Anxiety can hang its hat on almost any hook. It can focus on relationships, fertility, parenting, health, the world, money, career, death. Within each of these topics, there are endless sub-topics that lure anxiety into its lair. If we’re talking about relationship anxiety, for example, the hook can be: lack of physical attraction, lack of sexual attraction, focusing in any area of perceived lack (education, intelligence, social fluency, humor, wit, height, ambition), religious differences, we never had an infatuation stage, or just a pervasive sense that the relationship is “wrong”.
But what if I haven’t listed your particular hook? Does that means this work doesn’t apply to you? That’s the classic response from the anxious mind!
So when I receive emails like the following…
Have you written anything on being in a relationship with significant age gaps, socioeconomic differences or previous marriage and kids in the picture? I’m curious about whether all these differences add up to a red flag and I would love to read anything you have on the topic!
…my response is always some version of the following: None of these differences are red flags. Just different hooks that anxiety can hang its hat on. Apply everything I’ve written on anxiety to these stories and you’ll eventually find clarity and freedom. In the end, it has nothing to do with the story, and the more you energy you give the story, the more that story will grow. Turn your attention to what’s embedded inside the story and you’ll move the energy.
One of the reasons why I’m underwhelmed by many mainstream models for managing with anxiety is that they deal with each hook individually instead of understanding that the hook is merely the current story that anxiety is hanging its hat on. As such, a hook like “What if I’m with the wrong partner?” is handled at the level of the story instead of the level of soul. For if we understand that anxiety is a messenger from our souls inviting us to move toward more wholeness, we shift our perspective and cease to seek short-term solutions. Instead, we become curious about this invitation from within. What is my soul wanting me to know? If I listen closely, what might I hear?
I’ve written about the phenomena of story-hopping in my post, “Anxiety is a Game of Whack-a-Mole“, but as it comes up so regularly, I feel compelled to expand on it. One of anxiety’s secret tools is that it looks for the loophole, the one topic or bit of information that will prove to the ego that you’re the exception, that you’re the worst-case scenario, that while-this-work-may-sound-great-it-doesn’t-apply-to-you-as-you’re-not-actually-suffering-from-relationship-anxiety-you’re-just-in-the-wrong-relationship. Sound familiar? Ego is masterful at undoing any information or experience that threatens its existence, which means anything that invites you to grow beyond your comfort zone and take a risk. And there is nothing more risky than loving, nothing more risky than exposing your heart and soul to an available, willing, honest, present partner.
The more we name ego’s tactics for keeping us stuck, the easier we can break free from its stronghold. So when the mind pipes up and says something like, “The fact that Sheryl has never written about age differences must mean that this work doesn’t apply to me and it’s a real red flag,” it’s easy to take the bait. And if you do a Google search on “success of relationships with age differences” you’ll likely find a spectrum of opinions ranging from the best to the worst outcomes. Ego will then scan the articles to seek out confirmation for its fear, which is why Googling your hook is never, ever a good idea.
One of my long-term clients who struggled with relationship anxiety years ago is now, after two years and two miscarriages, in her second trimester of pregnancy and struggling with anxiety. Like many women, she thought she just had to get through the first trimester for her anxiety would dissipate but, no, anxiety keeps rearing its head until we learn the lessons – and we tend to learn the same lessons at deeper layers of the spiral over and over again. The lessons for her – as for most of us when it comes down to it – are about learning how to make room for natural fear while also practicing surrender and letting go of control, reeling in her fear-mind so that it doesn’t take center stage and growing her cognitive truth-telling abilities. Different story, same lessons, deeper layers.
The difference this time around is that, with the skills and tools she gained through working diligently to break through her relationship anxiety, she’s able to witness her process without getting sucked into it, and when she does fall into the muddy morass of fear she’s able to pull herself out more quickly. As she shared in our last session:
“My second trimester fear-story is that my baby isn’t developing normally. But this time I’m watching the story building, I can see the process happening, and I’m like, ‘Oh, right, here’s my mind doing this fear thing again.'”
“Right, like it’s spinning all of the evidence to support this new story and weaving it together until it’s like a tightly spun web.”
“Yes, exactly. So I’m watching it and then I have moments when I can break through it and connect to my deeper faith that the baby is fine. When I really tune in, I know that everything is fine. But when I’m in fear I see everything differently. When fear is at the helm, I could swear to you that my stomach hasn’t grown at all. But then I break through the fear and I look like a beach ball!”
“Isn’t it amazing how fear distorts perception!”
“Yes. It’s like with relationship anxiety: He could go from looking like a beast to Prince Charming in a single day. And because I’m aware of how fear works, I can work with it more effectively now.”
This is why I often say that anxiety is a gift. When we grab it by the horns and delve into its center, we emerge with consciousness, tools, and practices that will serve us for the rest of our lives. When people find me in the throes of their relationship anxiety and bemoan their horrible fate of being pulled into the underworld of fear around their relationship, they often ask, “Why me? Why now? Why doesn’t anyone around me struggle in this way?” To which I respond, “I can answer those questions, but what I really want to impart to you is that anxiety is a gift, and it’s an ever bigger gift when it hits early in your life or in the early months or years of your relationship because what you will learn now will serve you during every transition of your life. You can’t see it now, but one day you will.” Invariably, they come back to me months or years later and say, “You were right. I couldn’t see it at the time but now that I’m [pregnant, moving, in a career change, losing a loved one] I can see how much I’ve learned. I’m walking through the changes and challenges of life with more ease, grace, and joy.”
What are your hooks/stories and what are the best ways you’ve found for handling them effectively and breaking through to the root cause?