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How to Stay Calm at the Altar

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How do you stay calm at the altar? I'll tell you the secret: not only how to stay calm at the altar but also how to have a truly joyous wedding day. After counseling thousands of women over the last 14 years through their engagements, I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty what it takes to be a blissful bride. But first I'm going to tell you what most women do that nearly ensures that they'll be a wreck at their wedding.

Most women believe that the engagement is the time to plan their wedding. Sounds logical, right? You get engaged and within hours you set a date, book the location, secure a photographer, set up your wedding website, and begin making the countless lists of details that, when checked, will secure a fabulous wedding day. Most women focus on the externals -- the flowers, the dress, the rings, the colors -- believing the cultural message that has been told to them them since they were little girls that a perfect wedding translates into a perfect marriage and a perfect life. They're not consciously thinking about this equation; they don't have to since every media message has inundated them with this false belief, and as soon as they pick up a bridal magazine, the message is reinforced: If you plan a perfect wedding, you will look beautiful on your wedding day and live happily ever after.

The message is a lie, and I'll tell you why: a beautiful wedding and a calm bride actually have nothing do with perfect centerpieces. Who remembers the centerpieces two weeks after the wedding? When you think of the beautiful weddings you've attended in your life, do you remember the color of the napkins? Do you even recall what the bride's dress looked like? Not likely. A calm bride and a beautiful wedding are about what's happening emotionally, inside the bride and between the couple. When the bride is connected to herself and her partner, everybody feels it. We love weddings not because they're externally beautifully affairs but because they remind us of the highest aspects of ourselves, they fill us with hope, they elevate us to a realm slightly outside our normal, daily existence, and quite simply, they open our hearts to love.

And yet we tell women to spend their engagements obsessively focused on planning a perfect day. We guide them down a path that usually results in disconnecting from themselves and their partners, spending a boatload of money, and showing up on the wedding day looking like a ghost of themselves. The reasons for the perpetuation of this lie extend beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say what everyone intuitively knows: when you fall prey to the cultural pitfalls and turn into bridezilla, you create misery for yourself and everyone around you and do nothing to prepare yourself or your partner for a beautiful day and, far more importantly, a healthy foundation on which to begin your marriage.

So what's the antidote? What's the secret to a calm bride and truly beautiful day? The secret is fourfold:

1. Remember that the engagement, while on one level is a time to plan your wedding, is really about doing the emotional work that will allow you to transition healthfully into marriage. This means allowing yourself to feel grief that your single lifestyle and identity is over, fear about the unknown and uncertainty of marriage, vulnerability of opening your heart to the biggest commitment you've ever made, and a host of other uncomfortable feelings. Is it joyous and exciting as well? Absolutely! But for the sensitive soul, for someone who has struggled with transitions in the past and is no stranger to fear, grief, and anxiety, you will have to make room for these culturally undesirable feelings if you're going to experience joy and excitement.

2. Stay connected to your intention about your wedding day choices. Are you planning a wedding to impress others or to prove something to yourself or your community? Or are you planning a wedding as an expression of your and your partner's values and love? Planning a wedding can be a highly creative experience, but only if your intention is to express yourself instead of prove yourselves.

3. Stay connected to your fiancé. If it's not about the two of you, what is it about? Many women become so obsessed by the planning that their groom becomes an accessory in the whole affair. What I like to remind brides-to-be is that the only thing that truly matters on your wedding day is that both of you show up, not only physically but emotionally as well. If you spend your entire engagement obsessing about planning the perfect event, you're going to feel completely disconnected from yourself on your wedding day and you're going to look at your groom like he's a stranger. Is that really how you want to feel? The details are simply the container designed to hold the two of you as you transform from dating partners to husband and wife and celebrate your union. In other words, the details are the accessories, not your groom.

4. On your wedding day, let yourself feel whatever feeling arises. Wear waterproof eye makeup so that you can cry when you need to cry without worrying about your face! When you try to stuff the tears because "happy brides don't cry on their wedding day", you stuff the joy as well and end up looking and feeling like a zombie. It's normal to feel sad that your single life is ending! It's normal to feel sad when you let go of your dad's hand at the end of the aisle or when you dance with him at the reception! It's normal to feel scared, anxious, and numb as well. If you attach onto any of these "negative" feelings as meaning that there's something wrong, then judge them and push them down, you create a wall around your heart which doesn't allow the joy and calm to enter either. The wedding day, like all transitions, in a microcosm of life, so expect to feel every emotion times a hundred, allowing them all to flow through you so that you can be present to experience one of the most joyous days of your life.

If you follow these suggestions, which sound simple when outlined as a four-step process but are actually a 180 degree departure from the mainstream model that seduces you at every turn to externalize your motives and pursue perfection, you will find the true calm and bliss on your wedding day that you're seeking.

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Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at http://conscious-transitions.com. And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of the Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity.