Why a Loving Childhood Isn’t Enough to Prevent Anxiety

by | Jun 11, 2023 | OCD | 31 comments

My clients are often bewildered about why they struggle with anxiety given how loving their original family was, and is. “I don’t understand why I have anxiety when my parents were always there for me,” they wonder. Of course, being “there” in practical ways – providing a safe home, clothes, food – is different than being there emotionally. But even when there was imperfect but loving emotional presence (because it’s never perfect), anxiety can still take hold.

Why? Because we are more than just our families.

We are community animals and we’re spiritual beings, which means we need to be connected to both the larger tribe and connected to a source greater than ourselves if we’re going to experience deep and abiding safety in this world. More on this in a moment.

There’s also the tricky element that the more loving a family is, the more the child learns to rely on their parents, and the more aware they are that the loss of their parents would be devastating. It’s far too tenuous to depend on only one or two adults for your sense of safety in this world. The threads of connection must extend beyond the family unit to both the broader community and to a spiritual network.

In other words, we know that because death exists we can lose our parents and if we’re not rooted in community and spirituality, the awareness of the possibility of being separated from the people to whom we are securely attached can create anxiety.

 

The First Intrusive Thought

This is why, I believe, the first intrusive thought that often shows up for highly sensitive children is, “What if my mom dies?” I’ve heard countless versions of a similar story of a young child – often 6 or 7 years old – standing at the window waiting for the primary parent to come home and imagining the worst. This is often when intrusive thoughts, and subsequent compulsions, begin.

From the fear of death comes the offshoots of the more commonly discussed intrusive thoughts and OCD iterations, all of which carry the need for safety at the core:

If my hands are clean enough, I won’t get sick and die (I’ll be safe).

If I’m the “right” sexual orientation, I’ll be accepted (acceptance is safety).

If I scan my body enough I’ll prevent a horrible illness.

And later in life…

If I worry enough about my children they won’t get hurt (they’ll be safe).

If I obsess enough about whether or not I’m with the “right” partner I can guarantee (have certainty) that I won’t get hurt down the road (and, thus, remain safe).

The Need for Safety is at the Root

The need for safety arrives early in life; we could say as early as the day we’re born. Physical safety is a biological imperative; if we’re not physically safe we might die.

But attachment research shows that emotional safety – our ability to bond with a loving and responsive caregiver – is also an imperative. We might not physically die without attuned caregiving but we wither away emotionally.

Hence, we could say:

Attachment = Safety

 

Let’s delve more deeply into what creates true safety.

Why the Way We Talk about Secure Attachment is Incomplete

When we talk about secure attachment in children we focus almost exclusively on the parent-child relationship. We’re told that if a parent is emotionally attuned to their child, the child will feel safe. And that this safety will protect the child from anxiety, depression, and other mental challenges.

But this is only part of the picture.

Attachment theory has it right that connection to caregivers is key. But, again, we are more than just our family unit.

What I am proposing is that we must extend our understanding of connection to beyond just the nuclear family. Again, what I have seen repeatedly in my work with those struggling with anxiety and OCD is that you can come from a very loving childhood with parents who were deeply connected to you and did their best to attune emotionally yet still struggle to feel safe in the world.

The Connection Between Community and Living Your Genius

Even if your parents weren’t emotionally attuned, there should have been at least one other adult in your life who “got” you – who delighted in your presence and recognized your spark of genius.

Genius? Yes. Each and every one of you has a spark of genius, and part of feeling connected to the whole depends on discovering and expressing this genius.

By “genius” I don’t mean that everyone is a Bach or an Einstein. I mean that everyone has a gift, a reason for being here, and that part of taking our place in the order of things – our place of belonging which creates safety – is to live from this gift.

I love the way mythologist Michael Meade talks about genius in his brilliant book, The Genius Myth:

“In the same way that each infant arrives with a unique set of fingerprints as well as precise brain printing, each soul bears an inner imprint and unique psychic patterns… More than raw talent or potential ability, genius gives a person their unique way of being in and contributing to the world.”

