Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Sheryl Paul. Sheryl is an accomplished counselor who specializes in life transitions with women, and also in the area of dealing with anxiety. She is informed by Jungian depth psychological traditions, through her graduate training from Pacifica . . . from her graduate training at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She has guided thousands of people worldwide through books, courses, blogs, and private sessions, and has been a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as Good Morning America. Sheryl Paul also has a new book with Sounds True, called The Wisdom of Anxiety. And, unusually for Insights at the Edge, because Sheryl Paul lives in Boulder, Colorado, she’s here with me in the Sounds True studio.
I’m here in the Sounds True studio with Sheryl Paul, talking about her new book, The Wisdom of Anxiety. Sheryl, welcome.
SP: Thank you so much.
TS: It’s great to be able to be with you, face to face.
SP: Yes. It is for me, too, Tami.
TS: In the very beginning of your book, you describe anxiety as a doorway. I don’t think a lot of people think of anxiety as a doorway. I think they think, “Anxiety is something I wish I could get rid of. Maybe with some medication, or exercise, or this meditation app. Something, please, help me get rid of it!” How do you see it as a doorway?
SP: So, I see anxiety as a messenger from the unconscious. It’s the way that our psyche communicates with us, one of the many, many ways. And when we listen, we have this opportunity to walk through a doorway that would not been available to us, had we shut down the symptoms of anxiety. And that doorway is into ourselves. It’s a portal into self, into the labyrinth of our inner world, that we are more and more in the culture pushing away our connection to the inner world—with our focus on externals, and screens, and everything else out there, that the inner world, the soul, becomes lost. The emotional realm, these amorphous, uncomfortable, messy places inside of us. Anxiety is the distress flare. And when we listen, it becomes a doorway, it becomes a portal that we can then walk through to know ourselves, to heal ourselves, to grow ourselves. If we shut it down, in all of the ways that we do, we miss that opportunity.
TS: So, it’s a distress flare. What’s the distress that’s happening underneath anxiety?
SP: It’s different for everybody. And that’s why when you put on that headlight of curiosity, and you become intensely curious about, “What is anxiety trying to tell me?” Instead of, “Anxiety means there’s something wrong with me, anxiety is evidence of disorder, anxiety means I’m wrong, or too much, or too sensitive,” or too something. Instead of that mindset, when we shift into that mindset of curiosity, we look inside and we discover it’s a process of discovering, “What is my anxiety trying to tell me? What is in the inner world that needs my attention? What are the distress flares? Where am I off-kilter? Where am I off-course?”
And I talk about it in terms of the four realms of self: in the physical body, in the emotional realm, in our thoughts, and in the realm of soul or spirit. So, it’s going to be different for everybody. There are certainly commonalities that I see across a cross-cultural audience in terms of what is needed, where are we off? But the specifics, the details, are different.
TS: Now, you mention in the book that actually if we try to push anxiety down, or we ignore it, that it comes back up even stronger. Is that really true? I think a lot of people think, “You know, I’ve actually done a pretty good job of figuring out how to slightly numb myself to feelings of anxiety.”
SP: For a while, you can. Maybe for 10 years, or 20 years. Eventually, you will hit a wall. And anxiety will be bigger than you are. Whether it’s waking up in the middle of the night with insomnia, whether it’s a marriage falling apart, whether it’s the intrusive thoughts and the worry that you can’t get away from, eventually, the coping mechanisms stop working. And you might think that, “I’m doing great. I’ve figured out a way to sidestep anxiety. I can keep one step ahead of it. I can stay busy. I can work. I can avoid, and avoid, and avoid.” But eventually, anxiety comes rising up. And it’s bigger than you are.
And that’s the moment of gift, even though it doesn’t feel like a gift. That’s the moment when you are smaller than anxiety. Anxiety has now taken control, and you can no longer keep it under wraps. And that’s when people sometimes take the distress flare, and take it seriously, and take it as an opportunity to really grow, and to heal, and to listen to what they’ve managed to squash down their entire lives.
TS: OK, you’ve mentioned being curious. But let’s talk to that person who admits at this moment that there’s something coming up that’s been suppressed, some kind of long-term anxiety. And they’re like, “Here it is. OK, I’m a little curious about it, but you’re going to have to give me some more. How do I actually honor this anxiety that’s present? Because I don’t really know. This is new.”
SP: So again, the first step is to shift past the shame-based way that we view anxiety in the culture. Because curiosity doesn’t stand a chance when shame is in the way. And once you hear the shame voice saying, “What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I’m too emotional, I’m too sensitive, I’m too much, I’m all of these things that I’ve been told,” you’re not going to be able to access any curiosity.
So if curiosity is piqued, but then you hear the shame coming in, then you have to work with the shame first.
TS: Well let’s talk about that, ’cause that’s also not, I think, intuitively obvious, necessarily, to people how they work with that sense of, you know, “God, is there something wrong with me? I’m overly shaky. Everybody else seems to be doing all right.”
