This post is not about sexual intimacy. This post won’t help you feel comfortable when your body is naked; it’s about baring your deepest thoughts and feelings knowing you are opening yourself to judgment. Sharing your ideas, fears, and dreams can be frightening in some situations, but it can also be the best thing you can do to strengthen your important relationships.
We often confuse the terms “authentic” and “intimate.” Being authentic means to genuinely express who you are with your actions and words. Most of the time, we can tell if someone is faking it whether they are intending to be malicious or just afraid to be themselves.
Even if I show up as “authentically me” as best I can (there are things I keep discovering about myself as I work on my development), at times I'm reluctant to reveal my hopes, aspirations, fears, resentments, and mistakes. I may be authentic but I resist intimacy.
We want our leaders to be vulnerable, to share what they dream about, what they struggle with, and what hard lessons they have learned along the way.
We want our family and friends to be open and honest with their thoughts, to share when they feel wronged, ignored, or judged, and to ask us to support their aspirations.
We want our life partners to share how they feel, ask for what they need, and reveal when they feel misunderstood or snubbed.
As social beings, we long for intimacy.
And, as beings who must feel safe with the people we live and work with, we shut down when we hear what we don’t like. We limit our intimacy out of fear of being rejected, chastised, or punished.
Many of us were brought up being told to keep our feelings to ourselves. We were told, “People will crush your weaknesses. Protect yourself to succeed.”
Without intimacy, relationships become stale and boring. If we keep hoping the relationship will change, we eventually find fault and disrespect our partners or feel shame and guilt for not making things better.
At work, when people don’t feel psychologically safe to speak up and say what they think, their fears turn to resentment, cynicism, or emotional numbness. Carefulness and confidence drops, resulting in low job satisfaction and productivity, and more stress-related illnesses, turnover, conflicts and accidents. Psychological safety affects physical safety.1 We want our robots to be more sensitive and real but avoid situations where we feel vulnerable, sensitive, and real.
Yes, there is such a thing as “too much information” where you reveal details of an event that aren’t necessary. If others don’t need to know the story behind your decisions and actions, then the “intimate details” can cause people to disconnect with you instead of feeling closer.
To build intimacy into your relationships, you need to create a safe space for others to share with you and you need to have the courage to be open and vulnerable with others.
Create a safe space for intimacy
For people to feel you are open to them, you need to relax your mind and body. Notice when a judgment creeps in, when you are formulating your answer instead of listening, and when your muscles tighten up with impatience or resistance. You can find ways to shift your emotions in Outsmart Your Brain, 2nd edition.2 Here are a few steps to take:
Never use what the others share against them in the future. Let people change. It is hurtful to remind them of what they said or did in the past.
Cultivate your courage to be intimate with others
If people must figure out how you feel and why, they will probably misinterpret your actions. It serves you to declare how you feel and think to resolve conflicts or strengthen relationships.
Also, showing your flaws and gaps is a critical part of teaching and leading. The point of sharing your experiences is not to show how you brilliantly succeeded, but that you faced the dark, scary moments they are facing too.
These tips will help share what is on your mind and in your heart:
Close all intimate conversations with a positive word, an appreciation, or an expression of caring.
Being open and encouraging transparency from others improves trust, relationships, and results. Yes, you can be hurt, but you’re more likely to be hurt if you build walls between yourself and others.
1 Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Mental Health - Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Workplace, updated May 4, 2017 https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/mentalhealth_risk.html
2 Reynolds, Marcia (2017). Outsmart Your Brain: How to Manage Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel. 2nd Editon, Covisioning, 119-136.
2 Ng, W., & Diener, E. (2014). "What matters to the rich and the poor? Subjective well-being, financial satisfaction, and postmaterialist needs across the world." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(2), 326-338.