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“We are all made up of yearning and light, searching for a way out, afraid we will be shut in or cut off or repelled back into the ground from which we are reaching. This is enough to begin: To know, before all the names and histories drape who we are, that we want to be held and left alone, again and again; held and left alone until the dance of it is how we survive and grow, like spring into winter into spring again.” – Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening
The heart is a paradox. It is at once fragile and resilient, both longing for safety and union and yearning for separateness. On the one hand, it can tolerate suffering and rebound in strength, but on the other hand, it can recoil at any perceived slight; once hurt and without loving hands to guide it through the searing pain of loss, it seals over. We open and trust and hurt and close. We want to be held and left alone, again and again. And this is how we survive and grow our capacity to love.
As children, we’re particularly vulnerable to experiences that shake the ground of our being and threaten stability and safety. A move, parents’ divorce, an argument with a friend, being teased or made fun of, being left to cry alone or yelled at: these are the experiences that leave us wondering if it’s safe to trust, to love, to keep opening our tender hearts to the harshness of the world. We long for union and yearn for separateness. Even as babies, we long for union with mother but eventually realize we have to separate from the sweet cocoon of her love in order to establish our own sense of self. We’re caught in the paradox of the heart: We want to be held and left alone, again and again.
And so it is that when we land in the arms of real love that our lifetime of fears, pain, defenses and protections come rushing to the surface. This can happen on the first date, in month three, or twenty years into a marriage. For many people, the subterranean pain emerges through the fissures of transitions – getting married, moving, becoming a parent, retirement – or through the cracks of loss when the force of grief is unearthed and it gathers with it the unshed pain accumulated over a lifetime.
When the heart knows it is in safe hands it can at last break open and fall apart, but it also looks at this human and wonders, “You too? Will you also hurt me? Will you steamroll over my dreams and barrel over my voice? Will you betray me, tease me, walk away? Will you try to tell me how to live my life? Will you smother me until I can no longer breathe?” In safe arms, you dance between the polarity of two archetypal fears: the fear of losing yourself and the fear of losing another. We can chart some of the roots of these fears to our psychological and emotional histories, but it’s also part of the makeup of being human, and when we can recognize this, we can name it and work with it.
So when someone says to me, “You talk about the root causes that live inside the intrusive thoughts that I’m with the wrong partner or I’m not attracted or in love enough. What are these root causes?”, the most basic answer is, “The fear of loss which arises in the face of real love: loss of self and loss of other.” We fear love because we were hurt, but it’s more than that. We fear love because, as Mark Nepo says, “before all the names and histories drape who we are… we want to be held and left alone, again and again.”
As love warriors, we’re standing together on the threshold of a new chapter in our story of love and fear; we’re learning to name fear’s ways with greater precision, and learning what it means to choose love again and again. It could be said that our entire human story is an evolution of love, and if you chart our history you’ll see that we’re moving in the right direction as we all, individually and collectively, grow our tolerance, our patience, and our kindness – the qualities that allow us to fear less and love more. It is because of the paradoxical needs of the heart that we grow, for it is the paradox itself that invites us to push against the polarities until we expand the heart’s capacity. When we practice this on an individual level, it ripples out into the human race, which is why learning to love one human being well is an act of courage, an act of service, and an act of grace.
As we traverse the fears that criss-cross our hearts in a thatched pattern of yearning and aversion, it can be immensely helpful to receive the roadmap of Love Laws and Loving Actions that have helped thousands of people evolve their capacity to love. If you would like to receive this roadmap and study alongside a group of devoted learners, please join me for my next live round of Open Your Heart: A 30-day program to feel more love and attraction for your partner. It begins on Saturday, March 2, 2019, and I look forward to meeting you there.
I’ve been struggling with something and I’m not really sure why it’s coming up. Lately, for whatever reason, I’ve been doubting things my fiance says. He, understandably, gets very hurt by this, and said I’m inventing things in my head.
The thing is, I don’t have good reason to think that he’d lie to me. But my mind still doubts. I try to let it go, but the more I try, the more it stays. I just wonder where this is coming from? I almost feel as if my doubt of many things in life just infiltrates my relationship. I’m not sure if I have “relationship anxiety” anymore, since I don’t have thoughts about not being in love or not being attracted–but it always has to do with him in some way.
My life has been going really well besides this–just got a new job (my first in my career), which I really love. We’re recently engaged. Things are pretty happy otherwise. Just the other day, these doubts starting seeping in. I will add that I have been deeply hurt in the past by friends who have compulsively lied to me, so maybe fear is feeding into it. Being lied to by someone so important to me really scares me.
Is it a lack of trust in self that fuels these issues? I’m pretty sure the problem is me, even though I’m not sure why it’s coming up. I was diagnosed with OCD last winter (have struggled since early teens) and jump from one intrusive thought to another. Do you think this could be an intrusive thought? I just don’t know what feeling it’s “protecting” me from, since I’ve felt so excited about these new changes in life.
Hours after writing this, and practicing some of your tools, I’ve realized that my mind is just searching for something to worry/obsess over that isn’t based in reality.