And later he writes:

“The antidote for the isolation and disassociation so characteristic of modern life lies in finding again the ancient wellsprings of human imagination and the personal thread to the underlying continuity of life. For there is a myth at the heart of things and a hidden wholeness underlies the world.” (p. 21)

This, too, has spiritual repercussions: when we’re connected to our genius we trust our place of the belonging in this world. Even if something happens to our parents, we’re seen by a broader community and offering our genius connects us to the whole. No longer only dependent on one or two people for connection, we feel safe.

Again, it comes back to safety.

 

Belonging = Safety

 

Spiritual Attachment Creates Deep Safety

Even being attached to a loving and reliable community isn’t enough; we also need to be connected to a spiritual source. It’s these two additional sources of connection – to loving adults other than one’s parents and to a sense of interconnectedness that transcends the human realm – that offers children true and deep safety.

Everyone has their own way of connecting to a spiritual source. For some children, it’s through their connection to nature: a special tree that holds them when they’re feeling sad, the forest that embraces their love of mystery and magic, the ocean that soothes them.

For other children, they feel most deeply rooted in something bigger than themselves when they’re are connected to their passion and their purpose – to their genius.

Still other children, especially those on a highly sensitive and spiritual spectrum, are acutely aware of other realms, the ancestral realm, the fairy realm, the invisible realm that is rarely talked about and mainstream culture.

When these places are honored in children and mentored in the community, children experience deep belonging, which quells the fear of separation that is at the root of anxiety and OCD.

 

Creating Safety as Adults

The good news is that what we didn’t receive as children we can repair as adults. This means creating doing our best to create loving and consistent adult attachments and creating and committing to a personal, meaningful spiritual practice.

I want to emphasize here, as I often do, that by spiritual I don’t mean religious. When I talk about spirituality I’m referring to our capacity and innate need to connect to something greater than ourselves through practices that are aligned with who we are: with nature, poetry, prayer, yoga, meditation, rock climbing, surfing, flying, and a thousands other ways.

I differentiate between spirituality and religion because many people who find their way to my work have experienced religious trauma and, thus, associate religion with spirituality. This is problematic because, while religion was birthed from our need for spiritual connection, it does not own the copyright on it by any means. Our spiritual hunger is greater than ever likely because there has been a mass exodus from organized religion; what was once met in the walls of churches. mosques, or synagogues has now gone underground. And yet the need for spiritual sustenance remains the same.

We are still the young child that needs to know that are loved by an unending source of love that transcends this finite, human realm, and that we’re connected to something vast, mysterious, and beautiful beyond words that is always holding us and protecting us. These are archetypal mother and father energies – nourishing mother-love and protective father-love (and please remember that the archetypal realm has nothing to do with gender) – and they’re always available to us. What we lacked from our personal mother or father we can receive from Great Mother or Father – what some might call Divine Mother or God.

When we learn to connect consistently to these infinite and sustainable sources of love and protection, we feel safe.

And when we feel safe – bone and soul safe – the type of safety that cannot be taken away – intrusive thoughts, obsessions, anxiety, worry, and compulsions fall away.

***

Finding and deepening your spiritual roadmap is what I teach in my 30-day course, Grace Through Uncertainty. The next live round will start on June 24th, 2023, and I very much look forward to meeting you there.

My live courses also meet some of our need for community in that you’ll be going through the material with a global group of like-minded learners, which allows you to feel inspired by and held in a larger circle. This, too, is healing.

The two times for the live coaching calls are as follows (keep in mind that only about 1/4 of the participants are generally able to attend the live calls and you will still benefit from the recording):

Call 1: Tuesday, June 27th at 11am ET

Call 2: Tuesday, July 11th at 4pm ET

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31 Comments

  1. Wonderful, as always. I think of a genius, roughly, as someone who sees things other people don’t see. Since we all perceive the world in our unique way, we all have the capacity for genius. I also think a huge part of overcoming Relationship Anxiety is learning to see the genius in our partner.

    Thanks again

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    • Thank you, Joshua. And YES to your last sentence! I love that.

