Counselling Articles

The trouble with intimacy – How can it hurt so bad and feel so good?

intimacyIntimacy – What is it actually?

Intimacy is one of those tender topics that comes up every day in my counselling work with couples. There’s a lot of confusion about what intimacy actually is. Intimacy often gets confused with sex, and while they are related experiences, they are also distinct.

The following is an excerpt from my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to read more) –

Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another. Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.

If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.

Nonetheless, individual appetites and tolerances for intimacy vary. Intimacy doesn’t feel good for everyone. A mismatch between lovers in this regard can be a source of frustration, anger and disconnection. The person craving more intimacy may judge their partner to be cold or withdrawn. The person with less appetite or tolerance for intimacy may experience their partner as intrusive or overbearing.

Intimacy needs can differ between people in a relationship

It’s common to assume that our personal intimacy needs are “normal” and should be automatically met by our partner. It’s tempting to pathologize or condemn them when they fail to meet these needs. It’s also common in counselling for the counsellor to collude, consciously or unconsciously, with the person who wants more intimacy. Often (not always) it is a woman who wants more intimacy, and a man who doesn’t see a problem. Hence, perhaps, the cliche of the man who resists couples counselling. In my work I’m careful to take a value neutral approach to intimacy, honoring all personal preferences and capacities. Regardless of one’s personal tolerance or desire for intimacy, exploring the topic with curiosity is helpful and illuminating. (Intimacy is also discussed at length in my book Conscious Kink for Couples – click here to read a sample.)

Liz and Colin appeared to have extremely different emotional experiences and needs. In their own words, Colin was rock solid; Liz was a rollercoaster. By the time they came to me for help Liz was ready to pull the plug on the relationship. She carried a lot of anxiety, and we talked openly about the impact it had on the relationship.

Liz also was very clear that she wanted a deeper level of emotional engagement with a partner, and she wasn’t sure Colin could provide it. Colin repeatedly stated his willingness to “do anything” to help Liz get her needs met.

This “can-do” attitude seemed consistent with his overall character and his way of moving through the world in general. Colin was good at holding a vision and making sacrifices as he worked for future goals. An interesting implication of this was that there was a sense of him always existing somewhere off in the future… somewhere else. But Liz wanted to feel him in the present, here and now. She would get so frustrated that she would question his love for her. This would launch him into an incredulous defense about how everything he does is for the relationship, which was probably true.

By his own admission, Colin did not understand what Liz was really asking of him. In session, I saw an opportunity to potentially help him get a taste of what she was looking for –

Me: “Colin, I’m noticing that even as Liz talks about leaving the relationship, a relationship you obviously care about, you don’t seem emotionally phased. What’s going on inside right now?”

Colin: “I’m thinking about what I’ll need to do to take care of myself. New apartment, that kind of thing.”

Me: “You automatically start thinking about how to deal effectively with whatever change might be on the horizon. You’re good at recovering from setbacks and at strategizing. It’s one of your gifts.”

Colin: “Correct.”

Me: “I’m going to ask you to back up a step, and check out what it feels like to hear that Liz is considering ending the relationship. Start with your body. What kind of sensations do you feel in your body when you hear Liz’s words?

Colin: (Pause) “I feel an emptiness in my belly.”

Me: “That makes sense. Stay with that sensation of emptiness in your belly. In this moment there’s nothing to do about it. Just let yourself feel it fully. (Pause) What’s the emotion that comes with that emptiness?”

Colin: “Fearfulness. I’m afraid of having no one to lean on.”

Me: “Ah. Yes. It’s scary to be alone. Again, I don’t want you to strategize your way out of this feeling quite yet. Are you willing to stay with the feeling of fear a little longer?”

Colin: “Yes.”

Liz had been desperate to connect emotionally with Colin, but she didn’t know how to get through to him. Colin had tried everything he knew to care for the relationship, but he genuinely did not understand what she wanted. In those few minutes of our session together, Colin stayed with his uncomfortable feelings without automatically moving into problem solving mode. Importantly, he was also revealing this inner experience to Liz. This was intimacy, feeling Colin expose his tender feelings. This is what Liz was starving for. This is what made her feel connected.

