fear of intimacy with friendships
May 11, 2009 12:16 PM   Subscribe

How do i get over my fear of intimacy in friendships, and actually let myself get into close friendships and not push people away? Help me sort out my problems with intimacy and social anxiety, and fix it.

Usually this question comes up in the context of romantic relationships. I've read through the series of MeFi questions, but I can't find anything on this - so here goes.

I am a male in my late twenties, and live in an east coast city (ECC). For work, I have been temporarily sent out to a west coast city (WCC). My time here so far (just a few months) has been helpful in giving me perspective to a problem that I have been ignoring for years.

I have been here a few months in WCC, and have a few months left before i go back to ECC. I don't know that many people here, and the loneliness has hit me pretty hard. When I talk to people from back here, they expect me to be having a lot more fun than i am, and I'm just miserable.

What i've realized here is that I have deep intimacy problems. I realized that back in ECC, I do know a lot of people - I just don't let them very close at all. I have a lot of casual acquaintances, and sort of have a busy enough social life, but I don't have lots of close friends. Living in WCC, since i'm alone a lot more, has given me a lot of perspective on this...

I had moved a lot in my early twenties, and I kept on trying different places - and I've finalyl realized that it wasn't the place - it was me! It was my fear of letting people get close that pushed people away.

Part of this problem comes from a fear of intimacy, and part of it comes this fear that people think that I'm a socially awkward friendless loser, so I try to build up my life in a way that seems more active and social that it is. And most people think I have a far more active social life and romantic life than I do.

So, you know how some guys have a number of girls in their life, and the presence of other (available) girls in their life makes them more desired by other girls? (which isn't healthy, i know).

I have that mentality when it comes to relationships as well, even though (obviously) that doesnt work at all. I think what it is, is that i am afraid to let people close to me know how vulnerable I am, so I hang out with different people and hold them at arm's length, even when they want to get closer.

So I'm always 'looking' for new friends, even though I have people in my life already.

I think I'm worried that I will get into a friendship with someone, and that we won't click - and that i won't be able to extricate myself (I feel like this happened before to me in college - i got in with a group of friends that i found myself very different from, and leaving was awkward and painful for all involved)

(Romantically, this has not worked well at all either - I have slept with many girls but i won't let them get close emotionally to me either)

I have a lot of individual relationships, all with different groups of people. Some of them are very, very different from each other. I have this fear of them not getting along, so I never bring different groups together, and I think people seem slightly off-put by that fact. But bringing them together generates such huge amounts of anxiety for me that I get scared and won't do it. For instance, I went out about four times last week with different people - but I never brought them together or invited one from one outing to another.

Or another example - i haven't done anything for my last couple birthdays - everyone always expects me to do something and have a big gettogether, and people always ask me when i'm planning to gettogether or the party for (the answer? i get so stressed out about it that i hunker down, and dont do anything, and mumble some answer about how i was too busy to plan anything)

But again, I think it's the fear that people will see a vulnerable me - so i put up a false facade that everything is great and there's nothing to worry about and that i have a super exciting life.

Otherwise, things are good in my life, there is no reason for me to struggle. I have a well-paying, very stable job making in the high five figures, no outstanding debt, very well educated, and no real struggle on that side of life. In this economy, I know this is worth a lot and I am thankful for that each and every single day.

What i just want is to be happy and not be lonely and have CLOSE friends. I need to change, and I need to figure out the best way to fix things and get things on track before I leave WCC and go back to ECC.

I do have kinda bad bouts of depression (medical, not situational), and social anxiety as well.

Thoughts on the best way to approach therapy (to find one), good books to read, and any way you have pulled yourself out of a situation like this would be appreciaetd. I have been like this for too long.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
If you are mostly concerned about what others think of you – then you never let them see the real you (all your imperfections) and never let them have the opportunity to develop deep friendship. If you are a perfectionist, then you don’t open yourself up to what could be seen as failure. But, the kicker is that you end up failing to establish true friendships and you see that as a personal failure; rinse, repeat.

You have already outlined a course of action, so now you need the final push to convince yourself to do it:

You mention therapy as an option - and that’s a good idea. It will allow you to understand your personal dynamic. Finding a therapist who works for you will take some experimentation. The hardest part is deciding which one to call and then making the first call. If you have insurance that covers it, go to their website and find out if you first need a referral. If you do, then see a GP and get not one, but several. If not, go through their list and call several and ask to speak with them and have an initial discussion. See more than one to determine if you feel comfortable. Then schedule some appointments. No harm in trying. Remember that there is no failure when it comes to therapy; just good, bad and better fits.
posted by mightshould at 1:58 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

The core issue is that you need to learn how to love yourself before you'll let others love you.

That's not a big deal, happens to lots of people, but yeah, you need some therapy. Just approach it with an open mind, a willingness to fix it and the understanding that it'll be difficult at times.

There's nothing wrong with needing help and asking for it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:59 PM on May 11, 2009

I suppose that this sounds oversimplified, but that is how I view things. That being said, when I want to change something about myself, I...just suck it up and do it. You know what you are doing wrong (not getting close to people), so quit doing it. You can read books about it, do therapy, etc. but the bottom line is that the change has to come from you. The books and therapy encourage you and help you find the courage to do it, but you are the only one who can change yourself. I'm not saying that therapy is a bad idea, maybe it's something to consider.

Don't block girls who want to be involved with you. Don't be afraid of what you believe others think of you (the reality there is that nobody really cares that much about what other people are doing, and if they do, they need to find a new hobby). Take a deep breath, move forward. Hang out more with the people you know. Try to get to know them better. Deep, solid friendships take time and energy. Invest the time and energy. Don't let fears control you. If bad things happen, then lesson learned. If good things happen, great!

This is just my opinion, and how I view the world, so it is only a suggestion.
posted by bolognius maximus at 2:24 PM on May 11, 2009

Not having solid friendships is a normal by-product of moving around a lot when younger. So if you don't have the childhood/early twenties friend everyone else seems to have- its okay! Instead of focussing on what you think people think about you, maybe you should focus on what you think about these people. Is it possible that you have an image of an ideal friendship in your mind that doesn't even exist in reality (nothing that exists in reality is ideal)? You say that you already have people in your life- why not focus on strengthening those relationships? There is nothing like a one on one interaction but you could also host groups of 3-4 and see how everyone gets along. You wouldn't really know till you try it. And even if other friends don't go crazy over each other, why would that be a problem if YOU get along well with all of them? You don't need lots of close friends to be happy- heck, even having friends isn't going to solve the loneliness problem. Its like saying that being in a relationship will cure loneliness and make you happy. So not true. Trying so hard may not help either.
posted by xm at 2:32 PM on May 11, 2009

Hypocrite alert, especially since I have struggled with shyness and some of the other things that you list for my entire life. Nonetheless, will throw out a 2 cent piece of advice that a friend once told me that helped change my perspective just a little. I am still not great at implementing the idea, but I do have a slightly different perspective.

Watch people in a group situation. There is usually some person standing against a wall or not interacting. That person may be in the same boat as you/or worse. Try to help that person interact with a group or feel more comfortable.

That philosophy helped me just a little – if you can, it takes the focus of you. Plus, the person will probably relate to you in some/many ways.

Also, if you listen to other people, it may help you realize that people have a lot of insecurities. To be honest, half the time they will be more worried about the impression they are making on you.

A lot of the other things you mention, OP, such as not introducing your friends to other friends or not doing a big B-day bash. Perhaps I live in a different world, but I don’t understand why that would need to change.

posted by Wolfster at 2:34 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

With the help of my therapist I realized at the end of last year that I feared intimacy, too, especially in friendships. (I hadn't been able to put my finger on defining it that way until we'd gone through a lot of sessions, but as soon as we described it that way, I realized how true it was.)

Anyway - I've been working on it ever since, and for me, my fear primarily comes from insecurity and a lack of confidence in my own worth as a person. I think this stems from a couple of big rejections I experienced as a child, when girl friends decided they didn't want to be my friend anymore and sort of cast me off without an explanation. So, with my therapist's help, I've tried to improve my approach to people and friendships by regularly reminding myself that I am actually a wonderful person who is worth getting to know. I don't always immediately believe it, but it has helped because now I approach most people and situations without believing I'm inferior to them in some undefinable way. I still struggle with this, but it's getting better. While doing that, I also made a point to spend more one-on-one time with my favorite people, which has brought us closer together. But it also has given me an appreciation for how much *time* it takes to develop a deep friendship, at least for me, because it takes me awhile before I can really understand someone else and where they're coming from, and then feel comfortable enough to discuss serious sensitive topics with them, especially things where I am not confident that I will come off looking like a "success". I do not like admitting to failure. :)

A lot of these issues are talked about in David Burns' book Intimate Connections, which I heard about here on the green and I highly recommend it. I think that what you're experiencing is much more common than you may realize, and if you read this book you'll see that not only are you not alone but that there are ways to overcome it. It is not a substitute for a great therapist, but it's a good alternative if you need one. (or, even better, you can read it while you see a therapist as a sort of homework or supplement, regardless of whether you discuss it with your therapist or go through it solo.) I found it immensely validating, as well as helpful. I keep it on my nightstand.

Good luck. It does get better, with time and effort.
posted by inatizzy at 11:14 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

I definitely hear where you are coming from. Much of the above advice is great, let me suggest something too -

You may want to recognize that all the energy you are spending worrying about how you seem to others in social situations - as a loser, or alternately, as someone with "lots" of friends - is a form of self-absorption that is limiting your ability to become closer to people. I'm not saying that in a judgemental way - its part of the nature of depression and social anxiety.

Instead of worrying about how you are acting/looking/being, get EXCITED about learning more about your friends and acquaintences. Invest your current worrying energy in being mindful about how cool, unique, interesting the folks around you are. A lot of intimacy is based in taking pleasure from the beauty of others, not just being a cool person yourself.

I think when you can allow yourself to be open to that, its easier to get closer to people.
posted by RajahKing at 5:27 PM on May 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've written about fifty different versions of the same thing here, trying to put into words the path I have taken from the almost identical starting point that you find yourself at.

All of them boil down to the fact you don't have any self-worth.

Therapy can help you see the reasons why you don't and you can then come to terms with them.

Ironically, the perceptive and thoughtful intelligence which got you this far makes you a kick-arse friend to have. This is why you keep having to push these people away. They want you baby, it's time to stop pissing them off and let them have you ;)
posted by fullerine at 9:54 PM on May 12, 2009

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