This is What it Takes to Heal from Shame and Anxiety

by | Apr 28, 2019 | Anxiety, Relationships | 41 comments

When I was in graduate school twenty-five years ago, we learned many essential principles and tools for becoming a skilled healer in the counseling arts. We thoroughly covered various modalities, including the depth psychological perspective that informs all of my work, and spent countless hours practicing the sacred art of listening, tending, and receiving. But there is one element that was left out – or at least it wasn’t explicitly discussed as an essential ingredient for healing – and it took me years before I understood why. It’s the element of love.

Now I understand why this element isn’t discussed in graduate schools for psychology and counseling. For one, when you’re in the position of a healing practitioner you carry a particularly strong responsibility to your client, and all-too often, as we’re hearing about in increasing and heart-wrenching numbers, the person in the position of leadership takes advantage of their client or congregant. There is no excuse for this egregious behavior; it’s an unspeakable violation and there are hardly words for the level of damage that it does. Because our culture crosses wires around love and sex and we don’t seem to understand that love can and must exist without sex in every relationship except with your committed partner, it makes sense that a discussion of love would be missing from the curriculum.

Just as we learn that one aspect of relationship anxiety stems from our cognitive distortions around what real love is, so we see that even in the healing realm our culture’s distorted and limited understanding of the word love limits our capacity to access the various ways that love reveals itself. As I wrote about and quoted from the great Jungian analyst Robert Johnson in this post, the English language itself suffers from a tragic paucity of words for love:

Sanskrit has ninety-six words for love; ancient Persian has eighty, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have thirty words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of thirty words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.”

The second reason that the discussion of the healing power of love is avoided in clinical circles is because it’s not a skill that can be taught. The love we, as people in the healing professions, feel for our clients and patients is not something that can be studied, tested, or graded. It’s something we feel from our pores to our souls. It’s a way of seeing the true beauty in a human being. It’s a mindset that looks for wholeness instead of brokenness, for evidence of strength instead of symptoms that lead to a diagnosis of pathology. It’s not only the way we see our clients; it’s the way we see life: as full of goodness and on a trajectory of hope.

When I say I love my clients and course members it’s a love that rises from the depths of my being as I see and witness the beauty of who these people are. And it is in that seeing – in that clear witnessing – that some of the layers of their shame stories – the ones that say “I’m not enough or broken or weird or too much” – are rinsed away. Shame finds healing in the clear gaze of another. I am not afraid to communicate love because I know from where that love arises, and I know that there is nothing more healing than being seen in the fullness of who you are and loved in all of your intrinsic glory. When people come to me wondering, “Am I okay?” and I look them in the eyes and say, “You’re okay, it’s all normal,” these are not just words. I know them in my bones. Just like when I look at my children I can see their areas of struggle but I hold these struggles within the context of their deep, abiding, stunning goodness, beauty, and wholeness

A course member recently thanked me for “seeing the holy in the human”. Those were humbling words to read, and when I took them in I could see that they’re quite true: I strive to see essence in all beings, and I open myself hourly to serve a field higher than myself. Through my spiritual practices, I traverse between the worlds of heaven and earth, the practices a gold and silver thread that seek to weave the two realms together. When I see the essence of a human, I am, indeed, seeing the holy, which is another way of saying I see their spirit of only love.

It is love that sustains us. It is love that inspires us to grow. It is love that heals. And as Jason Mraz sings, “Love is still the answer.



  1. Sheryl, I just watched a new documentary series on the History channel about Jesus’ life. The realization I had is that Jesus is never portrayed as perfect, but as fully human. Throughout his life, he felt and displayed aggression, fear, and struggle. Even as he accepted his death on the cross, he cried out to God in helplessness. This dramatically shifted my perspective to seeing the holy in the human. None of us are meant to reach a place of God-like perfection. In fact, it was not even expected of Jesus himself. My new belief is that we are meant to love the imperfections in ourselves, others, and our lives, and use them to bring us closer to God.

    • YES, Linda! That’s a common misconception in religious and spiritual circles and it’s liberating when it can be debunked.

      • It was a huge revelation for me.

    • Thank you Linda. This is a revelation to me too!

    • Linda, thanks from me too! Yes!