Feelings… Strength or weakness?

It was unfamiliar and counter-intuitive territory for Colin. He considered his ability to bypass his feelings and get a job done to be a great strength of his, and he’s right, to a point. It IS valuable to be able to feel lousy and still get stuff done, but not always. In this case Colin was tasked with something different, a new addition to his repertoire. No matter how vigorously he used the old tools he knew so well, they would never be satisfying for Liz unless some occasional insight into his feeling self was also included.

I made it clear to Colin that he was under no obligation to change his way of doing things. This was all optional. It’s not our “job” to meet our partner’s needs, it’s a gift we give to each other, and a way of answering the calling of the relationship itself. Sometimes, in an unexpected moment of clarity or insight, we might feel like it’s a gift we give ourselves too. For Colin, this encouragement, this permission to have his emotional experience, and to share it with his partner, to have it be welcome, this was something strange and new. It turned out that he found some pleasure in it, enough to spark his curiosity and create willingness to experiment further.

Toward the end of our session, Colin confided that he had never really felt okay with sharing his emotional experience. He felt pressure as a man to minimize his emotions in order to perform in the world. I found this to be quite insightful, and to match my own observations about gender expectations and social conditioning.

Colin felt vulnerable revealing his emotionality, and he simultaneously felt some satisfaction in it. Vulnerability is a necessary part of revealing our inner self to our partner. When we reveal our inner experience, there is no guarantee that it will be received favorably. We risk rejection, judgement, ridicule. We might be tempted to mitigate this risk by securing carte blanche acceptance, unconditional love, or validation from our partner in advance, “You have to promise you won’t get mad…”, but this undermines real intimacy, which requires us to risk being ourselves no matter the consequences. Only when we risk revealing who we are inside, and accept the possible consequences, can we experience intimacy. Meeting our spouse in this vulnerable place of risk and uncertainty connects us to some alive part of ourselves. We feel bonded and strangely powerful even as we also feel uncertain and fragile. Paradox abounds.

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2

Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

Like Justice Schanfarber on Facebook

Sign up to get my articles by email –

Want to share this article? Use the buttons below.

Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

BDSM and Healing – Can kinky sex help heal your relationship?

BDSM and Healing - Can kinky sex help heal your relationship?BDSM and healing

BDSM stands for bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism. In my work, I often refer to BDSM as “erotic power exchange.” In a BDSM experience, one person’s individual power and autonomy is consensually given to the other, within negotiated parameters, for erotic or sexual purposes.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but used carefully, with mindfulness and intention, BDSM can become a powerful tool for insight and healing. In my book, Conscious Kink for Couples – The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing, I explore this healing potential in depth. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction –

What is “Conscious Kink?”

Every relationship that I’ve ever had the honour of witnessing in my work as a marriage counsellor and couples therapist has included aspects of sadism and masochism, cruelty, power struggles, role-play, and various psychological manipulation, headgames, and mindfucks – even as one or both individuals in the relationship work desperately to hide these qualities from themselves or each other, keeping the dark elements buried in unconsciousness, and maintaining a veneer of innocence and normalcy.

The unwillingness to confront one’s own complicity in creating the suffering that inevitably arises in a relationship can be understood in part as an avoidance of facing one’s own shadow; a reluctance to enter into one’s own darker realms.

Conscious Kink and BDSM , in addition to providing sexual or erotic outlets and pleasures, can also become a structure and a practice for revealing, observing, and befriending our dark and shadowy parts.

Sex is a window to our deepest core, to the material of our soul, and by following our kinky desires, and intentionally adding the element of conscious awareness, we end up doing important psycho-emotional work.

Doing this work as a couple, within the sexual/erotic realm, and witnessing each other in the process; this has the power to foster incredible intimacy, growth, and healing. Conscious Kink combines sexual adventurousness with an intention towards awareness, creating a valuable integration practice for life.