SP: Yes. And we live in this culture that presents this façade that everybody else is doing all right. And I hear that constantly in my work. Everyone else seems fine. What’s wrong with me? So, I’m hearing it, because that’s the position I’m in. But I think it’s starting to shift a little bit, where we start to see more vulnerability. We start to hear more of the real story of where people struggle. But we need that veil lifted all the way, so that people know, really know, that to struggle is to be human. There is no human being out there that doesn’t struggle. That’s impossible.
So whatever stories that people are telling themselves, and whatever stories that people are telling other people about themselves, are not in reality, that’s a fantasy. And the more we unveil those stories, the more the shame voices can quiet down and say, “Oh, I’m not the only one struggling. I’m not the only one who feels like I have a hard time with change. Transitions are difficult. I’m worried about what other people think of me. I’m prone to perfectionism. I’ve had anxiety my whole life. I’ve had intrusive thoughts my whole life. And I don’t know anybody else who’s had that.”
The more we bring this into the cultural mainstream, the more people will say, “Oh, OK, this is part of being human.” And the more sensitive you are, the more prone you will be to anxiety. And hopefully realize that it is a gift, because the anxiety is evidence of the high sensitivity, the exquisite sensitivity, and the high empathy.
TS: Now I want to talk more about that, anxiety as evidence of exquisite sensitivity. But before we do, let’s keep going with the how. How I turn towards, and work effectively, with this uprising of anxious feelings. You mentioned curiosity, step one. Step two, you normalized it, and you even put it in a positive light: “I’m exquisitely sensitive, I’m not dysfunctionally fragile.” OK, good. I’m exquisitely sensitive. Now what?
SP: And that’s a really hard thing for people to accept, because they’ve been told their whole life, “You’re too much, you’re too emotional. Get over it, can’t you take a joke? Roll with the punches.” All of these things that sensitive people—which I actually believe that all people are sensitive. We are born sensitive. We are born with these aching, beating, vulnerable hearts that are so prone to being hurt. To the ache, the hurt of being teased, of being told any variety of things that we are told in those early years about ways that were not right in some way.
So, I can say to somebody, “Your anxiety is evidence of exquisite sensitivity,” that doesn’t mean they’re going to believe me. That’s a whole process of working and peeling back those shame stories that say, “I’m too much, I’m wrong, I’m broken in some way, I don’t fit in, I don’t belong. Everybody else has it together and I don’t.”
So that alone is a huge piece of the how, of the work is, working—we can say in some ways, that’s almost all the work. Because if you know that you are OK, deeply OK, a lot of your anxiety is going to go away. Not all of it. Because some of it, like I’m saying, comes up as the distress flare when we’ve gone off course. But there’s a big piece of anxiety that comes as a result of the shame, that says, “I’m not OK,” in some way. So, to work with that is a big piece of the work.
Simultaneously, because that’s ongoing, the curiosity is to turn inward, each and every day. Which is a big request, and a big commitment in the culture these days, because like I said, we are so externally referenced, I think now more than ever. Especially with the screens and the internet. Everything is out. So to say, turn inward every day with inquiry, with curiosity. Yes, the meditation practice, but I’m also a big fan of a journaling practice, where you get to know the different parts of yourself. You get to know the characters that live inside of you. The perfectionist, the critic, the young child. The fear-based part. While developing an inner parent, which, I talk about a lot in the book, is this solid place inside that if we don’t have access to that, it’s very difficult to explore the inner terrain. That inner parent is key—and everybody has it. It’s the part that can be there for somebody else. It’s the part that can take care of our animals. It’s the part that can show up very easily for others. We have a harder time accessing that place for ourselves, partially because of the shame voice that says, “I don’t deserve it. I don’t know how.” These ways that we abdicate responsibility, and act like, someone else has to do this for me.
So the journaling practice is how we access, locate that inner parent, that solid place inside, that can be at the helm of the ship as you are navigating and exploring, these inner places that you may have squashed down so many years ago, that it feels like brand new territory. So that’s the how. It’s the daily practices, where we turn inward, and we get to know ourselves. If we don’t know ourselves, we’re also in a state of anxiety because we’re being told all the time who we are. And we’ve been told that since we were very little. “This is who you are. This is what to think. This is how you learn. This is how you should socialize. You should be an extrovert, you should be this, you should play sports.” We’ve been told these things from a very early age. And so, the healing is to go back and really get to know, who am I?
TS: OK, let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say someone says, “OK, what I discover inside is a perfectionist, and a critic.” Both are easy to identify. “And so I have a lot of anxiety about certain things that it’s not going to turn out perfectly. And there’s a critical voice inside of me that’s going to cut me to shreds when it doesn’t turn out perfectly. So I’m anxious about X, Y, Z. Stepping out and doing this thing in my life, even though I want to, but there inside is a perfectionist and a critic. How is this inner parent going to help me work with this situation?”
SP: The inner parent is also—we can call that may different characters. We can also call it the wise self. We can call it the compassionate friend. And so it’s the wise and compassionate voice that everybody has, that can begin to dialogue with these parts. Because these parts tend to take center stage, automatically, by default. It’s the well-worn groove in the brain, of the perfectionist, the self-doubt, the critic, that takes the front seat, the driver’s seat.
