dying alone with cats/fear of intimacy
August 4, 2013 7:50 PM   Subscribe

I need to get over my fear of intimacy. I need help recognizing self-sabotaging behavior, when dealing with the opposite sex and otherwise, that is preventing me from having a grown-up healthy heterosexual relationship.

I'm in my early 20s and have never had a long-term relationship with a guy. The thought of sharing details of my past/family life/feelings with someone absolutely terrifies me. I have many valuable friendships but I don't understand why I can't seem to translate that into a romantic relationship with someone.

I've had a lot of experiences that helped make me this way, but I can't pinpoint which of them is really holding me back the most, or how to undo the emotional pain in my life and move forward.

Relevant experiences:
- I was bullied, verbally and (less often) physically, from as early as I can remember until the middle of high school. I was an ugly duckling of sorts, gangly, and painfully shy. Some of my bullies were my closest "friends." I don't think I ever stood up for myself. By my late teens, I magically became pretty and formed several healthy friendships (I started antidepressants around this time, which helped a lot). But I never dealt with my issues head-on, so my baggage is still with me years later.

-I grew up with two addicts in my immediate family. My sibling tormented/said disgusting things to me my whole life and my parents didn't make it stop. Basically, the prominent males in my life suck. My parents have a shitty loveless marriage that I would never ever ever ever want for myself but I feel like it's inevitable since that's been my main "model" of an adult relationship. I'm convinced that if I ever did get married it would end in divorce.

I'm driving myself crazy because rationally I know that I am very attractive, smart, and very empathetic (as a result of what I've been through, I imagine) but I can't internalize this and really believe it! When people look at me in public I wish the ground would open and swallow me up.

I've had a lot of meaningless (drunk) sex. This is the only way I know how to be intimate with guys. It's the only form of intimacy I'm comfortable with, because I rely heavily on my looks and I can feel sexy and pretend to be someone I'm not (i.e., not screwed up) for the time being. I feel like I can manipulate the image someone has of me by keeping their exposure to me limited. I realize how completely psychotic this is.

In the past year, I've abandoned the casual sex, gone on a few "real" dates, but never made it past a first date or felt like I really connected with someone. I feel more lonely than ever. When I'm with a guy I want to impress, I become a pretentious version of myself that I hate. My friends (male and female) think of me as caring, funny, and sincere, and I think they're a little confused by why I haven't had a relationship. Some of them have mentioned that I'm picky or that I act too disinterested.

I only fall for guys who are emotionally unavailable or who treat me like shit. If someone is too nice to me, I think a) there's something wrong with them, b) they have a fantasy of who I am in their head that I won't live up to, or c) it's all an act. When asked what I look for in a guy, I say (truthfully): someone who is reliable, funny, smart, ambitious, generous, and caring. Yet I find myself going for guys who either have looks or money but absolutely nothing else I've listed.

Please help me.

-- Why am I so shallow? Why do I go for guys who are rich or hot but completely WRONG for me in every other way? I'm sick of missing out on good guys and then kicking myself when they end up in relationships that I envy.

-- How can I repair my self-esteem? How can I believe what I know on some level must be true?

-- How do I accept the fact that not all guys are as fucked-up as the ones that were supposed to take care of me my whole life?

-- How can I erase years of bullying from my memory? I think I'm a kinder, gentler person for having gone through it, but the memories are still so painful and I just want to let them go already.

-- Finally, what are the first steps of "intimacy"? Like, what do you tell someone on a first date vs. a month after knowing them, etc.? I feel like there's never a good time to blurt out "my dad's a drunk." Or, "I was weird growing up and got bullied a lot." What are the intermediate steps that make you a little bit vulnerable without pouring your heart out?

Thanks for reading if you've made it this far.

PS- I'm in between therapists and I realize I need to find someone to seriously work on this with me, but I'd still like to hear some real-life anecdotes from people who've overcome similar adversities.
posted by DayTripper to Human Relations (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Be gentle on yourself. You are a good person, and you deserve good things. The more you like and love yourself, the better off you will be.

Are your dating behaviors self punishment? No more drunk random sex. I think that was hurting you more than it was worth. Don't worry about when or how it will happen, just stay calm and stick to people who match your list. The more self confidence you have, and the healthier you are, the better men you will attract.