Kink and BDSM: For healthy, loving, sensitive people

Hollywood and popular culture have, predictably, distorted kink and BDSM for their own sensationalist purposes. “The gimp” in Pulp Fiction… the stalker-ish behaviour of Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey… these are to real-life kink and BDSM what Tom and Jerry are to real cats and mice: Entertaining perhaps, but mostly bearing little resemblance or relevance to actual kinky people or kink practices.

Real-world kink and BDSM is practiced intelligently, consensually, skillfully, and inspiringly by people across all socio- economic, political, and even religious spectrums. I know kinky social workers, administrators, and public servants. I know kinky social activists, Christians, pagans, and single parents. Welders and bus drivers can be kinky, so can school teachers and entrepreneurs. Married, single, gay, straight, black, white, privileged, oppressed, happy, sad, fat, thin… you get the idea.

I’m painting this picture to help dispel whatever assumption you might have that only “other” people are attracted to kinky sex. If you’re struggling with feeling alone, marginalized, or weird for your (or your partner’s) unconventional desires, I assure you that you are in plenty of good company. Many healthy, loving, sensitive, intelligent people are into kink and BDSM.

Conscious Kinky Couples come from all sorts of backgrounds, and show wide variations in preferences, styles, and personality types, but those with some practice under their belt tend to develop three qualities in common. Interestingly, these same three qualities, or more accurately their absence, predictably show up again and again in the work I do with non-kinky client couples. Could Conscious Kinky Couples have something to teach us all?

Three qualities of Conscious Kinky Couples

1. Conscious Kinky Couples talk openly and explicitly about sex.
They have the courage to ask for what they want, and to represent themselves sexually. They don’t assume that their partner will read their mind. They negotiate to get both partners’ needs met. They share their sexual fantasies and desires. Conscious Kinky Couples might use mystery and intrigue intentionally to cultivate turn-on and eroticism, but they’re ready to talk candidly about sex, and they don’t hide behind assumptions, social convention, or their own shame and wounding.

2. Conscious Kinky Couples work to heal their sexual shame and wounding.
The intentional and explicit nature of their sex lives forces Conscious Kinky Couples to confront their shame and wounding repeatedly, often in many different contexts. Their kinky play or BDSM practice may include consensual humiliation or objectification, sadomasochism, erotic power exchange etc. The Conscious Kinky Couple uses these experiences, and the debriefing that follows, as opportunities for self-examination and integration.

3. Conscious Kinky Couples make time for sex, and they consciously cultivate eroticism in their relationship. Lack of time is a universal theme I encounter with the couples I counsel. Kids, work, family, friends, holidays… there’s a long list of commitments and priorities that creep in to take precedent over sex. Conscious Kinky Couples, however, are more likely to dedicate time to sex. Conscious Kink gives couples a structure for actively supporting and growing their sex lives, a structure that is sorely missing in many modern relationships.

BDSM, Kink, and Shadow Integration

“We find that by opening the door to the shadow realm a little, and letting out various elements a few at a time, relating to them, finding use for them, negotiating, we can reduce being surprised by shadow sneak attacks and unexpected explosions.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Each one of us has qualities or parts of ourselves that we have denied, repressed, or “split off” from consciousness. Pioneer psychologist Carl Jung called these exiled parts of self “shadow” because, pushed away from awareness, they remain hidden from us.

We deny these parts of self, often from childhood, because they were unacceptable to our parents, to society, or to our immature, narrow vision of ourselves. We all originally exiled parts of ourselves for good reasons; it was our way to adapt and survive, and also to create a positive self-image, to “be good.”

For some of us it was our anger or rage that was unwelcome, and so we rejected that part of ourself. For others it was our power, or maybe our weakness. Either strength or vulnerability might have offended our caregivers when we were young; any quality at all might have been deemed unacceptable, and so was driven underground.

Individuals and families have their own standards for which qualities are allowed and which are denied, and every culture and subculture also has its own codes for what it rewards and what it punishes.

