anxiety is a thought pattern

***for those struggling with relationship anxiety, i write this to encourage you to think about your thought patterns as just that: a thought pattern. consider how your constant questioning, comparing to others, thinking there’s one “right” choice spans more than just your relationship. it’s easy to put the reason for our suffering onto our partners, when really the issue lies in our own mental processes.***

recently, i’ve been exploring preschool options for my toddler and found one in the community that seems to be highly aligned with my values and beliefs when it comes to transitions and attachment. they offer parent/toddler classes to support the child in his or her transition into school, acknowledging that this can be a challenging time for young children. most places will agree that it can be tough, yet often take a ‘rip the bandaid off’ approach that is akin to crying it out (something we don’t do at home nor do i agree with). i’ve decided to sign us up for the class, without really exploring other options, without knowing what the hell i’m doing, or if this is the best place for us to be.

i’ve noticied, though, that despite the alignment of values and warm, caring environment of the school, i’m fighting this transition internally. am i tapping directly into the grief of what this all signifies? not quite.

instead, i’m questioning. i’m questioning my decision, the way many of you do when it comes to your relationship:

-did i make the right choice? what if some other place would be better?
-what if my daughter would be happier somewhere else?
-how can i be sure when i didn’t explore every possible option?
-what if i end up not liking this school?
-what will we be missing out on by saying yes to this one?
-i like that school better because of x, y, z…but this other one has these things to offer…but how will i support her emotionally in the same way this school does?…why can’t i have everything???

does any of this sound familiar? the point i want to really make here is that this same thought pattern, the one that drove me crazy for SO long way back when around my relationship, is showing up again in a different context. it’s a reminder that it’s not the relationship that’s the issue, it’s my brain. and, more importantly, it’s what my brain does when i’m feeling a certain way: vulnerable.

i’m at a growing edge here. i’m doing something i’ve never done before, with limited support or people to talk to about how to navigate these waters as a mother. there’s this unspoken expectation that this process be an easy one. you just find a school and send your kid to it, right? (just like you (seemingly easily) find a partner, get engaged, then married, right?) but it’s not that way for me. just as it wasn’t that easy when i was in the marriage transition (or any transition for that matter).

i rage against the passing of time. my natural instinct – or probably a learned strategy growing up in a family that didn’t talk about feelings – is to bury my head in the sand and avoid what’s really going on. i spin in mental circles instead of feeling lost and alone. i tell myself stories and compare myself to others (why does everyone else seem to have such an easier time with this???).

all because i’m so deeply vulnerable right now.

are you?

when you find yourself hooked into the anxious mind, ask yourself if you’re feeling vulnerable. or alone. or lost. consider the other situations in your life where your mind hijacks your sense of peace and you question it all. noticing how the thoughts flare up in other scenarios is one of the best ways to remind yourself that this anxiety lives in you.

it’s yours to work through, and it’s here to help you connect with your deepest self. because when i can see the anxiety for what it is – a signal that there is much more going on within me, under the surface layer of thoughts – i can process what’s truly needing attention: my little baby, the one who i birthed only 2 years ago, is growing up. yes, she’s only 2. but this step signifies the expansion of her world and a step out of what has felt like such a cozy little cocoon all this time. things are changing, and i struggle to wrap my mind and heart around it all. my heart aches for and grieves her babyhood. we celebrate and cry all at once.

what is the anxiety signaling within you? what is the touchstone waiting to be seen, shining through the waters of grief and longing? your anxiety is yours. it’s not the relationship. it’s not the preschool. it’s the feeling underneath that the thoughts are guiding you toward.

the path reveals itself as you walk it

one of my favorite metaphors is this: the path will reveal itself as it’s traveled.

what it means is this: we must move forward (or backward, or sideways) to get more of the view of the path ahead (or behind, or to the side of) us.

the key being: WE MUST MOVE.

