What Is the Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle in Relationships? 

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What Is the Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle in Relationships?

Here’s a stubborn relationship dynamic that I see all the time as a couples counselor and relationship coach: the pursuer-withdrawer cycle, also sometimes called the pursuer-distancer dynamic. It’s an incredibly common relationship pattern that just about all couples exhibit to one degree or another. But in its more extreme forms, it can cause relationships to fail. So, what is the pursuer-withdrawer cycle, how can you know if you’re caught in it, and more importantly, how can you break free? 

In this article, we’ll dive into all of these questions and more. I hope it helps you recognize the pursuer-withdrawer cycle, and especially your role in it, so that you can create the satisfying, sustainable connection that you deserve. If you’d prefer to listen to this one, I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can find it on this page, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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What Is the Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle?

The Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle, also known as the Pursuer-Distancer dynamic, is a common pattern in intimate relationships. Essentially, it involves one partner (the Pursuer) seeking emotional closeness, validation, or reassurance, while the other partner (the Withdrawer) responds by pulling away or creating emotional distance. 

This dynamic can show up in many different ways. It could look like one partner wanting to cuddle on the couch while the other wants to isolate in another room. It can also show up in your sex life, with one partner trying to initiate sex more often while the other avoids physical intimacy all together, leaving the pursuer feeling sexually rejected. (See this article on The Bristle Reaction for more on that subject).

But moments of conflict are where the pursuer-withdrawer cycle really reveals itself, and where it can be most destructive. In an argument, the pursuer will try to hash things out then and there, and show a lot of emotion as they do so. This makes the withdrawer feel emotionally flooded, and they may shut down, refuse to engage, or even physically leave the room. The more the pursuer pursues, the more the withdrawer withdraws, until you have a situation that can literally look like one partner chasing the other from room to room. Not good! 

As you can imagine, none of this is healthy. In fact, renowned relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman identified the pursuer-withdrawer cycle as a top sign that a relationship will fail. 

Fortunately, this is a pattern you can change, when you understand the cycle and your role in it. Breaking the pursuer-withdrawer cycle on your own can be tricky, however, because it is very easy to fall back into old patterns, especially when your partner does the same. Couples who get support have the greatest success at creating permanent, positive change in their relationship systems. Learn about how couples counseling works, and how to find a couples counselor

The Dynamics at Play in the Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle

So why does this happen? Several factors contribute to the pursuer-withdrawer cycle. These dynamics stem from deep fears, insecurities, and attachment patterns that are operating below the level of you or your partner’s conscious awareness. 

For example: 

  • Fear of Abandonment, Rejection, or Engulfment: The Pursuer may fear abandonment or rejection, leading them to seek constant reassurance and validation from their partner. Conversely, the Withdrawer may fear engulfment or loss of autonomy, prompting them to withdraw as a means of self-protection.
  • Communication Patterns: Communication problems can make the Pursuer-Withdrawer dynamic worse. The Pursuer may resort to criticism, ultimatums, or getting loud in their attempts to be heard. Meanwhile, the Withdrawer may respond with defensiveness, stonewalling, or avoidance.
  • Attachment Styles: We all have attachment styles based on our early experiences with caregivers. In the Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle, people with anxious-preoccupied attachment styles are more likely to be the Pursuer, seeking reassurance and validation from their partner. Those with dismissive-avoidant attachment styles may take on the role of the Withdrawer, distancing themselves to avoid feelings of enmeshment or overwhelm. Learn more about the anxious-avoidant pairing and how these attachment styles interact. 

Breaking the Cycle: Strategies for a Healthier Connection

Breaking free from the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern requires awareness, communication, and a willingness to address underlying fears and insecurities. Here are some strategies that will help you to cultivate healthier patterns:

  • Self-Awareness: Both partners should reflect on their own attachment patterns, emotional triggers, and communication styles. By increasing self-awareness, you can better understand your own needs and why you respond to your partner in the way that you do. 
  • Emotionally Safe Communication: Authentic, emotionally safe communication is essential for breaking the cycle. Working with a good couples counselor can help you learn communication skills that can help you both “stay in the ring” during important conversations.
  • Compromise and Flexibility: While growth and change are possible, accepting each other as you are is also part of the equation. Both partners must build their understanding for each other and why they tend to react the way they react. That way, even when your partner is not responding to you in the way you would like, you can better manage your own anxiety and avoid developing negative narratives about what their reactions mean about you or the relationship. 
  • Seeking Professional Support: Couples therapy or relationship coaching are game-changers when it comes to addressing the deep underlying dynamics of the Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle, and any other relationship dynamic for that matter. A good couples counselor can help you explore your patterns of interaction, understand each other in new ways, develop more effective communication patterns, and make changes that stick. 

Check out this article on breaking the pursuer-distancer pattern for a deeper dive into the action steps involved. 

Support for Pursuer-Withdrawer Cycle 

I hope this article on the pursuer-withdrawer cycle helps you understand what may be going on in your relationship, and the path forward. While breaking the cycle isn’t easy, it is totally possible, especially if you invest in your relationship by getting support from a good couples counselor or relationship coach. Trust me — this is a pattern we have seen a thousand times, and we understand how to help you and your partner break free, once and for all. 