When you proactively call on that inner, loving, compassionate, wise self, you can start to respond differently. Start to question these things that you’ve been telling yourself. That you’ve been told that you are now interjecting, because these are now your voices. And engage in dialogue: that’s where the journaling comes in, where you literally write down, as if you are writing a script, and these are the characters. Perfectionist—give it voice. And then, wise self. How might you respond to this part of you, if you are accessing your wisdom, your more compassionate part? Which might feel very, very quiet, like a whisper. Because for some people, it’s not a voice that they are accustomed to activating.
So it’s activating this quiet voice, and then growing the muscle over time, every day, as you start to then listen to the wise and compassionate voice more than the perfectionist. It’s not easy. It’s not fast. None of this is. This is deep-dive, daily committed work, that over time begins to then rewire those habitual voices.
TS: I want to read a quote from The Wisdom of Anxiety that’s about this exquisite sensitivity that we—and I’m going to include myself—anxious people, I think, have. Here’s the quote: “Anxiety is evidence of our sensitive heart. On one level, anxiety is sensitivity gone awry. Anxiety can be understood as a defense mechanism, to protect you from the vulnerability of experiencing the raw feelings of being human. As a mental state, anxiety causes you to travel out of your heart, and into the safe chambers of the mind.”
And that’s what I wanted to talk about, this idea that our anxiety is a defense mechanism to protect us from the vulnerability of experiencing the raw feelings of being human. Talk some about that, how does it function as a defense mechanism?
SP: Yes. So, I love the way Daniel Siegel talks about this in his book Mindsight, which I quote from in The Wisdom of Anxiety—and Michael Singer talks about this as well, that when there’s an overwhelm of emotion, starting in childhood, and we don’t have an adult figure to be with us in those big feelings that in a small body, are like a tidal wave, it’s like a tsunami, to feel that intensity of our emotional lives. If you watch a young child, the emotions are so big. And it feels like you’re going to die.
And if you don’t have an adult holding you through that, telling you, “I’ve got you, it’s OK. It’s just energy, it’s feelings, it will move through you.” In the absence of that—which very few people have had, we are now evolving in our emotional intelligence, so parents now have a better understanding of how to be with those big feelings with kids. But in the absence of that, to, as a survival, protection mechanism, the mind will come in and say, “Hey, come up here. Too messy. Too vulnerable down there in the emotional realm. Come up here, into your head, to think something.” Daniel Siegel calls that “leaning to the left.” And so we start to access that left hemisphere as a way to try to stay safe, to hold on to some kind of—some lifeline, some rope, that we can hold onto, to give us some sense of certainty.
So, for kids—and this is the trajectory I see in my clients all the time—they often start to perseverate on the fear of death, for example. The fear of losing someone they love. Their parents dying. And it keeps them up here. It’s in that left hemisphere. So they’re stuck in that anxious spiral. And strangely, somewhat paradoxically, it feels safer; even though it’s a form of torture to be stuck in that anxious loop, they have some sense of control. Because if I can control this, then I will feel more stable inside. My emotions are out of—I can’t control them. And no one’s teaching me how to be with them. How to let them move through me.
So then that exquisite sensitivity that is so beautiful, morphs into this anxiety. And it’s a brilliant defense mechanism that the mind gives us, to survive.
TS: Now, it’s interesting, because as you were talking, I’m reminded of the subtitle of The Wisdom of Anxiety, which is, How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help you Heal. And as you’re talking about this loop in the mind, I was like “How is that a gift that’s going to help me heal?”
SP: Yes. Well, to start, it’s a gift that it even exists, because it helps us survive childhood. And it helps us survive the overwhelm and the groundlessness that we feel of being human. So it starts out as this brilliant defense mechanism. And then it stops working. And as an adult, when we do have the capacity to learn better tools, it’s the gift because it’s the doorway in. Once we identify like, “I am in hell, stuck on this anxious treadmill of this particular intrusive thought, whatever it is. Or this worry mind. I need to learn a better way.”
So, I seek help. I call a therapist, or I learn spiritual techniques. I learn healthier ways to be with the groundlessness, and to be with the overwhelm. So if you don’t numb it, it will lead you in the direction of growth, of healing. It will be the doorway in. It is the alarm bell. Because intrusive thoughts are so alarming. They take on this catastrophic tone. And you have to listen. And so if you do listen, and you don’t take them at face value and believe that they are categorically true, then you can go in and say, “What is this thought pointing to? What is needed inside?” And even if it’s not pointing to something that needs healing, it can point to growth.
I see this in my sons, who are both exquisitely, highly sensitive, beautiful beings, and have both at different times struggled with the fear of death. And in response, we have met them there, and taught them tools like meditation. So had they not had the fear of death, they might not have learned these other tools, like meditation. That’s where the gift comes in.
TS: You teach this terrific, what you call “Cut-through question” for intrusive thoughts. I really like this: “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?” That’s terrific. So let’s just say, someone identifies that their thinking loop is protecting them from feeling something like, utter emptiness. Or absolute heartbreak. We could take either one, but let’s take both, let’s go into both. Let’s start with absolute heartbreak. So I’m thinking this thought again and again and again, because I just don’t want to feel what’s underneath it. What’s underneath it just hurts really bad. OK, how am I going to—in your work, how do you help people feel that utter heartbreak?
SP: It’s a question I’m asked all the time. How do you feel? What does that mean to be with your feelings? Because I say that a lot, the work is to be with your feelings. What does that actually mean, to be with your feelings?
So, it means first of all to come down out of the head space. We can’t be with our feelings when we’re stuck up here. So let’s say, the person feeling heartbreak has just gone through a breakup. And they’re ruminating on, “What did I do wrong?” And they’re stuck up here, and they’re stuck in that place of regret. And analyzing their relationship. And, “Where did I go wrong, and how did I . . .” And beating themselves up. That’s the head space.
There’s nothing productive. Sure, from a place of curiosity to examine, what can I learn from this relationship, but not from beating one’s self up. So coming down out of that space, and it’s a conscious intention to say, “Self, I’m going to come down out of my head space.” And I often encourage people to use the bridge of the breath, to follow your breath from the head into the body. The breath is the connector. So, coming into the body, and simply starting to notice, what is living in my body? Can I locate the heartbreak? And usually people can find it pretty quickly. So I’ll ask, “Where is it? Where do you feel it?” “It’s in my chest.” Or, “It’s in my solar plexus.” OK, good. Now let’s be with that. Heartbreak. Breathe into it.
And just become curious about, what do you notice? What’s the quality of the heartbreak? What is it? What do you see, an image? Is there a color? Is there a memory attached to it? What is it needing? And sometimes there will be tears, but not always. Grieving doesn’t always mean crying. It can come out in many different ways. Although when we can cry, that is deep medicine. But that’s what it means to be with our feelings. Feelings are—they’re shy animals. And so it’s the way that you would lure a shy animal out from its cave, where it’s been hiding for a long time, being told, “Go away. You don’t belong here.”
It’s a process to reopen up those blocked channels. Because of all the messages that we’ve been told. So we have to work on the level of belief as well when we’re reopening up those blocked channels. “What was I told about heartbreak? What was I told about crying?” All of those messages I said in the beginning. “Crying’s for sissies, you’re wimpy, get over it, you’re too sensitive.” All of that, that people absorb from a variety of places, that all has to be worked with. And then it’s, again, the daily, gentle attention to our hearts, to our bodies. And the reminder, over and over again, “OK, I’m in my head. Let me drop in. I’m stuck in that loop again. I’m ruminating on this or that. That’s my clue, that’s my distress flare, that there’s something inside that’s needing my attention.”
And this is my favorite question, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling. If I wasn’t obsessed by trying to figure out this thought, and answer this . . .” usually fundamentally unanswerable question, is where we get stuck in the loop. “If I wasn’t spending all my time there, what would open up?” And it’s a huge act of courage. We’re here for a reason, up in our heads. Because it’s a lot safer than dropping down.
TS: Now you mentioned your two beautiful, sensitive young boys. And you said that their anxiety manifested as a fear of dying. And I’m curious, because I think a lot of people have anxiety about dying, and potentially from a young age, how do we break out of that repetitive thought? And what we’re facing, as I mentioned before, is this feeling of utter emptiness, or you could say groundlessness, or open space, infinity, whatever you want to call it. The unknown.
SP: Yes. It’s such a scary place for humans. And I don’t know any other way of really meeting it, other than having some kind of spiritual belief and practice. That in the absence of that, we go towards these unhealthy rituals. But humans from the beginning of time have had healthy rituals to ground us, to anchor us, to give us footholds in the constantly changing sea of time that ends in death. The more sensitive you are, the more deeply thinking you are, the more aware you are that time is constantly sifting through our fingers like sand, ending only in one place.
The rituals give us some anchor. Healthy rituals.
TS: Give me a sense of what you’re talking about.
SP: So—prayer. Tuning in, or turning to spiritual beings that you relate to. And I’m not talking about religious, although it can be that as well. It can be deeply comforting for people. Starting your day, anchoring your day with prayer and gratitude.
TS: Tell me what that looks like for you, what that means to you. Because a lot of people, when they hear that word, they’re just like, “Oh, God . . .” they have a negative response. But they may not be understanding what you mean.
SP: By prayer, or by ritual?
SP: I love Brother David Steindl-Rast’s definition of prayer, which is, “Prayer is gratitude.” So, prayer is—and to me, prayer is mostly gratitude. It’s the first moment of my day. Waking up, no matter how hard my night was, saying thank you. It’s ending my day with some kind of ritual and prayer. For me it’s often journaling. And less about the self-inquiry journaling as much as a more open-ended poetic journaling. Tuning into the night, and the moon, and the stars, and what’s happening in night. And then, ending the day with some form of prayer, some form of gratitude.
These are rituals that anchor us. They anchor us in time. And there are so many, and I encourage people to find the ones that work for them, because a lot of people do come from religious traditions that have not worked for them at all. And they don’t want anything to do with that. And so yes, they hear the word “prayer” and they say, “No, that’s not my world anymore.” But it’s finding your connection to something bigger. For so many people, that’s nature. That is completely neutral in terms of the world of spiritual, what we call religion. But being in nature, having that sense of, “I am being held by something bigger than me,” is deeply comforting for the anxious mind.
TS: How are you able to help your sons with their anxiety about dying?