when i’m working with clients struggling to make a decision, and in my own experience of indecisiveness, there’s a longing to just know what’s next. will i still want this choice in 5 years? will it still feel the same later? what if i don’t have enough information right now to decide?

keep moving. you’ll learn more as you go.

think about when you’re driving. or if you’ve even been on a river. you can’t see the road, in it’s entirety, at the start of your trip. you don’t know what, exactly, is around the next bend – could it be rapids? perhaps there’s a fallen tree? the more you drive and paddle, the more the path is revealed. movement is necessary in order to be able to see what else there is around us.

how this translates into life? we put one foot in front of the other. we make choices and then we get new information. we say yes to something and see what doors open, and which ones close.

seeing as we’re not birds (and even birds can’t see it all), we don’t get to know what’s way ahead of us until we move in some direction.

so notice: are you feeling stuck? if so, are you stuck because you’re wanting more information in order to move in some way?

if yes, what’s one step you can take today to create some kind of movement?

as you ponder and lean into identifying a step to take remember: trust that you’ll learn more as you go. the path will continue to reveal itself as you walk it. the only way to know what’s next is to step into the unknown.

the season of transition

here in michigan, we’ve lately had some “unseasonably” warm days sprinkled throughout the blistery cold. it’s been much welcomed, and it’s stirring in me the rumblings of spring. it’s letting me know that there’s a transition on the horizon. soon, in the near future, the scales will tip and the warmer days will be more frequent. the cold won’t seem quite as cold. and the snow will melt shortly after falling. we’re not there yet, but it’s coming.

being in this place is tricky, and i find myself longing for the change of seasons to happen much quicker than my logical mind knows it’ll take. rationally, i know that i can’t make the sun shine any brighter than what nature will allow. i can’t turn up the thermostat on the weather. i can’t melt the snow, grow the flowers, extend our daylight hours. but boy do i want to.

a couple years ago i prided myself on not complaining with the masses about how sick and tired i was about the weather. i thought, ‘there’s nothing i can do to change this, so there’s no point in complaining.” instead, i consciously chose to embrace what was and shift my focus to get cranky about a culture that doesn’t honor the natural rhythms of life. and while that’s still generally true for me, i’m desperate for the weather to break. i’m craving open windows and bare feet and being able to go out the door without having to take 20 minutes to get myself and daughter ready. i want to plead with the seasons – won’t you hurry up and change already?!?

and then i’m humbled as i think about how we do this to ourselves when deep changes are taking place within, whether that transition involves a clear life change or not. something inside senses a transformation before we ever really see it on the surface, and yet we want it to come to fruition now, this minute, damnit. maybe we feel restless, or bored, or easily distracted. perhaps we are more irritable than usual, quicker to cry or pick a fight with a partner. these are the signs, psyche sending signals that something is shifting inside. and yet we must sit and be patient, for it doesn’t do us any good to yell at ourselves about something that simply needs more time.

so, the work is to stay with it all. maybe you’re getting glimpses of the spring making its way into winter, or summer to autumn. notice how you grasp and cling and crave the change, yet can’t live it quite yet. can you trust that it’s happening, even without you having to do too much? can you create the space it needs to shift on its own? can you trust that your inner seasons will naturally change, just as winter always, eventually, turns to spring?

turn to adventure, seek out the darkness

in my counseling practice and as moderator of the Conscious Transitions Conscious Weddings/Break Free from Relationship Anxiety forum, i’m afforded the opportunity to work with people struggling to find their way into and out of the darkness. in our culture, we’re taught to fear the darkness, to avoid the negative, to push away what’s even remotely uncomfortable. we don’t even have any positive language, at least not in any kind of mainstream outlet, for the darkness and it’s potential to connect us to our truest selves.

many people will talk about this darkness as though it’s a place in which they’re trapped. a place they’ve sort of wandered into and just can’t seem to find the exit. while this may be true in some regards, what i believe is actually the cause of so much despair is the resistance to actually enter into the darkness. we naturally fear the unknown, and in this dark place, where it’s all unknown, we can stop at the entrance and stand there, peering into the shadows for all of eternity. we may know going in will serve us, somehow. right?