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  2. Thank you for this. As a mother to a sensitive 4yo and being sensitive myself, I struggle with how to talk about God (recovering Catholic) to my son, but I also know in my heart that Divine Spirit is Truth and when my anxiety spirals I always come back to “God”/Divine Love, etc. Looking forward to starting your Grace Through Uncertainty- it speaks directly to my anxiety/worry struggle as a newish mom!

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you’ll be on the course, Ashley. Great timing :).

      Reply
  3. Oh my goodness, Sheryl. Your words met many soul needs for me today. I look forward to discussing with you soon. Thank you 🙏🏻

    Reply
  4. This explains so much that I was sensing but not clearly seeing. Thank you so much 🙏🏻

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  5. YES. Thank you. I read this sentence over and over again: “while religion was birthed from our need for spiritual connection, it does not own the copyright on it by any means.” It speaks to me because I was raised religious but I was always aware of the meaningfulness of connecting to the spiritual realm/God in ways that 1. often resonated with my religious experience but 2. also often *didn’t* resonate with my religious experience (at least the religious experience it seemed others were guiding me toward). As I got older, the separation between my experience of “religion” and my own encounters of God (or what felt truly loving) diverged more and more. I’m still exploring where organized religious and/or spiritual community falls in my life these days.

    It’s also healing to hear it’s not all about the parent connection, but also connection to my genius/creative self and secure attachment to the spiritual world. That resonates very deeply. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Your experience around religion and spirituality is shared by thousands and thousands of people, Jamie! Thank you for articulating it so beautifully here.

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  6. Sheryl, if you didn’t have that person that you can remember who “got you” when you were a child? Would that impact you? When I was younger I longed for a sibling and then longed for my baby I loss, could this be connected to having someone who got me?

    Reply
  7. Wow, Sheryl. My jaw dropped when I read “This is why, I believe, the first intrusive thought that often shows up for highly sensitive children is, “What if my mom dies?” This is the first anxiety thought I can remember having and it did first come up around age 6 or 7. It was (and still may be) my worst fear. My mother tells a story to illustrate the difference at that age between me in and my brother that we laugh at as a family, but also find heartbreaking — we grew up Catholic and attended mass every Sunday. As kids, we were fascinated by Saint Catherine’s bones on display in the cathedral. My brother once asked my mom, “Mommy, when you die, can I have your bones?” And I asked, “Mommy, when you die, can I die with you?” I think about this a lot and still feel a great deal of emotion about it. Even as I write this, tears are streaming down my face. Anyway. I don’t know why I’m sharing all this other than to say: this post made me feel so seen. I never thought this was a common thing among HSPs. Thank you. <3

    Reply
    • Your story certainly illustrates the difference between an highly sensitive and a typically wired child, and I’m so glad you felt seen by the post. You are far from alone!

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    • Desi, I don’t know if you’ll see this response or not since it’s a day later, but I just wanted to share that your story made me cry as well. From one highly sensitive kid to another, sending you a huge hug.

      Reply
      • I cried too!

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  8. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Sheryl. It’s interesting because an element of lack of safety in that realm that pops up for me is around not being good enough and therefore accepted (and safe) unless I am really living truly from my genius (but that is our externally focused worldview that says our worth is tied to what we do/put out in the world). But I know that genius isn’t something external, but something internal we may be drawn to share. I’d be really interested to hear more deeply your perspectives on the genius part and what it looks like to move towards living from our genius, especially learning how to discover that when we had no adults see this as a child. It feels like the deeper element of career anxiety. Although genius brings safety, I feel as though we need a level of safety in order for our genius to be uncovered as it doesn’t come from the anxious mind. I wrote a couple of questions in my diary that I thought may be worth sharing: How do we live in a place of safety when we aren’t yet living from our genius? What does it look like to be patient with our unfolding genius? Clue, I don’t think it’s anxiously thinking ‘What is my genius? What is my genius?!’ Curious, thank you ☺️

    Reply
    • Yes, excellent questions, George. I strongly recommend reading “The Genius Myth” as I think it will help put some of these pieces into place.

