How to Confront the Fear of Losing

There it is, beneath the thoughts, the chatter, the doubt, the irritation, the barriers against love in all of its varied manifestations: the fear of loss, the fear of change, the excruciating awareness that we will, all of us, ultimately, be separated from the ones we love. At times it seems one of the cruelest realities of life on this planet: that we can love so deeply, but eventually we will separate. Yet as much as we can rail against life, beat our heads against the walls of the universe, argue, bargain, and rage, at some point we need to come into acceptance of death if we are to live our lives with any measure of peace. Death is what is, and to resist what is leads to suffering.

And yet, the more sensitive you are, the more acutely aware you will be of death’s many faces, and the more you will try to safeguard against it in all the ways the ego fights reality: your mind will travel into the relatively safer realm of worry in comparison to the vulnerability of staying with an open-handed heart; you will stay in your head and talk and talk and talk about loss without dropping down into the grief, vulnerability, uncertainty, and powerlessness; you will create obsessions and compulsions to try to control the outcome and live in a world of illusory safety (if I think or do this or that, I will keep death at bay). In other words, death makes us feel out of control, so the more aware you are aware of death, the more out of control you will feel and the more you will try to control your external world in order to grasp hold to something solid, even if it’s only your thoughts.

It doesn’t work, of course. The more we fight against it, the more it demands to be known, creeping into consciousness during the day or waking us up in the dead of night with heart-racing terror. The more we squeeze loss into the palm of our hands, trying to rid ourselves and the planet of its existence, the more it wreaks havoc on our serenity. The highly sensitive heart – which is also, quite often, the gifted mind – is adept at creating ways to prevent heart and mind from touching down into raw, unencumbered awareness of death. Intrusive thoughts, addiction to worry and the head-space of “what-ifs” are all ways that we avoid dipping the ladle of heart into the plain truth of loss.

The ego-mind tells us that if we limit the love by creating the barriers – and in the world of relationship anxiety all of the projections of “Do I love him enough?” and “What if she’s not smart enough?” and “I’m not attracted” are barriers – we will safeguard ourselves against this risk. We think that if we love less and with protections around our hearts, it will hurt less if we are separated from each other. But it’s actually the opposite that’s true: when we limit our open-heartedness, the loss, if/when it does happen, is filled with the regret of not taking the risk of loving fully. As the character of Bernadine says in Kate Kerrigan’s “Recipes for a Perfect Marriage” (who spends a lifetime keeping a wedge between her and her husband, never saying the words I love you until the moment of his death):

In the moment he was gone, there was a revelation.

As I said the words “I love you” to my husband for the first time, I realized
they were true.

I held him for one hour and I said the words “I love you, I love you, I love
you” over and over into our empty room . And I imagined them carrying his
soul in a stream of words out through the window and way up to heaven
how many words does it take to carry a soul to heaven? How many “I love
yous”?

[That was] the greatest revelation of all: James had been the love of my
life. Not what I had wished for, not what I had dreamt of – but wishes and
dreams don’t live in the real world. James had been my life. My reality.
Love can live in your mind and your heart, and it can be anything you want
it to be. What I shared with James truly belonged to me. Love that lives in
the world, love that has to sacrifice, compromise, share, endure. Tangible,
touch, tender love, this is the real thing. Love you can touch, that can
comfort and hold and protect, love that smell and tastes familiar, if not
always sweet.
 (pp.279-80)

Oh, but the risk of touching down and opening up. Relationship anxiety has many root causes, one of which is the fear of loss and this awareness of death. What risk we take in loving! Sometimes it cracks me open completely when the petals of my heart open fully to this daily risk. How can I live with an unbarricaded heart when pieces of my heart are walking around on the ones that I love? There’s a piece of my heart, swimming in the pool, diving his almost-eleven-year-old head underwater again and again. Did he stay under too long that time? Dear God, please keep him safe. And there’s another piece of my heart, six-year-old brown hair tousled from sleep, waking up coughing and coughing again. Is he sick? Oh, God, please keep him healthy.

