I was playing a game of solitaire the other night and a memory from childhood floated up to consciousness, followed by a wave of grief. I paused the game and breathed deeply into my heart, allowing tears to arrive and roll down my cheeks. As always with big grief, there was a moment when it felt like the pain might overtake me, but I stayed with it as best I could, allowing the wave to crest and eventually crash and subside.
As I was sitting in the aftermath of this great grief, the solitaire game left unfinished on the couch cushions, the lyrics of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” came into my mind:
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be”
And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be”
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be
Let It Be
I’ve been thinking a lot about this song lately, and how it encapsulates the heart of inner healing work: how we’re not trying to change our experience so much as we’re learning (maybe re-learning) how to be with it. And also, how we’re not alone when we’re feeling our big feelings. “Mother Mary comes to me” represents our connection to the invisible realms, which include nature, ancestors, dream images, and any other allies or human figures who, when conjured through imagination, bring comfort.
In that moment with the cards, I didn’t try to change the grief. I didn’t try to ignore it, bypass it, judge it, or minimize it. I just… let it be. I breathed with it. I cried. I wrote down a few lines of poem. And then it passed through. As I write these words, I feel the grief swelling up in my heart again, and so, again, I let it be here, infusing these very words with the bittersweet beautiful aliveness of being human.
For it’s when I grieve that my heart opens most fully.
It’s when I grieve that I am most connected to my fellow humans.
It’s when I grieve that I am in the flow of life instead of resisting it.
It’s not only grief, of course, that we seek to allow and “let be.” At the heart of working with anxiety and intrusive thoughts is the intention to allow the thoughts and feelings to be here while choosing which ones we want to act on. As I often write, whatever we water will grow, and whatever we let wither will die. With intrusive thoughts, when we learn how to “let them be” without trying to push them away or water them, they eventually wither.
This is a practice, and Paul McCartney understood this.
The Key to Working with Intrusive Thoughts
When it comes to relationship anxiety – or any anxiety/OCD theme – the crux of finding freedom isn’t about trying to get rid of the difficult thoughts and corresponding compulsions; it’s about shifting how we relate to them. And when we shift how we relate to them, the ones we call intrusive become less intrusive because we’re not giving them so much energy.
What’s fascinating about the difference between people who struggle with anxiety or OCD and those who don’t is NOT that those who don’t are somehow immune to random thoughts. It’s that they don’t give them credence. If they have a thought like, “What if I don’t love my partner?” they think, “Hmmm… weird thought,” and they move onto the next moment.
In other words, everyone has the same thoughts, but some people don’t pay much to attention to the ones that we deem as “weird, dark, intrusive, unwanted.” They just… let them be. More sensitive people prone to anxiety have a hard time letting things be. We ascribe meaning to everything, we want to understand everything, we want everything to be just right and just so and, quite often, perfect. This includes not only our outer world in terms of our relationships, career, house, kids but also our inner world in terms of which thoughts and feelings we deem as acceptable.
If only we knew that all thoughts and feelings are acceptable…
If only we were taught early on that thoughts and feelings are not facts…
…how much less suffering there would be.
This is what we learn now, as adults, when we embark on a healing path. We learn to bring a sense of kindness or friendliness to our inner world, to all of our thoughts and feelings and experiences, and also a sense of curiosity.
We learn the art of discernment which allows us to choose which thoughts and feelings to water and which to let be.
We learn how to grow an inner parent and witness so that we can access that all-important choice point.
With relationship anxiety, we learn how to stop interpreting every thought and feeling as evidence that we’re with the wrong person and instead choose which ones to “let be” and which ones to explore what might be embedded within in (we’re NOT exploring the content of the thoughts; we’re exploring the unmet needs and ruptures that live at the core of the thought.)
This is how we heal relationship anxiety at the root: learning accurate information about love, sex, and attraction so that we can correct cognitive distortions, then delving into the deeper work of attending to the scared places inside that are keeping real, available, safe love at arm’s length.
Are you ready to heal? Come join us for my only LIVE round of Break Free From Relationship Anxiety, which will start on Sunday, February 26th, 2023. I look forward to connecting with you there.
And if you haven’t listened to Let It Be in a while, have a listen! I hope it brings you as much comfort as it brings me.
P.S.: If you’re on the fence about taking the course, I encourage you to read through the testimonials on this page. Also, ForeverHopeful, a longtime course member, shared this comment on last week’s blog post:
“I found Sheryl’s fantastic blog in a moment of ultimate despair. I had never felt anything like it before – anxious, depressed, apathy, sadness, disconnect, boredom, loneliness, numbness – you name it, I felt it and vacillated between each emotion and feeling every few days. It was like the light had been turned off in my world.
“Thank GOD that I was addicted to googling (never good but on this ONE occasion haha) because I never would have known or understood what I now know to be relationship anxiety.
“If anyone is on the fence, live or self-guided, please commit and take this course. I teetered for a while too, it didn’t seem like a “me thing to do” but it turned out to be the best and most loving choice I could have ever made for myself.
