Intimacy: Too Close for Comfort?
“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.” – Pema Chodron
For many years, I kept people at an emotional distance. I didn’t realise this at the time. Subconsciously, I believed that if I didn’t let myself get too close to someone then it wouldn’t hurt me when they left. If I didn’t let them get too close to me then they would never really know me, so when they did reject me, it wasn’t really me they were rejecting, because they did not get to know the “real me”. People that were generally interested in me were to be avoided, because they would want to get too close and that I just couldn’t risk, even though this was the type of relationship I said I wanted all along. Having experienced and worked my way out to the other side, I can empathise fully with clients who come to me, expressing the same kind of fear.
I believe that this way of thinking is something that is learnt early in childhood as a means of protection. We learned how to interact with the world through our interactions with our parents and other caregivers. If we couldn’t trust them, then we couldn’t trust anyone fully. We learned to keep people at arm’s length, because the more someone meant to us the more power they had to hurt us, so it was safer to care from behind an emotional shield of protection. This was our coping mechanism; our strategy for dealing with intimacy.
During my twenties (prior to training as a therapist), I believed that I was truly caring and had a big heart. I thought that I wasn’t the one with the problem in my relationships and that I was normal. The truth was that I would choose partners that were selfish, with lots of baggage so that the focus would always be on them and what was wrong with them. In Transactional Analysis, we call this the Game of “Blemish”. That was my favourite Game. Why did I do this? Quite simply, so that I didn’t have to feel uncomfortable with me or deal with my own drama. Dealing with my own fear of intimacy was never even something I considered as one of my issues. Through my own therapy and the deeper that I progressed on my journey, the more I learned about myself and the more proof I found. This fear is a huge obstacle and it’s what keeps people locked into making the same relationship choices.
I’ve watched clients with whom I have previously worked run for the hills when someone liked them too much, or too soon. I’ve watched them blow cold when someone they initially chased, was getting too close. I’ve seen the same clients sabotage a relationship that for all intents and purposes looked like it was developing into something good, citing one or two trivial reasons as to why it could never work. When it comes to intimacy, we can be full of uncertainty and anxiety, with no clue what to do, how to act, or how to control emotions.
In my experience, I have found that people who fear intimacy share similar behaviours. They include:
- Gravitating towards people that blow hot and cold
- Preferring long distance relationships
- Avoiding people that seem genuinely interested in you
- Difficulty trusting people when it comes to love
- Feeling uncomfortable when the focus is on you
- Volatile or tempestuous relationships
- An inner conflict of needing to be loved and a need to be alone where it’s safe
- A deep rooted belief that no one has ever truly loved you
- Feeling unlovable
- Fearing someone will see your flaws and judge you to be lacking in some way
- Preferring to be alone a lot
- You may struggle with letting any romantic partner truly in to get to know the real you
The good thing about a fear of intimacy is that it can be overcome. It is a coping mechanism, something you learned to protect yourself. The key to overcoming is to understand and feel that it is now outdated in your here and now relationships. A little insecurity is normal when we enter into the unknown of a new relationship, but it should never be so intense that it keeps you from letting someone in.
Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable was a luxury that many of us may not have had in childhood, so we instead learned to shut that part of us down and disassociate from it. Being able to love and be loved fully means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. It means taking the right steps in new relationships – taking things slowly, getting to know someone before allowing yourself to get emotionally or physically attached. It is paying attention to red flags and acting appropriately to things that cause concern. It is watching how your potential partner reacts to your boundaries. Above all, it is about being okay with you, paying attention to your feelings, your needs and your wants and always making them a priority. When all of those T’s are crossed, it’s about opening up and slowly letting someone in. The more they show that they are trustworthy, with words and actions that match and are consistent, then the more you can begin to trust them.
I have found that the more you begin to love yourself the easier it becomes to let someone in, because you stop fearing the rejection so much and you’re less concerned with what other people think of you. When you love yourself you stop being afraid to let people see the real you, because you’ve already figured out that the real you is pretty fantastic