If you would like to do this valuable work with one of the marriage and family therapists on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby 

P.S. — You can find more free advice on changing your relationship patterns in my “communication that connects” collection of articles and podcasts. I hope you’ll check it out — I made it for you!

Sources

  1. Opening the Circle of Pursuit and Distance. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/famp.12004
  2. Huerta, P., Edwards, C., Asiimwe, R., PettyJohn, M., VanBoxel, J., Morgan, P., & Wittenborn, A. K. (2023). Exploratory Analysis of Pursue-Withdraw Patterns, Attachment, and Gender among Couples in Emotionally Focused Therapy. The American Journal of Family Therapy51(1), 57–75. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926187.2022.2129521
  3. Bigler, K. M., & Modica, C. A. (2022). Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy and Gay and Lesbian Couples: Considerations for Pursuer-Distancer Patterns. Journal of LGBTQ Issues in Counseling16(3), 300–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/26924951.2022.2043217

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Music in this episode is by Carach Angren with their song “Once Upon a Time.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://carachangren.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.


Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. Facing your fears with intention and skill fosters inner wisdom and personal growth like nothing else. On today’s show, you’ll learn how…

Neko Case, y’all, with Things That Scare Me. Neko Case is just such a voluminous artist. Can’t say enough good things about them. You can learn more about Neko Case on their website, nekocase.com. It appears that they have a number of tour dates coming up in the near future, including a visit to my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, in January of 2023. So very exciting stuff. nekocase.com. 

There are a lot of things in the world that can scare us, aren’t they? And the reality is that we need to take some of those things very seriously and act accordingly. 

It is also true that there is a difference between fear and anxiety. We need to listen to fear and take wisdom from it, not let it paralyze us. That’s not helpful. But it can also be very easy to avoid fear. And that isn’t helpful either. Fear can be one of our most powerful teachers, it can be a powerful motivator, there’s a lot of growth to be had in fear. Which also makes it different from anxiety. Anxiety is generally not helpful. 

That’s what we’re going to be diving into on today’s show is how to grapple with all of that, figure out the difference between fear and anxiety, and what to do with both of them. So lots of stuff on today’s show. Be prepared to take notes. And hey, if this is your first time listening to the show, thank you so much for being here with me. I am just delighted that you found me. I’m Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I’m the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. 

I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I am also a licensed psychologist, and I’m a board certified coach. So that’s why I like to say I specialize in love, happiness and success, and that’s what this podcast is all about. This is a labor of love for me. If I won the lottery tomorrow, come on, I would wake up the next day and still make these podcasts for you because I genuinely love it. I really enjoy being a therapist and a couple’s counselor and a coach. 

I only can help a little handful of people through my own work, or certainly through the work of our practice. Gosh, we have 50 counselors running around here these days. And I do clinical supervision, with therapists and training, which is also wonderful. But a long time ago, I realized that I can only help so many people directly. So I started doing this podcast as a way of just reaching out to other folks, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to connect with otherwise. 

If this is landing in your ears today, thank you for being here. You are really why I do this. One of the things that you’ll be hearing a lot about on today’s show— my phone bleeped, I need to remember to turn it off next time. 

On today’s show, we are talking about listener questions related to specific fears that people shared with us through Instagram, @drlisamariebobby on Instagram. Facebook at Dr. Lisa Bobby, also through our website growingself.com. Old fashioned email hello@growingself.com. 

We asked people like what keeps you up at night? What scares you? And got some really awesome and also poignant responses from our listeners that I’ll be sharing today. If you ever have a topic or a question, follow up questions for maybe a guest that I’ve interviewed or for me, or if you’d like to hear a show on a different topic entirely, you’re also invited to get in touch with me through any of the methods I just shared. 

We’re also doing something I think is kind of interesting on our blog page, growingself.com/blog-podcast. You can find, in addition to submitting your question in an email form, we also installed a little voice recorder. So you can record a message for me if you’d like to. And, and if it’s okay with you, I may include it in an upcoming episode of the show and be able to respond to it. Fun stuff.

Enough about that. Let’s tackle our topic today. Because today, again, we’re talking about the hows and whys of facing our fears.

Fear, like the other dark emotions, right? Angerguilt, hurt, they’re not fun, they are not pleasant to experience. And, like the others, fear is incredibly useful and incredibly instructive. I’ve talked many times in previous episodes about how the dark emotions are really what we need to make contact with, make friends with, understand, even sometimes invite in order to understand ourselves more fully, get clarity about our values and get direction. It’s really going into those spaces, and fear’s like that. 

Fear is what happens when we are getting a warning that we’re in harm’s way, right? That something bad either is or could happen physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, circumstantially, it’s our danger signal. And fear, which comes with a risk of either being paralyzing, or something that we push away or try to avoid. 

When we learn how to face our fears, and use it, it’s really what can guide us towards creating a life full of more meaning, more purpose, and also more safety, interestingly. But only if you know how to listen to fear and then also use it productively.

In anticipation of recording the show, we hopped on social media to ask some questions around, “What kinds of things are you afraid of?” And got so many interesting and truthfully really poignant answers back and just see if you can relate to any of these. One was, “I’m afraid of losing my new partner. I fear being too strongly attached, and being hurt if he leaves.” Who among us cannot relate to that feeling with our partners, with our children, right? 

