Fear of Intimacy and the Child Inside

I was recently discussing with a woman her current “man trouble.” Her very serious boyfriend of two years was pulling back, lashing out in anger over imaginary slights, and accusing her of being too needy, too much of a drama queen.

She had been in tears for weeks, having exhausted every possible angle of approach, thinking, sadly, that she had no other recourse but to end it.

I inquired how things had been just before he started to act distant.

“That’s the crazy thing!” she told me. “Everything was going great! We were talking about moving in together. It really seemed as if we’d gotten beyond so many of our past issues.”

Then, he started to pull away. He was mean, said cruel things. The evening she called me, he had sent her a text message earlier, asking her to call him at a certain time. She was hopeful that they were going to be able to talk things out and turn them around. When she phoned him at the prescribed time, he dismissed her, groggily. “Sorry, I can’t talk. I’m half-asleep.”

She was gob-smacked! Of course she felt hurt, surprised, angry, rejected, and manipulated. She reacted organically and vocally to those feelings.

“Why do you always have to be so clingy!?” he snapped at her harshly. “I just can’t deal with your drama right now! I have my own problems!”

“You see! she said. “He accuses me of being dramatic but he’s the one instigating the drama!”

She was in tears, wondering what she had done wrong to make him behave that way. She was mentally going over her own behavior; wondering how she could behave differently to win him back.

The diagnosis seemed obvious: Classic fear of intimacy. (FOI) He was pushing her buttons with his passive-aggressive behavior; instigating her to act out in a way that would make her more easily dismissible. He encouraged her hopes, then smashed them down, and when she cried, he accused her of being too emotional. In this way, he undermined her confidence. Then, when she craved reassurance, he accused her of being “needy” and “clingy.” Now, at last, he had “good reason” to reject her. Making her the fall guy was an expedient way of avoiding his own intimacy issues. She was right – he was the one creating the drama.

The more she told me about him, the more the pattern revealed itself: A period of wonderful closeness and a sense of moving forward in the relationship, followed by retreat – usually with accusations on his part of her neediness, etc.

Here’s what I’ve learned about people with FOI: It’s not they don’t crave deep emotional intimacy. Most of them do, absolutely. But the idea of being so vulnerable strikes a primitive terror deep in their soul. This see-saw between opposing needs governs their lives – and, also, unfortunately, the loves of those who love them.

Usually FOI goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem. The “logic” being: “If I let them see how I really am, they will quickly recognize that I am unworthy of their love, and they will leave me; that would be just too painful and humiliating. It is much safer to keep them at a distance.”

And most of them are not being purposely malicious, even if it sometimes feels that way. They are literally so overcome by fear, they cannot function rationally. They act out in whatever way will protect them most expediently.

The conscious and unconscious minds each speak their own language. Their systems of evaluating and understanding the world are completely different. The unconscious is based deep in the reptilian brain. Its internal “logic” is emotion-based, harmone-driven, heavy on the fear. It reacts at the first whiff of danger – both external and psychological. It’s extremely adept at hiding deep-rooted conflicts from our conscious understanding, because it doesn’t “trust” our conscious mind to protect us properly. I imagine it as a hyper-vigilant child of an alcoholic parent: Its job is to take care of us and protect us from the damage that our careless conscious selves will do: Intoxicated with love!? No, no, no! Must keep you away from the bottle!

The thing to remember is, the unconscious mind always believes it is working in our best interest. It thinks it knows best (and in many cases, it does!). When it regards vulnerability as a danger, it jumps into protect us from it.

Most of us have experienced at least a touch of FOI. We all feel a bit frightened when we start to recognize that we’re falling in love. The stakes are higher; there’s more to lose. The lucky ones are able to push through the fear, and embrace all the joy of true love.

For some however, that fear is crippling.

The exact distance at which others must be kept is different for everyone, but it is strictly monitored by the unconscious mind. Get too close, and the warning bells begin to clang! “Attention! Attention! Danger!” The gates fall; the armed soldiers march into position and the secret psyche is protected. (Likewise, should the romantic partner back away and the distance become too far, the charm kicks in to lure them back.)

These walls ostensibly protect, but in reality of course, they just keep the psyche prisoner.
Many who suffer from FOI are painfully aware of their problem yet despite an intellectual understanding of this ‘automatic response”, they still find themselves unable to alter their reactions/behavior. They may work on this issue, either alone or in therapy, yet each time they make progress, they may find themselves pulled back into to self-defeating behavior. Remember, the unconscious mind is a child! No sooner does the conscious mind understand and conquer one protective behavior, the unconscious mind substitutes another!

While it is frustrating, confusing, and painful for those on the outside trying to get in, it is probably more frustrating, confusing and painful for those who can’t help but protect themselves at any cost. If they cannot find their way through this fear, they must suffer through life without love.