Each of us in our lifetime is faced with the task of, one way or another, bringing these repressed parts into consciousness and finding them an appropriate and enriching place in our lives. Until we do, they continue to drive our thinking and our behaviour, and have an enormous, though invisible, impact.

These rejected parts of ourselves not only cause suffering as they shape our lives from beneath conscious awareness, on the flip-side they also have valuable gifts to provide once we do the work of retrieving them. Thus the benefit of retrieval is twofold.

Reclaiming our lost parts, integrating our shadow… this is a process of becoming whole, of healing. In fact, some psychotherapeutic models put shadow retrieval or integration, in some form, at the center of the healing journey.

This work is difficult because to integrate the shadow, to retrieve the lost parts of self, means to face tremendous pain and confusion. We must face that which we long ago deemed unacceptable, bad, or even evil. But we must first find it. We must summon that which we banished, that which we fear most. And we must do it without yet knowing how these parts of self will eventually be integrated. We have no place reserved for them in our home, and yet we must welcome them in.

We can not face our shadow directly because it is unconscious, and therefore invisible; otherwise it would not be our shadow. It must be viewed through a veil or intermediary. Shadow must be approached indirectly, through metaphor, myth, art, role-play, poetry, and other forms of suspended disbelief. Shadow retrieval and integration happens on the edge of consciousness, in the liminal spaces, in the places in between. Conscious Kink can provide these places.

Making a place for sadism and masochism in a relationship

“Hatred and aggression — and carnivorous sexual intent — aren’t our ‘dark’ side. Our dark side is the side that denies its own existence.”
~ David Schnarch

Two of the most commonly denied, most present, and most influential, though unconscious, aspects of self are in fact twin shadow archetypes: the sadist and the masochist.

We all have an inner sadist taking pleasure in the suffering of others, and also an inner masochist finding comfort in our own suffering.

BDSM can turn sadomasochism into an art and a practice, and provides, if we use it consciously, a structure for beginning to glimpse and reconcile our own denied or projected sadism and/or masochism.

Conscious Kink allows us a soundstage, a theatre for playing out a sadomasochistic drama, for bearing witness to our own sadistic or masochistic desires and tendencies, and potentially for finding them a home, an appropriate place in our psyche via our erotic lives.

Without a practice of this sort, we might continue unconsciously playing out our sadomasochistic patterns in our lives and relationships, denying our own complicity, and projecting our capacity for cruelty or martyrdom onto others, where we can judge it from a safe distance.

A conventional lover might protect their self-image of innocence, claiming, “Oh no, I never, ever punish my partner for not meeting my expectations. I take no joy in cruelty.” And then they give their partner the silent treatment, or with-hold affection, or explode with accusations.

By contrast, a practitioner of Conscious Kink, in a carefully negotiated BDSM session or “scene” with their partner says “Do as I say or there will be a consequence.” The sadism is revealed. It is summoned onto the stage where a couple can see it, work with it, play with it, learn from it, find its erotic energy and harness it. Here we find potential for mutual pleasure, as well as shadow integration; transformation; alchemy.

The BDSM scene becomes a sacred space between the world of reality and the world of pretending. Sadomasochistic dynamics are first acknowledged as desire in the self, and then they are given a life through collaboration and negotiation. Within a BDSM scene, sadomasochistic dynamics become “play,” but they are also rooted in our deepest, most real, core selves.

The BDSM scene provides the “in-between” space necessary for retrieving the sadism and masochism we have denied in ourselves but projected onto others. The result, by any name, is healing.

Erotic power exchange: Dominance and submission

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Power dynamics exist, mostly unconscious and unacknowledged, within all relationships. So much so that therapists often talk about the “power struggle” phase of a marriage or relationship as though it were inevitable.

Beneath the spoken agreements in any relationship, beneath the obvious labour divisions and the negotiated sharing of responsibilities, lurk shadowy power struggles, uneasy balancing acts, and resentment-laden asymmetries.

Consciously bringing power exchange dynamics into a relationship in an erotic or sexual form can add more than “spice” or excitement, it can shine a light on some of these hidden power struggles and imbalances.