when our culture is void of ritual and practice for growing up, we naturally get scared when change comes calling. the change doesn’t have to be external. in fact, it’s often the internal changes that can be the most frightening. when we’ve learned to live a certain way for so long, anything different can feel completely beyond our reach.

so, then, the question becomes: how do we enter into the darkness? what does that look like?

i often think of it as being in a cave. or hibernation. or both. it’s cocooning your soul in such a way that growth can occur. it’s inviting in those others who can hold the container and space for you to fall apart and then rebuild. it’s saying, ‘i don’t know what i’m going to find in there, but i’m willing to risk it anyway.’ this is likely easier for me to say now that i’m out of my dark period, which lasted several years because i resisted it for so long. i get the ambiguity of the darkness, the “why the hell would i want to go there?” thought line. i understand the sheer terror of surrendering to some process that was completely foreign to me. i didn’t know how to walk into the woods of psyche. so psyche dragged me there herself.

when we’re on the brink of making changes in our lives (and i consider learning to accept all that is as it is to be a massive shift from the constant striving to be “different”), most people seem to think there’s a map. and not only is there seemingly a map, but that map only guides us to and through the places we actually want to visit. what we fail to recognize is that the trail often veers off into the wilderness. into the places that, at first glance, appear too scary, too treacherous, too out-of-our-comfort-zone. too unknown. we see the trail on the map that takes us into the mountain range, or the forest, or the deep blue sea. the trail ends at the entrance. the trail ending is the entrance.

it’s here we take fear’s hand. it’s here we rely on our footing, of taking one step at a time. there’s no way to see down the river around the corner; we must trust the water will carry us and that the path will emerge as we float with it. but to not ever get in the boat means missing out on so much.

i truly believe that we find ourselves in the darkness. we meet the parts unknown and hidden. unclaimed and restless. if you find yourself at Forest’s edge, stay there. contemplate entering, and then take a step. that step may look like calling a therapist and arranging a session, or picking up a book that’s been sitting for too long on the shelf, or telling a close friend the thoughts that scare you. it may also sound like, “I’m enough as I am,” or “There’s nothing I need to do or say or become to make me more lovable and worthy.” it could be picking up a paintbrush and taking it to a canvas without instruction. oh, the wonder that awaits…

whatever it is, it’s an opening. it’s the grand adventure of life to travel into the places that terrify and surprise, and to remember yourself along the way. the darkness won’t last forever, that i can promise you. as long as you keep one foot moving in front of the other (and a snail’s pace still counts as movement), you’ll make it. sometimes you’ll sit and wait, other times you’ll run for the sheer glee and madness of it all. but as the saying goes, this too shall pass. turn to adventure, seek out the darkness.

lean in

earlier this week, my daughter and i were in our bedroom. i was getting ready to go downstairs to meet with a client (i work from home, via skype/phone). as we were walking toward the door, i let her know that mommy would be going downstairs soon to work. she said something like, “no, no, no” and came closer to me, clearly not wanting to separate. what i did in the next moment nearly astounded me, because so often i want to pretend i don’t hear her pleas for connection, at least, or especially, when i have something to do or somewhere to be. i bent down, embraced her, and told her, “mommy will be back. i’ll always come back.” and with that we left the room and she easily went to her dad, waving bye to me.

admittedly, these lines were inspired by blog posts i’ve read about how to support the transition of separating. to remind my daughter that i will, indeed, return after being away seems so obvious, but i needed support in getting to that place. this was, however, really the first time i’ve successfully, fully implemented it. the first time i really met her emotion, took it in, allowed it to be there without trying to minimize (even if only to myself), and offered reassurance from a sincere place inside me. i slowed down to hear her. i leaned in toward her and her feelings.