You cant erase the bullying from your memory. Humans just don't work that way. Your family and childhood associates programmed a lot of lies into you. Come up with a statement about yourself, something like 'I am wonderful, deserving, and i love myself' Any time the bad voices from your past come up, counter them with your statement that is true about you. It is ok to have some of your statement have some things that may not be quite true just yet, but will be soon. Just repeat your statement and give yourself some love each and every time the doubts/bad programming/childhood issues come up.

Intimacy- be willing to show them your dark secrets/issues, but don;t run around flaunting :)
It depends on the person and how you feel around them. Not too early in a relationship, but not past the point where its a surprise secret. And, even if you do tell a little early, you are far from the only one with drunk family or abusive pasts, or worse. A good, safe person will accept this and do what he can to support you.

You are not your past. You are not broken. You can do this :)
posted by Jacen at 8:35 PM on August 4, 2013


I think your "many valuable friendships" are key here. How did you get those friends? Harness your friend-finding skills here.

Your attraction towards unavailable men and your shallowness sound like defensive mechanisms. If your main relationship style is meaningless sex, this seems to gear yourself towards being shallow (there's no need for reliability, generosity and ambition if you never see them again). Try hanging out with guys who have the traits you want in a relationship. Perhaps you can start to find a connection there.

Since I have a problem with memories sometimes too, I'm not sure the best way to deal with them. Go to your therapist for this. For me, I find I mostly like to suppress them (consciously stop thinking about whatever bad thing comes up at that moment) and move on with my life. (The bit of psychiatry I've read seems to point towards repression = bad, suppression = can be beneficial.) But because bad memories are powerful, perhaps it would be good to have a time and place to process them. Otherwise they can just stay there and come out psychosomatically in fun ways like your sleep habits, diet or menstrual cycle. Not that I miss my cycle! Ha ha! Moving on...

As regards "intimacy," there's no need to talk about those deeper life things on a first date. These things can just come up in conversation in the development of a deeper relationship. As far as intermediate steps, if you don't feel ready to share something like this with someone, it's not so unusual to mention in context "I don't have such a good relationship with my dad," or "I had a sucky childhood," or "I had shitty friends when I was a kid." You only have to share what you feel comfortable sharing.
posted by FiveSecondRule at 8:50 PM on August 4, 2013


You and I are so similar!! This is what CBT is for, and EMDR is a crucial tool in sorting through memories like this in order to destabilize them and move beyond the feelings they bring up. Are you in SoCal? I can recommend someone!
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:55 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


You may want to think about romantic intimacy as developing a friendship with someone you find physically attractive. It is not clear from your question whether you have close male friends or not. Whatever the case, you might want to follow the same advice given to guys who have trouble seeing women as an "Other". That is, instead of separating people into "People I'm friends with" and "People I date", focus on forming friendships with guys and learning to be emotionally intimate with men that way. When you've formed a friendship with someone you find physically attractive and who finds you physically attractive, voila, that is the grounds for an emotionally fulfilling relationship.
posted by Anonymous at 9:03 PM on August 4, 2013


Best answer: Why am I so shallow? Why do I go for guys who are rich or hot but completely WRONG for me in every other way?

I think this is part of being young and inexperienced in relationships. It gets easier to outgrow that as you get older, and maybe you will realize more deeply that you actually do want a life with someone who would realistically be a good partner for you, rather than being dazzled by simple richness or hotness. Part of that is also getting to know yourself better as an autonomous person, what you can offer in a relationship, and how you want to be treated. This can all be hard to know until you've directly experienced a relationship or two on your own, and it's stuff I didn't really start to figure out until I approached 30.

You might also find, as time passes, that talking and thinking about your childhood isn't as important and necessary as you feel like it is now. While you'll probably never forget these things, it gets easier to exist without that dark cloud following you around. It's nice to find someone that you can eventually talk about this stuff with without them getting freaked out by it, but it doesn't have to come up at all until after you get to know each other pretty well otherwise. You can learn a lot about how someone is as a person without dredging up all the bad stuff that has happened in their lives.

I only fall for guys who are emotionally unavailable or who treat me like shit. If someone is too nice to me, I think a) there's something wrong with them, b) they have a fantasy of who I am in their head that I won't live up to, or c) it's all an act.