I mean, only when you’ve really loved someone, can you fully understand fear, like capital F fear. Fear of loss, fear of something happening to them. It’s real. Another person said, “I’m afraid of missing the boat on becoming a mom because I’ve been single for so long.” Yeah, that is scary. That is so scary. And there’s a special kind of fear that has a helplessness kind of sidecar. And that’s one of those, “Is it too late?” Kind of regret happening in the here and now, right? That’s the worst.

Another person shared, “I’m afraid that I’m not actually capable of creating the life that I want. I know what I want. I just don’t think I can actually do it.” All right. Thank you so much for sharing that. That is a real fear and a valid one. And we’re going to talk about that today. Another person said, “I’m afraid of my parents growing older.” I think the rest of that sentence is afraid of my parents growing older, afraid of their health declining, afraid that I’m going to have to be their caretaker, or if I can’t be, who is going to take care of them, and then ultimately, I’m afraid that my parents will die. Those are scary things and, and fears that we all need to face sooner or later, right? 

Another person shared, “I am afraid of taking time for granted and believing that everything can be done later. I’m afraid that I will fully comprehend that I don’t have all the time in the world, but it will be too late when I do.” Wow, that right there is somebody who is already taking a lot of wisdom from their fear. And lastly, we had more, but the other one that I wanted to share and talk about today, somebody said, “I’m afraid of leaving this earth while my children still need me.” Yeah, that is a terrifying thought as a parent.

As you’re listening to me just sort of reading these fears that other other people just like us have shared, can you feel the wisdom inside each of those? Meaning that they’re telling us something about what is important to each of those people, how they would like to live their values, right? 

They’re talking about their fears, but the fear itself is also illuminating the things that feel most precious and important to them, their parents, their future children, their actual children, their aspirations and ambitions. These are the things that are the most important. And fear shows us what those are, always. So what do we do with this, though, right? It’s one thing to be able to articulate what you’re afraid of. 

But then also, there’s another kind of growth process around what to do with us that can help us figure out how we use this self awareness to make positive changes in our lives, and to live more fully, right? That’s the next piece of this. But before we dive in, into what to do with fear that we’re aware of, is understanding what fear is, and what fear is not. I mentioned towards the beginning of this episode that fear and anxiety are not the same thing. 

Fear is an extremely physical response, physiological response, powerful response. It is a reaction to our actually being threatened by a dangerous situation, either in reality, or one that we are anticipating or expecting or can kind of see coming down the pipeline towards us. Because we are magical creatures, and the good wonders of the world have prepared us like every other creature on earth to survive difficult things, physiologically, whenever we feel afraid, our body takes action to save us, right? 

Our physiology changes, we have stress hormones dumped out into our system, adrenaline, cortisol — all kinds of things that help our body get ready to escape. We can flee, we can fight, we can take action, we can also freeze and respond, which can be a very adaptive survival skill. 

This physiological change inside of us doesn’t just change our body. Our heart starts beating faster, our breathing changes, our digestion changes, our immune system changes, so many things change. But it also changes your cognition, the way that your brain works. You kind of become primed to a dangerous situation, “I need to be hyper vigilant for danger.” And so we are now seeking, we are scanning for danger outside of us. 

If there is not anything obviously dangerous outside of us, because we are, again, these incredibly intelligent and creative people, our minds will often not so helpfully, imagine the things that we could be threatened by, right? So we go into our mind’s eye into the future of anticipated potential scenarios. And to sort of scare ourselves with our own thinking, is also very much a possibility. So this is just something that happens. It is not a bug, it is a feature. 

In many regards, it’s a positive thing. We can respond appropriately to actual dangerous situations in here and now. We can think through actual legitimately risky things that we could be vulnerable to, through that ability to see into the future and to imagine what could happen. That’s also very valuable and very helpful, because we can take action in the present to avoid potentially negative consequences in the future. And that’s a really good thing.

What is different about anxiety, is that anxiety is the experience of someone having all of those thoughts, feelings, reactions, and when you really kind of sift through everything and break it all apart, they are not actually having a reality-based fear in a sense that this is an objectively threatening situation that could likely happen. We need to take action to avoid it. This is something that should be listened to. Anxiety is often just a function of the mind.

There are not frequently, objectively dangerous or threatening things in someone’s reality, or likely to happen in their near future. They are solely going into their mind to kind of make connections and put things together and, and line up these imaginary dominoes and knock them down into the future, and spend a lot of time and energy worrying about them scaring themselves, rubbing themselves up, and not fully understanding that these are not always real concerns.

They are sort of mental ruminations that are disordered in nature. There’s no wisdom to be found in those, most of the time. What we do need to do with those is figure out how to manage them differently. So that we can take the energy out of them. So that we can step away. So that our mind can release from those possible future scenarios and instead cultivate feelings of safety in the present, so that we can restore calm and inner peace and inner equilibrium. 

There are many paths of achieving that will be related to anxiety that I have discussed in previous episodes. But fear is different when we start to unpack these situations. Fear that could actually happen, that can legitimately happen, and that would be devastating. And I’m afraid of it, right? 

While anxiety is sort of fueled by this kind of wheel spinning, and sort of worry, and worry, and worry but not actually attached to something like an action item, right? There’s not something that we can do with it most of the time.

