Relational wounds have a powerful impact on us. Think about a time when you have been the most deeply hurt in a relationship. It could be a friend, an intimate partner, a child, a parent, a sibling, or even a colleague. What feelings surface when you recall the memory? Most likely, the deeper the wound, the stronger the feelings. Relational wounds are so powerful because they touch our core existence as human beings – the soul. A relational wound is a soul wound. We were created in relationship. We enter the world through relationship. We were made for relationship. So, nothing has greater potential to hurt or heal us emotionally and mentally quite like relationship.
Those who know me best often describe me as a social butterfly. While this relational metaphor is definitely a description of my natural and best self, I haven’t always been that way. I was once so wounded by someone I trusted in an intimate relationship that I isolated myself from everyone who tried to connect with me. Like a turtle, I totally withdrew into the safety of my shell when anyone came too close. The fear of being betrayed was bigger than my fear of being lonely at the time and I struggled with feeling anxious around others who wanted to spend time with me. The hurt I sustained from that soul wound was so painful that for a time, it impacted the way I viewed all relationships – as unsafe and harmful. It took a good counselor to help me see my fear for what it was and get past it by trusting people again – one at a time.
Just as the greatest hurts take place in relationship, so does the greatest healing. I was able to transform back into a social butterfly the same way I retreated into turtle status – the power of relationship. Fear is a powerful motivator, but so is love. Still, relationships can be complicated and anxiety around relationships is on the rise.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, (ADAA) anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the U.S. age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Counselors report that the majority of those who seek counseling today for anxiety are suffering from a lack of genuine connectedness to others. Along with anxiety – depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and other addictive disorders often have roots of trauma from relational wounds.
A 2014 article in Psychology Today discussed several mental health disorders that are exacerbated by disconnection from others, and anxiety disorders were among them. This issue has only increased since the writing of that article. Our expanding digital world that encourages others to hide behind perfect personifications and alternate identities adds to a growing fear of intimacy.
What are we so afraid of?…Of being seen. Really seen. The best definition of intimacy I’ve ever heard is, in-to-me-you-see. When we let people see our innermost thoughts and feelings, there is always a risk of feeling rejected or betrayed. When fear prevents us from reaching out, this is where we lose out because connection cannot happen without risk.
Hope whispers, connection is worth the risk.
Understanding and addressing the fear that’s behind your anxious feelings is the key to overcoming it. While feelings of anxiety from time to time are not only normal, but helpful (feeling nervous before a test can encourage you to study more to best prepare), when feelings of fear, worry and panic start to disrupt daily living, it’s time to take a closer look at the root problem. The “anxiety” isn’t the actual problem – it’s just the symptom of the problem. Anxiety is a symptom of fear, so feelings and behaviors such as worry, irritability, racing thoughts, hypervigilance, even insomnia, can stem from the root fear. For instance, someone who feels anxious when it’s time to take that test and starts sweating, having obsessive thoughts about forgetting everything they studied, and begins panicking, is not actually afraid of the test, they are afraid of failing. Someone who feels anxious about spending time developing relationships with others is not really afraid of relationship, they are afraid of rejection.
When you find the root fear, you can address it, and then the anxious symptoms will subside. Often, the solution is the opposite of what you want to do because you are attempting to avoid the very thing which you believe may cause you discomfort, distress and emotional pain. This holds true for all forms of anxiety, but especially relational anxiety. When someone is afraid of being hurt, the natural self-protective reaction is to isolate, (taking the turtle approach) but that causes feelings of loneliness, which can lead to depression and further the cycle of anxiety. In this case, the solution is connection. Yes, it can feel uncomfortable, but pushing past the discomfort is part of the process. It’s important to remember the discomfort and distress you might feel won’t last forever.
Relationship. The very thing that hurt you also has the power to heal you. There is no greater risk than to get back up and get back in the ring for another round of relationship when you’ve been emotionally knocked out. There is also no greater reward than to look fear in the eye and stare it down with love. Sometimes it takes a few rounds, but love always wins in the end.