There is a lot in the middle of "treats me like shit" and "is weirdly nice to me." A good relationship will probably not develop the way you expect it to. There might not be a huge spark in the beginning. My healthiest relationships have been slow, steady builds, not instant fireworks and not roller-coasters. Don't worry about impressing your dates. Don't worry about flaunting your sexiness. Just try to get to know them while they're trying to get to know you.
posted by wondermouse at 9:11 PM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm driving myself crazy because rationally I know that I am very attractive, smart, and very empathetic (as a result of what I've been through, I imagine) but I can't internalize this and really believe it!

Here's the secret. You don't have to be a person who has to always believe they are an incredible person. Things can get better just by reducing the amount of pain these thoughts about yourself bring.

The way to do this is to learn to be aware of when you having strong negative thoughts about yourself and then finding techniques to deal with it. These would be as simple as acknowledging the feeling and the thoughts and letting yourself briefly feel bad before letting those thoughts and feelings go. Or they could involve a mantra-like single sentence talking back and acknowledging you are worth love. Sometimes even hugging yourself.

The main idea is this--you are going to work on reducing the impact of these feelings by not running away from them, briefly experiencing them, and letting them go.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:34 PM on August 4, 2013


IANAD, but I think it's possible several of your questions stem from depression and wouldn't seem like essential issues if that were better mitigated, but I'll respond on the assumption you can act on them directly to some extent.

-- Why am I so shallow? Why do I go for guys who are rich or hot but completely WRONG for me in every other way? I'm sick of missing out on good guys and then kicking myself when they end up in relationships that I envy.

I wouldn't worry about your past track record on this but rather focus on meeting people in contexts where you can get to know more about them before dating them, e.g. hobby/sports/recreation groups. Then, date someone who is both 'good' and perhaps also rich or hot, because there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that.

-- How can I repair my self-esteem? How can I believe what I know on some level must be true?

It's healthy to have reasonable limits on your self-esteem, so don't aim for this to be 100%, but rather address the issue obliquely by pressing forward, doing what you intended, keeping records of your successes in a diary/work log/etc., and finding things to appreciate in the outcomes. The idea is to gradually think less about the things that others have done to you or even the self-image you've been stuck with and more about the actual things you have done on your own.

-- How do I accept the fact that not all guys are as fucked-up as the ones that were supposed to take care of me my whole life?

Hm, I hesitate to say they aren't, because the odds of meeting fucked-up people are non-zero. But definitely don't expect your boyfriends to fill a lack here, whatever their habits. Fucked-up or no, they're not your dad. If you need a father figure to admire, I dunno, pick a hero and read their biography or something. Give your potential partners room to be awesome and/or fucked-up in completely their own way.

-- How can I erase years of bullying from my memory? I think I'm a kinder, gentler person for having gone through it, but the memories are still so painful and I just want to let them go already.

Time will handle a good chunk of it. Twice in my life, I've found most of my memories of traumatic events fading to the point of not caring much within ten years of the event. It's weird what sticks with you though. I can think of some stuff I couldn't let go until I saw the same painful things happening to others, giving me a completely different perspective that gave me some release (even if it was rough to see it from other points of view).

-- Finally, what are the first steps of "intimacy"? Like, what do you tell someone on a first date vs. a month after knowing them, etc.? I feel like there's never a good time to blurt out "my dad's a drunk." Or, "I was weird growing up and got bullied a lot." What are the intermediate steps that make you a little bit vulnerable without pouring your heart out?

In my experience, that stuff gets a lot easier to say after you confess it to someone whose approval matters to you and you get that approval. It'll never be first-date material and, really, it's fine if you take quite a bit of time to open up about that stuff with your boyfriends. You can practice intimacy with them sooner on more relevant, forward-looking or practical issues, like simply what your hopes and fantasies are.