Also illuminated is your own personal relationship to power –

Are you comfortable with power? Are you afraid of it? Do you fight for power in your relationship? Do you crave it? Do you share power well with others? Do you consider the responsibility of power to be a burden?

Are you trustworthy with power? Do you trust power in the hands of your partner? Do you abdicate your power and then resent its loss?

How about powerlessness? Do you fear loss of control? Do you crave loss of control? Do you long for surrender?

Uncovering the hidden power dynamics in ourselves and in our relationship through a practice of Conscious Kink can have surprising and even disturbing outcomes.

Control issues may be revealed. Fear, cruelty, punishment, with- holding… these are all normal dark-side aspects of power that may present themselves. They’ve been there all along, but now we see them in a new light.

Conscious Kinky Couples can collaboratively and consensually play with power dynamics, eroticizing them, finding pleasure in them, and perhaps, over time, gleaning some of the deeper meanings that power (and powerlessness or surrender) holds in their relationship and in their lives.

Conscious Kink and BDSM practitioners usually identify as either top, bottom, or switch. The terms dominant and submissive are often used interchangeably with the terms top and bottom. Tops (dominants) hold power, bottoms (submissives) surrender power, and switches, as the term implies, can go either way. The degree of power exchange, and the specific nuances, are carefully discussed and negotiated until full consent and understanding is reached.

You’re not bound (pun intended) to any particular identity, and you’re free to experiment with whatever sort of power exchange suits you and your partner.

Like what you’re reading here? Get my new book –

Conscious Kink for Couples:
The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing

Conscious Kink for Couples - The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing - by Justice Schanfarber

Want to read a sample?
Download the first 10 pages free –

Click here now to download the 10-page sample (one-click pdf download).

Learn to use kinky sex and BDSM as an awareness practice for healing and growth (like you might use yoga, meditation, or martial arts).

~ Bring more awareness, creativity, and intention to your sex life.

~ Reconcile your “darker” sexual desires with the deep love and caring that is the foundation of your relationship.

~ Make a place for consensual Dominance and submission alongside equality and respect

~ Confront the shame, doubt, or self-consciousness that thwarts or confuses you.

Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiTrying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide individual counselling, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships. Serving clients worldwide by phone/skype. Email to request a client info package.

Like Justice Schanfarber on Facebook

Sign up to get my articles by email –

Want to share this article? Use the buttons below.

Events and Workshops

Mindful Marriage – Self awareness tools for happier relationships (Workshop)

Mindful Marriage workshop Justice Schanfarber OMY Jan 16, 2016

Mindful Marriage –
Self awareness tools for happier relationships

Where: Ocean Mountain Yoga
1121 Cedar Street (Second floor)
Campbell River, BC

When: January 16, 2016
1pm – 4pm

Cost: $69

To register: Call 250 914-5435 or email

Marriage and relationships can be full of contradiction and confusion even as they offer hopefulness and joy. Being fully present through all these experiences is perhaps both our hardest task and our greatest reward on the journey.

In this 3-hour workshop we will explore –

~ Supporting your partner without betraying yourself
~ How to communicate for connection and clarity
~ Finding your way through patterns of conflict
~ Paths to intimacy, pleasure and desire

This workshop is for individuals and couples of all genders and orientations.

About the presenter –
Justice Schanfarber is a mindfulness based counsellor and Certified Hakomi Therapist helping individuals and couples in Campbell River BC, and worldwide by telephone and skype.

Share this event on facebook >

Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiI provide individual counselling, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples. Sessions in-person or by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.comLike Justice Schanfarber on Facebook

Sign up to get my articles by email –

Want to share this event? You can use the buttons below.

Counselling Articles

Anxiety relief without medication – A three step mindfulness based approach to managing an activated nervous system

Perspectives on anxiety – “Please rescue me from this feeling”

All of life, family, community and relationships can be understood, in a sense, as an unconscious exercise in releasing ourselves from the anxiety of being a human being.