SP: It was different for each of them. For my older son, it was a lot of patience. So every single night—every night, starting when he was probably about seven until he was about twelve, he would say, “I’m scared I’m going to die. I’m scared I’m going to die in my sleep.” So—comforted him. We talked to him. We taught him meditation. We just kept trying as many different things as we could. We actually did some neurofeedback for him at one point, to help with some other stuff he was struggling with. But I think that that helped a lot, in terms of calming his brain.
He’s [an] extremely intelligent thinker, highly creative, and so his mind would just go. And never shaming him. Never telling him, “It’s time to get over this now.” Giving him a lot of physical comfort. Holding him at night. Being with him at night. The parenting culture, there’s a lot of stigma around “Coddling your kids,” and I put that in quotation marks. We are not believers in that mindset, my husband and I, when it comes to the emotional realm, when it comes to being with these big, big, terrifying feelings. And so, it took a lot of patience. But as many times as he needed it, we would hold him, and be there with him, and reassure him, and comfort him, until he could start to do that for himself.
He’s now almost 15. And last summer, he soloed in a glider at Boulder airport. And it was such a triumphant moment for so many reasons. He had so many fears, not just the fear of death. Just a highly, highly, highly sensitive child. And we just tended to him. We met him where he was at, while pushing where we could, until he grew big enough to handle that. Had enough internal sense of self, and resource, to handle.
We also protected them a lot from mainstream media. We protected them from mainstream movies, where there is so much random, senseless violence, so many images that go into kids’ minds. We protected them from the news, where, again, so many stories that kids do—they cannot—we can barely handle as adults. Kids cannot handle those images, the level of trauma and despair that is out there daily, and sensationalized daily.
So we protected their space, a lot, until—and now, my older son is exposed to anything he wants to be exposed to. When he was ready. There’s such a push in the culture for kids, to get them out, and get them socialized. And all this pressure to do it on a certain timeline. We just didn’t subscribe to that.
With our younger son, very different child, and different kind of mind. He needed to understand what happens when you die. That’s where he was—every night. Every single night, again, “I don’t want it to be nothing. What if it’s just nothing?” It was terrifying to him, that it could be nothing. And I would say, “Well, I don’t believe it’s nothing.” “But you don’t know. How can you know? You can’t prove it.” “You’re right. I can’t. I don’t know that we’re ever going to be able to prove that.”
For him, also—that started around nine, he just turned ten. So we’re still in it. And it also coincided with what in the Waldorf philosophy, they call the “nine year change, ” when there’s this increased awareness of one’s self as no longer a little child. There’s an ending of innocence. And so he would get in bed at night and say, “I miss being young. I miss being really little.” And he was still young. But, “I miss being really little.” And I understood what he meant. It’s like, I miss that incredible innocence, where I didn’t think about death. He didn’t have these thoughts.
And so, sometimes, the fear of death is another kind of intrusive thought that protects us from this sense of loss that we feel at each stage of life, as we grow. As time, again, just keeps passing by. And so for him, it was more about in those moments, teaching him to be with that sadness. I’ve taught both my kids the practice of Tonglen, of breathing into what’s painful, and breathing out the opposite. Such a simple, amazingly powerful practice, to be with feelings. To breathe into them, to not push them away. And so, such a big part of, I think, what parents are doing more and more now is teaching that emotional intelligence, that emotional language, to be with that core place of sadness and loss. Existential loss. We can’t even exactly name it, passage of time loss, that he was feeling.
And, there’s no—I would watch my brain try to talk him out of it, you know, like, “But it’s so great being nine, and look at all the great things you could do.” And I would silence that part of me that wanted to talk him out of the hard feelings, and just meet him there. Nothing else to do, but to meet that place of sadness.
TS: You mentioned transitions, and one of the comments you make in The Wisdom of Anxiety is that there’s no deep and full understanding of anxiety without understanding how we go through transitions. And I know you teach quite a lot on this topic. Why is it so important to understand transitions in order to have a full understanding of anxiety?
SP: Many reasons. One is because it’s often through transitions that anxiety is amplified. It’s often through transitions that the feelings that anxiety comes in to protect against are unleashed. So we are in transition all the time, being human. The whole lifespan from birth to death is a transition. But we have these intense times of transition, that the culture doesn’t guide us through, again with healthy rituals. We are just left to freefall. And it’s often when anxiety stirs for the first time, is during, like, my son’s transition into bigger boyhood. His first stirrings of sadness and loss that he had never experienced before.
There are these micro-transitions I talk about in the book, like at the end of a day, or Sunday evening. When the seasons change. And when you are sensitive, when you’re—and we all are sensitive, but when you’re not calloused over and in distraction, you will feel that sense of loss. That inherent sadness to being human that comes almost every day in some form. And if you don’t understand it, the anxiety then will come in and say, “What’s wrong with you?” or will attach onto another story. And then you’re off on this siphoned form of the experience, instead of meeting it at the core.