So, OK, moving on from your list of questions, my general take on your self-description is that it all sounds very thoughtful and self-aware, but maybe you're presuming a few connections or analyses that could turn into self-mythology if you think about them too much. A lot of stuff happened to you, and a lot has gone on recently, and I know you have to list it off to let people know your situation. But I think it's wise to look at that stuff just barely enough to avoid repeating what didn't work and, otherwise, focus on more concrete things in front of you.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:36 PM on August 4, 2013


You might also find, as time passes, that talking and thinking about your childhood isn't as important and necessary as you feel like it is now. While you'll probably never forget these things, it gets easier to exist without that dark cloud following you around. It's nice to find someone that you can eventually talk about this stuff with without them getting freaked out by it, but it doesn't have to come up at all until after you get to know each other pretty well otherwise. You can learn a lot about how someone is as a person without dredging up all the bad stuff that has happened in their lives.


THIS. SO MUCH THIS. It took me a really long time and some spectacular romantic disasters to learn this. But it's true--you can be absolutely intimate with someone, and still not have recounted the epic of your life to that person. Intimacy can be a function of the present, too.

Don't let the fear of having to spill all your guts to a stranger paralyze you; remind yourself that your guts are yours, to share or not share as you see fit. If someone cannot handle this in the early stages, by the way, they are probably not a very healthy fit for a dating relationship. People who want all of your emotional vulnerability right away usually want it for their own reasons, not for yours.
posted by like_a_friend at 9:37 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


First, kudos to you for recognizing that you have a fear of intimacy this early on. I didn't realize that was my problem until much later (late 20's or so?).

In order to be intimate with someone else, you must first be intimate with yourself. (Similar to the "In order to love someone else/be loved by someone else, you must first love yourself" line.) So what does it mean to be intimate with yourself? To me it means you notice things about yourself. You notice what you like, what you don't like, what you're like as a person, your preferences, etc. And this is what you bring into relationship with another person. (That's not a typo, no "a" before relationship.)

I'm sorry you had/have so much pain, so many of us do. I think fear of intimacy is really about shame (that was the case for me). I was so terrified to be really close with someone - to have someone know me, because I felt there was nothing really good about myself. It's a horrible way to go through life. You have nothing to be ashamed about. Somehow, we all have to get to a point where we accept our pasts, and tell our stories, not in a victim-y way or to engender pity, but to tell our stories for ourselves. "This is what happened to me. It made me feel ___. This is how I dealt with it. This is who I am today because of it, but it does not define me."

I feel like there's never a good time to blurt out "my dad's a drunk." Or, "I was weird growing up and got bullied a lot."

Well maybe don't blurt it out, but you can mention it, but this has to come from a place of relative acceptance of who you are and your past. Anecdote: I went on a date with a guy a few years ago (met off OKCupid) and we exchanged messages for a week or two, we met up, we conversed about where we lived, jobs, etc. and when he was talking about his job and schooling, he said, "Now would probably be a good time to bring this up - I have depression" as a way to explain why he had done x job for 10 years (the exact reason doesn't matter). The point is, there was a point in the conversation where it just made sense to bring it up and I appreciated that he was open about that. We didn't meet again after that cuz there was no chemistry, but it wasn't because he has depression.

If your goal is to have a healthy relationship, it's going to take time and work. So yes, work with a therapist on your baggage and issues, and get to a place of self-love and self-acceptance. In the meantime, I would just take a break from dating to work on yourself. Just take the pressure off yourself to have a relationship. And have you talked to your friends about your past? Are you able to be intimate with your friends? You may also find these books helpful: 1, 2.
posted by foxjacket at 9:39 PM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Best answer: Oh man, are you me in my early 20's?

Here's some stuff I've learned. It may apply to you, or not.
1. The guys with whom you will find it easy to fall into a relationship are not worth it. Seriously. I know you're lonely, but there are a lot of guys who will prey on the fact that you don't know how amazing you are. As soon as you feel like they don't understand you or do anything less than completely treasure you, listen to that and Run. Away.

2. You will meet someone who really GETS you eventually. Do not settle for less than that. And as soon as you realise you are settling, Run. Away. It will be really hard to run away, so forgive yourself when you don't and you get your heart broken.

3. You will spend ages reacting to things and not understanding why your reactions are what they are. It's because of the instability and trauma in your childhood, some of which it's possible you don't even remember. Find a therapist who will help you break down the way you think and rebuild it so that the trauma you experienced in your early life cannot repeat itself. DO NOT GET MARRIED UNTIL THIS HAPPENS.

