We long for deep, intimate connection—to be seen and heard and known—yet we all have fear of intimacy.
We get trapped in old limiting roles and behaviors that keep us distant from our partners...and ourselves.
Intimacy can be very scary! When we are intimate we let another person in to our personal space and we can feel exposed and vulnerable. Especially when we've opened up in the past and gotten hurt. Most of us have difficulty with intimacy because of past hurts.
Some say our biggest fear is that of we really open up and expose ourselves we will be rejected. And this fear becomes our biggest block to real intimacy.
Our fear is sometimes hard to admit--we see the problem as the other person's behavior, or attitude or constitution. If only they would shape up everything would be better!
If as a child we were shamed, ridiculed, embarrassed or hurt, our sense of self may be damaged and in need of healing. This can lead to, as adults, having difficulty identifying our feelings. It can lead to judging ourselves harshly, and also, judging others harshly, or by impossible standards.
And it is why we may have fear of intimacy, difficulty trusting others and being truly vulnerable in love relationships:
- We may feel unworthy of love and not “good enough.” Inside we may feel defective or broken. This is sometimes named "toxic shame."
- We may yearn for the approval of others to the point where we compromise our own values. We may have abandoned ourselves in trying to avoid rejection or searching for approval.
- Because of childhood wounding, we are afraid of being vulnerable and exposed, so we defend against it by putting up walls. And these walls become difficult-to-penetrate barriers that limit our emotional expression. What we created to protect us now limits us.
We’re caught in a bind of wanting deep connection, yet having a fear of intimacy.
Sometimes our fear of intimacy shows up as conflict. We can get locked into Who Did What When stories until we no longer see or hear our partners anymore. In trying to protect ourselves we blame our partner.
We may think we see and hear our partner, but what we see and hear is our projection, projected from our past.
Our partners get stuck in the story we project onto them. And we get stuck in theirs.
When one partner tries to break free of the old pattern, the other partner says something or does something that brings them right back to the stuck place. It's challenging to get out of these old patterns.
A relationship or marriage that just a while ago felt “Made in Heaven” gets trapped in “Hell.”
How can we break out of this difficult dance?
As a psychotherapist and retreat leader, I work with individuals and couples to break free of old patterns of fear of intimacy.
In my experience, the number one best path to increasing intimacy with your partner is to become more intimate with yourself. That's the way out of the projection dance, and a way into healing emotions. Let me explain.
We often see the problem as out there in the other person, but "out there" is a reflection of our inside experience. It may look to you and feel like the other person is the problem.
In reality they are just the way they are. If we cannot accept them as they are then we have a problem. And if we can't feel okay until they change then we are stuck.
(An exception to this is violence. If our partner is causing us or another person physical harm then we need to get help right away. Or if we are threatening harm to another then we need to get help right away.)
It is wise to start with yourself.
But in reality, it is often easier to blame another than look at ourselves.
We don't want to feel vulnerable--it's an uncomfortable feeling and is usually associated with past pain. So to be intimate with another means being open and safe with ourselves first, and that usually involves some work.
Perhaps the hardest task is to see ourselves without fear, shame and judgment. When we can do this, then we can let another person truly see us. And we clear out the old hidden story within us that we are unworthy of being seen and loved.
We come to realize that our fear of intimacy has to do with intimacy with ourselves, loving ourselves, first!
Try this building intimacy exercise with yourself:
Find a mirror that you can see your whole face in. Prepare yourself by relaxing and taking a few breaths. Continue to breath deeply throughout the exercise.
Now look into the eyes you see in the mirror. Take this person in, all of you. Really behold the one you see. Be curious and really look deep. Can you give unconditional love to this person? How does that feel?
Now (and this is often the hardest part) see that other you looking back at you. Let yourself be seen. Open up to those eyes and feel what this is like.
Let yourself be vulnerable, open, present. Let yourself be loved. If it is difficult, if you feel tears or other emotions, stay with it as long as you comfortably can. Remember to breath.
Take it another step. Smile at the one you see in the mirror. And open to receive the glow from that smile. Let it warm you all over. Say to this person, "I love you." Let that in.
Pause and absorb all that has happened. You are healing yourself of fear of intimacy.
What was that exercise like for you?
The first and most primary skill of loving is to see.
Some people have suggested that intimacy is really “In To Me See.” When you can let yourself be seen, the walls drop off.
Then you can look at another person and see them without story, without projections. Most of the time we don't really see others. And as the mirror exercise may have shown you, it's often hard to really see and love ourselves.
People hardly look at and see each other. We don't want to be too intimate...that can feel frightening.
As we learn to be more intimate with ourselves we can be more available to see and be seen.
People have built up so many blocks to intimacy that they have difficulty feeling safe and opening up with their partners. This is especially true when there have been emotional wounding in the past. Individual and couple counseling can be extremely useful in helping people heal old wounding.
Try the mirror exercise a few times over the next few days and practice seeing yourself and being seen. When you feel ready, begin to practice seeing your partner.
Start gently, with fresh eyes. Rather than talk about the exercise that you did, tell your partner what you see of them, in that moment. With fresh eyes behold their beauty.To look at another person and see them without story, without projections. Most of the time we don't really see others. And as the mirror exercise may have shown you, it's often hard to really see and love ourselves.
The most rapid and effective method I know of working through fear of intimacy is through the intensive group experience of one of our emotional healing retreats.
These safe and highly supportive events are rich journeys of self discovery that go well beyond one-on-one work of psychotherapy. I’ve found them extremely effective at healing past pain, increasing self esteem and helping people open to deeper intimacy with themselves and others.
Our Working Through Grief and Other Difficult Emotions retreat is limited to 11 participants. It is held at rural locations in New England and California.
At these events you learn how to live into Skills of Loving that can immediately change your relationships by helping you connect more deeply and intimately.
If you would like to learn more about our retreats or counseling work, contact me using the form below.
Jon Terrell offers psychotherapy focusing on fear of intimacy, anxiety and emotional healing at his office in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts and in downtown Manhattan, New York City. For more information or if you have a question, contact him using the form below.
Jon Terrell, M.A., L.M.T.
25 Main Street, Suite #342