this experience seems so simple, yet it’s struck and stayed with me as being quite profound. i have a history of not listening to my inner children when they’ve been calling out to me, screaming at me, tugging on me in some shape or form. it’s so easy to ignore, although that nagging anxiety in the background never really goes away when we’re ‘ignoring,’ does it?

what if, instead, we stopped to meet that voice? to crouch down to that two-feet-off-the-ground level and look ourselves in the eye and say, “i hear you.” we don’t have to talk ourselves out of feeling the way we do. or offer candy-coated reassurance that lacks any nutritive substance and only contributes and perpetuates the emptiness we feel inside (think, “everything’s okay” or “you’re fine”). to really listen. simply listen. to set aside our own agendas and acknowledge what’s happening in real time.

when we can truly lean in, listen, make space for what’s actually happening and needing to happen, many times we can find a simple solution, or genuinely reassuring word. just a moment of presence, of connection, is all that’s needed.

the risk of trusting

two stories : one moral

#1. lately, i’ve been thinking about trust and how hard it can be, especially after we’ve been hurt. i’m currently breastfeeding my almost 14 month old daughter, who now has some teeth. and teeth, you know, are good for biting. she hasn’t bitten me much, or too hard. thankfully. but, in one of the most sensitive of spots, and during an act that is quite a vulnerable experience for me, it hurts. it hurts when it’s unexpected. and it hurts because i’m feeding her and it’s a real shock to the system to be bitten when offering so much love.

i began to think about this experience, and how it’s now tinged with the slightest veil of fear because i don’t know if she’s going to bite me again. even though she rarely bites, and only does so playfully, there’s still fear on my part because i don’t want to get hurt. so, i’m on guard more. a little more tense. a little more weary and on edge. i’ve been hurt a couple times now during breastfeeding…could i be hurt again?

i went to a mom’s group for a little while when my daughter was younger and ran into one of the moms in a restaurant a while back. i chatted with her and her husband, and she was telling me how her son was growing some teeth and how nervous this made her feel as it related to breastfeeding. her husband chimed in and said that his mom stopped breastfeeding the first time he bit her.

just like that.

it’s so easy to give up on something after we’ve been hurt, isn’t it? it’s safer, feels like we’re in more control. as least we have the guarantee that it won’t ever happen again. right? to go back after being hurt puts us at greater risk. at least ego would have us believe that. yes, we’ve been hurt before. but really, it doesn’t spell doom for our future. every time i breastfeed i could be bitten, but i’m not bitten more than i am. and still, it would be easy for me to want to run with the fear.

i’ll admit that i don’t really fear being bitten every single time. but i will say that it has changed the experience. i’m aware of the “danger” yet choose to risk it. i have to choose to trust that my daughter isn’t going to make a meal out of me (well, i guess she is, but i’m assuming you know what i mean) every time she nurses. i choose to trust because the alternative is constricted fear, an avoidance of something so special because of the what if lurking in the recesses of my mind.

*****

#2. today my husband and i took our daughter to the library to play. it’s an easy play area. and free. win win. at the library was a 15 month old little boy who became an instant friend. at least friend in the sense of sharing space together and interacting as toddlers do: staring at each other, babbling at each other, getting a little curious about each other’s faces and clothes. they parallel played for a bit, each doing their own thing. coming together and moving apart fluidly. then out of nowhere this kid just walked up and pushed my daughter in the chest, knocking her over.

she cried a bit. my heart ached and wanted to lash out i’m sure. and then again, it got me thinking. thinking about a lot of things, actually. it made me think about how little control i have over bad things happening to my daughter. there was nothing i could do to prevent this, aside from never letting her interact with other children. i didn’t see it coming. nor did my husband, or the kid’s mom. it was impulsive, toddler behavior. he probably felt like pushing, so he did.

after a short cry and time spent with me, she was ready to get back in the play. she went back to playing with him. back to looking at him, open to engage. perhaps it was resiliency in the making. i thought about her willingness to risk again, despite this kid having just pushed her.