4. When you will meet the person who will really love you and understand you, intimacy will come easily. Suddenly, you will hear someone say that they love you and you won't immediately think, "Well, you wouldn't if you really knew x..." because you'll tell them x and it won't change a goddamned thing.

5. Dating in my 20's sucked. I wish I could erase all those relationships, but they broke me down to the point that I HAD to deal with my baggage finally. I couldn't run from it anymore...I'm actually pretty freaking grateful for that. And you know what? It's so much better now. I don't get triggered and react to shit anymore. I have so much more emotional and mental bandwidth. And I have people who really really love me, and prove it through their actions every day. Real love is that: actions that are completely consistent with the claims they make about their feelings. You won't worry about divorce when you meet that person. I promise.

You will feel like if you haven't had a successful relationship by this point that you're missing something. Yes. You are missing bullshit heartbreak failures. Wait for someone you WANT to share your real self with. Memail me if you want to talk. I wish I could hug you, honestly.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:42 PM on August 4, 2013 [20 favorites]


Best answer: OP, many of the results that come up when you google "feminine imperative" contain images of implied (or actual) violence against women, so please use caution in your searching if you are sensitive to or triggered by that.



It's the only form of intimacy I'm comfortable with, because I rely heavily on my looks and I can feel sexy and pretend to be someone I'm not (i.e., not screwed up) for the time being. I feel like I can manipulate the image someone has of me by keeping their exposure to me limited. I realize how completely psychotic this is.


I offered some thoughts on intimacy before. But can I just say, in response to the central claim of your post, that you don't sound especially screwed up? Really--most people your age are more *like* you than *not* like you. Most people your age are in fact grappling with some significant level of pain or trauma for the first time, and floundering a bit. Most people at any age occasionally wish to protect themselves from emotional pain through distancing themselves and trying to control emotionally fragile situations.

It's really not psychotic, just a little dysfunctional. Torturing animals is psychotic. Beating and abusing a partner is psychotic. Drunk sex (assuming consent on both sides) is not psychotic. Fear of intimacy is not psychotic.

You have done nothing whatsoever wrong. By your own reckoning, even! The failings of those men in your life who were supposed to love and protect you are THEIR failings, not yours. You did not fail to "earn" their love: They had no love to give.

I promise you: It may not always feel like it when you're a young woman in our bullshit-heavy society, but it is possible to be imperfect without being monstrous. So please, step one in your efforts should be "learn to describe myself in objective, non-monstrous terms."
posted by like_a_friend at 11:36 PM on August 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Mod note: One comment deleted. Just answer here, or mail the OP; don't invite people to contact you for your answer. Also, stick to the question being asked and try to be helpful; asking people to google anti-women catch phrases isn't useful.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:25 AM on August 5, 2013


I think you should start out trying to be gentler with yourself. You're not describing any behavior that is particularly awful, much less pyschotic. You're just describing what it feels like to be scared and confused about the way forward. You've got a lot of your life still ahead of you and a lot of time to figure this stuff out, so just because you are uncomfortable with intimacy now doesn't mean you will always be this uncomfortable. The thing is though, you've got to be kind to yourself, because like my mom always says, you can't push the river. Or, in other words: you'll get there when you get there, and that is totally OKAY. In the meantime though, since you've got to live inside your own head every day, wouldn't it be better to start trying to give the same kind of compassion you give to other people to yourself as well?

In practical terms, here are some things you can do:

Start taking smaller risks with people, with your good friends. Tell them smaller things that feel dangerously honest or weird, but that don't have a lot of emotional weight attached to them: "When I was in seventh grade, the only books I read were romance novels," "I've never eaten kale. In fact, I don't even know what it looks like," etc. Small things. You will discover people like you anyway, and you can build up into telling them larger things. Intimacy, true intimacy, takes a while to develop. You can't manufacture it instantly by dumping huge amounts of difficult information on someone.

Start practicing asking for help and accepting help when it is offered. This can feel even scarier than telling people the truth sometimes.

If you don't have them already, start actively cultivating friendships with guys. Not with the end goal of dating them, just to be friends. If the men in your life growing up were assholes, then you might think that most men are like that, and therefore waiting for a good man is like waiting for a unicorn to land in your backyard. But there are a lot of good men out there, and if you make friends with some of them, you will start to reshape your expectations: both of what is reasonable to expect from a guy and what sorts of intimacy are possible with them.