Fear is a very different experience because when we listen to fear, again, we get clarity about our values. When we connect with fear, we not only understand these are things that I could do, to create more safety in my life to potentially prevent these possible outcomes. And fear is also giving me the motivation to take these actions. And again, this is so valuable. But the other interesting thing about fear is that we have a tendency to try to avoid even thinking about the things that frighten us the most. 

When we are avoiding them, or minimizing them or trying to numb ourselves to fear, we do not have the opportunity to fully unpack those messages about “What’s important. What do I need to do? I probably do need to make some changes or prepare myself for this thing.” We don’t get to do that. One, we’re actively avoiding fear, and that is an issue. 

The big difference between fear and anxiety is it can be challenging, to sort that out, what do we need to listen to versus what is a symptom of anxiety that needs to be managed, rather than worked with. And that can be a big part of therapy, quite frankly. So when somebody comes into my office, sometimes they’ll say, “I’m stressed” or they’ll say, “I’m anxious,” or they’ll sometimes they’ve been a trauma survivor, right? And, they don’t feel safe no matter what. 

Sometimes people are facing legitimately difficult and scary life circumstances that are very hard. A big first piece of therapy that can sometimes take many sessions, weeks, months, is sifting through all of those things to figure out what it is that we’re looking at. And sometimes things are multi-dimensional. Sometimes there can be very real fears, and also anxious symptoms, and also trauma responses, right? So it can get complicated.

If you’re just sort of listening to me talk through this and thinking about how am I going to figure out if this is fear or anxiety, it can be so difficult to do that on your own. Certainly, sometimes, journaling can be helpful, sometimes talking to friends, if you’re kind of talking about these fears, and consistently getting messages, like, “I don’t think that’s gonna happen.” That can be a sign that it’s more anxious in nature. But also, I mean, it’s hard, because everybody has a tendency to avoid fear. 

If you are talking about fears that are triggering sort of responsive fears, and other people, part of their part of their own coping mechanism is avoidance, they might minimize you, in order to manage their own kind of anxiety or fear response in that moment. So that isn’t always a reliable indicator. 

If you have the ability to talk with an experienced counselor about anxiety versus fear, to help honestly, like an assessment, what’s going on, that is very useful because then you can act accordingly, in one direction or the other. So, assuming that what is going on with you isn’t just anxiety, when we figure it out, “no, this is an actual fear, this is something that’s important to me, I think I might need to know, embrace this,” then the next step is sitting with it. And being very brave in the face of it.

As a little experiential exercise, if you’d like to try something yourself  if you are in a place where you can pull out a piece of paper, or your phone, notes, or something like that, and, and conjure up in your mind right now with me, what is the thing that you are most afraid of in this world? What keeps you up at night? What scares you to death? Can you write it down? Can you construct a sentence in words that says the thing that you’re most afraid of? Or would you really rather not? 

Are you wishing that you had never started even listening to this podcast, like, “I will never listened to this person again. This is too hard. This is too scary.” If you’re noticing that you want to slam that notebook shut, stop listening to this podcast right now, not ever think about this, again, that is a great indication that there is important work to do here. It could also be an indication that you may actually need support to hold this door open for yourself. 

That’s what therapists do. That’s one of the most important things that therapists do. I have people all the time who would really prefer not to talk with me about many things actually. It is important that we are giving these things voice and addressing them directly and bravely. Because if we don’t, they don’t go away, just because you’re not looking at them, right? It’s the things that we try to avoid that often do create problems for us. 

Whereas the things that we can lean into and address directly are the ones that we’re able to work through and find some semblance of peace around. And this has also been that’s also what makes this work as difficult as it is because the things that we are most afraid of, the reason why they are in that fear category, is because there is truth to them. 

If you’re listening to this podcast, you’re hoping that I would say something more along the lines of “Oh, it’s fine. You don’t have anything to be afraid of.” That is actually not true. Fear is there for a reason. And oftentimes it is very real. And it is only by embracing that truth that we can find the peace and the hope and the lightness that we all want and deserve. 

This reality was brought home to me recently. I stumbled across an article, actually a friend shared with me, called the history of Memento Mori that was published not too long ago in the Daily Stoic, dailystoic.com, if you want to check it out. 

Memento mori is a very old idea. And this sort of the rough translation is “remember that you will die.” Some of the people who wrote to me that I shared towards the beginning of this program, death, either themselves or people that they loved, was their number one fear and right, rightfully so because we will die, and the people that we love can and will also die. 

The idea behind memento mori isn’t to be morbid or to promote fear in that way, to be uncomfortable that it’s unhelpful, but rather to inspire us and motivate us and clarify, again, the things that are most important. The idea behind this is that when you remember this, you will have an increased kind of energy, and a present moment, awareness, appreciation, and engagement with your life, while you are alive. That adds positive things to your life, not in spite of the awareness of death, but because of it. 

There’s one quote. So Seneca said, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

There’s another quote that I’ll just read for you in this article and then we’ll kind of shift back again to what to do with this. But this one is actually from no less than Steve Jobs, and he had a quote, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know how to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked, and there is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Some of the listener questions that I promised to address when we began this episode were really related to that, right? “I’m afraid of my parents growing older and dying.” “I’m afraid of leaving this earth while my children still need me.” “I’m afraid of losing important relationships,” right?