*****

the moral:

life hurts, and there’s not a whole lot we can do to prevent it. in order to love and live fully we have to risk getting bumps and bruises, heartaches and heartbreaks. we can choose trust over fear, even if fear tells us to run or hide or bury because we can’t bear to feel that pain again.

and that’s the lesson: just because we’ve been hurt before doesn’t mean we’ll be hurt again. it’s the heart of vulnerability. to open despite the scar. to wakefully walk into the fire, knowing our heart is on the line. to trust that we’ll be loved, that we can risk the pain to live fully, openly.

welcome the chaos

not too long ago i read an article in a parenting publication that IMG_0736got me thinking. the format was more question/answer, the question coming from a distressed parent seeking help from the expert. the mother wrote about her 2-year old son who was getting fussy every time he’d go down for his usual nap. she said he seemed resistant, and couldn’t figure out what was going on for this boy. it was stressful and challenging, and just didn’t make sense. i loved the expert’s response.

the expert wrote back saying that her son was likely going through the process of letting go of one of his naps because he no longer needed it. the fussiness and resistance to the nap was her son going through a process of disorganization as he naturally opened himself up to a new schedule, as he let go of one of two (or more) naps and adjusted to a new way of being in the world each day. things needed to fall apart a bit before being put back together. he had to go through the inner turmoil to once again reach a state of peace.

and isn’t this what we go through anytime we’re making a change of any kind? it feels like our world is falling apart, we feel out of control and messy and disorganized and don’t understand why. we torment ourselves because we think we’re supposed to keep ourselves together, that change should somehow be neat and tidy and orderly. but it’s not.

change is supposed to be messy. let me say that again: change is supposed to be messy. and perhaps most important: THE MESS IS A SIGN OF CHANGE! we’re supposed to metaphorically dump our bag out so we can see what we’ve been carrying around all this time that’s been causing us pain. and sometimes the contents of our bag need to sit on the floor for a while. maybe that big ‘mess’ needs to just take up some space. we can learn to live amongst the chaos. it won’t last forever. it’s only when we know what’s been in our bag that we can consciously choose what we want to continue holding. 

our problem is that we judge ourselves, tell ourselves there’s something wrong with us for not being able to hold it together. imagine if we naturally entered our chaos, like the 2-year old, and allowed ourselves the full expression of all we feel during times of big transition. if we cried when we needed to, pounded a pillow, let ourselves fall out instead of staying strong and proud.

we must trust the duality of life. that we’re self-organizing creatures that will naturally return to a state of peace, that at the very least we long to return to a state of peace. just as there can’t be day without night, there can’t be chaos without order.

when we find ourselves in the chaos, it’s our natural inclination to want to escape what’s painful. but when we can be in the chaos (with the use of tools like mindfulness, compassion, etc.), open to the swirl of thoughts and feelings, even physical mess in a home, we can learn to be with a different side of life that has just as much value. this side of life offers us the opportunity to really release what is too heavy, even completely unnecessary. we can relax our defenses and our shoulds and know that life will take care of itself. that the natural process is to move through disorganization back to organization, and that there’s not much we have to do to enable the process other than allow it to unfold naturally.

delayed gratification

earlier today i was outside plantingIMG_0702 some daffodil bulbs and was struck by how so much of this healing work is related to gardening. as i was digging the holes, putting some bulb food into the hole, placing the bulb, only to cover it all up again and then water the soil, i thought about the healing process. how we dig and dig, plant a seed, and then it seems we just wait. i personally know how frustrating that can be because we just want to feel better. we want the relief now. sometimes even yesterday.

perhaps what’s interesting is that if anyone were to look where i just planted it doesn’t look any different than before i planted. at least not on the surface. what’s important, though, is that i can remember what’s now in the earth that was never there until i put it there. the work, now, is to water the soil and then protect it as it gets colder and colder. i protect those little bulbs by putting leaves over where they’re buried. i’ll leave the snow there to insulate as well. and then the long, hard waiting of winter. while it looks like nothing is happening, new life is incubating so it has the strength to push through when spring comes. there’s a process without it looking like much of a process.