Read Dear Sugar from the Cheryl Strayed era. She's a wise brave woman. Her writing starts with column no. 37, but you should start with no. 39.
posted by colfax at 1:48 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Who cares at this stage what kinds of men you're attracted to, or your dating life.

You have a serious fallout of your mental health happening - it's the equivalent of terrible chest pains yet you wonder how to best save for your next vacation. Therapy first, quality of life thereafter.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:06 AM on August 5, 2013


A big one that I'm still learning to acknowledge is that as time goes on and relationships unfold - ESPECIALLY as you start to become truly intimate with someone, you will discover more fears, insecurities and baggage about yourself. That can be scary and throw you off track of the progress you had been making - but it's totally normal.

I can empathize with a lot of what you write. I came from a broken family and in my teens and early twenties, was an intense observer of relationships - my parents, my friends, the couple eating across from me in a restaurant who weren't really speaking to each other. I saw my girlfriends being clingy and my guy friends staying in relationships that clearly made them unhappy. I watched my mom completely change her identity to match whatever guy she was dating at the moment.

I watched all these people fucking up, making mistakes, not being 100% happy - and promised myself I would never be them. I analyzed their actions and convinced myself that I was getting it all figured out. That I was learning from other people's mistakes and in doing so, when I met the right person, would avoid making those mistakes without going through the pain that comes with making the mistakes myself.

Then, I met a great guy, and all of the guards I had spent 26 years putting up, came crashing down. We fell madly in love almost immediately - I allowed myself to be vulnerable in a way I never had before and felt like I opened up to him. The first three months were magical and perfect and I told myself that it would always be that way and HAHA everyone else in the world I figured out how to do this better than you. And then as the newness began to wear off and all of my insecurities and fear of intimacy came crashing down on my head. He didn't text me to tell me how much he loved me every two minutes? Obviously he was questioning his feelings for me. He didn't throw me against the wall and rip my clothes off the first minute we saw each other? Obviously he wasn't attracted to me any more. I did a pretty good job hiding these fears from him but a few times I'd slip up and mention something, or over a drunken dinner conversation tell him I was worried he was not as into me. Of course he'd reassure me that everything was great - and then I'd spend the next day or week beating myself up because god, I'm an insecure idiot and who would want to be in a relationship with someone like that?!

We are now two years into our relationship and I am still working on overcoming my fears of intimacy. I'm writing this to tell you that you don't need to "overcome" all of your issues in order to love or be loved. Putting that kind of pressure on yourself is unrealistic and unhealthy. Work on bettering yourself every day but don't allow the things that you want to improve about yourself completely overshadow all of the good, wonderful, unique and lovable things about you.

Now, to address some of your questions more directly:

1) you go for guys that are wrong for you because you are afraid of intimacy. Somewhere inside your brain you know that because the guy is a player/douchebag/whatever, you will never have to fully commit to him and thus become fully intimiate with him. Or potentially because you are trying to prove to yourself that you can change this guy into a loving, good person that you deserve because you feel like you didn't successfully do this in your childhood. Or maybe because you think deep down that it's the way you deserve to be treated. There are a dozen reasons you could be doing it - you don't need to figure it out, you just need to stop.

2) the self esteem thing is tough, and I am still struggling with it. Daily affirmations can be helpful - force yourself to say it even on the days you feel it's complete bullshit. Believe other people when they give you a compliment. Find a mentor. Meditate. Keep a gratitude journal. Go to therapy. And keep going.

3) Not all people are as fucked up as the men in your early life - but there are plenty of fucked up ones, just like there are plenty of fucked up women who do terrible things. learn to trust yourself that you will be able to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones and make conscious choices about who you let into your life. And allow people to be human - everyone is going to make mistakes, just because a guy acts like a jerk one night doesn't mean that he's an addict fuck up who is going to abandon you. Also - accept that you can't change people. See #1

4) you can't undo the emotional pain you went through. The only thing you can do is acknowledge it - fully. Go to therapy, write your parents a letter telling them how angry you are and all the ways they let you down (even if you never send it). Allow yourself to fully feel all of the pain/anger/disappointment - acknowledge that these experiences have helped to shape who you are (good and bad) but they DO NOT define who you are. Accept that you can't control the actions of other people, but you can control what you do and think and how YOU treat others, and you can set the boundaries for how people treat you. The beauty of adult life is that if someone is bullying you, you can tell them to fuck off and not run into them in the hallway an hour later. If a family member mistreats you, you can cut them out of your life.