  • Ask yourself, “How can I turn my fear into positive action, whether it’s for myself or the people around me?”
  • Fear of death: Talk to the people involved and create a plan.
  • Fear of hurt: If you’re fear is telling you that you’re not equipped for hurt, take this as an opportunity for growth.
  • Fear of not becoming a mom/having a family: Consider freezing your eggs/approach dating differently.
  • Fear can help you move forward in life and tackle situations from a different perspective.

Facing these fears and the wisdom of these fears, can take us in a couple of different directions, like as uncomfortable as it is to stay in this and assume even just for a little while, that “Yeah, those things are going to happen.” So if that’s the case, what should I do? And then when you’re able to stay in the ring with those fears, and not try to talk yourself out of them or avoid them, that is where the wisdom comes.

For one, I am afraid of my parents growing older and what that means, can you stay in the ring with that? Say, yes, that is happening, and it is going to continue happening all the way to the end. So what should I be doing now and into the future? Do I need to have talks with my parents about what they want? Do we need to be thinking about living arrangements? Do they have a will? Do we need to have end of life conversations? Where will they go? Where will I go? 

What would it mean if I didn’t have my parents around to support me or XYZ like very seriously? So yeah, this is happening. So what do I need to do? Similarly, and this is awful, I struggle with this one too, but “I’m afraid of dying while my children still need me.” And the reality is that any of us could be done today, right? You don’t know what’s gonna happen to you when you walk out the door. 

I have a recent experience with a dear friend, a father of three, young, healthy, fit, energetic, diagnosed with a brain tumor and was dead in a little over a year, right? Nobody sees these things coming. So if you are worried about what your children might do, if you’re not there with them, how would you like to use that energy and turn it into positive action if you did die tomorrow? 

What would you want your children to have from you in terms of money, insurance plans? Do you have a will, some kind of plans for their guardianship? Things that you don’t want to have happened to your children that you could state ahead of time? Would you want to write them all love letters, telling them how important they all are? 

Would you want to write down all of the life’s lessons that you’ve learned so that they have those in the absence of you being able to tell them that directly? And what do you want to share with them, photos, books that were so important to you, a mixtape, like, sorry, my Gen X is showing right there. But let’s pretend like this is going to happen, and do something with that. You still certainly may not love the idea of that happening.

If you have planned for that to happen, then you can turn that into, “I am at peace, I might die, I will die.” And here’s another truth, right? I mean, I can assume that the person who wrote that question, “I’m afraid of leaving this earth while my children still need me.” Maybe their children are very young, right? And I think it’s also true that we never not need our parents, right? I still needed my mom on a daily basis, when she passed away. I wasn’t even close to being ready. 

I know it’s different, obviously, for an adult and for a child. What would that be like if all of us put together care packages for the people that we love the most to have when we do die, because we will, right?

Other fears. somebody wrote, “I’m afraid of losing my new partner, I fear being too strongly attached and being hurt if he leaves.” Okay, let’s sit with that. Let’s go there, right? This relationship is so important to you. If this fear is saying you are at risk for losing this person, what would listening to that make you want to do? It could be, “I would really like to be an excellent partner for this person. What is it about me that is maybe currently creating friction in this relationship? What is my partner telling me that is problematic?”

“What are things that I should probably work on? And my fear about losing this relationship is giving me the motivation to do really important personal growth work that I might not do otherwise?” That is valuable. That is valuable. Yeah. “I am not an emotionally safe communicator. I criticize XYZ for not having to work on it. Great. Thank you, fear,” right? Other pieces of this, “I’m afraid of losing my partner. I fear being too strongly attached and fear being hurt if he leaves.”

Let’s talk about being afraid of being hurt. We are all going to be hurt, over and over again, by all kinds of things — relationships that didn’t work out the way that we wanted them to, careers that take disappointing turns, declining health, things that happen in painful life experiences, that is guaranteed. And so to embrace fear means so let’s talk about what it means to experience being hurt. What is the worst part about that? What would happen to you if you felt hurt? 

“Well, I’d lay in my bed and cry.” Well, then what then what would you do? “I’d be depressed.” Okay, what would that be like? Well, I would tell myself all these horrible things about myself, “Oh, okay. Yeah, that would be really hard.” And so as you unpack, like, what being hurt means what the experience is, and really go into that with an open heart and open mind and like vulnerability, what you will often find is, “Yeah, I will experience hurt. Being hurt is kind of the price of admission for caring about things in this life. I could beat myself up and collapse into depression. And I’m actually stronger than that.”

“If I don’t currently have skills or abilities to put myself back together again, from feeling hurt or feeling disappointed or feeling rejected or feeling whatever, I need to work on that. Because it is also true that everybody feels hurt, everybody feels disappointed.” That is not the same thing as being devastated and never getting back up off the floor again, it is not the same thing as being broken forever, right? We can be hurt and also be strong and resilient. And if your fear is telling you that you don’t know how to do that yet, that is an amazing growth opportunity for you to figure that out. Thank you, fear.

Another person shared, “I am afraid of missing the boat on becoming a mom, because I’ve been single for so long.” This is a legitimate fear, I have talked to all kinds of people who  dated and tried to find their person and dated some more, and were in a relationship that lasted 3, 4, 5 years, then they broke up, and then the date, it’s more and another relationship. All of a sudden, now they’re 47, and they are not going to have biological children anymore. And that is the reality, and it is not an uncommon reality. 