now, i’m not encouraging to just sit back and do nothing. no, that’s not it. what I am saying is that sometimes, most times, we have to trust that the seeds have been planted and live inside us. when we go through years and years of believing false beliefs and acting from a place of fear and the need to protect/control, it’s going to take time and patience for those processes to be replaced with love. just like with the bulbs sometimes we have to wait, we have to trust that new life will come in the springtime (which can happen any time of year when it’s our internal world growing). we have to nourish and care for the bulbs, seeds, potential life inside us. we have to trust and allow the process to work on us after we’ve done the hard work of digging and planting new life (replacing false beliefs, challenging fear, etc.).

it’s an ongoing and nonlinear process; there will be periods of deep digging as well as periods of sitting and trusting, seemingly waiting for what feels like forever. but then, it happens. when there’s enough time, patience, space, and love, those little green shoots poke out of the ground and reach for the sun. and so, too, will you grow. you already are. keep trusting. keep nourishing. keep incubating. keep growing.

the place between places

this weekend here in Michigan was a cold one. one witIMG_0858h frost warnings and some sightings of snow flakes. yes, winter is approaching. we’re letting go of warmer, longer days. shedding our summer tans, cocooning ourselves in more clothes.

i had a moment yesterday when i felt so cold. my whole body chilled, i decided to take a hot shower to warm up. when it came time to leave my warm haven, i didn’t want to go. i didn’t want to put myself in the place between places. i didn’t want to feel the cool air. i didn’t want to stand, naked and cold and vulnerable. i just wanted to stay warm. and yet i couldn’t stay in the water forever, nor could i jump out and get right into my clothes. no. i had to be in between these two places. i had to turn the water off, dry off, before i could get warm again.

and then i got to thinking what a perfect metaphor this is for when we’re going through any process of change. there always comes a time when we have to choose to leave what’s comfortable in order to get to the next stage of growth. in order for me to get on with the rest of my day, i had no other option but to turn the water off and get out of the shower. i had no other choice than to feel the air around me. even for a brief moment, i stood there in the place between places. yes, i resisted it. yes, i drew out the shower until staying comfortable and warm was no longer serving me because there were other things i wanted to be doing. this is exactly what we do when we’re going through any kind of change: resist what’s uncomfortable.

for a while now i’ve thought that embarking on any internal process of change is terrifying simply because we’re not quite sure where we’ll end up. we’re not sure what kind of person we’ll be, how the process will change our outer lives. we formulate ideas (i.e., “if i go through this i’ll end up leaving my partner,” “i’ll realize everything i’ve done in my life is wrong and i’ll have to change it all and start over”) to fill in the blanks to help us satiate our need for certainty. these thoughts, though, are usually so scary that it keeps us from leaving what we’ve known. these thoughts keep us in the shower long after it’s time to get out. these thoughts are Resistance at it’s finest.

after this shower experience and thinking about my resistance to getting out of the shower, it’s even more clear to me that the focus needs to be on the place between places. the place where we’re stripped of what’s kept us “warm”: the beliefs, thought patterns, ways of being that are no longer really working to bring us joy and happiness. the place where the cool air wraps itself around our naked bodies and souls. where we’re so uncomfortable, alone and cold. the place where we’re most vulnerable.

it’s difficult, yes, to remove these layers and stand without what the ego thinks is protection. it’s in this space, though, that we can connect to the raw beauty of who we truly are. when we’ve taken off what’s only outer protection as we prepare to put on something new. it’s a necessary, crucial part of the process, this intentional soul exposure. it’s getting in contact with who we are at our core. the cold won’t last forever. we can always count on being warm again, but it won’t be until we can visit the place between places.