TS: I want to ask you a type of provocative question for a moment. “Your anxiety is evidence of exquisite sensitivity,” and I’m imagining some people listening who feel really validated by that. That’s not the provocative part of the question. The provocative part is, perhaps that some—is perhaps that person who’s listening, who says, “You know, I’m getting a little tired of all of these people who are interested in personal growth and spirituality, claiming their exquisite sensitivity all the time. It’s just kind of nauseating. Why don’t they toughen up a little bit? Come on, enough of this already. It’s like their special calling card to their intense emotions.” So I’m curious what you think about that.
SP: Well I’d say you are the entire mindset of the culture. That is the mindset that has gotten us into all this trouble to begin with, where we shame ourselves for being who we are. So I would say to that person, my guess is that this may be a threatening conversation, and that underneath that question is your own beautiful sensitivity that you squashed a long time ago. And that it might be painful and scary to look at that.
TS: OK. Tell me a little bit, Sheryl, yourself, about how you became an anxiety expert, a counselor who focuses, a psychotherapist who focuses in this area. You have personal history with anxiety.
SP: I do. I had some anxiety as a kid. I had quite a bit of separation anxiety, which is also often how it shows up for kids. I had a horrible bout with insomnia—which is another offshoot of anxiety, quite often—in my middle school years, when I transitioned into a new school, and suddenly felt like I had no idea of my place in the order of things. I was not in the popular group. It was a very challenging year, and it came out as insomnia. But my big initiation into anxiety—because for the most part, up until I was 21, I thought I had things pretty well together. I did well in school. I was, you know, I fit in, and for the most part, and I just thought, “I’ve got it together here.”
When I was 21, I was driving down the freeway—and I tell this story in the book—in Los Angeles, and I was talking about a dream that I had had about a very traumatic time I had spent in Brazil. And something about the traffic, and the lights, and the dream, and something deeper in my unconscious, all coalesced, and I had my first panic attack. And panic attacks are, I think, one of the most terrifying experiences we can have as human beings. My heart racing—I had no idea what was happening. It was like a curtain just drew between me and the world.
And I pulled over, called 911, ended up in the emergency room. Which is a very common story for people’s first panic attack, because it feels like you’re having a heart attack. And if you don’t understand the symptoms, it’s like out of the blue. Was not told anything in the emergency room other than “You’re fine.” I wasn’t told, “You’re having a panic attack.” That would have been helpful. But I didn’t know. But it catapulted me, it really dragged me by the ankles into my own underworld of everything that I had squashed, and pushed down, up until that point in my life, that needed attention. It was shattering for me. It was the broken-open experience of everything I had been up until that point in my life, was shattered. I developed a driving phobia. I could barely drive 10 minutes. It’s like the world just closed in on me.
Had I not already been in the world of psychology, I’m not quite sure how I would have regarded it. But there was also a part of my brain the whole time that was saying, “This is horrendous. And, this is really interesting. What’s happening here?” And I became intensely curious about what was being stirred up, and what was the constellation of events that popped out the top in that form of that panic attack.
And I spent the next many, many years . . . I had already been in therapy. I had been in therapy since I was 16, but in a different kind of therapy. And I started graduate school shortly after that at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, which focuses on Jungian depth psychology. And so I started to approach it from this perspective of the Jungians, which is all of our symptoms are pointing to areas inside that need our attention. They’re pointing to our wounds.
And it was over the next many, many years, with the graduate school and with the therapy, and with my own deep, deep inner work, and doing a lot of dream work, and a lot of writing, and a lot of poetry, that I began to understand what anxiety was really about.
TS: You said that was your first panic attack. So you had other subsequent panic attacks?
SP: I had panic attacks frequently over those next many years. Often while I was driving. So, that’s the driving phobia. But in other situations as well. I became claustrophobic. I didn’t want to go on airplanes. I could feel the panic rising whenever the doors would close. I would push through, though. I didn’t stop living. I did push through. I kept going on with my life. I was in San Francisco for a period of time there. And every time I would cross that Bay Bridge, it was white-knuckling. It was just white-knuckling across that bridge. And it was the trauma response of, “Is this going to happen again?” Which is the loop that you get into with the anxiety: it tends to then feed on itself, and the panic can feed on itself.
So yes, I became very familiar with panic and anxiety through all those years. And I wrote some papers about it. “Panic” comes from—it shares the root “pan,” from the god Pan. Pandemonium. It’s this chaos. And I think also, again, this doorway, that when we can—that the invitation in the panic is to find the still point in the chaos. So, there’s this deeply spiritual invitation, that if you can find the still point, even when it feels like everything is exploding, and it’s swallowing you up, that’s a profound teaching.
TS: Yes, talk to me about how you do that. I’m imagining someone listening who says, you know, “I have panic attacks, or things that are on the verge of a panic attack.” There’s certainly anxiety.
SP: [Yes.] And panic is this whole, other animal.
TS: How in that moment could they find the still point? You talked about breathing before as a way to move from the mind down into our feelings. Is there a breathing practice that you recommend that could be helpful to people?
SP: Just breathing, and focusing on your breath. Doing the deep balloon breath, you know, where you push your belly out.