Why I’m having these thoughts in a really happy time, I’m not sure. But my fiance isn’t the problem; it’s my unhealed anxiety that pops up in some form or another, always anticipating the worst and distorting my perceptions. I just really need to commit to doing the inner work (not just reading about it) so I don’t jump from one intrusive thought to the next.
I love when people are able to respond to their own fear-based experiences from their wise self, just as you’ve done here. Yes, it’s time to do the work – which you’re already doing on some level as evidenced by your ability to self-reflect and respond to yourself from a different place.
I’ve been mulling over the duality of the fear of loss here in recent weeks. The collective consciousness is powerful, isn’t it? I’ve been flopping between this intense feeling of inevitably being trapped in my future marriage and the lonely feeling of (perceived) rejection from my partner and (actual) rejection from myself in moments where I don’t love myself. I had quite the setback for the first time in probably 1.5 years due to prolonged weeks of non-stop working days, nights, and weekends for some soul-crushing deadlines. Bitten by the anxiety-inducing intrusive thoughts and dragged under the surface. Normally, I’d been able to douse with truth water and move on but not this time. Found some old articles on your blog and inner bonding blogs about these twin fears of loss of self and loss of other and it helped to put out the mental fire with some loving truth. I’ve also re-started taking loving care of myself getting out into nature, and the anxiety has subsided. I’m thankful for your blogs and courses, Sheryl!
Yes, the intrusive thoughts are always the indicator that we’re off-kilter in some way and are inviting (dragging) us to learn the next layer of cognitive corrections and re-commit to our practices. I’m so glad you were able to do just that.
I love the new option of listening to the mp3!!! Great new feature.
Thanks, Emma! I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.
Sheryl I saw somewhere where you do a free 7 day trial of your Relationship Anxiety course. Can you please direct me to it if its still available.
There are two separate free offerings: one is the 7-day free course on anxiety and the other is the sampler from the Break Free course. Both can be found here:
This is the 3rd time I write here for your support. And I thank you for your previous answers and post.
I have been dealing with this anxiety since I was 17 and now almost getting 40, still single because a) I always felt “in love” with man who are not available and b) running away from the available and loving ones (because they are not enough for me me after 1 or 2 months dating)
I am staying in a relationship with someone who I thought it was perfect for me in the beginning. After 1,5 months I found him suddenly “strange”, not interessant, not funny, so introvert etc… and got totally scared and the anxiety attacked me. I have left even when today I feel I am forcing my self: most of the time I feel totally irritated just about he way “he is” and this is awful. I can’t do the “loving actions” because I feel guilty. My past therapist told me that the anxiety is more big because I always forced my self to stay with guys I don’t Imke, because I am scared to be single and obsessed with the idea that I will be just happy because I have a men by my side.
I am getting really out of my mind, I am sad… and lost
I read your articles even when I am whit him (I go to toilet for reading and I feel like “omg this is crazy It shouldn’t be happening !)
I would love to have a private session with you. But I still need to save the money
Thanks again Sheryl
It would be more effective for you to take the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety Course than have a single session with me. When you’re ready, the course will give the information, tools, and support that will help you break free to the next layer of healing:
Thank you Sheryl. I’d like to share something with you. This morning I was having my usual relationship anxiety thoughts, and instead of intellectualizing it, I sat with it and asked myself…is this really my husband or is this just there and I’m “hanging my hat” on him…yet this “school” anxiety has been there since I was a child (now I’m a adult little girl teacher afriad to start back work after break!). My usual thoughts are to somehow hold him responsible, like if it was the “right” relationship I’d feel calm abd blissful and not anxious…but that’s my work I realized. So I sat with it, “parenting” it by being there and acknowledging it for what it is, rather than interpreting what it is. Then I realized there’s a wellspring of strength behind that surface layer of anxiety. That is my adult self. It’s a resource that’s there, and I’m sure my husband somehow detected it which is why he didn’t let me go. The little anixious girl that needs a parent for protection and assurance likes to run or wants to run away and say it’s not right, because in reality, a child is not ready for an adult realtionship. You can enter an adult relationship from that space. You can receive comfort from that space, maybe love, but you cannot give love from that space, and therefore can’t really feel like from that space. Two adults can be in a relationship that’s intimate..the adult space is one of strength, not one that needs reassurance because thats what the wellspring inside us is for. Needing someone to “make us feel” comes from a relationship dynamic where it’s a child needing an adult. I think that’s where the confusion and anxiety stem from. It’s “work” to relate from your adult self if it’s not something you practice or are used to doing, but that’s the work that needs to be done.
Yes, yes, yes. Beautifully articulated. It sounds like you’re integrating this work at deeper and deeper layers.
Its weird then because I found that and then an hour later I was back into the anxiety with the triggers
I suggest going back through the course from the beginning. You have the Break Free course, yes? It’s meant to be worked through several times, if not more.
yes. I only went through it once a while ago…I’m also seeing a therapist for ROCD
I have been following you for years and have found your work incredibly valuable and formative for me. I just wanted to let you know that I LOVE being able to listen to you read your blog content! Sometimes I rush through reading, but this allowed me to really take it in. It was more of a spiritual experience. Thank you for continuing to not only be amazing but to even find new and better ways to do so!! I am also a fellow therapist (psychologist) and often share and recommend your blog and other resources to clients. I can’t wait to share these new mp3s as well! Thanks again.
