I’ve recently noticed that anxiety in the context of relationships has been a theme for people in my life lately, inspiring me to write on this very important subject this week.
There are many different ways that we can experience anxiety in relationships. We may have anxiety about the well-being of those we care about. We may have anxiety about being liked or loved by others, belonging with others, connecting with others. We may have anxiety about the judgement, evaluation, and opinions of others. We may have anxiety about being rejected, betrayed, abandoned, hurt, or taken advantage of…
Holy smokes! If you think you don’t have anxiety about relationships, think again. Relationships are such a pervasive aspect of our lives. Unless you’re a sociopath or robot, it would be almost impossible not to have some level of anxiety about some aspect of relationships. In fact, anxiety about relationships can be pretty amorphous if we feed it and let it take over.
I could write an entire book on this subject alone, so I’m not even going to be able to scratch the surface in addressing all of the relationship-anxiety issues in this little blog post today. But my hope is that I can at least address a broad scope of relationship-anxiety problems I commonly see.
Why do we have anxiety about relationships? Well, evolutionarily, as human beings, we’re pack animals, just like dogs, apes, and lions. On a primitive level, belonging and being loved by others serves a survival purpose for us. If you think back to the cave-man and cave-woman days, being ostracized from the protection of the clan literally meant death! This is why we experience feelings like empathy, love, and compassion. But this is also why we experience anxiety in relationships that don’t feel solid and secure. I think having this understanding is crucial for coping with relationship-anxiety. Have grace with yourself by understanding that these feelings are natural, and there’s nothing wrong with YOU for having them.
Just like any other anxiety problem, it’s not the anxiety itself that’s the real problem, it’s our response to the anxiety. Relationship-anxiety goes awry when we feed our relationship fears beyond reason and attempt to control relationship outcomes that can’t be controlled. We can do our best to develop adaptive social skills and communication skills that maximize the outcomes we’re hoping for, but we can’t directly control others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We can’t make others love us, we can’t make others understand us, and we can’t make others think a certain way about us. When we get bogged down in this, we ironically stifle our authenticity and make it more difficult for those who truly love and accept us to gravitate to us. In other words, you get what you put out there. If you’re not being authentic or you’re hiding your authentic self, then you’ll never attract the people who really care about YOU. You’re attracting people who care about your act.
The same goes for our established relationships. Sometimes we get stuck in relationships that make us unhappy because the alternative seems worse… or maybe there is a history of the relationship that you’re having trouble letting go of… Relationships are not black and white. They have a lot of grey areas. This is why I always say:
“Never invest more in another person than they are willing to invest in YOU.”
I realize that for some people this can seem cruel and it might even go against your beliefs or society’s beliefs about love (i.e., that love means caring for others more than yourself). But when you invest more time, thought, emotion, and care than the other person, that is a recipe for relationship dissatisfaction and unhappiness—not only for YOU but also for the other person. When you invest more in the other person than they invest in you, you will eventually become resentful of the other person and that resentment will come out in unhealthy ways (e.g., lashing out at the other person, saying or doing deeply hurtful things to the other person).
Plus! If you don’t want the other person in this relationship to suffer what you are suffering, why would you want that for yourself?
This does not mean that you must completely brake all ties with the other person. It does not mean that you must hate them. You can still have gratitude for the relationship, set reasonable expectations, and keep a healthy distance.
This is not about you selfishly getting what you want either. This is about you standing up for your self-worth. When you tie your self-worth to others and the outcomes of your relationships, your self-worth will be wavering and fragile. Practicing self-compassion and healthy boundaries in relationships enhances your self-worth and, therefore, your ability to show up in your relationships. And when this process is mutual… WOW… Now that is an exceptional relationship that we all inherently deserve. And it is possible! It does not have to be this rare, mystical thing that will never happen for you.
So to recap the take-home messages of today’s blog…
- Practice grace with your relationship anxiety.
- Practice balanced, realistic beliefs about control in relationships.
- Practice authenticity to attract people who truly care about YOU.
- Practice gauging your investments in others based on how much they invest in you.
- Practice self-compassion to promote healthy boundaries in your relationships.
I say “practice” because these processes are easier said than done, and we do not learn them over night. They take much time, effort, and practice to become habit. Now, have the courage to seek out exceptional relationships!
Until next time,
Have courage and kind wishes!
Tannah E. Chase, Ph.D.
The Anxiety Counseling Clinic, P.L.L.C.