And there’s my love, sitting in his studio, pouring his mind and time and energy into our life, our land, our home, the three of us at the forefront of his consciousness, always. He carries me as I do him. We are attached in ways unseen, a symbiotic unit, so deep are the strands of our attachment. How often I’ve pushed him away, but the tether of us always bring us back into each other’s sweet fold. Sometimes I let myself touch down into raw awareness of what would happen if I lost him, and in those moments I whisper into his ear, “Love is so scary.” But we keep loving, because not to love is, as they say, a fate worse than death. What an interesting phrase.

If we knew we could recover from loss it wouldn’t feel so scary. But because very few of us are guided through the heart-shattering feelings spawned by transitions of all kind (all of which include loss, and, thus, death), we stumble into adulthood with the belief that we can’t handle death. The universe doesn’t make mistakes; we wouldn’t be handed this plan of life that includes death if we weren’t also equipped with the tools to handle it. We are gifted with the very resources that wrap love and loss into one chamber of the heart and, with each loss, our hearts become simultaneously stronger and softer. The cracks are where the light comes in, says Rumi, which means that it’s only when our hearts crack open from loss that we’re offered an opportunity to receive more light.

What are these tools that allow us to navigate loss with more grace?

The primary tool, of course, is to grieve fully, without inhibition, shame, or self-judgement. When we allow the tears to crash, wall, and roar from heart and out the portal of eyes, we give ourselves the biggest dose of healing medicine available to us.

The second tool is support. Sometimes we need to grieve alone, to curl up in a ball in the corner of the bed and sob. Other times we need our grief to be witnessed. We pick up the phone and pray someone answers, someone who can hold the space of grief without interjecting many words. If possible, we allow ourselves to be witnessed by the actual presence of loving others, letting them hold us as our body rocks and shakes until that wave of grief washes through.

The third tool is expression. We are gifted with many ways to transpose the grief from pain to wisdom: we write, dance, paint, act, draw, photograph, sing. To grieve is human. When we stop fighting the grief and extend the hand of our individual paintbrush onto the canvas of our life, the pain becomes manageable.

I don’t know that we ever fully heal from loss. When someone we love leaves the planet, an emptiness remains, the space in our heart that they occupied while they were here. We can say that the love never dies, which I believe to be true, but our human selves in our human bodies will always remember and long for the physical, here-and-now connection that we once shared. A scent, a dream, a place triggers a memory and we’re flooded back into the place of grief, missing our beloved person or animal. Then we cry, talk, express, and move onto to the next moment of our life, the love of this life, of others who remain, enfolding the place in the heart where the departed once lived.

In the end, it’s a choice we make: to remain safe in the narrow realm of the protected heart or to dive off the dock of our fear and swim out into the bottomless sea of loving. In saying yes to the risk, we say yes to the love. For me, it’s the only sea I want to be swimming in: dark and blue waters, giant swells and calm days, rainbow fish and barracudas, and more and more, as the years pass on, the warm, soft island sand that enfolds us, the trees that shade us, the sky that gives us shelter. I choose risk. I choose vulnerability. I choose love, again and again and again.

How to Uncork Your Heart: Opening Up to Move On

At the center of ourselves, at the very center of our body and our soul, lives the heart. When we allow ourselves to stay in the flow of the feelings of life, feeling sadness when it reaches out like a child in the dark, feeling jealousy when it pricks the side of the eyes, feeling anger when it scalds like lava, feeling joy when it hums and laughs – the heart remains open and fully alive.

In an open-hearted state, we’re more attuned to gratitude, we feel excited by life, we’re open to creative inspiration, we inhabit our bodies, and we’re more open to giving and receiving love with our loved ones. But so often we plunge up our hearts like a cork in a bottle. We do this because we learned early in life, from a culture that doesn’t have the faintest clue how to guide its members through big and difficult feelings, to shut down. And when we shut down and cork the heart enough, the energy system of feelings is often forced to go upwards, into the head in the form of thoughts. This is when people often find their way here: when the habit of intrusive thoughts have taken hold to such a degree that the person feels imprisoned by their own mind. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul:

“If you close around the pain and stop it from passing through, it will stay in you. That is
why our natural tendency to resist is so counterproductive. If you don’t want the pain, why
do you close around it and keep it? Do you actually think that if you resist, it will go away?
It’s not true. If you release and let the energy pass through, and actually dare to face it, it
will pass. Every single time you relax and release, a piece of the pain leaves forever. Yet
every time you resist and close, you are building up the pain inside. It’s like damming a
stream. You are then forced to use the psyche to create a layer of distance between you
who experiences the pain and the pain itself. That is what all the noise is inside your mind:
an attempt to avoid the stored pain.” (p. 105)

This noise inside your mind probably sounds like:

I don’t love my partner enough.