I’m talking about women. Now, of course, I mean, similar things can happen for men. So what happens if we listen to that fear? Your fear is telling you that it is fundamentally important for you to be a mother, that it is just part of the meaning of life. If we listen to fear, like that is a very real risk that you might not be able to have children.

Well, let’s just say that you won’t be able to have biological children past a certain point, just physiologically speaking — sorry I’m stumbling all over these words right now. And probably because I’ve had my own struggles with infertility, I had my first child at 34. And, we didn’t start trying to have the second until I was like 38, or 39. 

It was a very humbling experience of just how real that is. So if fear is telling you that you need to bust a move, because you might not be able to have kids, if you don’t, if it is within your means consider freezing some eggs, right? Just to have that insurance policy. I’ve also had people who are really worried about missing the boat and not getting into a relationship where they can find a partner and have a family

They’re not actively dating, or they are dating and kind of messing around with the same perpetual patterns and issues that they’ve been doing, over and over again. So maybe if you listen to this fear, that could motivate you into approaching dating differently. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had, particularly with women actually. 

They’ll sit down like I want a guy who is a family man who was loyal, who was kind, he was a good communicator, responsible, thoughtful, all these things and like, “Okay, so let’s, let’s find that person.” And then they go out on dates with guys that are kind and good communicators and reliable and thoughtful, and they’re like, “I just don’t feel the butterflies”. And then they date the guy who is not any of those things and who is charismatic and sexually intense and slightly narcissistic. 

They feel those feelings and do that for another 18 months and then like, “Well, crap, he wasn’t emotionally available. Why do I keep picking the wrong people?”  So if any of this is feeling familiar to you, and I’m not saying that it is I mean, people have all kinds of reasons for having relationships not work out, but fear can motivate you into reevaluating what you’re doing that is creating these same outcomes for you over and over. And sort of gently point the direction of trying to do this differently. 

Maybe the path forward could be connecting with a, I say this with some trepidation, but can be connecting with a dating coach. The caveat here is that most dating coaches are not educated, they do not have a specialized expertise or knowledge in dating or relationships or anything else. They just decided to be dating coaches, often by virtue of their own life experience. 

There are the dating coaches, who are actual legitimate relationship experts, I think of those as being marriage and family therapists who have years of education, training, specialized expertise in relationships and who are also available to work with you in the capacity of a dating coach to help you not just figure out your dating profile, or what to say on the first date, but like, what is going on with the patterns, right? Or their attachment styles or their expectations? What are you bringing to the table? 

Let’s talk about your relationship history, what can we learn from that, but to really help you make big changes in yourself and in the way that you’re doing things, in order to be appropriately responsive to that fear. If I don’t figure this out, I might not be able to have biological children, freeze some eggs, or figure out dating strategies that are different. 

Also, considering wealth, I don’t want to get into that, but fear that we can use it to understand our values, our motivations. It is so fundamentally important for me to be a mom, and I’m afraid that I have actually missed the boat. I’m 43, nobody is going to help me freeze my eggs at this point. Does that open any other doors for you on our journey of infertility of being confronted with that?

I came into contact with the knowledge that to be a mother was so important to me. I just love the experience. I love everything about it. That experience, the mothering, was more important to me than whether or not it was my biological offspring that I was able to do that with. So my husband and I wound up becoming foster parents, through Boulder County, Colorado, where I live. It was an amazing experience. But if I hadn’t really worked through my fears and figured out what the values were that were creating such pain for me, I don’t know that I would have viewed that as an opportunity. But it’s a phenomenal one.

Just a little plug. There are so many kids that need the support of loving families and individuals to provide foster care, and supportive services. There are so many things that you can do to help kids and to even get some of those mothering or parenting kind of needs of your own met in the process. And so that’s not, we don’t want to be fostered to get our own needs met. But it’s available to you. 

Wherever you live, you can get in touch with the department of human services in your location, learn more about their fostering opportunities, keeping in mind that 99.9% of all fostering situations are for the purpose. And it’s a good thing to just provide a safe and supportive place for children until they can be returned to their families of origin or their relatives. That is almost always the best thing for these kids. 

If you have the grit and the courage and the heart to love the heck out of a kid and make such a huge difference in their life for six months until they go back, it is such a huge gift to them and to you. There are other ways of getting involved in the foster care system without becoming a full-fledged foster parent. There are what’s called respite services. 

When we were foster parents on more than one occasion, we were able to have a certified care provider come over and take care of foster kids for half a day or even a few hours, and it was such a blessing and such a gift. There are also so many volunteer opportunities around fostering related not just to the child care, but collecting donations, making sure that foster families have everything that they need to be successful.

We have gone on a completely unrelated tangent, but it’s an illustration of where my fear took me and it opened this incredible door that we walked through, and unless I had been listening to my fear I would not have considered any of that as an option.

There were a couple of other fears shared that I do want to address. One, “I’m afraid that I’m not actually capable of creating the life that I want.” There’s a lot there, and this is a podcast and a therapy session. But if I had this person in my virtual office or in person office, I would be very interested to know more about what it is that you want, and what is making you feel that you may not be capable of creating it. It couldn’t be that your fear is reality based.

When I was in college, I was a biology major. I really thought it would be cool to go to medical school and become a medical doctor. I was afraid that I didn’t have what it took to do that career. And that was true. I struggled with chemistry, my math skills are not fantastic. And my fear was appropriate, and led me to reconsider other career paths. There could be other expectations that we have for ourselves. 