5) There are no hard and fast rules or steps to intimacy. On our first real date my boyfriend and I sat at a restaurant until it closed talking - he totally opened up to me about all of these things about his past, his family growing up, how his dad cheated on his mom and how much that affected him, past relationships and mistakes made, hopes for the future. I opened up a little more slowly - some things, like family past came up more quickly. Other harder things (ie I struggled with an eating disorder for 8 years) took me a few months to come up. You'll know when you feel right about something - other times you'll feel like you can't really move forward in the relationship without opening up about something that haunts you. Another good way to approach it would just be to have a conversation with the person you are dating about their views of intimacy - what it means to them, how important it is, etc. That will allow you to see if you guys are on the same page but also, in my experience, opens up bigger and more meaningful conversations. Also, instead of blurting out "my dad was a drunk and it totally fucked my life up" you could start a conversation by asking someone what childhood experiences really shaped who they are today, and then share how your experience growing up with your dad impacted you, both positively and negatively.

Also, acknowledge that being vulnerable means taking a risk - something you tell someone could turn them off, make them run, or end up being something you regret. That's OK and part of the human experience. The right person will allow you to be fully yourself - vulnerabilities and flaws and all, and accept it even if they don't adore every last one of them.

Last word of advice in this very long post (I'm a new poster and promise to get more concise!) - remember that every single person in this world has a past and has insecurities and issues to work through. Learn to have compassion for them and their suffering and you will begin to have more for yourself.
posted by Bokonon11 at 9:54 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Time and physical distance from the people who hurt you will help. Are you still in close contact with your family and old friends? If so can you get some more space from them? Dont despair, it WILL get better.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 12:42 PM on August 5, 2013


The way that trust is created is by taking little steps. Doing something little that scares you, and finding out that your partner can handle it. Then doing another little scary something and finding out once again that your partner will come through. Over time, the scary things can get bigger and bigger and one day you trust your partner well enough to let him know you truly and completely, and you trust him enough that when he tells you he loves you and that you are lovable, you believe him, because he's trustworthy.

On the one hand, it's not easy for anyone. Trust isn't automatic, especially in those of us with screwed up families.

On the other hand, the older you get, the less scary the little things are. The more you find out about yourself over time, the more you see with clarity what does and doesn't affect you. Things that seem impossible today may seem easy in 20 years. And man oh man, when I was in my early 20s, everything scared me. So it's not like you're alone in this. Most of us have been there. And it does get better.

And the men get better. Men in their early 20s in general aren't as good at relationships as older men. Practice makes perfect. So your choices in who you date may not be intentionally disastrous. Remember what Dan Savage says -- every relationship you have will fail...until the one that doesn't. I've known so many women your age who have bemoaned the fact that they never want the man they have (or who is available to them), and never get the man they want. But "never" is relative. For them, and I believe for you, it's really "not yet." I really believe that with the self-awareness you have, you will find someone really good for you. But I can't predict when that will be.

I really like everything that colfax said here. I'm a big fan of Cheryl Strayed and when I read the book that collects her columns, I kept thinking how much I wished I'd had it in my early 20s.

If there's one thing I would wish for you from posting this question and reading the responses, it is that you would see that you're not all that different from anyone else. And that, therefore, you might not even have all that much to fix, or that it will fix itself with time and therapy. And to know that you have a supportive community here, who all wish the best for you and are sending you lots of hugs & positive energy.
posted by janey47 at 1:12 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Accepting flaws also helps. Think of your close friends. Think of their flaws - their real flaws. Where they get angry or defensive or have limits to their understanding or confidence. Notice how... you just don't care, because they're you're friends and you love them. Realize that you do indeed love flawed people, and that flawed people are lovable. Therefore, you are loveable, even if your flaws are out there in the open for all to see. (And they are! They hide in plain sight for everyone.)

nthing building on your male friendships. Learn to love them, and be vulnerable with them. Allow them to them love you.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:28 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


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