If you are in a relationship with such a person, you may feel confused by the seemingly illogical push-pull. You may not understand contradictory or passive-aggressive behavior. While you may feel deeply emotionally connected to this person, at the same time, you might ask yourself if it’s worth all the pain and disappointment. In staying, you are forced to ride the other’s “fear cycles” so you swing back and forth, between deep love and angry hurt.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to calculate the emotional “cost-benefit” ratio. If you decide to stick it out and keep trying to break through, it can be very useful to have someone help you understand your partner’s behavior and motivations more clearly, so you are not pulled into a passive-aggressive or self-destructive dynamic.

If you need me, I am here!





Are You A Prisoner of Your Own Façade?

Each of us presents a façade to the outside world.  We put on a face to others to make ourselves appear stronger, happier, braver, more secure, more successful and/or more “together” than we feel inside.

We are sometimes required to be amenable to people we don’t like,  but we  put on the “friendly face” because we have to work with them or because they are members of our family or in our extended circle of friends.

This is normal and correct social behavior – in moderation.  We certainly don’t want to parade our insecurities and weaknesses for others to see and perhaps exploit. We don’t want to express every thought or feeling that passes through us.   We need to protect ourselves and sometimes the feelings of others.  Also, simply presenting a brave or happy front often makes us feel better,  as we see that “better” image of ourselves reflected back in the eyes of  others.

We must be careful, however, not to become prisoners of our façades.

Debbie played the “good wife” in an unhappy marriage for so many years,  by the time she was in her mid 50’s,  she didn’t even know who she was any more.  It took a lot of therapy,  many tears and finally a divorce to help her get back in touch with who she really was as a person.

To the world,  Alex is a real ladies’ man.  His credo is “wine, women and song.”   He’s never stayed in a relationship more than a few years, and none of them were exclusive.  Now in his early 40’s,  he feels alienated and lonely.  He has no close friends.  If he were to be totally honest with himself,  he might admit that he would like to be in love; to have a special person in his life; to have an intimate relationship.  His reputation,  unfortunately  precedes him…even with himself.  The façade has become is identity.  He always finds himself attracted to the same kind of women  —  beautiful but mostly shallow;  none of them worthy of commitment – and this frees him from actually having to MAKE a commitment.  To the outside, he’s happy- go-lucky;  inside,  his emotional life is an empty wasteland.

Dan has low self-esteem and inside, feels completely unworthy of the love and respect of others.  He is charming and amicable,  although he keeps people at arm’s length.  When he is finally alone,  he feels put-upon, over-extended and obligated to people he doesn’t even like.  Often,  he wishes he could say  “NO!  I don’t want to do that!” or “Just leave me alone!” but he has an almost pathological need to please;  to hide his “dark soul”  from others.   The effort of holding up this façade is psychically exhausting.  He often expresses the feeling of being “trapped in cage” that he is afraid to break out of.  (the fear is, if others saw his ‘real self” they would know how “unworthy” he really was, and then no one would like him.)

He is smart enough to see all this, and yet, remains incapable of freeing himself, which in turn makes him feel powerless, pathetic and even more unworthy of love and respect. The walls of his “prison” are the façade of his own making.

Façades are a necessary component of our social lives, but we must always take care to not to lose sight of our real selves and our own needs —  even if the ONLY one we are truthful to is our self.

(c) 2011  Adrienne E. Gusoff

Thought for the Day

If you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t fully communicate.

If you can’t fully communicate you can’t be “known.”

If you can’t be known, you can’t be loved for who you really are.

If you can’t be loved for who you really are,

You can never experience real intimacy.

The Crux of the Problem

Often when clients and friends tell me their problems and issues,  the stories get very complex.  Who did what to whom and when;  how that made them feel. …but then he/she did this and it made them feel another way.  I hear all the “ameliorating” circumstances; the justifications;  all the actions and reactions of and to the various players; the interpretations and extrapolations of behaviors and emotions.   In short,  the whole soap opera.

It can be very cathartic to confide your feelings to an understanding listener,  and I’m always happy to be that person…BUT…in my experience,  most folks make things much more complicated than they really are.  This, in turn, makes problems much harder to solve.

The fact is, every problematic situation,  at its core,  has just one or two  basic, important components.   When you take away all the unimportant, extraneous stuff,  you’re left with the crux of the issue.   Hey, you can orchestrate Frere Jacques with a New Orleans jazz band, a batteria of Brazillian drummers and the Vienna Boys Choir but it’s STILL Frere Jacques.  Personal issues are much the same:  you can jazz them up with all kinds of “drama,”  but usually they boil down to something very basic and simple.  Once you have that kernel,  your choices become clear.

Often it’s helpful to have an experienced, objective and insightful professional help you distill the issue to its essence,   Just a reminder…if you need me,  I’m here!  🙂

Change What Defines You

We each have a narrative we tell about ourselves;  a character we’ve created.  We act in accordance with the qualities we’ve attributed to this character,  good and bad,  usually running on autopilot, seldom stopping to consider if our story continues to serve us in the best way.