“I’m afraid that I won’t get my business to $100 million in annual revenue,” or “I won’t travel the world by Zeppelin.” I mean, I don’t know, I don’t know what it is. But I don’t know, maybe your fears are valid and worth considering. So how are those fears legitimate? What are they telling you that you might be listening to? And it is also true that those fears can be extremely instructive and can point a different path forward towards actually attaining your goals. 

The medical school thing was not the one and only time that I encountered my own fear of my own capacities. And it’s from reflecting that it is hard for me to remember things, it’s hard for me to stay organized to prioritize time to do all this stuff. And in my 30s, I was finally officially diagnosed with ADHD, those fears were founded until I began getting treatment for ADHD. Well, I mean, there’s no treatment, ADHD isn’t going to change. 

But until I started taking steps to manage my ADHD much more actively and spent a lot of time and energy developing systems to cope with it appropriately, so that they would stop being like limiting factors in my own performance. I struggled. My fear was saying, “Yeah, you need to do something different.” Is fear telling you that if you want to accomplish your goals, you are going to have to make changes, maybe you’re going to have to go back to school, maybe you’re going to have to move to a different location, maybe you are going to change, some need to change some things about the way you are operating your life day to day. 

“Yes, if I keep doing XYZ and wasting my time and energy in this dead end job, I am not going to get to where I want to be.” So, again, to have a thought like, “I’m afraid that I don’t have what it takes to achieve my goals.” If that’s where it stops, right? If there’s a surge of anxiety that’s like, “Oh, no.” That is where it will stop. 

It takes a lot of courage to continue that conversation with yourself, I mean, like, “Well, why is that specifically? And what side of the equation does the problem lie? Is it my goal? Is it actually something about me? And is it worth considering? Should I change my goals? Or should I try to change something about the way I’m going about this?” So to face those fears is when you will get the answer to that question, right? Because somebody is like, “Oh, yes, you will, you’re awesome.” 

It doesn’t make you feel better. That’s the problem with toxic positivity, if people are like, “Oh, don’t worry about it”, or “Yes, you will just stay hopeful.” It really prevents you from being able to do the kind of thinking and reality based evaluations and planning that will help you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t.

I think that was… Oh, we had one more fear. One person said, “I’m afraid of taking time for granted. And believing that everything can be done later, I’m afraid that I will fully comprehend that I don’t have all the time in the world, but it will be too late.”

Yes, your fear is telling you things that are not just true, but also wise. You don’t have all the time in the world. You all have to make choices about the things that we are able to do and feel the grief of acknowledging that we can’t do everything that we want to, that our time is limited, and that we need to make extremely wise decisions about what we do with every moment. Because it will be too late. I’ve also had the privilege of sitting with people at the very end of their lives. 

That is what they have always said, “I thought I had more time.” The biggest regrets are the things that they didn’t do. And so if you are spending your time and energy, doing things that aren’t valuable to you, and that you’re thinking, “Oh man, I might regret this later”. That is fantastic to listen, so listen that and make adjustments accordingly. 

There’s a really great book that I read not too long ago called 4000 Weeks. On the topic of the nature of time and how we need to arrange our lives around our values and priorities and not get tricked into believing that we can or should do everything. I found it very interesting and powerful in a lot of ways. And that might be a good resource for you too. 4000 Weeks. 

These are just some examples of what it is like to walk into various fear inducing scenarios, and walk all the way through them and out the other side in order to bring wisdom from them. And we can apply this to so many different things. I’m afraid I won’t have enough money to pay my bills, I’m afraid that XYZ will happen. A very real fear for many people, many parents, including myself, I am afraid that my kid is going to get shot and possibly killed in their school, right? I mean, that is so real.

And so what do we do with that? Do we want them to go to a huge public school? Are they safe in your community? But is it worth considering moving or doing something different with educational opportunities? What do we do to protect our kids while they are in school? I mean, there are such things as bulletproof backpacks these days. Are you talking with your children about how they would survive certain situations or protect themselves? 

These are conversations that we need to have. They’re scary, they’re hard, and they’re essential, right? And the more that we can do to take our fears, their fears, seriously and act accordingly will help us be better able to survive very dangerous situations. When and if they do occur, right? 

We have fire drills, how are we going to get out of the house if it catches on fire? If our house were going to catch on fire, what is the most likely way that it would, is it worth looking around to see if we have any frayed wires or extension cords going under the rugs, where I live? The most likely scenario is for burning cinders from a nearby wildfire to land on the roof of my house. 

We are exploring that maybe getting a metal roof installed like there are things that we need to be thinking about and acting upon because fear is essential. 

The outcome of all of this I mean what happens if you fear your friend and have conversations with it and get comfortable with being uncomfortable, right? What that turns into is a lot of insight about what you need to be doing that you’re not currently doing. It provides direction and it also provides motivation. Motivation is so interesting to me because people think of motivation as being a positive feeling, right? 

In my experience, where motivation actually comes from, is fear. Fear fuels motivation in a very positive way. By plugging into your fears, you now have kind of a pipeline of motivation that you can use in great ways. And, it will help you get out of bed, do the things, do the hard things, take the actions, and that’s wonderful. 