  2. I hadn’t heard this song before now but it’s so beautiful I think I have to add it to my wedding playlist! 🙂

  3. Hi Sheryl,

    I found this a little spikey. Only because I believe I love my partner but not in the “right” way. Although often I doubt if I truly love him, because again I go back to feelings and analyze them or the lack of them. I know I’ve mentioned this fear to you before and you had pointed out that this is quite common and perhaps pointing to my own sense of unworthiness, which I can see. I guess it’s spikey trying to qualify love and to me, having so many different words can be beneficial to describe different kinds of love, but equally upsetting because then I believe I don’t have the “right” kind of love with my partner. Any advice for this? Sometimes I think perhaps it’s a good thing we only have the single word in the English language because that way for people like me, we don’t have even more reason to over analyze our relationships to see if we have the “right” kind of love. What are your thoughts on this? I just believe when we try to quantify and dissect love, it can mean “right” or “wrong” when it comes to our partners. I think love changes, is flexible and can’t be quantified when it comes to our partner. But I still feel like I don’t have the “right” kind of love with him. But I also believe everything can be grown here as well.

    • Hi Sheryl,

      I’m hurt that you haven’t replied or acknowledged my comment. I don’t mean to sound rude. But I feel completely ignored.

      • I’m so sorry I missed your comment. What I’m hearing is that you’re focusing on the feeling of love instead love as action. Love is what you give. That’s all. If you’re focused on what you’re getting or feeling, you’re putting your energy in the wrong place and you’ll stay stuck.

        • Thank you, Sheryl! I appreciate the response. I believe you’re right.

          Why is it so difficult to give? I look inside of my heart to see how my partner lands inside and if it’s authentic or not. I just imagine that my heart would feel settled and my partner and our relationship would feel “right” and hit a spot in my heart. It would feel good in my heart and then I could give. But I suppose in my situation, I should just be aware of my heart but still try to give anyway? It just feels like I’m not giving from my heart and I don’t know how.

          • Yes you give anyway even if you don’t “feel” it. This is part of how we grow the muscle of loving as a verb.

  4. Dear Sheryl,
    I am sorry for posting again but I need help/advice!! I feel so bad right now 🙁
    I was going trough the course but I am just at section 1, lesson 2. At page 11 of this document you mention red flags… I don’t know why but I was highly spiked by this and couldn’t stop but headed fast to lesson 6, where red flags are explained… I was so afraid and wanted to check, because I am so afraid right now that our relationship is toxic/has red flags!! I scrolled through the list and read the thing about the partner being a narcissist/sociopath.

    I‘m so afraid now that my partner may be one! Today I spend hours and hours googling and searching for facts about narcissism/sociopathy… but I am still not sure!! My boyfriend is someone who has very high self-confidence and he does not care what other people think. He says he likes himself pretty much and often he says things like „yeah I am so great“. I always perceived this more like something he is saying jokingly and mostly he just says this things when we are alone or just with his closest family, he doesn’t says this sayings when we’re in public – but now I think maybe he is an narcissist?? He can besides this say/admit when he is not good at something but most of the time he is a very confident person and for example proud of how hard he works (as I have mentioned before, he really works quite much).
    He is not lying, he is not mean to me and he has never prohibited things or tried to bar me from something.
    But in the beginning of our relationship he was jealous sometimes or a little worried when I went to a party on my own (we were about 17/18 at that time).
    I know that he had some problems with belonging/fitting in at school in his teenage years and that he sometimes had arguments/conflicts with classmates or teachers because he was kind of bold. He says of himself today that he often was not a very nice pupil and that he knows now that his behavior was inappropriate. He didn’t like going to school in general and didn’t like most of the other pupils. Today he also does not have that much „real“ friends. He has many acquaintances that he likes but he doesn’t consider them as friends. He has about 3 guys whom he really calls friends and to whom he is very loyal and says he would always be there for them. But that’s it.
    What’s also spiking me – he isn’t that empathic as I am. So I am afraid he is lacking empathy in general or I always viewed him in a Wrong way!! He isn’t a HSP like me. I am VERY empathic. Which is sometimes great, I think, but often like a burden. I can put myself in other peoples position or imagine what they are going trough very very easily. He can not do this to this degree. So I am asking myself all the time now „is he normal?? What if he doesn’t feel any empathy at all?? Maybe my opinion of him or how I viewed him has been wrong all the time!! Maybe he is a bad person and I have all this anxiety/doubts/numbness etc. because of him/his behavior!!“ I feel really terrible right now. The last 2 days (since I first thought about maybe he is a narcissist/bad person) I have on and off been convinced that he his and that our relationship is toxic and unhealthy. I feel really awful.

