Reader Question: How Do I Deal with My Relationship Anxiety?

Here’s a question regarding anxiety issues in a family from Kari, a woman in her 20s.

I’ve been reading through your advice about breaking habits, low self-esteem, etc and am curious to hear your opinion of what I view as my main problem.  I also went back to my therapist today after a long hiatus and feel very positive about that.

Bit of back story: I have a loving little brother and an amazing, supportive father. Both have always been there for me regardless. Parents broke up when I was around age 12. My mother and I never really clicked. I felt there was a duplicity to her that, as a child, was frightening and although she has since admitted she had untreated depression, our relationship has never recovered. I do believe that her “double life” (i.e. living as a depressed person while in my company but putting on a happy face when required outside the home) has made it impossible for her to really be honest and happy. I’ve told her as much and am willing to work with her to restore what we can of our relationship.

To be honest, I really doubt the success of that. I have sympathy for what she has gone through but it seems like I’m always more willing to work than she is on her depression.

Now here’s my question. As I get older, I notice that I am developing my own fears, insecurities, anxieties about my relationships. I don’t know if this is a natural process of becoming self-aware or what. When one fear or insecurity crops up, I feel utterly helpless to stop the hellish snowball that is my reaction. I feel powerless to stop my outbursts. It manifests itself in neediness, whining, and anger towards my loved ones. I feel that it is a habit I’ve developed.The extreme outflow of irrational emotion feels manipulative. It’s like I’m giving them an ultimatum to either care 110% or get out.

I can see how it’s wrong in so many ways. Shortly after bursting, I feel ashamed and feel as if I’ve “learned my lesson” this time. Inevitably, the outburst is triggered again and I lose confidence that I’ll be able to ever understand it or deal with it. I am fairly certain that I’ve nailed down 80% of my problems (whether or not I have an idea of where they stem from). It’s the implementation of the solution that is escaping me.

Hi Kari,

First, thanks for entrusting me with your story.  It must be scary and overwhelming to have such strong emotions burst out and lose control of yourself.

I appreciate that you have written a very astute description of your problem.  You are very self-aware and insightful.  A lot of what you’ve written really gets at the heart of the matter, which is great.   It’s also good that you’re seeing a therapist — as you know, it’s that commitment to heal that makes the healing happen.

There are two things going on here, isn’t there?  One is your relationship with your mom, and the other is your overwhelming, uncontrollable anxieties.

Healing Your Relationship with a Parent

A mother is a huge presence in everybody’s life, and having an unresolved conflict there can mess up anyone’s mind.

I agree with your notion that if your mom herself isn’t committed to treating her depression, then she can’t be expected to really get better.  That doesn’t mean that she’ll never become committed, but until then, it’s unfortunately necessary to maintain a healthy distance.  There’s no need to cut off all communication with her or anything, but you may want to watch it so you’re not too close, especially while you’re working on your own problem.

Now, your mother not working on her healing doesn’t mean that you can’t heal your end.  We expect the world of our parents — rightfully so, they are our world when we are little — so when parents habitually fail to deliver, it builds up a lot of resentments.  It’ll help with your healing if you purge this emotional baggage with your mom.

My coach Tom Volkar taught me this excellent exercise in purging stuck negative emotions from a relationship.  It was originally created by John Gray. Here let me paraphrase it.

  1. Write a letter to your mother.  Give yourself some private time and space and really write a letter that tells her exactly how you feel.  Include all anger, resentments, and disappointments and write how you wished she’d acted instead of what she did.
  2. Then write a response from your mom’s point of view, and write it so that she’s saying exactly what you want to hear.  Make her apologize and ask for forgiveness, admitting all the faults she’d committed.

I myself have tried this exercise and it’s a wonderful way to heal a relationship wound.  Obviously, it won’t heal the relationship itself, but you will be able to accept the relationship for what it is, instead of feeling the conflict between what is and what you wished it could be. With a long and deep relationship like mother-child, you’ll probably have to do this more than once.  Do it every time you realize that you’re holding any grudge, anger or resentment.


    1. AJ,

      Well, ideally, yes, but I can understand how it gets complicated when your history gets involved. What’s really going on and what’s really a projection from the past? It’s hard to tell when you’re in the midst.


  1. This was an awesome post, and question! Thanks Ari, for being so thorough with it!
    You make a good point about “there’s really no quick fix if you want to heal completely from the bottom up.”

    I like to use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). I’ve taken specific memories about my parents that have haunted me, and affected how I feel about myself, and condensed them to mere stories to the point where I have no painful emotions associated with these memories anymore. I’m a testimony to the amazing happiness (and relief) you can experience when doing inner healing work. What’s a miracle is the relationship I now have with my parents. There is a lot more love, appreciation, and accceptance between us now.

    Love and Light,

    Carlota´s last blog post..A true story about Escaping Criticism

  2. Thanks for this post Ari. I like the letter to your loved one exercise you described. Another one I sometimes use with clients, which comes from Gestalt therapy, is to have them imagine their loved one sitting in a chair across from them, and to say whatever they need to say to clear whatever stuck emotions are having the relationship feel difficult.

    Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching´s last blog post..Getting To The “Heart” Of Public Speaking Anxiety

  3. Ari, your perspective resonates with th apparent energy flow. You make an intriguing and astute analogy by saying the nature of food you ingest reflects how a person feels about himself. I am a silent observer to loved ones who consume trash. To love unconditionally means you permit people to make their own choices without judging, as hard as that my be to hold your tongue. Each person raises awareness at his own pace. Being aware of what is going on around you lets you know you are increasingly raising awareness of your own inner self.

    Liara Covert´s last blog post..Trigger divine revelations

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  5. Last summer/fall, I had intermittent inner ear problems and would get vertigo out of nowhere. The last time it happened I was going 70mph in the left lane of a freeway. I got so freaked out it triggered a full-blown panic attack. I had to pull over and call 911. I went to the hospital and was fine, but ever since then, even 8 months later, I get anxiety when I drive on the freeway. Lucky for me, I have to drive that stretch of road on my way to school 4 times a week but it has still been *really* tough.

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