In Part 1 of this series, we discussed signs of relationship anxiety - overthinking, game-playing and self-sabotage - and the common experiences of people who struggle with this challenge. Here, we’ll provide a three-step process for overcoming relationship anxiety in your life. Like the desire to change any unhealthy habits in life, the first step is being committed to the process of change.
1. Recognize patterns
Oftentimes, the first step is the most difficult. If you know you struggle with relationship anxiety, understanding your personal relationship patterns is an important precursor to changing them. To start understanding your own triggers, try this exercise:
- Write down the last three people you have dated.
- Next to their names, jot down the top three grievances you had about the relationship. Perhaps these things might include “he/she didn’t communicate often enough” or “he/she wouldn’t introduce me to his/her friends”.
- Under each of these grievances, reflect on how those behaviors really made you feel. For example, if “lack of frequent communication” was a challenge, did you feel ignored, abandoned, rejected, overlooked - list all the feelings that come to mind.
- How do you typically respond to these feelings - did you spiral into over-thinking, start plotting how to change his/her’s behavior, or act in ways that sabotaged the relationship? (See Part I for more information on relationship anxiety)
- Go a layer deeper and identify whether that behavior was really triggering a personal fear of yours. For example, was it triggering your internal fear that perhaps this potential partner was disinterested, cheating, or not emotionally ready for a relationship?
These insights on your emotional experience and underlying feelings will facilitate step two.
2. Build Insights
Understanding your complex underlying feelings is the basis for change. It’s also the foundation for understanding your programmed responses to fears like insecurity. These are the core insights needed for establishing new, healthier patterns.
Once identified, perhaps you’ll start to see that, for example, your own insecurities around not feeling “good enough” or “worthy of a healthy relationship” might be a common theme. It’s then time to uncover why self-defeating and self-sabotaging beliefs exist.
To explore this further, ask yourself, “What old wound is triggered in the present moment or relationship and making me feel anxious or fearful?” Taking a closer look at your earlier relationship experiences with your family of origin and former romantic relationships will help you see how your current relationship model and dynamics within relationships were shaped. You’ll want to pay extra attention to your childhood relationship to your parents, the quality of attachment in your childhood and adult relationships, and past relationship losses and/or trauma(s) (e.g., a parent leaving, being absent or preoccupied, dying, divorce, health issues impacting you/your family, major break-ups, and other significant life transitions), to better understand what might be influencing these stories. Meeting with a psychologist who specializes in relationships is also an excellent way to sort through these personal stories, patterns, and complexities.
Learning from these insights is critical to fuel new healthy relationship dynamics. First, it is imperative to do your own work to heal old wounds and improve your relationship with yourself and what gets triggered within relationships before you can enter into any healthy relationship. From my experience, when you do not do the work on yourself first, you will continue to unconsciously attract people who replicate old patterns. The healthier you become, the healthier your relationships become.
After you invest in yourself, you’ll want to be clear what is important for you in a relationship and why. Does your relationship wish-list simply prevent old wounds from being triggered or is it an authentic representation of what’s important to you to be in a relationship? For example, if infrequent contact makes you anxious about your partner’s fidelity, and therefore causes you to withdraw in a relationship, it’s important to know that frequent, consistent contact is essential in your next relationship, at least in the initial stages. That insight might help you better select a future mate who exhibits consistent contact. If he/she doesn’t make daily chats a priority upfront, recognize that disconnect with your communication desires, and take action to prevent heartache later.
In addition to working through personal trauma and understanding triggers, choosing a mate who can also ease these anxieties might make the partnership easier. Sharing these insights with a potential mate in the initial courting stages might be beneficial. For instance, during the initial stages of dating someone, it might be helpful to share something like, “I know from past relationships that I need frequent and consistent contact with a partner in order to feel connected. I am working through my own insecurities around needing this type of verbal reinforcement, and it would be helpful to know if you also desire consistent communication”.
3. Stay present
Anxiety of any kind is rooted in living too much into the future. By overanalyzing the current situation and obsessing about what could happen, usually based on past experiences, it’s impossible to be truly invested and present in a current partnership. Nearly every psychological challenge in life can be overcome by simply being in the moment -- and consciously choosing not to think about the future or the past.
A lifelong practice, take small steps to bring yourself back to what is happening here and now. If you find your mind wandering and worrying about what might or might not happen, tune into the very details of your time with your beloved -- the inflections of his/her voice, the color of his/her eyes, the way it feels when your bodies touch. Get grounded in the moment by really feeling and experiencing what is happening here and now.
Other ways to manage anxiety symptoms include deep breathing, commitment to self-care, taking regular inventory of your feelings, working with a therapist, and surrounding yourself with a good network of friends.
Committing to Change
If you are truly committing to changing patterns and being in more fulfilling relationships, make it a priority in your life. In addition to the 3-step process above, seek the help of a professional to assist you in not only overcoming the most common relationship anxiety challenges, but to hold you accountable to lasting change when old habits sneak back into your life.
Contact Center for Shared Insight to discuss more about the ways we can help you form healthy, new patterns and say goodbye to relationship anxiety.
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