    Since this spike hit me I ruminate all the time about him and his personality/behavior and observe everything, I analyse everything he says/does and ask myself all the time if he may be a narcissist?? What if He his and I didn’t notice this until now?? What if he has been manipulating me for the last 8 YEARS?? Our 8 year anniversary was just yesterday!
    I almost had a full panic attack a short while ago. I couldn’t breath, I felt awful and I cried.

    Sheryl please can you help me. I have been googling and searching on the internet for hours now and read a bunch of checklists On how to spot a narcissist/sociopath and read many stories from women who have been in relationships with narcissists and have suffered so badly … I am so so afraid right now that maybe my boyfriend – who I always thought of being a good person at heart because he always acts loving to me – is a narcissist in reality and all the loving actions where just manipulation or something like that. I feel horrible and like I need to run away from everything and like I have to throw up.

    HOW can I evaluate and clearly(!) detect if someone is a narcissist/sociopath/bad person??
    I am so sad. And I’m sorry for posting again and begging for help. But I feel like I need some advice first. I feel like I can not continue with the course before I have figured this thing out because again I feel like I am the exception and this work does not apply to me!!

    • The spike is a common one, and, as with all spikes, is serving its function, which is to prevent you from doing the course and truly taking responsibility for yourself. As long as you’re focused on him, you won’t turn the magnifying glass into a mirror, and you won’t move along your path of healing. Have you gained access to the forum yet?

      • April Love, I just wanted to share something that may help you with your intrusive thoughts.

        Each time you have the obsessive thought and Google about it, ruminate about it, analyze it, try to “figure it out,” or ask for reassurance, you are making the thought bigger in the brain. Imagine giving the thought a big, nutritious meal – entertaining it will only make it stronger and more prevalent.

        To heal, you need to change your response. Each time the thought pops up, you need to pause before doing any of the above actions, and ask yourself: “Do I want to make this thought stronger? Do I want to lengthen my road to recovery by doing this?” By taking this pause, the energy of the obsessive thought shifts; suddenly, YOU are in control, not the anxiety. You can make an informed, calculate decision, not one based on impulse.

        Always, always take the pause. Like Sheryl said, to heal you need to take full responsibility – not project it onto your partner. I know this is difficult to do, but it is essential. Get comfortable with anxiety. Sit with it. Don’t run away from it or push it away, but allow it to exist. Its power over you will lessen. I’ve found that a daily meditation practice has been the most helpful in not being swept away with thoughts and letting them drift on, in their own time, like clouds in the sky. Hugs to you.

      • The healing doesn’t come once you answer the current question, because another question will come in its place. The healing comes by allowing the question to remain unanswered. With red flags this is particularly hard, I know, but it’s anxiety. Allowing the question to exist without answering it will increase your tolerance for uncertainty and will ultimately set you free.

        • And thank you so much for reply and good advice, A. I truly appreciate this since we don’t even know each other in real life!
          I must admit that this current googling and reassurance seeking is maybe some kind of relapse (I think so at least). Over the last few month I really got „better“ with it. Yes, I still ruminated a LOT and the anxiety still highly affected my daily life, but I was strong enough/disciplined enough to resist the urge to google all the time or scroll trough „quote pages“ or „psychology pages“ on Instagram. Because I’ve done this for a really long time and it didn’t help me in the long run. This is something I can (now) understand logically, anyhow the last two days or so I wasn’t able to stop doing it. Today I am thankfully able to resist it so far. Did you experience this red flags spike too? I genuinely hope it’s really just anxiety…
          Again, thank you so much for your advice. One part of me can understand this and knows that it makes sense. But I think I need much more time for the healing and do the work… otherwise the state of feeling better will probably not last very long.
          Are you engaging in the forum? And does (or did) it help you or rather provided some support ?