What if I’m gay?

What if something bad happens to my baby?

I’m not attracted to my partner.

He’s not intellectual enough.

What’s wrong with me?

I’m too… [fill in the blank].

I’m broken.

I’ll be happy when… [I graduate; I take this test; I have the baby; I get married; I find a house]

Instead of feeling the stored pain, which is raw and vulnerable, we spin up into the safe and familiar refuge of the thought-patterns. Instead of dropping down into the body, which is round and amorphous, we become caught in the illusion that if we could only answer this one question, we would find certainty. So we continue on in the pattern that began as a defense and protection – retreating to the somewhat safe haven of mind – and continue to avoid our feelings.

We become quite masterful at avoiding our feelings. In fact, most people will do anything and everything to avoid feeling the basic feelings of life. Much of this is because we still carry a litany of rules and shoulds about our emotional lives, beliefs absorbed before we even learned to talk. Some of these may sound like this:

You shouldn’t be sad.

You have a job and a great relationship (or whatever the particular externals), so you have no reason to complain.

Feelings are weak.

If you’re “overly” emotional you’re doing something wrong and/or there’s something wrong with you.

Feelings are a waste of time.

Feelings are an indulgence.

Yet if you’re a highly sensitive person – and it’s become quite evident to me that nearly everyone who finds their way to my work is, indeed, highly sensitive – you simply cannot continue to avoid your feelings. You may retreat to your head and the relative sanctity of thoughts for a while, but your feelings will eventually make themselves known. They will, in fact, demand your attention, until you are forced to stop, listen, and attend. A significant aspect of the transformation from living in your head to living in your body/heart is embracing your sensitivity as the gift that it is. Alongside my work on relationship anxiety, it’s the conversations that I invite on high sensitivity that allow people to begin to quiet the inner critic and see the beauty of their true essence.

For example, I often tell the story of teaching my highly sensitive sons to practice the simple yet powerful practice of Tonglen when we see dead animals on the side of the road. The practice is to breathe in what’s unwanted – in this case grief, helplessness, heartbreak – and breathe out what’s wanted: peace to all beings. The practice teaches us to move toward our pain instead of giving in to the habitual tendency to push it away. For even though my husband and I never shame away emotional reactions to anything in life – and certainly not the true pain of seeing death in any form – our kids still fall prey to the natural response to retreat from pain. In this case, encouraging the practice teaches our kids that every feeling deserves attention.

When I tell this story, my clients will often say something like, “I would have been shamed if I had expressed pain about roadkill.” Even if it wasn’t explicit shame, the covert message was to get over it, and that there was something wrong with me for feeling so deeply. I can see how I still give myself this same message: that my pain is too much or too big, which causes me to shame myself, and then I don’t make time to listen to it and feel it.

I then talk about guiding our kids through their grief, to which my clients often respond with, “I didn’t have anyone to guide me through my grief.” Nobody did. We are an emotionally ignorant culture. We focus on facts and left-brained information, on achievement and outcome, and completely ignore the value of feeling one’s feeling. The guidance isn’t difficult, but it would have required having parents who weren’t afraid of their own pain, and then parents before them who weren’t afraid of their pain. And so on, back through the generations, following the ancestral line of well-meaning people who were taught to deny their softest, most vulnerable selves.

How many times have you been shamed for feeling deeply about what others deemed “insignificant”? How often do you still minimize your pain, saying to yourself that you’re too sensitive and to just “get over it”?

The first, and most essential, step to feeling the difficult feelings that live in the heart is making time for it. Grief is like those animals that we see encroached upon by human domination: vulnerable, shy, afraid of the pace and sounds of our fast and loud life. Yet again, the litany of reasons why we can’t slow down:

I don’t have time.

I should be there for others first.

Feelings aren’t important enough (I’m not important enough).