The anxiety of not being good enough, of past hurts and traumas, of not being known and loved for who we are, and of knowing that we – along with everyone we love – will one day die is a powerful, often invisible force driving us as individuals, and also shaping our social structures and agreements, both explicit and implicit.

“Please rescue me from this feeling” we plead in a thousand ways to spouses, bosses, employees, cheeseburgers, pornography, facebook, yoga, and television. We may recognize the insanity of certain actions – repeating abusive relationship cycles, poisoning ourselves with cigarettes, checking facebook a hundred times each day – but the underlying anxiety driving our actions remains unseen, residing deep inside our own bodies – our nervous systems most specifically.

If only the kitchen was clean, if only I had another beer, if only they listened to me, if only my team would win, if only we had more sex, if only I had more money, if only people weren’t so stupid, if only we had a holiday. The source of our anxiety always appears to be “out there” somewhere. So that’s where we focus, out there. Then we come to realize – That cigarette didn’t satisfy. My new car is already feeling old. Yoga hasn’t made me a new person. Nothing my partner says makes me feel better.

Trying to change ourselves and other people and the world is valid and reasonable and perhaps intrinsically human, but it doesn’t address the core anxiety that tortures each of us from the inside out. Whatever actions we take in the world will be more effective, more direct, and more healthy when we are also addressing the anxiety that lives inside us. So how do we do that?

First, notice your anxiety

Once you consider that your anxiety might be rooted inside you, not in other people and circumstances (no matter how it got there originally or how legitimate your grievances might be), you might assume that it’s in your mind, a head thing, something that comes from thoughts and beliefs, and so you try to change your thinking. That’s fine, but anyone who’s tried to talk themselves out of a feeling knows the struggle that can bring. The experience of anxiety often includes thoughts, but its roots are deep in your nervous system, in your body, out of reach of intellect and reason.

If you want to know your anxiety first-hand (and you do – it’s how you get loose of its grip), notice what it feels like in your body. Anxiety is a body sensation that happens when your nervous system gets activated. Your spouse nags or yells and you feel your throat tighten. That’s anxiety. Your kid slams the door and your face gets hot. That’s anxiety. Notice it. Notice it simply as a sensation in your body. Name it, internally or out loud. “Throat tight.” “Face hot.”

Now stay with it

Throat tight? Stay with that sensation. Face hot? Stay with that sensation. Feel your anxiety wherever it shows up in your body. Do this slowly, with curiosity and awareness. Unless your safety is actually being threatened in this moment, nothing needs to be done. If judgement or internal dialogue appears, notice it, but come back to the body sensation. Stay with it. Stay with it because you want to fully know it. Uncomfortable? Part of what we’re doing here is building our capacity for that discomfort. It’s like exercising a muscle. It gets stronger with the right kind of use. In this case, the right kind of use is to stay with the body sensations triggered by an activated nervous system. Think of it as physiotherapy for the nervous system. Be curious about the pure sensations, without jumping to interpretation, meaning or conclusions. If you find yourself in your head, problem solving or assigning blame etc, gently come back to the body sensation.

The normal tendency is for an activated nervous system to immediately trigger a reaction (ie – fight or flight). We move so quickly to action that we miss the actual sensation, the in-body experience of nervous system arousal. Slow the process down and notice it directly. Stay with the sensations.

An activated nervous system can be extremely uncomfortable. We instinctively want to be rid of this discomfort. This is why we reflexively lash out, shut down or distract ourselves. I’m asking you to practice not doing these things. Instead, simply notice the feeling of an activated nervous system, of anxiety, and stay with it, without doing anything about it, without trying to get relief. It’s hard, but it won’t kill you. Don’t move to step three until you’re intimate with the feeling, with the direct sensation.

Next, attend to it

Once you get used to what anxiety feels like in your body, once you can name the sensations an activated nervous system triggers (“Throat tight.” “Face hot.”) you can start attending to it. But don’t rush to this step. It’s important to build some capacity for discomfort before doing anything about it. Slowing down is key.

