As I spiral deeper and deeper into the layers of the field of transition, I realize with greater clarity that at the core of the anxiety that rears its ugly head during these tumultuous breaking and renewal points in our lives is the feeling of being out of control. We kick and scream and fight against this feeling because, in a phrase, it makes us feel like we’re going to die. Someone from another site posted a comment on one of my articles and said that she feels like she’s free-falling, and not a fun way. The problem isn’t the falling; it’s that we’ve never been taught how to fall without digging our nails in to anything in sight as a way to try to feel like we’re in control. We don’t know how to breathe into the falling. We don’t know how to surrender to it. If we could surrender and give up the resistance, we would find that the coal of control encases an exhale of spaciousness.
We each have our own ingeniously wounded ways of trying to manage the feeling of being out of control. Some people focus on the external or practical elements of a transition: For those in the wedding transition, it’s the dress, cake, flowers, and hundreds of other details that can distract the mind from sitting with the elusive unknown. For those that are trying to conceive, it’s the focus on ovulation sticks and pregnancy tests. For those that are moving, it’s the exclusive focus on packing without recognizing the profound opportunity for emotional cleansing of the past that moving offers.
When I was trying to conceive my first son almost eight years ago I was stunned that the majority of the conversations on the message boards were about sticks and tests. And yet I cannot forget the fact that on our first month of trying I overrode my innate and long-standing knowledge about when my body was fertile and instead put my faith in an ovulation stick! I’m not sure what I was thinking, other than the fact that I was scared out of my mind about the prospect of becoming a mother and focusing on the stick made me feel like I was in control of the process – even if only for a few minutes. But when I placed my trust in something outside my internal wisdom, the anxiety actually increased tenfold. (There’s a great irony in this story, which I tell in detail in my upcoming eCourse, Birthing a New Mother.)
For those that don’t focus on the externals, the mind tends to perseverate on “what-if” thoughts and other anxiety based thinking. The anxious mind believes that by attaching onto these thoughts, we can control the future and establish a foothold on the out of control quicksand that a transition initiates. I’ve had two women who were entrenched in the pain and fear of trying to conceive say to me, “I’ve just always had this sense that I wouldn’t be able to have a baby.” Both women now have children. The anxiously engaged mind says, “What if I don’t really love him? What if I’m making a mistake? What if this isn’t the right choice?” as a way to try to control the unsettling reality that there are no mistakes or right answers; there’s only an uncertain future where the possibility of loss and heartbreak exists. The anxious new mother obsesses on the thought of, “What if my baby dies?” as a way to try to control the future and avoid the almost unbearable love that sears through her body with such intensity that it feels like it’s going to shatter her open. As Michelle articulates in the Becoming a New Mother eCourse,
Some nights I’m in bed and I just start bawling because I think about all the terrible things that could happen to Henry. I keep thinking about the title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” because at times it’s unbearable to love someone this much, to risk this much loss. I’m grieving my old warped sense of control because I don’t have it anymore and I know it. It hits me too hard sometimes when I think about Henry and all the things that could happen.
Last night, as I was putting my two year old to bed, the thought came into my head: I can’t envision him as an adult. Something tragic is going to happen. For a few minutes I latched onto the thought and I could feel the tendrils of panic begin to rise up in me. When anxiety takes hold, it’s like an eight-legged spider has sat on my brain and pressed its furry legs into my thoughts. In order to extricate its hold, I had to say to myself, There is no value in believing this thought. Even if it’s true, even if by some far-reaching chance I’m sensing into the future, there is no value in giving one more second to this thought. And then I opened my eyes and looked at the beauty and miracle of my son. And I thought, It’s because he’s so precious that I’m terrified of losing him. The thought is a way to try to control the future and protect myself from the vulnerability of loving him so much.
And then I remembered an older cousin saying to me years ago when my firstborn was a few months old, “When my daughter was a baby, I was so terrified of losing her that I almost wanted something terrible to happen. I couldn’t say that to many people because they would never understand what I meant, but I have a feeling you understand.” I did understand. It’s the part of us that’s so uncomfortable with the unknown future that we long for the worst to happen because then the unknown would become a known, quantifiable event. We simply can’t stand living with the unknown, and the what-ifs are a deluded way to create an illusion of control. We think, “If I can predict it, it will somehow make it easier if the worst happens. Or I can leave this situation (not get married, avoid motherhood) as a way to avoid the possibility of a future loss.”
For me, one of the antidotes to anxiety is connecting to gratitude. As my little one fell asleep on top of my chest, as I breathed in his warm sweaty scent and pressed my nose into his brown silk hair, my simple prayer of gratitude shimmered through me like an effervescent bath: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And the anxiety dissolved as it always does when gratitude moves in, because here’s what I know for sure: gratitude is stronger than anxiety. Joy is stronger than anxiety. And love is stronger than anxiety. Anxiety is really a mutated and often demented form of fear, and fear simply cannot withstand the power of love. When we actively connect to love or any of its incarnations, it will becomes the guiding force.
Paul, M.A., is regarded as an international expert in transitions.
Since 1998, she has counseled thousands of people worldwide through life
transitions via her private practice, her bestselling books, and her
She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as
on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and
newspapers around the globe. She is currently in the process of
completing her second Home Study Program, Birthing
a New Mother: A Roadmap from Preconception through the First Year to
Calm Your Anxiety, Prevent Postpartum Depression, and Babyproof Your
Marriage. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and two sons.