I recently wrote a blog titled “7 Reasons Most People are Afraid of Love.” Within hours, the post had tens of thousands of reads and thousands of social media shares – numbers that would double and triple over the next couple days. At first, I was surprised at this response, but then I thought about the prevalence of the subject matter. Who isn’t on some level fearful or resistant to, not just falling in love, but living in love? The blog itself was based on my father Dr. Robert Firestone’s theory of the “fear of intimacy” and was heavily inspired by more than 30 years of examples of clients, co-workers, friends, family members and countless individuals I’ve encountered across the world who’ve opened up to me about their relationship struggles. Almost every one of us can relate to at least a couple of the ways we defend ourselves, self-protect and self-sabotage when it comes to love. In my previous blog, I explored why we do this. Here, I will address what we can do about it. How can we overcome our fears of intimacy to find and maintain the love we so desire?
The first step to not acting on our fears is to recognize that we have them. The fear of intimacy isn’t a problem without a solution, but finding a solution means identifying that there is a problem. Having this problem may seem hard to relate to at first, since most of us claim that we want love in our lives. Many of us feel cheated or victimized by circumstance, while failing to see that our biggest obstacle is how we get in our own way. Whether it’s a worry of stirring up a past hurt or a re-creation of our childhood that’s at play, it will benefit us to gain a deeper understanding of our less conscious motivations that damage our closest relationships.
In any relationship, the only person you can control is yourself. By being open to how we are resistant to achieving the love we say we want, we empower ourselves to change 100 percent of our half of the dynamic. Even a less-than-perfect relationship can teach us the ways we limit ourselves and help us grow our capacity to love. It is in our power to decide who we want to be in our relationship and to act in accordance with that, no matter what our partner does. Learning to love is a subject I will further explore in my upcoming eCourse, “Creating Your Ideal Relationship: How to Find and Achieve the Love You Say You Want.” Here are some crucial actions we can take to start breaking down the barriers inside ourselves that push love away:
1. Look at your history – As we delve into the ways we defend against love, it’s helpful to look at our past. We can start by looking at our current or recent relationships. Where are the stumbling blocks? If the relationship has ended, where did it go wrong? What issues keep/kept coming up? What ways might we be pushing/have pushed love away? What thoughts inspired these actions? What were we telling ourselves the last time we provoked our partner, started a fight, acted coldly, rejected a loved one, refused an invitation, ignored or withheld affection, sloughed off a compliment, etc?
As we identify the thoughts or “critical inner voices” that filled our heads on these occasions, we can start to recognize themes and recurring behaviors and begin to identify patterns. We can see how our own defenses systematically operate to ward off love. We may notice that we have trouble being acknowledged by our partner or that we feel angry when he or she relies on us. We may feel repelled by a loving look or be quick to feel insecure or rejected.
Once we start to know our patterns, we can trace them back to their roots. We can look back to our childhoods to see where these adaptations may have come from. Were you rejected or intruded on by a parent or caretaker? Were you put down in your family? Did you observe destructive interactions between your parents? Did you notice negative dynamics in their relationship that influenced how you now act in yours?
The attitudes and behaviors we witnessed and experienced as children often subconsciously shape the ways we think and act as adults. Having someone love us or look at us differently from how we were looked at as kids presents a unique challenge that few of us anticipate in our adult relationships. Having a satisfying, loving adult romantic relationship often represents a break with our families’ patterns of relating.
Differentiating ourselves from our family of origin and having a sense of our own unique identity, while a positive development, will likely stir us up. Yet, failing to differentiate from negative or self-limiting adaptations to our past circumstances will make it difficult for us to live our own lives as happy, individuated adults, much less happy, individuated and in love adults. As we come to understand how our past informs our present, we can perform one of the most beneficial acts to improving our love lives - we can put our emotions and projections back where they belong. For example, we can stop seeing our partner as rejecting or suspicious.
2. Stop listening to your inner critic – Try to recognize that little voice in your head that feeds you information like, “He doesn’t really love you. Don’t be a fool. Get moving before he really hurts you.” Think about how this critical inner voice coaches you to avoid feeling intimate or vulnerable. “She is just manipulating you. Don’t let her get to know the real you. You can’t trust anyone.” Think about how it puts you and others down, injuring your confidence. “You’re too ugly/fat/poor/awkward to have a relationship. No one will be interested.”
