“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” ~Kahlil Gibran
Relationships have always been anxiety-inducing for me, and I know it stems from my childhood.
As a kid I would often silently mouth words I’d just said, hearing them in my mind and evaluating whether I’d said something stupid or wrong. I was always afraid of saying something that might make someone upset.
Junior high was a particularly rough time in my life. I was insecure and had low self-esteem, and I was desperate for approval from other kids, which made me an easy target for bullying.
To make matters worse, an authority figure in my life told me, “If I was your age, I wouldn’t be your friend.”
I had always believed there was something wrong with me, but at that point I was certain that no one would like me, let alone love me, if they really knew me. But I also felt deeply lonely in my little bubble of self-loathing and envied the popular kids. The likable kids. The kids who didn’t seem so clingy and awkward, who seemed to easily fit in.
Thus began an internal battle I’m guessing many of you know all too well: the deep desire to feel seen and secure juxtaposed with the feared being judged and rejected.
As I got older, I found myself in all kinds of unhealthy relationships, making friends with other emotionally damaged, self-destructive women, thinking they’d be less likely to judge me, and dating emotionally unavailable men, whose behavior reinforced that I didn’t deserve love.
I was always afraid they were mad at me. That I did something wrong. That they might realize I was too needy and eventually walk away.
And it wasn’t just in my closest relationships that I felt insecure. I also felt a deep sense of unease around their friends—when we all went to a party or bar, for example. It all felt like a performance or a test, and I was afraid of failing.
Constantly in fight-or-flight mode, I tried to numb my anxiety in social situations with alcohol. Far more times than I care to admit, I ended a night black-out drunk, only to wake up the next morning to mortifying stories of things I’d done that I didn’t recall.
The irony is that this jeopardized my relationships—because people had to babysit and take care of me—when I was binge-drinking mainly because I was scared of being rejected.
Maybe you can relate to the extreme anxiety I felt in relationships. Or maybe for you, it’s less debilitating, but you worry, nonetheless.
Whatever your personal experience, perhaps it will help to read these six things—things I wish I understood sooner.
1. Your anxiety is likely about more than just this one relationship.
Even if the other person has said or done things that have left you feeling insecure, odds are, your anxiety stems from your past, as was true for me.
We all form attachment styles as children; many of us become anxiously attached as a result of growing up with abusive, neglectful, or unreliable caregivers who aren’t responsive to our needs. If you often feel anxious in relationships, you might be stuck in a pattern you formed as a kid.
2. If the other person is emotionally unavailable, it’s not your fault, and not within your power to change them.
It’s tempting to think that your behavior is responsible for theirs, and if you do everything right, they’ll give you the love you crave. On the flipside, you might constantly blame yourself when they withdraw. You said something wrong. Or did something wrong. Or it’s just you being you—because you are wrong.
But emotionally unavailable people have their own painful pasts that make them act the way they do. It started way before you, and it will likely continue when your relationship inevitably breaks under the strain of too much tension.
Instead of trying to earn their love and prove you’re worthy, remind yourself that you deserve love you don’t have to work for. And that it’s worth the wait to find someone who is willing and able to give you their all.
3. Things might not be as they seem.
While some people truly are pulling away and looking for an easy exit, other times we just think they are.
When we fear abandonment, we often read into little things and assume the worst. We over-analyze text messages, worry about a change in tone or facial expressions, and generally look for signs that we might have upset someone. But there’s a good chance that thing you’re worrying about has nothing to do with you.
Maybe they’re not texting back right away because they’re afraid of writing the ‘wrong’ thing to you. Maybe they haven’t called recently because they’re going through something hard. Whatever you’re interpreting as proof of imminent rejection, consider that you might have it all wrong.
4. Sometimes anxious behavior creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When you’re feeling anxious, you might cling, act controlling, or argue over minor issues that make you feel neglected or rejected—all behaviors that can cause someone to withdraw. I can’t even count the number of times I caused unnecessary drama because I assumed that because I felt insecure, someone else had done something to make me feel that way.
Everything changed when I recognized I could pause, recognize how I was feeling (and why), and then choose to respond from a place of calm awareness.
If you can learn to recognize when you’re feeling triggered, you can practice regulating your own nervous system—through deep breathing, for example—instead of inadvertently pushing the other person away.
5. Often, the best thing you can do is sit with your anxiety.
This one has been hard for me. When I feel anxious, my instinct is often to seek reassurance from someone else to make it go away. But that means my peace is dependent on what someone else says or does.
Ultimately, we need to believe that our relationships are strong enough to handle a little conflict if there truly is a problem–and that if our relationship isn’t strong enough to last, we’re strong enough to handle that.
6. Sometimes when someone is pulling away, it’s actually in your best interest.
People with an anxious attachment style will often try to do everything in their power to hold onto a relationship, even if someone isn’t good for them.
In my twenties I spent many nights crying over emotionally abusive men, some of them friends with benefits who I hoped would eventually want more; others, men I was dating who thought even less of me than I thought of myself.
The wrong men always left me because I didn’t see my worth and wasn’t strong enough to leave them first. And the pain was always unbearable because it reinforced that I wasn’t lovable—just as I’d feared all along.
Though it can be agonizing when someone triggers an old abandonment wound, letting the wrong person walk away is the first step to believing you deserve more.
As someone with deep core wounds, I still struggle with relationship anxiety at times. I don’t know if it will ever go away completely. But I know I’ve come a long way and that I’m a lot stronger now.
I also know that when I inevitably feel that familiar fear—the racing heart, the sense of dread, the triggered shame coursing through my trembling veins—I will love myself through it. I won’t judge myself or put myself down or tell myself I deserve to be hurt. I may fear that someone might abandon me, but no matter what happens, I won’t abandon myself.