When fear pricks the heart it flies in the face of every message about love we absorb from the culture: that love should provide a safe haven against the storms of life; that love should be easy; that love and fear are mutually exclusive, and that if fear enters the picture it means something is wrong.
Nothing could be further from the the truth. One of the most profound messages my life-changing therapist who I saw in my twenties shared with me is that the depth of the love is equal to the depth of the fear. In other words, each time you deepen the love – each time you move toward your partner and strengthen your intimacy – the fear deepens as well. Imagine that there are two wells living inside of you: a well of love and a well of fear. The well of love is filled with warm, sparkling water. The well of fear is filled with cold, lifeless water. Every time the waters in the well of love deepen, the waters in the well of fear deepen as well. They are twin forces in the chamber of the heart. You will not meet one without the other.
I write a lot about the connection between fear and love, and I often say that love is scary. But why is love so scary? Let’s break it down.
Love is scary because we’ve been hurt. We’ve been rejected by parents, teachers, friends, siblings, and peers. We’ve been made to feel not enough. We’ve been yelled at or abused. We’ve been made fun of, teased, and bullied. The more I sit with clients and listen to their stories the more I’m convinced that childhood bullying – ranging from teasing to physical attacks – has a debilitating effect on one’s sense of self-worth. And the more I listen the more I hear that nearly everyone was the victim of bullying in some form to some degree at some point in their life. So even if you grew up with loving parents, chances are quite high that you’ve been hurt somewhere else.
Love is scary because we’ve been heartbroken by past lovers. We’ve known what it is to love and expose ourselves in all of our vulnerability, to open up the raw inner caves of being, and to have someone walk away. We’ve cried hot tears that seared at the inner lining of our hearts. If love can hurt that badly, of course the fear-walls rise up to protect us from ever being hurt like that again.
Love is scary because we’ve known loss. We’ve lost others: friends, siblings, parents, partners, pets. We’ve lost homes, cities, and jobs. We’ve lost ourselves in enmeshed relationships. To be human is to know loss. There’s no way around it. And every time we allow a relationship to unfold or deepen, every time our partner stands before us naked and ready to walk to the next level together, every time a new stage of life invites the deepening – a wedding, a child leaving home, a career change, retirement – the heart remembers these losses and shies away in self-protection. Why would we risk when we know the pain of loss?
Love is scary because the closer we move to love, the we dissolve ego boundaries. Love is one of the most powerful boundary-dissolvers available to us, meaning that, when we let down our guard and risk being vulnerable, love offers us a taste of oneness. When we merge sexually with a loving partner the ego dies a little and we’re offered a window into the realm of oneness. This is why the French term for orgasm is “little death.” And yet we are not one on this earth; we are two. And the ego doesn’t want to die. The ego shouldn’t die, in fact, for it serves a healthy function in terms of maintaining an appropriate and necessary boundary. We need our separate selves. We are not meant to merge into a perpetual state of oneness. The ego knows this and juts up to protect us when it senses we’re moving in too close. And yet its need to protect is closely connected to its own self-preservation. In other words, there’s a fine line between having a healthy ego-boundary and allowing the fear-based ego to control your actions and keep your loved one at arm’s length.
Oh, the paradoxes and challenges of loving well! How much we don’t understand and how many lies we’re fed by a culture predicated on misguided ideals about love based on fantasy and illusion! We simply don’t understand that love and fear live in the same chamber of the heart. We don’t understand that where there is real love, there will be real fear, and that it takes a lifetime of focused attention and commitment to work effectively with the fear so that you can allow healthy love to flourish.
For those suffering from relationship anxiety, this is the critical juncture and point of discernment so essential to shifting from unmanageable anxiety to manageable fear: when fear arises to say “I’m scared” and meet the fear with compassion and tenderness instead of assigning meaning to that fear by saying, “I’m scared and and therefore it means there’s something wrong.” The core fear is healthy and normal. The core fear means that you’re deepening your capacity for love. The core fear is a sign that you’re being intimate and vulnerable. The core fear indicates that your partner is available and that you’re in a relationship where there’s real potential to love deeply and freely. But because nobody teaches us that fear will arise at some point in an intimate, vulnerable relationship, we can only assume that its presence is a sign that it’s time to leave. And that’s when natural, manageable fear leads to unmanageable relationship anxiety. Fear is manageable; anxiety is not.
What does it mean to meet your fear? It means to approach it like you would any tender emotion: to hold it like a child, to breathe your warm breath into its cold regions, to name it, to give it a voice, to dance it, to write it, to listen for the image that wants to emerge from its depths and guide you toward the next stage of your loving. Fear will meet the love, and the work then is to allow love to meet the fear. There is wisdom in the fear, if we slow down long enough to hear it and don’t allow our misguided messages to mutate the fear into anxiety. For encased within the fear is unshed grief, lies about your worthiness that you absorbed early in life that are ready to be replaced with the truth, and even guidelines for preserving your necessary separateness. We don’t want to banish the fear, but we also don’t want to run with its distortions.
In the end, hidden inside the fear lives our deepest longing as humans: to hold and be held, to listen and be heard, to love and be loved. When we meet the fear with love, over and over and over again, we mine these riches and settle at last, decades into a marriage, into that safe haven and happily ever after that we were promised so long ago.