We live in a culture that seeks to eradicate symptoms. Instead of viewing anxiety and its cohort of cousins, including intrusive thoughts, insomnia, obsessions, and compulsions, as evidence of an internal system that is working in order, our culture sees it as evidence of disorder and cause for elimination. Because anxiety ranges from uncomfortable to unbearable, it’s understandable that we would seek to eradicate it as quickly as possible. But as we’re learning in all realms – from psychology to physical health – when you numb the symptom without addressing the root cause, the underlying issue comes back in another form.
Because I hail from the depth psychological tradition of Carl Jung that recognizes that our symptoms are emissaries from the wise unconscious pointing us in the direction of growth and healing, I’ve never viewed anxiety or intrusive thoughts as evidence of disorder, nor do I seek to eradicate them. On the contrary, I see anxiety is a friend in disguise, for when we listen to its wisdom we are guided into the labyrinthian realms of our deepest fears, our unshed grief and unfinished transitions, and our shame that are ready to heal. Encased inside the anxiety is our roadmap for healing.
Given that I view anxiety as a gift and an embodiment of wisdom, why would I talk about breaking free from anxiety? In other words, why “break free” from something that’s healthy and designed to help us heal?
When I say “breaking free from anxiety” what I mean is that we learn how to stop taking our thoughts at face value and acting on all of our feelings.
We learn to recognize that anxiety is a messenger and a symptom and that in order to reap its wisdom we need to slow down enough to listen.
We learn to create a pause point between the symptoms – the intrusive thoughts or images, the somatic sensations – so that you have a choice regarding how to respond.
The work of healing is not about eliminating anxiety; that’s not possible. The trajectory is to learn how to respond differently to your anxiety each time it arises.
When I say ‘breaking free from anxiety” I don’t mean that anxiety will never return.
That’s like saying that you’ll never have a dehydration headache again just because you learn about the importance of drinking enough water. Just like the headache is the symptom alerting you to a physical need, so anxiety is a symptom – a distress flare – alerting you to places inside that need attention.
And here’s the beautiful paradox of inner work: While our intention is not to eradicate the symptoms, when we listen to them and approach them with curiosity and compassion, we begin to heal at the root, which ultimately reduces the symptoms. The more we fill the well of Self, the less our wise inner systems need to toss up distress flares of symptoms.
Even so, as far as I understand it, intrusive thoughts and projections are not likely to disappear completely. They may change hooks, traveling from relationship anxiety to health anxiety to parenting anxiety to career anxiety as each of these areas carries its own metaphors and portals into parts of ourselves that need attention, but to expect anxiety to disappear is unrealistic and will only lead to frustration when you notice a new hook or the old one rearing its head once again.
The intrusive thoughts come. The anxiety arrives. The body waves its flag of distress in the form of insomnia and sometimes illness. These symptoms of anxiety don’t change. But what changes – and I cannot emphasize this enough – is our response to the anxiety. This is where we hold all of the power.
When it comes to relationship anxiety, which is how many people find their way to my work, breaking free from anxiety means that you hear the projection but you don’t believe that it’s true. You recognize the voice inside that says, “I’m not attracted to my partner right now” or “Something is wrong” or “My partner said something so stupid at dinner just now”, and instead of running with the fear-based baton that wants to interpret these statements as evidence that you’re with the wrong person, when you’ve broken free from the stranglehold of anxiety you have enough of an internal witness to say, “These are my intrusive thoughts/projections. They feel true and sound convincing, but I know they’re not. When I have some time, I will journal with the underlying fears, grief, and beliefs that are encased inside the projections.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The concepts and tools are simple, but
breaking free from the magnetic allure of believing that the projections are true is the hardest work in the world.
Why is it so hard? Because projections are a brilliant defense mechanism designed to protect you from the risk of loving, the risk of being vulnerable, the risk of letting yourself be known. Once you soften the projections, you’re left with the core fears and root causes of your relationship anxiety, which are your fear of loss, unshed grief, and your fear that you’ve not worthy of love and belonging. These core fears and pain etch so deeply into the most tender layers of our hearts that to look at them directly is almost like looking at the sun; we cannot do it without protection and support.
Every week in my small group calls on relationship anxiety we touch down into the vulnerable territory of these root causes: the fear of loss, the grief, and the core shame belief that you’re not worthy. In the loving container of the group, the members feel safe enough to travel into these regions and share at a depth that they rarely share in groups (if ever). It’s through these groups that I’ve seen firsthand the power of healing in community, especially when you’re all struggling with the same issue.
It’s for this reason that I’ve decided to run a live version of my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course. Since 2010, thousands of people have taken this course and found their clarity and their freedom, and I’m excited to guide you personally and actively through each of the fourteen lessons via weekly emails while also offering an opportunity to connect with me directly on the group calls. We can heal alone, but we heal so much more effectively in a group with a guide, as it’s through these avenues that we know that we’re not alone and we can receive weekly encouragement to sift through the outer material and inner work in a measured, doable way.
Together, we can heal. Together, we can soften fear and grow love. Together, we can grow the loving inner parent that can meet the thoughts with discernment and attend to the underlying feelings with compassion. This is at the heart of my work, and this is what you will learn in the course.
To learn more, read testimonials, and sign up, click here. The live version will start on June 7th, 2020, and I very much look forward to meeting you there.