Thank you for the feedback on the MPS, Heather, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I had fun making it :). Thank you for the support and referrals!
I realized from reading this, as a child I was yelled at and made fun of , bullied, physically abused and mentally, parents divorced also. Haven’t seen my dad in 13-14 years no call or text. My mom never really loved me like a mother should. She gave me what I needed but not the love I craved. I’ve had intrusive thoughts but they’ve NEVER EVER hit so hard as they have this time. It’s the same thought also. They’re very bold and to the point and always about my relationships. My main thought is “you don’t love him”. It shook me to the core, I was a mess for weeks and here I am 8 months later still with my boyfriend but terrified to recover because the fear of the thought becoming true. The theme has tried to change but it always goes back to ROCD. Any kind words or advice ?
I encourage you to read through these two Collections:
When you have a history of trauma, I also highly recommend that you start therapy, if you haven’t already. We’re not meant to heal alone.
Hi, Sheryl. I love this post and it really affirms my coexisting fears of abandonment and engulfment. Truly, every word of this post resonates with my experience of anxiety.
The best way to articulate my anxiety is that I’m in a constant state of self-protection. Recently, I’ve been obsessing about fears that my marriage is abusive. First, I was terrified that my husband is secretly a narcissist or emotionally abusive, and so I started googling and ended up fearing that I’m the one who is secretly a narcissist or emotionally abusive! How crazy is anxiety? Do you have any work on discerning normal and healthy marital conflict with emotional abuse? I realize that this is most likely a reassurance seeking move, but this is a very new trigger for me. And, I fear my anxiety has caused me to act “abusively” toward my husband, in the sense that I’m constantly doubting/blaming him for things and probably hurting his self esteem. And, these are all due to my anxiety (Including: We don’t have sex enough, he isn’t social enough, he isn’t compassionate enough about my anxiety, he grew up in an abusive home and will probably end up abusing me, I’m not “happy” all the time, so it must mean our relationship is bad). My only concern about “abuse” on his end is that he comes from a very controlling family of an Eastern, collectivist, shame-based culture, and he historically has chosen to appease or please his family over me. This has only happened a couple times (all very early on in engagement and marriage) and we have mostly worked through it/he constantly affirms that I am his priority and he will always choose me. My mind feels like a puddle of confusion – like I can’t trust my perception on what’s true. My husband has only ever shown me that he is loving, emotionally available, willing to grow, and patient. Yet, I can’t help but believing there’s a “secret man” hidden under there that is a lot like his dad (narcissistic, abusive, and totally stoic/isolated). He couldn’t be more different than his dad, but my anxiety loves to live in the future “what if’s”. Thanks for any feedback.
The fear of making a secret discovery is a common one, and often speaks to the secret places inside of ourselves that we’re afraid to look at. We all have shadow realms, but they’re NEVER what the anxious mind tells us they are. The work here is to find the courage to look inward and begin to dialogue with the places inside that you’ve kept hidden, while accessing your loving inner parent that trusts in your fundamental goodness.
Dear dear Sheryl,
I and my boyfriend since 3 years are now in EFT couple therapy, upon your recommendation. I wonder if you have any information sheet, or could point to some blog posts, that could help the fellow therapist to understand the concept of relationship anxiety. Thank you in advance. Actually for everything. (the relationship is still extremely rocky but I have found myself more and more).
Send her here:
I’ve done a lot of inner work since my latest emotional breakdown & now fully realise I’ve never understood what love really means. I’ve always had doubts about if I loved my husband & now realise I don’t because I wouldn’t be able to stand by him if he got ill. That makes me feel shamefull so I now know after 30 years I must leave him. He’s stood by me through all my bad times & I now realise just how selfish I’ve always been throughout my entire life. Its all been about me & I’m full of remorse. I wish my younger self had fully understood what love really means.
This blog post describes me so deeply, the push and pull aspect, deeply desiring intmacy and love while being very scared of being hurt. I’ve followed your work for a long time. I’ve recently discovered that I’m in a relationship with an intimacy anorexic, and I’m not surprised I would end up with some one who didn’t push to peel back my layers or see my most vulnerable me. Now that my husband is doing his healing and recovery, I am back in full force anxiety, it’s triggering all of my fear that I know has been there along time before him. However, the reason this shift all started was due to a betrayal on his end that I exposed. When I read this and see how deeply we need trust, I feel hopeless. How do I do my inner work for my own anxiety as well as the work on doing it in context of a relationship that now has broken trust.. it feels impossible, but I want to believe it’s possible. My husband is committed to his work, I want to be to mine as well. Help
When it comes to relationships and two willing partners, nothing is impossible. Yes, we need trust, but trust will invariably be broken in some way in long-term relationships, and the work then is to repair the rupture together. This is usually best done in couple’s therapy, and the model that I HIGHLY recommend is EFT. You can find a local therapist here: