I'm too old to be scared of intimacy!
November 6, 2010 1:52 PM   Subscribe

How do I let people love me? Will I ever outgrow my fear of intimacy? I'm in my late 20s. I'm scared of intimacy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not scared of sex. Won't think twice about a threesome, but am startled by holding hands. If a guy wants to get to know me more, compliments me, or crosses the line from being sweet to me to being sweet on me, I get super flustered. I stutter or look at my feet. I run away.

It seems to only go one way. I am okay with administering affection, just not receiving it. I'm all about actually being a friend, whether it's a guy sharing his problems with me during the postcoital, or going out for the occasional drink or friendly outing. I'm the girl that can actually do friends with benefits and not want anything more (really).

I have baggage and issues like everyone else, which I've gone to therapy for. But I've done all I can do with therapy. I accept I'm a flawed human being and can recognize trigger situations and have explanations for the origins. Now it's the practice of actually being okay with someone loving me, and it's really freaking hard.

I'm looking for suggestions from people with similar issues. Beyond going to therapy, how did you actually practice letting someone care about you without running away? Are there any exercises or situations I can put myself into? Did meeting "the right person" help? How will I know when I meet the right person? Am I supposed to believe that one day I'll just meet a guy that clicks in such a way that everything will be okay? Lol, is there something I need to... do... to prepare for it? Or was it just a matter of time and getting older?

Objectively, in a vacuum controlled environment with no men encroaching on my emotional space, I like myself well enough. Besides from the running away when a guy gets too close emotionally, I'm great on paper and in person. But yeah, that running away thing is pretty huge. I would eventually like to marry and have my own family. I love kids. And despite my active sexual life, loyalty is really important to me and I know I wouldn't have any qualms about settling down. I know I would make a good wife and mother, kind of because I've spent so much time consciously observing and trying to what it means to be one emotionally, physically, spiritually.. But first I have to make it past being a good friend and being a good girlfriend.
posted by jamaisvu to Human Relations (15 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Are there any exercises or situations I can put myself into?
Just do it. Tiny steps. And just accept the flustering and embarrassment.
posted by joost de vries at 2:03 PM on November 6, 2010

Am I supposed to believe that one day I'll just meet a guy that clicks in such a way that everything will be okay?

That is kind of how it happened with me. Not that it was love at first sight, or anything silly like that. But something about him just... felt safe, and sincere. I believed him when he said he felt lucky to have met me, when I would have thought the exact same words coming from anyone else were cheesy or fake. There was still a long period of adjustment, and it was a struggle to get used to someone sincerely complimenting me and meaning it when he said he loved me (ie. not feeling panicked or uncomfortable).

So, I guess it was a little bit of the "click", and a lot of patience on his part and small steps on mine.
posted by torisaur at 2:12 PM on November 6, 2010 [5 favorites]

Stop running away.

Have you tried explaining this to any of your suitors/partners? It might be worth a shot -- sure, it might freak the dude out, but no more so then you recoiling when he compliments you or tries to hold hands. And if he's more patient with you because of that, or even tries to work through some of this stuff with you, so much the better.
posted by J. Wilson at 2:12 PM on November 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Geesh Biru, even by my standards that's a bit harsh.

"Administering" affection sounds like it has all the warmth and tenderness of a tetanus shot - which, I suspect, is precisely the point. It's easier to be on the giving side of affection. You don't have to make yourself vulnerable, you don't have to put any part of yourself into someone else's hands. You're the one controlling the flow of affection, and that means you're safe.

Sex is a great way to avoid intimacy. That's the thing you keep dancing around. I don't think this fear will go poof with the just right guy.

For me the problem started to soften when I began to realize that the loneliness of being closed off to someone was far worse than the possibility that someone could really see me and not like what they found. It also started to yield when I realized I could honestly and truly say fuck off to someone if they couldn't accept me.

I think you should embark on a massive campaign to take really really good care of yourself. The more you can do that, the more faith you will have in your ability to risk parts of yourself with someone and not be destroyed if things don't work out. You're not really okay in your own skin if you have to keep people at a distance. So do whatever you need to nurture yourself. This isn't just a bunch of self-help hoooey. Caring for yourself means you've decided that you're worthy of care. The more you believe that from the soles of your feet upward, the easier it will be to allow others to care for you and to boot the ones who don't.

Best of luck.
posted by space_cookie at 2:33 PM on November 6, 2010 [22 favorites]

I suggest reading Intimate Connections by Dr. David Burns. Do all the exercises to a T. It will pay off.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:22 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I subscribe to the theory that it's healthiest to fully acknowledge your feelings, feel them, and accept them. You might try completely accepting your fear of intimacy. Imagine that you’ll never get over it and instead of rebuking yourself or feeling horror or sadness, just sit with that image for a while. And know that it’s okay. You don’t have to get over it for anyone else. It’s not your duty. You don’t have to do it for your family or your future kids or your loving boyfriends or society at large or whoever. You don’t owe it to anyone. A man who really loves you, and I mean truly deep unselfish love, will not get angry with you or rush you into more emotional intimacy. Yes, even if you break his heart. Love is freely given, (real, spiritual love that is) and you’re under no obligation, ever, to return it. But the other side of the coin is that it works both ways- so just know that when you’re ready to experience intimacy and trust it will be your gift to others, freely given, with nothing expected in return.
posted by Nixy at 4:00 PM on November 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

I don't know if you're afraid of intimacy so much as being afraid of the unknown. Avoiding intimacy is a great way to avoid discovering the answers to such questions as: What if I think I like him now, and find out I don't like him as much later? What if he likes me now, but doesn't like me later? What if I hurt him? What if he hurts me? What if I start to count on him to be there for me and he goes away? What if he starts to depend on me and I have to go away? What if he wants something I can't give? What if I want something from him that he can't give?

It's not crazy to worry about that stuff--everybody does. But it doesn't mean you shouldn't try it anyway. You might get your heart broken, but you'll survive. You have to believe that before you believe anything else, and you won't find what you're looking for until you do. For me, I think it's worth it. Good luck.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:19 PM on November 6, 2010 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow. All these comments are my favorites. Thank you for shedding light: the deeper questions, the sharing of experiences, the suggestions for different perspectives and reading material. It feels odd and new to think this out loud, but I have actually found the more I go through, the more I do feel fine with such things as knowing I will survive a broken heart and feeling comfortable with being okay with telling someone who's not good for me to fuck off. But I guess that's the problem, that it feels odd. I don't take good care of myself by acknowledging these victories to myself often enough.

Sometimes through my work, I'll meet that 16 year old kid in a long term relationship, who is just so well adjusted and wise in the ways of humans in relationships. And I think to myself, if he can do it, why can't I? Where's my emotional moxy? I'm getting older and wiser, but the running away is still a knee jerk reaction. There's always that moment where extreme terror strikes and I can feel my brain put a bookmark there, but my emotions and my body are already out the door.

I think partly the reason why I do run away is because I feel like I should have my emotional shit together before I go into trying to have a relationship. I'd feel bad if someone got hurt during the testing phase of an unfinished product. But I guess we're all unfinished products in the testing phase. I'll think more, question more, read more... And hopefully it will make me stay a little longer and be a little more vulnerable.

Thank you, really, for sharing. Sharing is caring! Thanks for caring.
posted by jamaisvu at 6:32 PM on November 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


"I'd feel bad if someone got hurt during the testing phase of an unfinished product."

In the same way that you can survive being hurt -- you're a lot tougher than you think and anyone respectable will know that --

A person who takes a risk with you can handle being hurt.

A HUGE part of learning to have real relationships with others is to have enough respect for them to realize they can survive hurt. They wear big boy pants.

And, guess what? You WILL hurt people. And they WILL hurt you. It's okay! It's part of the REAL deal.

In fact, it's a beautiful part. How people respond to hurt is very telling. Maturity is about surviving hurt with dignity.

If you say what you mean, mean what you say -- and don't say it mean, you've been mature. Better than that, you've been real, and brave, and YOU.

You can do this. It's kind of a new phase in life. Enjoy it!
posted by sleeping beauty at 6:53 PM on November 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

Maybe there's nothing wrong with you at all- you just haven't met the right person yet who you want to be intimate with. Maybe you have better-than-average perception about who is right for you.