      • Thanks Sheryl.
        I hope it is really just another spike… I don’t know how to be sure that my partner is not a bad person. Based on the facts/things I have shared above, would you say that he might be a narcissist or has got such tendencies?
        Unfortunately I haven’t gained access to the forum yet. I signed up for the course last thursday, April 23. So I hope I will be able to join the forum in about one week? I thought just yesterday that I would like to browse the forum and search for this exact spike. Maybe someone else has had it before..

        • Please read through both of A’s responses above. They are spot-on and full of wisdom.

          • Yes, I read them immediately after reading (and responding to) yours and I had already typed in my answer to A but didn’t hit the reply button. I truly appreciate her advice, it’s genuinely nice and supportive. Right now I can look at my partner more „clearly“(?) and see how he acts in a nice and loving way towards me and our two cats but the spike/acute anxiety isn’t gone yet.
            I will try to continue with the course, even if I am still afraid because of this ref flag spike. 🙁

            • AprilLove, I experienced that intrusive thought briefly, but after a day or two of intense panic I put an end to feeding the cycle. I have other intrusive thoughts that are more persistent than that one. I’m glad what I said helped you. It’s what has helped me start to climb out of this anxiety pit that I’ve been in so long. Most of my anxiety has involved red flag issues of some variety, so this is something I understand personally and I know how terrifying it is. But in order to feel better you need to understand that you’re in a projection.

              I don’t use the forum much, but I would probably caution you against using it if you want to ask others for reassurance. I know this is what will make you feel better in the short term, but it will actually make it worse. To heal you need to change your response to the panicky feeling, and it does involve a little faith (no matter your religious belief). Faith that all will be okay.

              • YES to every wise word, A. Thank you for offering your support here. It means the world.

                • Again, thank you very much, A and Sheryl.
                  A, I know that you’re right about the forum. I guess I will only be able to join the forum in about one week anyway. And I will try to keep in mind your advice about it then.
                  I am trying to continue with the course which is hard right now, because the spike is still there (it is just a bit „smoother“ now, not like full panic anymore – but it’s still present).
                  The only thing that calms my mind a little(!) bit is that I can’t pinpoint real cases or situations/events during our relationship where he has really acted bad, cruel, reckless or deceitful. Especially towards me he is in general very loving, caring and good.
                  He only lied to me once and of course I got mad about this. It wasn’t about something very bad itself and he apologized immediately, he seemed to be very sorry about it and we were able to talk about it and resolve it. This happened several years ago. I hope this isn’t something that counts as a red flag or so? I think every human makes mistakes sometimes and I strongly guess that I have neither been the perfect partner 100% of the time. So I just hope everything is ok with our relationship. I am relatively sure that I can rule out alle the other red flags that you have mentioned, Sheryl (especially addiction, abuse etc.).
                  What I try to keep in mind right now is that even if red flags occur you maybe can work through it together and it doesn’t always mean that you necessarily have to leave. I know (e.g.) that my grandparents made it through. My grandpa developed an alcohol addiction (most likely due to several traumatic experiences in his childhood) and of course it affected their marriage negatively. My mom was in her teenage years back then and she told me that it was hard for the whole family and that my grandparents where nearly on the edge of separation/divorce at some time. But they fought and they made it through. My grandpa managed to fully recover from his addiction and as long as I could watched them as a couple they have been some kind of example/role model for me when it comes to marriage. If you didn’t know what they’ve been through together you wouldn’t venture to guess it. They used to be very cute together, affectionate, caring and joyful and you could see trust and deep connection. In the end they had been married for over 57 years – until my grandpa passed away so suddenly a few weeks ago.
                  Their story gives me some hope (in general, not only because of the recovery from

                  I really hope that it will get better and that there are no real red flags in our relationship. Thoughts like „your are lying to yourself“ or „your are just disavowing it“/„you’re just in denial about the bad things“ are coming up but I try not to listen to them or to give them to much meaning. It is so hard but I will try to go on with the course. The old spike of health anxiety (I haven’t had this one for a long time) flared up too, when I read something about a young women who has breast cancer yesterday. But I was able to calm down and not let it accumulate to my mind to strongly. So maybe I will – slowly – get better with my anxiety. But I know that it takes time.

                  Sorry for rambling.
                  I am very very grateful for your blog and your amazing wisdom, Sheryl, and of course also for your wise words, A.

                  • I‘m sorry for the typos/mistakes. English isn’t my native language and it also seems like the autocorrection of my phone does not identify every mistake.
                    (But so another positive aspect of doing this work here is maybe that I will improve my English.)

