Overcoming Fear of Intimacy

Don't settle for second-rate knowledge about our psychological problems.

Don’t settle for second-rate knowledge about our psychological problems.

For our personal growth and self-development, the psychological establishment is feeding us baby food. We’ll have difficulty fulfilling our destiny without better educational nutrition.

Let’s consider the problem in light of what mainstream psychology is telling us about the self-defeating behavior known as “fear of intimacy.”

We won’t find abiding love, of course, when we’re afraid of intimacy. So how do we fix the problem? An online search for information turns up hundreds of articles and numerous books. Much of this self-help literature does a decent job discussing the experiences and characteristics of fugitives from intimacy. But it does a lousy job providing real insight that can dramatically improve their lives.

One mainstream explanation says that intimacy-dodgers have a fear of rejection (being rejected or abandoned by the loved one), along with a fear of engulfment (feeling controlled and dominated by one’s partner, along with losing oneself in the relationship).

Indeed, these two fears are felt by individuals who flee from intimacy. But where do these fears come from? Relationship experts are not explaining the true source of these fears. They say the fears can be due to a social phobia, an anxiety disorder, or a history of abuse. Yet even when these factors are aspects of the problem, we still need knowledge that goes beyond a diagnosis or the wounds of victimization.

For true insight, we have to penetrate into the nature of emotional conflict. On one side of the conflict, the person with fear of intimacy often suffers from acute loneliness and desperately wants to find love. On the other side of the conflict, however, he or she is unconsciously expecting to be rejected or abandoned, as well as expecting to become passive and lose oneself in an intimate relationship.

This conflict, unresolved in the person’s psyche, is processed fruitlessly and painfully in the many forms of self-defeat and self-sabotage that dysfunctional relationships can take.

People are typically aware of one side of the conflict, namely the fact that they do sincerely want to find love. Hardly ever are they aware of the other side of the conflict where they’re unconsciously expecting and even compelled to experience the old unresolved negative emotions of rejection and passivity. The psychological establishment is not addressing this side of the conflict.

Most of us experienced negative emotions as children, even when we had decent parents. As adults, we can still know ourselves and identify with ourselves through old painful emotions. In other words, we haven’t liberated ourselves from our attachment to negative emotions such as rejection and passivity. We may be free people living in a democratic country, but we have yet to acquire real inner freedom, meaning a life that is free from the compulsion to recycle unresolved negative emotions.

On issues such as fear of intimacy, people are getting second-rate knowledge in the self-help marketplace. We’re not being informed about the power of the compulsion to act out self-defeating behavior. To raise our emotional intelligence, we need better insight. To illustrate that insight, I’ll compare a mainstream article on the fear of intimacy with the more valuable deeper self-knowledge that I provide at this website.

This mainstream article, published at The Huffington Post, is correct in some of what it says about fear of intimacy. Yet it presents only a superficial analysis. Here’s an excerpt from the article: 

The fear [of intimacy] exists, not because of the experience itself, but because you don’t know how to handle the situations of being rejected or controlled. The secret to moving beyond the fear of intimacy lies in developing a powerful, loving, adult part of you that learns how to not take rejection personally, and learns to set appropriate limits against engulfment.

The author doesn’t answer essential questions: Why don’t you know how to handle situations of being rejected or controlled? Why do you take rejection personally? We have to see our unresolved entanglement in feeling rejected or controlled. Whatever is unresolved in our psyche is going to be felt by us, no matter how painful. Without deeper awareness, we have little choice but to continue to feel what is unresolved. The negative emotions are powerful, and they can swamp our best efforts to stay positive.

Through these unresolved emotions, we embellish the negative experience. If it seems that our partner has rejected us or might reject us in the future, we get “triggered” or “take a hit” on the feeling of rejection. Even in instances where rejection is not intended, we can experience a situation emotionally as if rejection is actually happening. To cover up our unconscious willingness to once again feel that painful old unresolved emotion, we get angry or upset at our partner, thereby blaming our partner for what we ourselves are unconsciously willing and compelled to experience.

Fear of intimacy, then, becomes an unconscious defense. This defense makes this claim: “I’m not interested in taking a hit on (and indulging in) that old feeling of rejection. Look, I’m backing away from the relationship. I’m playing it safe and keeping a distance. That proves I’m not looking for rejection.”

The person sacrifices love and intimacy to “prove” he or she is not interested in feeling rejected. But the individual is, in fact, entangled in the negative emotion of rejection and compelled to go on either experiencing it or fleeing from it. What saves us is growing awareness of our hidden attachment to the negative emotion of rejection. We see we’ve been making an unconscious choice to feel that old hurt and indulge in it.

We do this also with respect to the second fear, the fear of engulfment. Here the individual’s unresolved inner passivity means that he or she unwittingly gives up power to the other person in the relationship. The individual then experiences self-loathing as well as animosity toward the partner, and engages in various forms of passive-aggressive reactions while failing to bring his or her inner weakness (or participation in the sense of powerlessness) into focus.

The Huffington Post article also says:

When you learn how to take personal responsibility for defining your own worth instead of making others’ love and approval responsible for your feelings of worth, you will no longer take rejection personally. This does not mean that you will ever like rejection; it means you will no longer be afraid of it and have a need to avoid it.

These words are not just baby food, they’re empty calories. How can you take personal responsibility for defining your own worth when you’re completely unaware of being emotionally attached to rejection? In this predicament, you’re likely also to be experiencing strong doses of self-rejection that are being spooned out by your inner critic and that you unwittingly swallow. A rejecting partner is only doing to you what you’re doing to yourself.

The Huffington Post article goes on to say: “When you learn how to speak up for yourself and not allow others to invade, smother, dominate and control you, you will no longer fear losing yourself in a relationship.” But the author says nothing helpful about how you learn to speak up for yourself. To various degrees, our psyche is infused or contaminated with inner passivity, a weak yet persistent identification that separates us from our authentic self. Through this weakness, people can’t represent themselves with power, and they easily lose themselves in relationships.

Why are we still swallowing the baby food of mainstream psychology? Stubborn clinging to a small sense of self makes us afraid of deeper self-knowledge. We’re also afraid of the loving self that will emerge when we really start growing.

Related reading:

The Bittersweet Allure of Feeling Unloved