When you feel ready, start relaxing your nervous system directly using conscious breathing. Throat tight? Breathe. Feel yourself sending relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your throat. Face hot? Breathe. Send relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your face. Breathe into the places that are tight, contracted, or fired up. Also, notice if you have an impulse toward movement. Perhaps your hands want to cradle your face or stroke your throat. Perhaps your hand floats to your chest. Go ahead and follow those impulses.

There’s nothing fancy about this. Don’t worry about doing it just right. What’s important is slowing down, breathing, and feeling the sensations directly – without flying into reaction, decision making or problem solving. If there are thoughts, just notice them. Then come back to the sensations and soothe yourself with breath and touch. This practice can be quite profound. Tears are not uncommon. Rage and other strong emotions can also show up.

If you stay with the sensations of anxiety directly, tension eventually tends to soften, and then the mental chatter and negative thoughts also calm down. You’re practicing having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This awareness practice, sometimes called mindfulness, gets us out of the “loops” in our head. From here, new possibilities can emerge.

Recap – Managing anxiety in three steps

  1. Notice what anxiety feels like in your body. Name it – “Throat tight” etc.
  2. Stay with the feeling in your body. Don’t jump to action or conclusions.
  3. Attend to the sensations directly. Breathe into the places that are affected.

Nervous system arousal and the resulting discomfort of anxiety are facts of life for all mammals, and are normal human experiences. Our goal isn’t to get rid of anxiety, repress it, or cut it off, but rather to expand our awareness and tolerance of it so that it holds less power over us. The three-step practice above is one that I use with clients in session and that I teach for home use. Feel free to experiment and adjust it to suit you. Like practicing any new skill or exercising any muscle, results come with time. Be patient and kind with yourself. Small steps can have a big impact.

[Note – While we all experience anxiety to some degree, it can be overwhelming for those who suffer from unresolved trauma. Those who suffer from trauma induced anxiety (PTSD) can try the steps above, but may find themselves too hyper-sensitive or prone to dissociation to manage their experience effectively. These people should consider working with a therapist skilled in somatic processing and body-centred trauma therapy.]

Also read – The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my new book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2

Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

Like Justice Schanfarber on Facebook

Sign up to get my articles by email –

Want to share this article? Use the buttons below.

Counselling Articles

Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral nature of growth – Why dual impulses are natural, “good” advice is relative, and one person’s poison is another person’s balm

Dilemmas, confusion and the spiral path of growthTwo basic impulses –

Virtually every message that tells us how to live has one thing in common. It champions one or the other of two fundamental dual impulses. One is the impulse to merge – to connect or be one with another, an orientation toward “other”. The other is the impulse to separate – to be autonomous, an individual, an orientation toward “self”. These two impulses, or “sides” of ourselves appear everywhere in our lives as polar opposites –

  • Hold on vs Let go
  • Trust yourself vs Trust others
  • Take charge vs Surrender
  • Stay the course vs Embrace change
  • Try more vs Try less
  • Listen to your head vs Listen to your heart
  • Take vs Give
  • Rational vs Emotional
  • Simplicity vs Complexity
  • Individual vs Group
  • Self control vs Self expression

At various life stages we will each, rightly, favour one impulse over the other. Over the course of a lifetime, we will likely change how we orient to these two impulses many times over. We may also simultaneously favour one impulse in one aspect of our lives, and the opposite in another. Cultural biases, gender roles, personality patterns and other factors all have a role in shaping the process.

The trouble with advice - yin yangNeither impulse is essentially better or worse than the other. In fact, each ultimately holds the seed of its opposite. (The yin/yang symbol illustrates this beautifully.) We all align with each impulse at different times in our lives because we have developmental tasks that call on either “togetherness” or “separateness” at each stage of life. Each of these tasks is associated with one side or the other of the two poles. We move back and forth between poles as we mature, honing one, then the other. Head, then heart. Self, then other. Hold on, then let go. As we successfully attend to one aspect of our development and then the other, our expressions of each become more mature, and we become more healthy and whole, with greater capacity to appreciate and respond to all that life hands us.