Jim prided himself on being a dedicated and hard worker – an admirable quality to be sure – but he worked so much and took on so much responsibility,  it was wreaking havoc on his personal life and his health.

Greta thought of herself as a pillar of her community.  She was always the first to volunteer or join a committee; helping people in need, etc.  Ultimately, it took its toll on her family,  in part because it was a way of avoiding some serious issues in her marriage.

There are the self-definitions that serve as pre-made excuses and self-fulfilling prophesies:   Fran told me,   “I’ve always been unathletic;  that’s why I don’t exercise.”    She was always the last one picked when the kids were choosing teams and this led to a lifetime sense of humiliation and shame when it came to any kind of physical endeavor. (I can relate!)  I certainly would not have encouraged her to take up a high-risk sport that required a great deal of coordination,  but she was eventually able to enjoy the type of athletics in which she competed against herself (swimming, tai chi, yoga, bike riding.) She was able to let go of that stressful competitive feeling whenever she thought about any kind of physical activity and enjoy the healthful benefits.

Rachel complained, “I always have the worst relationships.  I don’t even want to bother dating anymore, because I know I’m just going to be disappointed and have my heart broken.”   It had been many years since she had any kind of romantic relationship with a man.  Eventually, she came to understand that when she expected the worst,  that’s exactly what she got.  Once she adjusted her expectations and just started meeting men without having any agenda,  she found she enjoyed the companionship.  And because she’d let go of all those heavy expectations,  she became more relaxed, and thus much more interesting and attractive to men.

Too often,  we define ourselves by our failures or flaws,  blinding ourselves  to our finer qualities.  Dana thought of herself as unattractive and was convinced this was the reason nobody would ever love her.   Paul saw himself as not very smart,  and thus,  “knew” he would never be successful.

While there may be some validity in such self-assessments, they are hardly the sum and total of who we are.  Everybody has faults, weaknesses, flaws and things they’d like to change about themselves, but to define yourself by your negative qualities is self-defeating and sure way to keep you from accomplishing your higher goals.

True,  Paul may not be the smartest guy among his peers, but by defining himself as “stupid” he blinded himself to his other fine qualities.   He is a generous, sweet man,  a loyal friend with many friends and co-workers who like and respect him.  He’s a hard worker and a loving husband and father.    Eventually, he came to understand that his finer qualities are so much more valuable to his happiness and overall well-being.

Similarly, Dana finally embraced the notion that beauty comes from within.  When she exuded happiness and confidence,  men were attracted to her.

Jack was terrified of making a mistake.  The fear was crippling to the point where he could barely make a decision. Change was impossible because he could not move from his spot.  He thought of himself as a coward, and this virtually guaranteed that he would never even attempt to change; his “destiny was already written.”   Slowly,  he came to regard “mistakes” as merely lessons, to be embraced.  This freed him immensely.

Of course, it is important to differentiate between things that can be changed and things that cannot be.  Sometimes,  what we think is immutable, is changeable with the right effort and mind-set.  And sometimes,  we waste years (even a lifetime) trying to become what we are not.

Usually, things are changeable to a certain degree.  For instance,   Dave was  not an aggressive-go-getter type, so becoming wildly successful in a highly competitive field was not in his future.  Nevertheless,  he learned to be more assertive when necessary and this helped him tremendously in business.

Larry was pathologically adverse to risk, which made life changes difficult if not impossible.  He started his metamorphosis by taking easy, low-risk challenges to build up his “muscle.”  Once he had a string of successes under his belt,  he started to feel more confident in his own judgment.  And a few failures that didn’t destroy him helped him understand that he could survive if things didn’t work out as he’d planned.

Ask yourself if your own self-definition isn’t limiting you; getting in the way of you achieving your goals.  Try thinking of yourself in a different way… you don’t have to act on it just yet.  Just try on this new persona and see how it feels.  You may be surprised at how easy it is to change from the inside out!

© 2011 Adrienne E. Gusoff    http://www.artofepiphany.com   all rights reserved

Change Your View, Change Your Life

I’ve always been interested in the deep, inner, complex  emotional lives of my fellow  human beings.   I love to understand what makes people tick — their motivations, fears, insecurities,  dreams, goals — and I think I’m pretty good at it.   Friends have always come to me for advice.  Even people who I’ve only just met tend to pour out their hearts to me.

 I take  genuine joy in helping others find more resourceful ways to solve their problems and resolve their issues.  I hope you will be inspired to positive change through my blog and website.

A little about me:   I am a life coach based in NYC.  I have both a private practice and am a motivational speaker to both large and small groups.   I am also a  freelance writer,  lecturer, humorist,  certified NLP and EFT practitioner, and  licensed hypnotist.   I have  written advice columns for international magazines and various websites, and have been the relationship expert for  Klugertown, a talk radio show based in Phoenix, AZ.

I welcome you to visit my website,  www.artofepiphany.com and invite you to submit questions for my Advice section or offer suggestions for topics.  Personal consultations are,  of course,  also available.