Throughout your life, this cruel and conniving thought process will try to lure you away from finding love. Identifying it will help you to stop seeing it as reality or your own point of view. It will allow you to separate and to act against its harmful directives. Remember that letting go of your inner critic means letting go of an old identity that, although unpleasant, can also feel safe in its familiarity. Breaking from this critic will rouse anxiety, but it poses a battle well worth fighting. Powering through this anxiety and refuting your inner critic at every turn will allow you to uncover and become your truest self.
3. Challenge your defenses – It’s easy to fall back to those old, comforting activities that keep us feeling sheltered and alone. Even though, they may make us feel lonely, unfulfilled or hardened against love, we revert to our defenses like a heavy blanket shielding us from the world. Our defenses, no matter how alluring they may sound, are not our friend. They are there to keep us from achieving our goals.
It may have felt threatening, even dangerous, to open up to someone as a child or show our feelings in our family, but these same defenses are no longer constructive to us in our current relationships. Perhaps, pretending we didn’t care helped guard us from the pain of feeling neglected or invisible, however that same attitude will make it hard to accept loving feelings that are extended to us today. As we learn how adaptations that served us in our childhood are harmful to us in the present, we can act against these almost instinctive behaviors and, over time, become who we want to be in our relationships.
4. Feel your feelings – We’re all familiar with the expression, “Love makes us feel alive,” and it’s one cliché that’s entirely true. Love makes us feel. It deepens our capacity for joy, passion and vitality. However, it also makes us more susceptible to pain and loss. Falling in love can remind us of previous hurts. It can awaken us to existential realities. Unfortunately, we can’t selectively numb our feelings. When we try to avoid pain, we subdue joy and love.
Caring deeply for another person makes us feel more deeply in general. When these emotions arise, we should be open to feeling them. We may worry that strong feelings will overpower us or take over our lives, but in truth, feelings are transitory if we don’t try to block them. For example, sadness comes in waves, and when we allow ourselves to feel it, we also open ourselves up to feeling a tremendous amount of joy.
I recently heard the comedian Louis C.K. perfectly and succinctly capture this point in an anecdote on late night talk show, saying, “Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments… Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness.” Sadness can be a good sign that we are more open and vulnerable. Similarly, anxiety can be a sign that we are changing or developing ourselves in ways that will positively impact our lives.
5. Be vulnerable and open – So many of us live in fear of being vulnerable. We are told early on to be smart and toughen up. The dating world accepts, even promotes a culture of game-playing. Don’t call her for at least three days. Don’t say “I love you” first. Don’t tell him how you feel. Don’t let her see how much you like her. Being vulnerable is a mark of strength, not weakness. It means ignoring the voices in your head and acting on how you really feel. When you do this, you learn that you can survive, even when you get hurt. You’ll be able to live with more honesty and possibility, knowing that you’ve stayed yourself, even when the world around you wasn’t perfect.
Staying yourself doesn’t mean getting set in your ways or closing off to new experiences. Being vulnerable means just the opposite – a willingness to be open to new people and to breaking old patterns. If you typically choose dominant or controlling partners, only to find yourself in a relationship you resent, try dating someone different with more flexibility. Avoid making hard and fast rules about relationships. Follow what you feel, all the while finding strength in the knowledge that no one else controls your happiness, you do. You can avoid falling victim to the outside world and to your own inner critic by continuing to act with integrity, dropping your defenses to become your real self.
Committing to these actions and investing in your relationships are both part of a natural process of growing into and becoming your own person. It’s a matter of severing the more destructive, often imaginary ties to your past and unleashing a newfound sense of self – a self that is now capable of having a loving relationship with another unique individual. When we brave the barriers we alone put up inside ourselves, we learn to live “all in.”
We can start challenging ourselves to accept love – to return a loving look, rather than turn away in embarrassment. We can act in ways that our partner would experience as loving, rather than holding back and being self-protective. We can approach our defenses with curiosity and compassion and slowly start to change our part of the equation that limits our capacity for love.
Yes, we may get hurt along the way by the shortcomings in others, but it’s important to note that, as adults, we are resilient. When we open ourselves up to love, we create the world we live in. Real love radiates out and is supported by and extended to others. Its contagious effects are likely to reflect back on us, filling our lives with meaningful interactions and relationships. As this occurs, life is sure to feel more precious, but isn’t that the idea?
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the online course “Creating Your Ideal Relationship: How to Find and Achieve the Love You Say You Want.”
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org