TS: So that would be down in your belly, pushing it out to the front, to the sides—
SP: Pushing it out to the front, like a balloon, counting to five, and then exhaling. And to keep your focus on your breath can be a still point. To focus on a mantra can be a still point. Of course, if you’re waiting until the moment of panic to practice, you’re not going to have as much success. Eventually, the panic passes through. And that’s the most important thing for people to know about a panic attack is that it actually can’t hurt you. The two biggest fears for people in panic is, “I’m going to go crazy,” or “I’m going to die.” And neither of those things happen in a panic attack. So they are safe. They can’t hurt you. And that’s an essential piece of cognitive information—we talk about the four realms—o know, as your wise self comes in, in the middle of a panic attack, to say, “It feels like I’m going to die. But this will pass. And it can’t hurt me.” And then to come into your body, and to move into your breath. And breathe as deeply as possible. The breath is the bridge. And to essentially—it’s essentially going limp. It’s becoming defenseless, which is very hard to do in the middle of—none of this is easy. Becoming defenseless—because the more you resist, the scarier it becomes—and allowing the wave to pass by. Because it always does.
Of course, all of this is best practiced ahead of time. So one of my favorite books on panic is Calming Your Anxious Mind, by Jeffrey Brantley, and it’s all about using mindfulness, really developing a steady mindfulness practice, as a way to become defenseless. He tells the story of him being in a hot air balloon, and the terror of being up there, and rising, and having to utilize his own practices, to surrender.
TS: OK, there are two other manifestations of anxiety that I want to make sure we talk about. Here’s the first one. The anxiety about financial security. This is something that I experience a lot with people when I talk to them, that their lives are focused on, “Am I going to have enough money? Am I going to have enough money to retire? Do I have enough money? Am I going to have enough money?” Et cetera. How would you suggest somebody work with that?
SP: So, there’s the very practical element of being smart with your finances, and getting support with that. And finding out, will I have enough to retire? Sometimes anxiety is pointing us in the direction of healthy action toward that end. There is that very healthy component to it, and it’s always healthy in some form or another. But there’s that very literal component to say, “If I’m feeling anxious about this, then maybe I need to put some energy into meeting with a financial advisor, and making sure that my finances are in order.”
If it becomes—if it’s in the realm of an intrusive thought, and you’re stuck on that anxious loop, then it’s the same invitation to ask, “What is this a placeholder for? By staying stuck here, what am I avoiding inside? ” And money . . . and almost all intrusive thoughts carry a metaphor. There’s an invitation in it. Money is deeply connected to security. And so, we want to then explode open into, “What is my relationship to security? What is true security mean? I’m attaching it onto money. And I’m in this deep money story. And that’s where all my anxiety lands. But there’s an opportunity to go deeper into my relationship to true security, that’s not dependent on money.”
Again, we want to make sure that the practical aspect is attended to, as with all intrusive thoughts. If it’s health anxiety, go get a physical. Make sure you’re OK. But, once you get the clean bill of health, and you’re still obsessing about “That little tremor means I have Parkinson’s,” or “That pain means I have a brain tumor,” then you’re in the realm of an intrusive thought. And then there’s the invitation to explode open the repetitive patterns. To be with what’s at the root.
TS: Finding our true security—at one point in The Wisdom of Anxiety, you write about how anxiety and trust are mutually exclusive.
SP: Yes. Yes, it’s what I was alluding to earlier about, there’s few places more comforting for the anxious mind than to rest in the awareness of something bigger holding us. Some place of knowing that we are OK. Even if it doesn’t look OK, even if it doesn’t feel OK. That we can rest in that deeper wellspring, in that deeper pool. And the practice so much over and over again with anxiety, is to name the anxiety, and then to redirect and say, “Where am I with my practices that help me to connect to deep faith, to true security?”
TS: OK. The other kind of anxiety I wanted to make sure to ask you to talk about is what you call relationship anxiety. And it sounds like a lot of people come to you and are concerned about whether or not they’re with the right person. That this is a form of anxiety for a lot of people. I didn’t know that before reading The Wisdom of Anxiety.
SP: Oh, yes. It’s massive. And most people don’t, which is why when it shows up in a relationship, they are blindsided. And they think, “The fact that I’m questioning if I’m with the right partner, must mean that I’m with the wrong partner.” They don’t understand how common relationship anxiety is. It’s another theme that anxiety attaches onto, like money, like health, like parenting, is relationships. It’s a big one.
It’s anyplace where we’re vulnerable, is where anxiety attaches. It’s anyplace where there’s risk. And there are few places where we are more vulnerable than in a relationship. So, the thought comes up, hI don’t love my partner.” Or, “I’m in the wrong relationship.” Or, “How do I know if I love my partner enough?” There’s no blood test. There’s no . . . you can’t measure love. In the question, is trying to safeguard against loss, against failure, against risk. So, the mind, again, coming in to try to protect. To say, “If I love my partner enough, then we’ll make it. Then we’ll be OK. But what if I don’t love my partner enough?” And it takes on a life of its own, fed by a culture that has so many misconceptions about what real relationships, and what real love, and real attraction, is about.
TS: OK. So somebody’s like, “That’s me. That’s me. I have fear about—” I mean, thank God it’s not me, actually, on this one. I have so many other anxious issues, but this isn’t one of my issues. But, what do they do?