“Please don’t be scared because everything truly will be ok. It is not a quick fix, I wanted that too but later down the line, you will absolutely appreciate why it cannot be that way. I cannot thank Sheryl and all the other course members and moderators for all the love, support and guidance on this journey xxxxx”
I think a big part of my resistance to letting things be, and especially to letting grief come up instead of getting hooked on pushing away thoughts, is I feel like I would be crying all day- and I would never get anything done. However, I’m feeling a little more motivated to try and let those feelings come because earlier this week I said goodbye to my brother, leaving him at college, and then flew to Raleigh and my body just couldn’t take it anymore. I just started throwing up. I’m 99.99% sure it happened because for this entire month we’ve been getting him ready, dropping him off, dropping my uncle off at his college, and then getting Covid, which delayed the final goodbye, I’ve been trying to just do everything that needs to be done and haven’t allowed myself to pause and feel probably the most intense grief I’ve ever felt in my life. Now there’s being a lot of tears and I’m doing my best to let them come and not spend so much time distracting, and even still I feel the resistance to it. Especially to journaling. I have a lot of resistance to that for some reason. Rather, I should say the kind of journaling where you’re not actually journalling about a thought.
Riley: Yes, sometimes the grief breaks through our defenses when it’s big enough, and then we must find ways to be with it compassionately. I’m glad you’re letting the tears come now, even through the resistance. Sending hugs.
This shifted something in me: “This [desire for perfect] includes not only our outer world in terms of our relationships, career, house, kids but also our inner world in terms of which thoughts and feelings we deem as acceptable.” It feels so right, so accurate to my experience. What a freedom to let go of controlling not only my outer world but also my inner world. How beautiful.
I love this song too, and songs really speak to me as well.
Thank you 🙂 Love, Jamie
I’m glad that part shifted something for you, Jamie. It is, indeed, so freeing to allow ourselves to just BE!
I remember at the very beginning of my anxiety when it was extremely strong, so much that I couldn’t eat anything all day long, every day, (that was about 8 months ago), I was watching a movie on Netflix with a friend and the song “let it be” came up and I thought maybe it’s a sign to let things be because I feel this way, that maybe I should leave my fiancé because of how I’m feeling. I got so scared of this thought and so scared of hearing this song. I guess I just misinterpreted it and I didn’t know at the time that my thoughts didn’t have to necessarily be true. Now I can happily and freely listen to this song without having to worry 🙂
It’s been a long journey. Thanks Sheryl!
Oh, that’s a very interesting way that you heard the song – through the lens of fear! I’m so glad you can hear it through a different lens now that you understand that thoughts are not facts :).
Hi Sheryl, Kat here- sending love from Colorado. I get intrusive thoughts about animal cruelty. I love animals so much and when thoughts come around if someone mistreating a dog or other pet it is very distressing and disturbing for me.
How do I deal with this?
Name the thought as intrusive and ask: What is this thought protecting me from feeling? My guess is that it’s protecting you from heartbreak and powerlessness, and that if you could soften into those feelings, the thoughts would quiet down.
Thank you for the beautiful post! I love so much about it! The bittersweet beautiful aliveness of being human!
I remember how Let It Be serendipitously came on and comforted me in a tough moment. I have also been thinking about using music more intentionally in healing, and even with my therapy clients.
I definitely used it when I was younger, but as I got older and busier, I need to be more intentional about it.
And I want to teach my daughters about the comfort of mother mary or the great mother using this song!
Thank you for reframing grief in positive ways. May be helpful for clients xoxo
Thank you for your beautiful comment, Jess! I can feel your love and light pouring through your words.
It’s my 30th birthday today and I’m reflecting on how much this work has shifted me in the last year or two and how much I am enjoying the process of growing my inner parent – overall, although some days are hard and that’s how life goes. It’s just the most incredible life experience to understand ourselves, isn’t it?
This part stood out to me so clearly: “More sensitive people prone to anxiety have a hard time letting things be. We ascribe meaning to everything, we want to understand everything, we want everything to be just right and just so and, quite often, perfect.” What struck me here is the gold of “wanting to understand everything” – I’ve always been such a curious person and want to understand it all. While there’s just too much mystery and we will never have a perfect, whole understanding of an imperfect, forever-unfinished world and existence, I recognise how the curiosity lies there to be picked up and used to explore the depths and make sense of the parts that reveal themselves to us.
Thank you from the depths of my heart ❤️
Happy 30th, dear George! This is pure magic:
“While there’s just too much mystery and we will never have a perfect, whole understanding of an imperfect, forever-unfinished world and existence, I recognise how the curiosity lies there to be picked up and used to explore the depths and make sense of the parts that reveal themselves to us.”
Thank you for sharing your voice and wisdom here. It’s always a treasure ❤️.
I absolutely love that piece of George’s post too. So wise and beautifully expressed. Thank you.
Thanks for this lovely post. Sometimes, when I’m in a panic, my wife gets really upset because she ‘doesn’t know what to do’. I have to remind her that she doesn’t need to *do* anything other than sit with me and let me be. The sitting with me is the important bit.
Yes, it’s a great guideline for partners and also parents!