Furthermore, facing and embracing your fears, gives you direction, it clarifies and crystallizes all of the things that you would like to have be different in your circumstances, in yourself, in your way of operating that only kind of come into full focus when you’re like, “Well, if that does happen, what would I be very happy about having had done or what are the concrete things that I can do to lessen the likelihood of having that outcome. What specifically?” Then write them down and then do them. 

That is just so fantastic. That positive action influences your future outcomes. It is your present self acting in the service of a future you, but your present self only knows what to do when you tap into that fear. And so say you’ve done this, you have been motivated, you have taken action, you have done the things you have said, “Yeah, I am going to die. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. So I’m going to go ahead and put together a will on my papers and make sure everybody knows where stuff is. I have this in case of an emergency break glass, box all set up, okay, I’m done.”

Having done that will allow you to cognitively feel more at peace without outcome. “I have done everything that I can do, I am prepared. I am confident in that. I’m also going to love others and be the person that I want to be and do the things that give my life meaning every day because I know that I’m going to die.” Memento mori, right?

If we’re living in that space, it brings a lot of inner peace, it brings a lot of confidence. And interestingly, it can also help us see the presence of anxiety too. Because when we’re doing all those things, and feel good about that, if we are still ruminating and kind of worrying and stuff. It’s anxiety, right? We’ve already figured it out, there’s a difference between fear and anxiety.

When you listen to fear and take action from fear, you feel confident in some ways, but are still kind of engaging in these unhelpful ruminative sort of future thoughts that aren’t either fully based on reality or that you have dealt with appropriately here and now, that is a sign that treatment is probably in order and can be really helpful for you. If those anxieties persist, despite having taken appropriate precautions, and being safe in the present, and reminding yourself that you’ve done everything.

“I’m taking my vitamins, and I’m getting my checkups, and I’m exercising, and I’m wearing my seatbelt,  but I could die.” Like go talk to a therapist about that. Because there are wonderful and very effective methods of therapy, and particularly cognitive behavioral therapy that can really help you get a grip on this, and be able to shift your way of thinking and feeling into a place that helps you feel more safe and calm on a day to day basis. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness skills, and a variety of other things can be super helpful. So if you do this work, and notice that you’re feeling anxious now, there is a solution for that, too. However, when we effectively deal with our fear, it really does help you manage your anxiety as well. And even just doing the work of being able to differentiate between fear and anxiety is super important. 

Because, understanding the differences can help you not just face fears and take action appropriately, but also recognize an anxiety for what it is, which is kind of a mental machination that we shouldn’t place too much importance on right? So being able to understand the difference can really be a powerful tool in developing the ability to manage and even redirect anxiety. So, lots of information here, I sincerely hope that this conversation was helpful for you in learning how to face your own fears. 

I hope also, though, that you heard the takeaways, I always worry a little bit when I do a podcast like this. Me talking about it makes any of this stuff seem more easy than it actually is. And I mean, this is the self help sphere. But I don’t want you to listen to this and now feel like you should be able to easily and effortlessly do everything that I’ve mentioned here in this podcast. I think that’s not a realistic expectation for any of us to have.

Understanding how it works is great. You could still need support to help figure out, “Okay. Is this anxiety? Is it fear? What am I? What do I have to work with?” Also, to be able to stay in the ring with your own fear in a productive way, sometimes takes the assistance of another person who doesn’t scare that easily to be able to sit with you, keep that door open, and help you talk about all the things, help you make those action plans, sometimes too, knowing what to do can require outside assistance, right? 

Putting together a will, you might need to get an attorney involved or with financial things, there might be a financial provider, or even like learning how to do some of the things that you feel like you should do. Manage your time differently, make some important changes in what you’re doing with your life. Sometimes this kind of work can result in career changes for many people. And so opening the door to maybe making some career shifts, it can be helpful to have somebody to talk with about that as well. 

Certainly, if at any point realizing that there is an anxiety component of this, that is different than fear, not hesitating to get assistance for that anxiety is incredibly treatable. There are so many things that work very well for anxiety. And they’re really worth exploring, because anxiety is not productive. It’s not helpful, it’s not comfortable. And it can be really like a paralyzing and self limiting factor. If it’s running rampant in your life, different than fear. Fear is a valuable friend. 

That is everything. Thank you again for hanging in here with me for today’s show. And if you would like to leave comments or questions about today’s podcast or ideas for another topic, please come visit me growingself.com. Leave your questions on the blog page growingself.com/blog-podcast. And while you’re there, be sure to check out other collections that I have prepared for you. 

You can find content similar to the topic we’ve been talking about today in our Personal Growth Collection. So from the blog page, we have things organized into collections, Love, Happiness, and Success. Go into the Happiness Collection. Check out the Personal Growth collection. You might also check out the Emotional Wellness Collection for more information on anxiety and some of the other things we’ve been talking about today. 

Lastly, you can check out the Success collection for more information about life design, if you’re thinking that it’s time for you to make some changes. And then of course lastly, if this conversation has made you aware of the kind of hopes and dreams related to your relationships, you can check out the Healthy Relationships Collection. 

Each of those collections, you’ll find articles on our blog that I have written or that other counselors and coaches on our team have written. As well as a curated podcast playlist that I put together for you on Spotify. You’ll find that there for you as well. 

Okay, thank you for listening today and I will talk to you again soon. Bye.

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