I mean, not everyone has to be in an intimate relationship by a certain age just because that's what mainstream culture expects. Sometimes it takes time.
posted by bearette at 8:02 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll just add this and will pipe down. I know this impulse - to go off into the mountains alone and work on yourself so that the fresh, shiny, clear You that comes down off that mountain is all ready for a real relationship. I've done this and it doesn't quite work that way. You alone is not the same You in a relationship...so the only way you can work on the You in a relationship is to actually do that work with someone that is not you. You can't get good at intimacy without someone to be intimate with. That's the messy part, but the worth it part. When the scary part hits, that's when stay and decide not to run.
posted by space_cookie at 11:20 PM on November 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, space_cookie, it most definitely does not work that way. I remember I took a trip and on the plane ride back I actually wrote out all the things I was going to do different, all the things I learned, relationship resolutions for the next time someone loved me. And then someone did, extreme terror struck again, and I ran before I could even remember my fancy list. These have all been awesome answers, but the first one really does sum up everything: Just do it. While every bone in your body says "Just can't," I've got to punch every bone in my body and say, "Just do it."

Bearette, thanks for raising that point... That could be the case for someone else, but it's not for me. I've turned down guys I've adored and have adored me back, and while we're both sitting there crying, and he's asking why, I know the therapy why, but I don't know the why why. He's perfect, I'm perfect, everything is perfect, birds chirp when we pass by... But my heart hurts when it's happy, and it tells me I can't have nice things.

The first time I heard The Avett Brothers sing "I would be sad," I cried so hard. Prepare yourself... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKNAfTowygA. It's like someone pointed an icy finger of accusation at my heart and indicted me for all my mistakes. I've seen these great guys go off and get married and be great husbands, and yeah, this especially hurts: great fathers. So yeah, I'm the poster child for what happens when you pass on love you know, KNOW, would make you happy. Don't do it. And now this song also reminds me of what sleeping beauty said: about accepting that boys have their big boy pants just like i have my big girl pants (haha, that made me laugh, thanks). After it points it's icy finger, it gives me a pat on the back by saying that there is no nuclear bomb of hurt in this world that love can't survive. If he can survive, I can survive, we can all survive. And live.

I have faith, you know, that when I make the jump it'll all be worth it, and the feeling of flying will make up for all the time I've spent on the ground lonely and wistfully admiring the flight of others. space_cookie, when you wrote, "I began to realize that the loneliness of being closed off to someone was far worse than the possibility that someone could really see me and not like what they found," it made me think of this anais nin quote I first encountered as a postcard on Postsecret: a picture of a tattoo on someone's skin: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

I'm going to keep this question open in case anyone else can feel as awesome as I feel right now for having shared. But it's been resolved for me, it's bolstered up my resolve to blossom. Yay! *hugs for everyone, all up in their emotional space... and all up in mine*
posted by jamaisvu at 3:58 AM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Just be aware, as I am discovering, that the blossoming itself can also give rise to feelings of anxiety and the physical flight/flight response (an unexpected side effect imho), ignore those, they are not "real" signals of anything "wrong" so much as the fresh new skin being painful to the touch of the outside air as you shed old skins and grow. Aka vulnerability as the walls start coming down. I'm guessing that the trick will be to breathe and not flee in that moment, until it becomes habit and you get accustomed to being vulnerable and intimate and ultimately feeling comfortable with it all.

J.Wilson has said it well. And I think everyone in this thread realizes that this is not the "Hero's Journey" to be made by oneself alone (that part is over now) but more of a partnership of discovery and learning, suddenly I am reminded of these words whilst trying to clumsily explain. If you should find someone willing to walk with you and wait if you should fall behind, then (ignores tightening chest) step forward and take their hand again.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 4:55 AM on November 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Think long and hard about all the little things you do to avoid or derail your relationships - all of them! Then, every single time you see yourself performing any those acts, let a mental bell go off and stop it immediately.
posted by Neekee at 11:16 AM on November 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

stop it immediately.

And don't beat yourself up if you stumble, it doesn't help to call yourself a coward if you're not instantly able overnight. That's often the hardest part, being gentle and patient and kind with your own self's evolution. And naturally, then, with others.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 7:49 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

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