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.”
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