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“Come to Christmas Day yoga with me,” my friend said. “It’ll be fun!”

I imagined welcoming the new year doing graceful chest openers in a near-empty class (because Christmas), wringing out the kinks from all the hours of sitting. I envisioned deep forward bends, reflecting on the year that was coming to a close. “I’m in,” I said.

“Don’t worry about bringing your mat,” she advised.

As it turns out, Christmas Day yoga at Semperviva = Christmas Day ecstatic dancing. The spacious yoga room pulsated with jumping, swaying, twirling bodies. Instead of the soundtrack of a lone sitar, the playlist beat out everything from Abba to disco Christmas music. The attendees – who ranged from dreadlocked free spirits to middle aged librarian-types – bounced and boogied un-self-consciously. I was right in there – I love a good dance session.

“Turn to the person closest to you, and lock hands,” the radiant instructor on the stage in the front of the room announced. And this is how I found myself doing a series of squats with the mustachioed fellow next to me, palms pressed together in the air. In this form, it’s impossible to not make prolonged eye contact. This rigamarole seemed to last forever, but I am told it was about ninety seconds. Ninety seconds of über awkwardness (for me, that is. My gracious partner seemed A-OK with this moment of forged intimacy).

Vulnerability sounds great – but it is anxiety provoking

My discomfort from this interlude was easy enough to rationalise (touching a sweaty stranger is not everyone’s cup of tea). Still, it led me to muse about vulnerability, exposure, and connection.

“Only connect!” E.M. Forster commanded. I take this edict seriously, personally, and professionally. I connect with my clients – their insecurities, pain and longings. Together, we cobble together a connection to the parts of themselves that have been sent into exile, allowing them to experience more authenticity and connection in their relationships.

The privilege and responsibility of sitting across from another person and being privy to a cross section of their inner life is one that I don’t take lightly. Like any therapist worth their salt, I’ve sat on a chair in someone else’s office, and it is exposing! I appreciate how vulnerable that first session can be, and how important it is to make a genuine connection early on so that we can build the relational capital necessary to engage authentically in our work together. I deeply value that first session – but that squirmy pas à deux reminded me how exposing it might feel for my client.

How we protect ourselves when we feel anxiety

It’s one thing to feel tense and insecure around someone you seldom cross paths with. But relationships with friends, family and colleagues, too, can provoke discomfort. When these relationships are strained, we tend to feel jumpy and tense, or shut down and dismissive. From these positions, it is impossible to be open and receptive –  we need to feel trust and safety to buttress the risk of being candid and transparent. When we feel uneasy, attacked, or not in control, we automatically manoeuvre to buffer our discomfort. Detachment, sarcasm, feigned indifference, one-upping, criticism, withdrawal, blaming…there is an arsenal of armour to help us stave off relational anxiety.

Sometimes, connection is the most natural thing in the world. And sometimes, connection is really hard.

Here’s one thing that I’ve noticed: when we experience disconnection with someone close to us, we sometimes (often) offload it. “My husband never talks to me,” someone might say. “My boss is so toxic,” another person laments. “He’s narcissistic…she’s a whiner…he’s smug…she’s obnoxious.” There is always a hook on which we can hang our difficult responses to others. As it happens, though, we have limited access to another person’s true motivations, let alone the ability to change them.

My awkward Christmas Day yoga encounter really was pretty tame (and might have been a bit of a ruse to get your attention). Still, for a fleeting moment, I wanted to bolt. This, of course, had way more to do with me (leftover baggage from being a self conscious teenager) than it did with the affable bloke I was paired with.

Do the opposite of what anxiety wants you to do

Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary-general of the UN, once famously said, “Life only demands from you the strength that you possess. Only one feat is possible: not to run away.”

Anxiety wants one thing, and one thing only: it wants you to avoid. The only way out of the infinity loop of emotions, anxiety, and defensive reaction is to acknowledge the feelings and needs beneath the anxiety, and make choices formed by our needs and values, rather than being servile to our anxieties. Of course, this caring and curious exploration inwards is not the whole of the story – it’s a place we visit, again and again that can guide us to the decision of “what to do about it.” You can still be assertive, set boundaries, and even disengage. But, there is a world of difference between doing this in the spirit of conscious choice, rather than defensively.

You can bet that in my life, as in yours, I am frequently navigating the channels of easy connections, complicated connections, and disconnections. Blaming that bothersome other is tempting! And while I have my lapses, I am now more inclined to lean in, with curiosity, and wonder, “what ‘old stuff’ has this person or situation dug into?” Something about naming it takes away some of its power.

Why talking to someone helps

There is one thing I haven’t mentioned yet: blind spots. We all have them! Blind spots prevent us from being able to see our own patterns clearly. Fortunately, there are ways to facilitate our recognition of our sensitivities and triggers. Mindful awareness,  understanding our attachment style, and self-compassion –  cornerstones of my practice – are instrumental in this regard. Talking to people helps tremendously. To this end, I can’t resist a shout out to counselling and therapy, a valuable opportunity to drill down into your struggles in the non-judgmental company of a skilled professional.

Are you currently struggling with connection in your relationships? Feel free to reach out to us to share more – we would love to hear from you!

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.