As we fulfill the developmental tasks associated with one pole, it will miraculously, sometimes painfully, give way to the other. A client, Christopher, was stifled by extremely strict parents as a child. When he came to see me he was face to face with the task of finding his own self expression, his own voice. It was awkward and messy for a while. He hurt people around him and created chaos as he learned to un-censor himself. Eventually, as he fulfilled his task sufficiently, life began providing clues that it was time to orient back toward self-control, self-discipline. But this new version of control/discipline was different from the version that had been inflicted on him as a child. It was of a higher level, healthier. This illustrates an important point – Each pole has a spectrum of expressions that can be seen as more healthy or mature on the “higher” end, and less healthy or mature on the “lower” end. Imagine moving up a spiral as you mature through your life. You move around the spiral from one side to another (self then other, independence then connection) but each revolution also moves you to a higher level. Thus, a six year old’s expression of self, or other, will (hopefully!) be different from a sixty year old’s.

Gaining maturity and developing healthier relationships to both sides of ourselves allows us to loosen our grip on a particular point of view. Our self-righteousness relaxes. We experience greater flexibility and choice in our beliefs and our actions. Our relationships improve. Eventually, through hard-won experience and insight, the dual nature of the poles begins to dissolve. The rigidity of either/or gives way to the flexibility of both/and. Self AND other. Freedom AND responsibility. Connection AND autonomy. Contradiction gives way to its wise elder, paradox. Until this happens, we have a tendency to reject the parts of ourselves, and others, that represent the other side of the spiral from where we currently reside. If we’re presently tasked with growing the cooperative, generous, other-oriented side of our self, we’re likely to be biased against self-reliance and independence in all its forms, seeing them as “selfish”. If, instead, we happen to be currently developing healthier levels of individuation and self-orientation, we might view acts of generosity as manipulative, and all urges for connection as weakness or co-dependency.

A recent marriage and relationship article I wrote sparked intense response and debate from readers on both sides of the poles. For readers longing for deeper connection, the article was balm… a deep soulful YES. For those currently orienting toward the value of independence, the message felt toxic and untrue. While both poles are ultimately valid and important (in marriages and in all aspects of life) the messages we get can feel alternately challenging or validating depending on which pole we currently favour, and how healthy or mature our own expressions of “togetherness” and “separateness” are.

Here’s a scenario to further illustrate the point –
A new client comes to see me. They feel perpetually stuck in a co-dependent relationship pattern. Through therapy we discover that they feel torn between a familiar (but tired) impulse for togetherness, and an emerging (but frightening) impulse for autonomy. Are they being called to cross the pole over to independence? Or are they ready to explore a more mature form of togetherness? Should they leave their co-dependent relationship? Or should they attempt to transform it?

The core dilemma for each of us, at any juncture, is essentially this – Do I now focus on healthier expressions of my current orientation, or is it time to cross the spiral? More simply – Take this path further, or take a different path? We’re wise to be wary of simplistic, universal answers to this question.

It’s useful to remember that the inner compass that provides direction to our lives is not merely a product of applied willpower and rationality (forces well sanctioned and preferred by our culture), but rather arises from some deeper congruence of body, mind and spirit. Unconscious aspects of our path may remain hidden from us until we are ripe to recognize them. Many useful tools, insight practices and wisdom traditions are available to help ripen us in this regard. Jungians work with archetypes, myth and dreams. The enneagram provides a map based on different personality types. Attachment theory and family constellations therapy help us understand appropriate boundaries and developmental timelines. Cognitive and narrative therapies help clients piece together congruent views of self and others through examining beliefs in the face of evidence. In Hakomi we use mindfulness to notice those subtle aspects of our experience which point toward the next step of our healing, growth and integration.

Choose whichever tools suit you, take advice with a grain of salt, and be prepared to change your focus many times as you move between dual impulses on your life path.

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my new book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2

Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

Like Justice Schanfarber on Facebook

Sign up to get my articles by email –

Want to share this article? Use the buttons below.