It’s self-centered to take time for myself and for inner work.

I should be able to handle everything; I shouldn’t need downtime or “being” time.

What many people don’t realize, or forget, is that if you refuse to make time for your deepest self to reveal itself – time to sit with your face upturned to the sun, time to sit and watch the world pass by outside your window, time to write in yourjournal or be in silence the Self makes itself known in other ways. And this is when we find ourselves trapped by intrusive thoughts, anxiety or burnout. We go and do and achieve and burn the candle on both ends and eventually we will collapse. It’s not a sustainable model. And then you’re no good to anyone.

When you can move toward your pain, you will find freedom. When you embrace your sensitivity as the gift that it is instead of continuing to buy into the lie that it’s a burden, you will unfold into the truest and most impassioned version of yourself. When you make time to listen to the whispers and songs of your heart, you will discover a renewable and sustainable energy source that will fuel the passions and projects in your life: an enlivened way of doing that is birthed from the fullness of being. When we attend to soul she returns the gifts tenfold. But when we deny her, she rises up like the furious force of the natural world, and demands that we listen.

What to Do When You’re Doubting Your Relationship

I feel like I’m settling.

This doesn’t feel right.

I often feel irritated with my partner. Doesn’t that mean I’m with the wrong person?

When I think about leaving, I don’t feel anything at all.

They’re all normal questions that barrel through the brain of someone who lands on the anxious-sensitive spectrum. For you, doubt is an inevitable aspect of any decision, big or small. The problem isn’t the questions or the doubt. The problem is how you respond to your mind.

If we lived in a culture that honored your sensitivity and taught you how to navigate through life with sensitivity at the helm of your ship, you would expect yourself to react this way in an intimate relationship and it wouldn’t rattle you. If we lived in a culture that taught you that it’s okay to doubt, that love includes fear, and that certainty is an illusion, you would learn to hear these questions and be able to respond to them from a clear and centered place inside of you.

But we don’t live in that culture. We live in a culture that catapults films like The Notebook to the top of the blockbuster list, and, thus, to the top of the mainstream mindset. We expect to know when we meet our partner. We expect certainty. We expect butterflies, if not throughout a long-term relationship, at least in the beginning. When these elements are lacking, there’s no place for the sensitive heart and mind to go but to anxiety.

When people find my work, one of the first questions they ask is, “Why doesn’t everyone talk about the reality of love?” The truth is that anyone steeped in the realm of the inner world – therapists, religious clergy, spiritual leaders, and some novelists who are tapped into the archetypal elements of life instead of only the surface-image-Hollywood layer – will tell the truth about love. My clients often say things to me like, “You know, we just had our pre-marital counseling session with our priest and he talked about love and relationships in the same way that you do!” Anyone not brainwashed by the Romantic Ideal that our culture espouses, anyone on the front lines of real relationships in real life, will tell the truth.

So when I find a passage that dares to admit that it’s okay not to know, I rejoice. And then I share it here. This is from a beautiful book called Seven Blessings by Ruchama King, where the author describes an engaged woman’s anxiety a few days before her wedding as she talks to the older and wiser town matchmaker:

A contentment settled upon Beth as she sat with Tsippi around the lamp, poking among the grains. Here it was rich, like butternut squash. She almost forgot the panic attack she ’d had that morning as she lay in bed, going over all the little things that irritated her about Akiva. His beard needed better grooming. When he ate, he held his fork crudely, like a drumstick in his fist. He sang off-key. He began many sentences with “By the same token. ” Of course she could live with these pesky annoyances, but at the heart of these observations was a question: Was he the one God had planned for her for eternity?

Beth adjusted the light so it shone more directly on the rice platter. She said, “Tsippi, could you tell me something? How did you know your husband was the right one for you? Your besherte and all that?”

I had a certain feeling,” she began. She told Beth about her rescue efforts when she was a young woman in the camps, about going into the barracks late at night, searching for a pulse among all the bodies, reviving them if she could, and in the end reviving the body of the man, who, after the war, became her husband. When she saw him again she recognized the little mushroom birthmark on his neck.

