Saturday, February 10, 2007

Personal Story: There is No Fear in Love

Before I suffered from an agoraphobia many of my relationships were based on fear. I feared the disapproval and rejection of the people that mattered most. I was afraid of not meeting my parents’ expectations for me in the classroom. I was afraid of not meeting my own expectations in sports. I was afraid of not meeting the expectations of my peers and getting rejected at school. Worst of all, growing up in a religious family, I feared the disapproval and rejection of God.

When I was suffering from agoraphobia, hiding in my house every day, and afraid to go outside and suffering from relentless panic attacks, one night I turned to the Bible for help. It fell open to these words.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. - 1 John 4:16,18

These words helped change my life.

Like many agoraphobia sufferers, I was prone to feeling an excessive need to please others and an equally strong need to win their approval by living up to their expectations (or what I thought they expected of me). I feared losing relationships if I failed to meet certain expectations. Fear of losing relationships caused me a lot of anxiety.

To overcome the anxiety that comes with needing to please people and fearing rejection, I traded my fear-based relationships for relationships based on unconditional love.

When I first read the words of the Bible passage above, I took them at face value. Plainly and simply, they told me that God loved me and that if I let God love me there wouldn’t be so much room for fear in my life. I didn’t need to fear God’s judgment or worry about what God thought of me.

Please understand that this passage meant a lot to me because somewhere in my religious upbringing I had understood God as someone that could be angry with me and might punish me for something if I didn't do everything right.

God's unconditional love spilled over into my relationships with others. As I gained confidence that God loved me, I was able to love and accept myself. I became less needy for the approval of others. I still wanted to please others. I just wasn’t motivated by anxiety from a fear of being rejected. I was just motivated to share God's love.

I stopped feeling the anxiety of trying to get love from other people and started feeling the joy of giving love. With God's love in my life, there was plenty of love to go around.

Besides changing my orientation in relationships, I also made some changes in my closest, most significant relationships. I replaced fear-based relationships with relationships based on unconditional love. In some cases, as with my parents, I changed the nature of existing relationships. In other cases, I had to replace old relationships with new ones.

Feeling loved by God, loving myself, and loving other people was very freeing. I began to surround myself with people who really loved and accepted me for who I am, people for whom I didn’t have to constantly perform to earn their approval. My most significant relationships no longer produced anxiety.

Do you need to change your relationships?

If your relationships with others are based on fear of what might happen if you did not live up to their expectations for you, then it is time to make some changes.

You may need to have some serious talks with people in your life and tell them directly that you will no longer live according to their expectations for you. (Be nice when you do this). You may need to cut some people out of your life altogether. You may need to surround yourself with more loving and accepting people.

Ultimately, when I experienced unconditional love and build most of my relationships upon it, some funny things happened. I began living with the security of being loved no matter how I performed. I was free to trade the anxiety of trying to constantly win the love of others for the satisfaction of offering love to others.

When I focused on giving to others in relationships rather than trying to get it, I wasn't as needy, and my fears of disapproval and rejection faded away with my anxiety.

Here is a truth that has helped me live free from agoraphobia for nearly twenty years:
Where there is perfect, unconditional love, there is a lot less room for fear.

How to Offer Unconditional Love and Acceptance to Someone with Agoraphobia

If you want to be an effective support person for someone with agoraphobia, your first job will be to establish a relationship of unconditional love and acceptance with the person who is suffering.

It can be tricky to offer a loving, accepting relationship with a friend or loved one with agoraphobia, even if you had a good relationship with them before.
However, It is important to build this type of relationship before you start trying to help someone with agoraphobia. A safe, supportive relationship of unconditional love and acceptance can be therapeutic, and is the vehicle through which real help can be offered.

Unconditional love and acceptance is much needed by those of us who suffer from agoraphobia because we are often self-critical and have a hard time accepting ourselves. Its even harder to accept yourself when you have agoraphobia and can't function normally. That is why it is so important to have people who accept us no matter what we do or go through. Experiencing the acceptance of others helps us to accept ourselves.Offering unconditional acceptance means being non-judgmental and non-critical.

It means not thinking of agoraphobia and the behaviors that go with it in terms of good and bad or right and wrong. It means not putting the person down or voicing disapproval when they do things you don't understand. It means letting the person know that you love them, care about them, and will not abandon them whether or not they recover from agoraphobia.

Offering unconditional acceptance means not only accepting the person with agoraphobia but accepting the condition of agoraphobia as well - at least for the time being. It means not trying to fix them all the time, refraining from constantly offering advice or suggestions, and not needing to always correct their irrational thinking. It means being able to relax and have fun with them - and talk to them about subjects other than what they need to be doing to get well. It means being willing to let the agoraphobic act agoraphobic - not that you don't want to help them get well - just that there is no pressure from you to hurry in doing so. Nobody wants to feel like a project or like they are letting someone down if they aren't getting better fast enough.

People with agoraphobia need people around them who accept them just as they are. Just like someone suffering from a physical illness or injury - it takes time to heal. If you are able to show your loved one with agoraphobia that you will love and care for them without conditions and will stand by them through the ups and downs - you will have taken a big, first step towards building a relationship with them that will contribute to their recovery from agoraphobia.

Note: Offering unconditional love and acceptance does not mean enabling someone. Part of your job as a support person is to help them find their own motivation to recover. To read more on this topic, click here.

Agoraphobia Recovery: What Does Love Have to Do With It?

Actually, love has a lot to do with recovering from agoraphobia and there may be a biological basis for this. In a book entitled "A Complete Guide to Your Emotions and Your Health," Emirika Padus and the editors of Prevention Magazine suggest that when you feel loved, you experience a healthy biological reaction in your body's cells, similar to the effect of a good diet or exercise.

Dr. Bernard Siegel, who wrote "Love, Medicine, and Miracles," was quoted as saying "I am convinced that unconditional love is the most powerful known stimulant of the immune system. The truth is, love heals." Dr. Siegel is talking here about two kinds of unconditional love - both self-love and the love of another person. He believes that if you love yourself and are in a strong loving relationship, your chances of recovery are better and you can get through almost anything.

If you are a support person for someone with agoraphobia, your unconditional love may be the most powerful gift you can give someone who suffers from this dreadful psychological ailment. I am writing to encourage you by letting you know that your love and acceptance of a person with agoraphobia is vital.

As someone who recovered from agoraphobia, I know this firsthand. My parents, who were the support people who loved me through my disorder, were at times the only people I had contact with and my only link to the world outside the dark, isolated environment of the bedroom I hid in for the better part of two years.