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      • Wonderful, thank you 😊

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  9. Hi Sheryl. I’m so grateful I’ve found your work. I’m planning on taking the relationship anxiety course as soon as I can. I have always been sensitive and anxious, and have had the gamut of intrusive thoughts on and off. I’m currently experiencing acute relationship anxiety as I reflect on 2 relationships I’ve found myself stuck on. I was with someone on and off for about a decade, since college, and we have had serious communication issues, he has struggled with his mental health, marijuana and video game addictions, arguments, etc. We broke up after a number of lies occurred, hiding things, explosive fights, etc. During this time I started dating someone new. Someone who really had everything together. Was incredibly loving, kind, dependable, genuine- everyone loved him. I kept feeling like maybe he’s not smart enough or we don’t have an intellectual connection, maybe we don’t bounce off each other like we should. I would be irritated by him and lash out. I ended that relationship and started seeing my ex again but I’m having these feelings of regret and anxiety. I can see that this ex wants to change and wants to be better, but there a lot of things like the smoking weed, etc. that feels like talk more than action and it’s been a decade. I’m so stuck between making the right decision here I’m just paralyzed.

    Reply
    • I guess I should also note the more volatile ex has helped me through time periods where my own mental health was really bad, which makes that relationship feel like safety to me. But I wonder if it’s trauma bonding or something.

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  10. This article is so timely. I just began reading “The Spiritual Child” by Lisa Miller. I am also a recovering Catholic and have been searching for a way to introduce spirituality to my children. I want them to feel connected to something bigger than themselves. I loved this last part of your post “We are still the young child that needs to know that are loved by an unending source of love that transcends this finite, human realm, and that we’re connected to something vast, mysterious, and beautiful beyond words that is always holding us and protecting us.” Beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  11. “while religion was birthed from our need for spiritual connection, it does not own the copyright on it by any means”
    This is genius!

    Reply
    • More on this in my upcoming webinar on Monday 🙏🏽.

      Reply
  12. I can relate to this article 100%. To this day (I am 31) still struggle sometimes with the thought “what if my parents die”. It is not something that gives me spiraling anxiety daily. But since I do struggle with relationship anxiety, it triggers an after thought of the initial though “what if my marriage doesn’t work out”. I then go to “what would happen once I am older and my parents are not around, who will be there to care for me & love me, i will be lonely”. It is a horrible thought to process and truthfully hate to imagine as loosing my parents or my husband would be earth shattering to experience. Although, doing the work (as I take your RA course) has helped me understand these thoughts and where they stem from sometimes it can take over so quickly and the spiraling begins. Other times I sit with it and ask myself what is this thought really about and give myself compassion as this is a scary thought for everyone. Us sensitive souls can take this and multiply it by a hundred fears. Thank you for helping us who struggle with this feel seen and heard and not alone.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you’re starting to find some space around the thoughts and are able to find a more compassionate response at times. This is freedom.

      Reply
  13. Dear sheryl,

    I’m so so thankfull for your work.
    Which course would you recommend.
    I’m in a relationship with a really great guy. He is 20 years older tham me. Since the beginning of our realtionship i’m struggling with my feelings for him. From this day, he told me, that he loves me. My feelings were dead. I have that inner knowing, that i love him and dont wont to lose him, but which course would be the best for. When i think i have to break his heart it makes me anxious and i don’t want to do it. I had pOCD and hOCD several years ago. I dont have intrusive thoughts only seeing his flaws. And this loosing of feelings i know from past relationahips.

    Thank you for your advise.

    Reply
      • Hi Sheryl or Community,
        I need some assurance for my course. I’m reading through the course since one week and also have done some of the exercises. I find myself in so many descriptions (Projection, Fear, good girl, thinking that I’m better than my bf). But I’m always thinking is it really me or should I leave my relationship, because I’m not anxious, I don’t have intrusive thoughts, I’m a extrovertet person, I’m not highly sensitive.

        Thank you

        Reply
        • Anna: The best place to receive support about the course is on the forum. If you’re having trouble accessing the forum please contact Kathryn, my assistant: [email protected]

          Reply

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