more severe manifestation of what we all have within us.

    In your relationship anxiety course, which I am loving, you say that healing from anxiety and OCD is akin to a recovering addict – it never fully goes away, we just learn how to manage it. In that vein, wouldn’t I be categorized as a red flag? I’m getting stuck on this and could really use some guidance. My partner and I aren’t perfect, and I’m relating to/struggling with everything else you discuss in your course – I just now find myself wondering if I’m in a relationship that can never work out, given his struggles with addiction. I know that I am doing the healing work for myself, not for anyone else… but, I would just love a clarification on that red flag. Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Being with someone in recovery is not only NOT a red-flag but I consider it as very positive because you know your partner has effective tools for working with anxiety, depression, and anything else that shows up. As I say in the course, what matters more than anything is a person’s willingness to work on their trouble spots, and that applies to both of you. Clearly you’re both working on yourselves, which is wonderful! Count yourself as lucky.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for your response. This is something that my heart knew, but fear told me otherwise, I think… There’s definitely a willingness to work on his trouble spots – and I am willing too. In that way, I am very lucky.

        Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Is my doubt about my relationship an offshoot of my own anxiety or is it a warning that I’m with the wrong person?

Many people wonder what “relationship anxiety” is and if they are, indeed, suffering from it. They also desperately want an answer to that million-dollar question.

The answer to this question is contained in the assessment. Fill in your information to receive an immediate answer (and a lot of reassurance just from going through the material).

Categories

Struggling with Relationship Anxiety?

Sign up for our free assessment

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest