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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