SP: So, they learn the truth about love, number one. You address it, again, in the four realms of self. So we have to address this one very much in the cognitive realm first, to learn about, what is normal? What is to be expected in a relationship? The culture says if you have doubt, that means you’re with the wrong person. If you’re not always attracted to your partner, that means you’re with the wrong person. If you don’t know that your partner is “The One,” in quotation marks, is your soulmate—we live in a culture that is predicated on the romantic ideal. So we have all of these highly romantic, fantasy-based ideas about what you are supposed to feel in the early stages of a relationship, or at any point in a relationship. And if you don’t feel those, the anxious mind then spins into overdrive.
TS: OK. But what if maybe you’re not with the right person? I mean it’s like, “You know, I’m hearing everything, but you know I’m not so—I might not be with—maybe my anxiety is well founded.
SP: And sometimes it certainly is the case, where it’s well founded. But what I have found is that the vast majority of people who find their way to my work are with incredibly loving, kind, well-matched in terms of values, compassionate, hardworking—they tick all the boxes. So these are people coming to me saying, “My partner ticks all the boxes. Except for maybe this one. Maybe he or she doesn’t quite look the way—he’s not my type.” Or, “I always thought I’d be with somebody who came from this certain kind of family, or had this level of education.”
But these are not deal breakers. These are not reasons to walk away from a very loving, healthy relationship. So, yes, if there are red flags in the relationship—and I talk about that in the book, what those red flags are—then your anxiety might be telling you, “I need to walk away.” And, certainly, you are not well-matched with every kind, loving person that comes your way. But what I can tell you is that, in the vast majority—95 percent of the people who find me, when the anxiety is not running the show, will say, “I know I’m with the right person.”
And I try to take the word “right” out of the question. It’s healthier to ask, especially for the anxious mind, “Is this someone with whom I can learn about love?” It’s another cut-through question. “Is this someone with whom I can learn about love? Are we enough on the same page? Do we both have enough of a growth mindset, that we can hold hands through life together?” There’s a basic safety. There’s a healthy attachment.
And when I ask my clients—and I will ask them almost every initial session, “Tell me about your partner. Tell me about what drew you to this person to begin with. Tell me about your partner in their essence. Not the nose, or whatever it is you’re focusing on. Not the paycheck. You partner’s essence.” And they will start crying, with so much gratitude. Essence to essence, without fear in the way, knowing, “I want to be with this person.” It’s not about, “I don’t want to.” It’s that, “I have so much fear in the way, that is telling me all of these lies, to try to protect me. To try to protect me from the possibility, and the risk, of loss.” Because we have all been hurt in relationships of one kind or another. We all know that to love is to take the risk of being hurt, of loss.
TS: As our conversation is coming to a close, Sheryl, I want to actually ask you something that is about the very first sentence in The Wisdom of Anxiety. The very first sentence is, “Anxiety is the wound of our times.” And I thought to myself, “How does Sheryl know that? People make all kinds of statements; ‘Depression is the psychological challenge of our times.'” This, that, and the other. How is it that you came up with, “Anxiety is the wound of our times?”
SP: So let me edit that. I would say anxiety is one of the wounds of our times. And I think we all know that. We look around, and everybody’s anxious. And we are talking about it more and more, which is great. But, when I talk about my book, for example, with somebody who doesn’t know me, and I say, “It’s called The Wisdom of Anxiety,” and immediately, without fail, there’s a story. There’s a resonance. There’s a, “Oh, I need that book.” Either “I need it,” or, “I need that for my daughter.” Or, “I need that for my sister.” We are all in the realm of somebody who’s anxious—and probably our own selves, if we’re honest.
So, we’re seeing it in rising rates. The statistics are there. It’s millions and millions and millions of people that are going to the doctor saying, “I’m anxious.” And the doctor hands them a prescription for a medication. But those are the people that are going to the doctor. Those are the people that are diagnosed. And there’s millions of more people that are undiagnosed, that are struggling with their anxiety, not knowing how to address it in an effective way, in a compassionate way.
TS: As we end, I’m going to circle back to this comment that anxiety and trust can’t coexist in the same moment. And what I’d love to know is, your trust as a person, your groundedness in a type of unshakable faith, to whatever degree that you have it. What would you say is it rooted in? What’s its source?
SP: Hmm. The source of my trust, I would have to say is in an unshakable belief in hope, and in our trajectory of moving toward wholeness. It’s what guides everything in my life, is seeing—seeing the wholeness, and seeing the goodness in, not only every human being, every being, and in our planet, and in the universe. So, I have this unshakable faith in goodness, and in our longing for wholeness and our longing for healing individually, and as a planet. That as much as we can look around and feel like everything’s falling apart, I see some through line, that we are also growing in the right direction, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
And so, it guides how I work with myself, how I see my children. Seeing where they struggle, but always holding them in their essence, in the awareness and in the clear seeing of their wholeness, their holiness, their beauty. I see it in my clients. It’s very much the mindset from which I work. And I see it in our planet.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Sheryl Paul. And she’s the author of a beautiful and helpful new book called The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help You Heal. Sheryl, thank you so much.
SP: Thank you, Tami.
TS: thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at soundstrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. And also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes, and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you. And learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe, we can create a kinder, and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.