And after all that, can I still say I knew?” Again, Tsippi poured some rice onto the platter and shook it gently from side to side until the grains evened out. “I didn‘t. ” Beth sucked in her breath, and Tsippi looked at her. “Well, if he’s not for you? Believe me, you know right away. And if he is for you? You can marry him, you can have children with him, you can spend your life with him, and still, you never know.

They continued checking among the grains. Beth smiled. She liked the thought – this not knowing.” (pp. 236-37)

A significant spoke on the wheel of relationship anxiety and intrusive thoughts is the need for certainty. When we’re tumbling through life, and especially through a difficult time when the ground feels particularly shaky beneath our feet, the ego naturally latches onto a tangible question as a way to try to gain a measure of control. If I can just answer this one question, it believes, I will find serenity and peace. It doesn’t work that way.

The questions the ego sinks its teeth into are unanswerable, and ultimately the work is about learning to breathe into the moments of feeling out of the control, the feelings of vulnerability, the grief, the fear, and the uncertainty that define relationship anxiety, and, in essence, define being human. The healing path, over and over and over again, is to unhook from the tentacles and thought-vines that dangle seductively down to the vulnerable heart and amorphous soul and instead ask, “What are these thoughts protecting me from feeling?” When we can, like Beth, settle into the “not knowing,” or, like Rilke, understand that the answers are in the questions themselves, we find a moment of breath, an exhale, a return to an anchor point inside that knows that even in the not knowing, it’s all okay.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer  Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Are You in Love with the Feeling of Being in Love?

A term appeared on my e-course forum several years ago: infatuation junkie. Forum members were using it to describe the phenomena of chasing after the feeling that arises during the infatuation stage of a relationship, what our culture calls being “head over heels in love” and is accompanied by belly butterflies and other heart-stopping sensations. It’s an eye-opening moment on one’s journey from relationship anxiety to acceptance and serenity when the person afflicted with the addiction to the feeling of being in love can identify it as such. Naming, which is another term for coming out of denial, is often the first step toward recovery.

It’s understandable that we would chase this feeling. What’s not to love about the feelings of aliveness, meaning and completion that arise as a result of falling in love? Ultimately isn’t that what we’re all seeking? To feel fully alive, to live a life of meaning, to erase the emptiness inside, and finally feel complete? Being infatuated is an ecstatic state, a god-like realm. 

And that’s exactly the point, or the cultural mis-point: when we assign the state of awareness, meaning and fulfillment to another human being instead of where it truly belongs, disaster can only ensue. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with loving that ecstatic feeling; the problem arises and it’s complete misappropriation. In other words, instead of seeking that sense of completion or wholeness – even ecstasy – through one’s connection to source; through creative, spiritual and the other meaningful work in the world pursuits, we are culturally conditioned, educated, brainwashed, and encouraged to seek it in a human other. 

What a setup! Even if that feeling is there in the beginning, it will inevitably fade. And then what? Jump ship and start a new with someone else, falling into the deliciously painful pool of in-loveness only to discover that it will fade yet again? Yes, that’s the trajectory. When the feeling fades, our culture wags its admonishing finger with the covert or sometimes blatant message, “You’re clearly not in love if you have to ask if it’s time to walk away.”

It’s not time to walk away. If you’re in a solid healthy loving relationship, it’s time to learn about real love. You see, I’ve learned a little secret over the years of working deeply in the world of relationships: when we shift our orientation from what we can get from our partner (that feeling) to practicing specific actions of giving, and when we learn to attend to ourselves in consistently loving ways so that we become the source of our own fullness and aliveness, that coveted, lovely feeling reappears. It doesn’t show up in a blast of Hollywood, Wuthering Heights-eque drama. Rather, it dances in ever so lightly and delicately, like a field of wildflowers on the side of a trail.

You can learn the Love Laws and Loving Action that you should have received through osmosis by witnessing your parents’ marriage (yet likely didn’t as so few of us grew up witnessing a healthy marriage). You can learn the loving actions that you should have learned in school (yet didn’t as that course was never offered). You can learn them now so that you can learn about what it means to open your heart and create the true definition of being in love that every couple is capable of and deserves to feel.

*If you want to learn more about how our culture became a nation of infatuation junkies hooked on the drug of romantic love, please read We by Robert Johnson.