Saturday, September 28, 2013

Anxiety and Abandonment

Have you ever experienced the "push me-pull you" dance in close relationships? Once "new relationship energy" has dissipated, do you find yourself getting close to someone, only to find them pulling away. Or have you been on the other side of this see saw, finding yourself distancing as a person you care about has come in close, perhaps too close for comfort? Most all of us crave intimacy, but it can also be a scary proposition. Relationship experts Calista Luminaire and Lion Goodman write, "Anxiety is the uncomfortable body sensation associated with fear, uncertainty, instability or feeling unsafe...When infants are uncomfortable or afraid, they cry out, expressing their need to be cared for. If their needs are not attended to, they feel anxious." They note that in adults, the feeling of anxiety has its roots in the same primal part of the brain. They write, "Anxiety is a subconscious rattling of the nervous system signaling, 'I need care now!' If you're not certain whether you'll be care for, you feel upset or nervous.'" If when you are scared, you are responded to with love and care, you will feel safe, and your anxiety will "melt away." If your partner has a negative response, including criticism, judgment, rejection or withdrawal, your anxiety will quickly escalate into the red zone. Your primal fear of abandonment button will be triggered, and you may experience the same kind of fight or flight response that comes when something is a threat to your survival. Your partner, who is having their own parallel red zone response, then distances further, and the two of you descend seemingly separately, but actually together, into a downward spiral. Somehow, instead of being two people dancing on an equal playing field, one person has become the "distanced"and the other person has become the "pursuer." Both roles feel pretty horrible, and relationship breaks down. The distancer feels overwhelmed by the anxiety of the person needing closeness at a very primal level. The pursuer feels unsafe, rejected and abandoned. Becoming aware that this dynamic of anxiety and abandonment is starting to play out in an intimate relationship is the first step in breaking the downward spiral, and helping get your footing back on solid ground. If our primal needs for safety, comfort, reassurance and security had been met when we were small, we would feel safer as we opened our hearts and started to form emotional attachments with other people. But when these primal needs were not met or not met consistency, attachment triggers anxiety and abandonment, with an intensity equivalent to questioning our very survival. Important learnings are: 1. We are all human and many of us have unmet needs around attachment and security. 2. If we can get in touch with our own anxiety around intimacy and attachment, we can start to learn what our own inner child needs to be safe and secure. 3. If we feel frightened of someone else's anxiety or need for closeness, likely our own attachment fractures are coming to the surface to heal and transform. 4. The better able we are to have compassion for the scared, anxious inner part of us, be it the part that is afraid of being abandoned or the part that is afraid of being smothered, the better we can manage our own anxiety, whether we are the pursuer or the distanced. 5. The better we understand ourselves and our reactions, the more compassionate we can be with our partner and their reaction. 6. The better we know what we need, the more able we are to translate it into something doable in the here and now. If you tell someone, "I am feeling anxious and would feel a lot better if you held me for 5 minutes," that is giving them a doable task that can make a difference. It is also a contained task, so the distancer will not feel smothered. Learning the steps of the dance of intimacy takes courage, time and often good coaching. It is well worth the personal growth and relational effort to become skilled at this dance!

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