  5. Reading these blogs are helpful because often a set back for me is thinking that it has been a year, and I’m still struggling with anxiety even after going through the break-free course. Not being patient with myself is causing me to feel shame, guilt, and helpless. I have a couple good days or a week, and then I fall back into the obsessive thinking pattern.

    Lately, a set back thought is “maybe your truth is you have to leave, there’s no red flags but you have to leave because you can’t get over the anxiety/worry. You are resisting the work because you will find out you have to leave. You love him but you will have to leave.” Then my loving self says “there are no red flags, he has everything you ever wanted, why would you leave? This is the first relationship you actually can be yourself, you feel safe and calm in his presence (when anxiety isn’t taking hold). You want to become confident with the uncertainty and you want to grow the love. There’s so much potential, why would you walk away?” (Or maybe loving self say would say yes you can walk away and you will be okay, but that it is not the choice you want to make. Love is a choice).

    A second spike occurs when multiple people will ask “Are you happy (with the relationship)?” I feel a bit unsure of the question at first because when I am not in the midst of anxiety of course I am happy with the relationship; I feel content, calm, and safe. When anxiety isn’t at hold I feel at peace. But then when I am anxious and obsessively thinking I feel a bit unsure of that question.

    However; after reading through the course, it’s not my partner’s responsibility to make me happy or fill my Well, it is my responsibility. I do feel unhappy with myself (not my partner). Then I feel like I’m unhappy because I’m not confident like I used to be when I was younger, and I’m struggling with greeting the anxiety with compassion.

    I hope I’m somewhat on the right path to figuring this all out…

    • You’re on the right track, Nicole. Remember: when you’ve been conditioned to externalize your sense of self and abdicate responsibility – as most people have – it can take a long time to re-wire the brain and create new habits. Also, reading through the course is great, but the real work that will help you break free must include committing to the daily practices, especially journaling and meditation. These practices are what help you grow your loving inner parent so that you can respond to the thoughts and triggers with more equanimity – like when people ask if you’re happy – and tend to the underlying emotions that need your attention.

      • I relate to Nicole so much with the exact same spikes. I’m currently going through a hard time with my boyfriend because he’s done a few things to upset me but I also am blowing them out of proportion and am so worried I am meant to be with someone else. One of my triggers is “he can be a great person and you can love each other but not necessarily right for you/ someone else may be a better fit.” I am so stuck and day after day am caught in my obsessive thinking, and now I’m really upset because he feels guilty. How do I build confidence around trusting him and his feelings and my own? It feels like journaling and meditating don’t do much. Getting out of my head and into my body helps, but only temporality until I am faced with a fear or conflict again. I am praying I’m able to take the break free course but also worried it won’t help.

        • Check your email, Tara. You should have heard back from Kathryn about the course.

  6. Through your writings, courses, and the forum, I feel seen, heard, known, and loved. And in turn I am able to see, know, and love others. It is the agape love that we all so desperately need.

    Thank you, Sheryl, for another beautiful post.

    • Thank YOU, dear Katie, for these beautiful words. x

  7. Beautiful words Sheryl. You brought me to tears.

  8. This might be my favorite post of yours yet, Sheryl. Thank you for guiding me to “me” and helping me find my own essence in my clinical practice. With “love” and extreme gratitude.

    • Thank you, Christy. With love back to you :).

  9. As an asexual person, I so appreciate this post; I feel also that love and romance are too linked in our culture; there can be romance without sex, AND there can be deep love, without romance!

  10. WoW Sheryl, just wow!!! I so see your point….thank you for expressing it so remarkably well <3 Can't wait for your book! I adore the title 🙂

  11. Thank you for this and this beautiful song. I have been wanting to share another song on this site, a song by Coldplay which to me is about the fleeting sensation of, but always present, love.

    • Beautiful. Thank you for sending. x

  12. Sheryl, do you have any writings on the pursuer-distance dynamic? I’m beginning to realize that my fiance and I have different attachment styles, and I’m definitely a pursuer (anxiously attached). Just curious if you’ve talked about this before. It’s sorta a tricky combination.

    • I talk about it in both the Break Free Course and Open Your Heart. I also recommend reading “Attached” and “Hold me Tight.”


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