Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, intimacy refers to the “state of being intimate,” and to “things of personal, private manner.” What comes to your mind when I say “intimate?”
Most of us, equate “intimate” with something of private, romantic, or sexual nature. Being intimate, in the most fundamental way, implies awareness of what is going on deeply inside of us. Being intimate with others, means letting someone close enough to let them see our true needs, wants, and feelings.
When we acknowledge and embrace our desire to be known, this may feel risky, even incredibly scary.
As a result, we use avoidance strategies to hide who we really are. Although these strategies can successfully keep us protected from being hurt, in the long run, they sabotage our relationships and leave us feeling lonely.
What are some of the signs that we are afraid of intimacy?
- Inability to be alone. When we are alone, in solitude, we have the opportunity to be truly present with ourselves. Running away from this experience, by being busy all the time, or being constantly surrounded by others, can be a sign that we are afraid of being in touch with difficult truths and experiences within ourselves.
- Not knowing what we want or how we feel. If we do not know what is truly private and personal to ourselves, it will be very difficult to let others “see us.” Knowing ourselves intimately is the first step in achieving true interpersonal intimacy.
- Putting “psychological walls” between us and others. Most of us are not aware of these tactical walls that we use to protect ourselves, and not feel anxious. These walls come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and for the most part are unintentional, unconscious, and automatic (avoiding eye contact, lack of emotion, devaluation, detachment, being overly rational). However, sometimes psychological walls are also used intentionally.
- Chronic history of failed relationships or no relationships. Sometimes we are unaware of using the above mentioned psychological walls, until a relationship fails. If we have a long-standing history of relationships failures, or if we are not able to form meaningful relationships, this could be an indication that we may be using some self-defeating habits in our interaction with others.
- Feeling anxious or fearful in the presence of others. Fears of intimacy can also be experienced more directly in our bodies (feeling uncomfortable, nervous, shortness of breath, tension), or in our minds (fears that the other will reject who we are, devalue our wishes, feelings, or wants). This experience of anxiety is what usually leads us to use defensive strategies (walls).
There are many other ways in which fear of intimacy manifests, usually in the form of a symptoms (depression, anxiety, infidelity, addictions).
What steps can we take to address our fears of intimacy?
The first step if we want to change our patterns of behavior is to fully accept that there is something we are in the position to change. We can only change ourselves and take responsibility for what we can change in ourselves. Changing is a lot easier, when we do it out of self-compassion and self-love, with an open and curious stance, instead of self-criticism and other shame-producing strategies.
If we are not sure of what are the mechanisms that are getting in our way or interfering with our relationship goals, working with a therapist is likely to be very helpful. Therapy is not a place where we go to get advice. For less money, we can get that advice from books. Therapy is helpful because it is a process where we can observe those self-defeating walls in action, and we can practice new ways of being in a relationship (with ourselves and others) that are aligned with our life goals. In therapy, we can also learn more about what makes us anxious and scared, and ways to regulate our anxiety.
Once we can recognize our walls, and once we decide that is time for us to take them down, practicing outside of the therapy session is important. Practice any exercise that helps you reduce your anxiety, and practice the “non-habitual.” For instance, if gaze avoidance is your main wall, practice eye contact for short periods of time, and increase the duration of contact with time, until you no longer feel anxious. If shutting down is your wall, bring awareness to the desire to withdraw (compassionately), and practice sharing something with the other.
Remember that these walls that we use as adults to protect ourselves, were important for a good reason while we were growing up (see previous blog on attachment styles). However, if they are now interfering with your life goals, it is time to let them go and find new ways to love yourself and others.