An open letter to my former self about relationship anxiety.
Your intuition isn't wrong.
In fact, as a person with relationship anxiety, your intuition is extra-alert.
You aren't crazy.
And when you feel like something is "off" - it usually is.
But. That "something" might not be "off" in the way that you're afraid that it's "off" - and that "something" might also not mean everything that you're afraid that it means.
Human nervous systems don't like uncertainty. So, for those of us with anxiety that shows up in relationships, our brains are extra-attuned to recognizing situations that have meant "danger" in our pasts, and then to alerting us to these situations: "Danger! Danger!"
(This is why the expression "red flags" feels so accurate - our brains literally send out little nervous system alerts - like red flags - when they recognize a pattern that feels familiar and unsafe.)
Also because our nervous systems don't like uncertainty, when we find ourselves in situations that feel familiar, our brains like to make up stories to explain what these situations "mean" based on information and mental mapping that we carry around from our past experiences with similar situations.
These stories - the ones that our brains make up - might be true.
But these stories might also not be true.
To illustrate this - let's role-play, just you and me. Let's say that we, people with relationship anxiety, are in a generally safe relationship. But this relationship is our first safe relationship - maybe our first safe relationship ever.
And let's say, in this first safe relationship, our partner does something that feels "off" to us. And not only does this thing feel "off" to us, but it also reminds us of something one of our former partners did that actually was unsafe for or even harmed us.
As a person with relationship anxiety, when you notice a relational pattern and feel "off," you're probably not wrong in believing that what your new partner did is "off" - or even out of line.
But - you might be wrong that your partner's doing that thing that you didn't like means that your partner is an unsafe partner overall.
Your partner might be unsafe.
But your partner might have also just made a mistake. And they might need for you to tell them how much they hurt you.
And in order for you to be able to tell the difference, you'll need to see more of what they do and evaluate it against their intentions over time. To do this, you will need to develop the skill of reality-checking your stories.
Part of working through relationship anxiety is training yourself to recognize when you're feeling triggered, and then to ask yourself what stories you're making up around the triggers - and then to reality-check your stories.
The key, of course, is to do all of this processing before making any decisions about the safety of the relationship.
If this feels particularly hard, or if you're dating again after an especially unsafe relationship, I recommend working with a trusted therapist or, if you don't need trauma support, a coach.
Additionally, you can try journaling about what you're feeling. Journaling can be a safe space to process anxious feelings and thoughts, to validate your experience for yourself, and to reality-check your stories before bringing them to a partner.
Research by psychologist James Pennebaker also indicates that journaling helps with processing trauma.
When journaling to reality-check your stories, I recommend using my favorite journaling practice for this (and the one that brought me back to journaling after a particularly difficult breakup in grad school!) - Brene Brown's "shitty first draft" journaling process (adapted from author Anne Lamott). The link I'm attaching here is the best one I can find as a PDF, but the full process is outlined in her book, Rising Strong.
Journaling is helpful in that it can be grounding - it can help us to pull ourselves out of a triggered, activated state, and the process of writing out our stories can help us begin to think through and question what we're writing in a way that feels almost objective. Through writing, we become like our own friends and confidants, listening to our own stories from the outside-in.
But - before we close, a note to you, the person reading this: If you're finding that your new relationship is legitimately unsafe (especially if you have a history of unsafe partnerships) - please seek support from a therapist or crisis center. I, or any coach without a professional therapy license, am not trained to intervene or work with clients in abuse situations - and any coach saying otherwise is trying to sell you something. Seek the appropriate professional support.