The Hidden Reasons We Don't Let Love In

The cliché is true: You have to love yourself first.

Posted Nov 20, 2015

Devaint Art image by Louvette
Source: Devaint Art image by Louvette

Attachment theory tells us that we’re wired to pursue love and acceptance, which makes the fear of rejection understandable. But might there also be a corresponding, less visible fear—the fear of acceptance?

The fear of rejection makes sense: If we’ve had a steady diet of shame, blame, and criticism, we learned that the world is not a safe place. Something within us mobilizes to protect our tender heart from further stings and insults.

But this mechanism doesn’t discriminate: Our defensive structure not only safeguards us from the prospect of rejection, but also from acceptance and welcoming. It's a scanning antenna that, in working to protect us from danger, often gives false readings.

Acceptance Can Be Frightening

There can be scary implications for acceptance: You're at a social gathering and you meet someone who apparently likes you. They ask for your phone number. What now? You're suddenly flooded by fear. You wonder, "What if this person begins to see who I really am? What if they don’t like what they see? And what if they really like what they see. What then?"

Other people accepting and liking you might be scary if...:

1. You have blocks to receiving.

You may not know how to deal with compliments or positive attention. You might shut down and erect defenses to others seeing you. If you allow a connection to happen and then, at some point they no longer accept you, that might really hurt. So you play it safe by keeping distant as a preemptive defense against possible future pain.

2. You cling to negative core beliefs.

When someone likes or accepts you, negative core beliefs might quickly rush in. If you're convinced that you’re unlovable or that relationships never work out, you might suppress your aliveness and play it safe.

3. You have an avoidant or ambivalent attachment style.

A fear of acceptance may be operating if you tend to avoid emotional engagement in relationships. In addition to fearing rejection, you might keep distant because you don’t trust that any connection or acceptance will last. If you’re ambivalent about relationships—some part of you wants connection, but it frightens another part—you might succumb to fear and pull away at the first sign of discord.

Overcoming the fear of acceptance may mean exploring blocks to receiving and examining core beliefs that keep us stuck. This might involve a radical change in your self-image. Viewing yourself more positively—and the potential to love and receive love more hopefully—means that your life might change. And change is often scary.

Accepting Ourselves 

It also can be scary to accept ourselves. Practicing radical acceptance—embracing ourselves as we are—means not judging ourselves but rather honoring the full range of our feelings and desires. It can be scary to open to our human hurts and sorrows and accept that it's all simply a part of being human.

Shame blocks us from seeing and honoring our true feelings. It creates an inner contraction that prevents us from accepting ourselves as we are. We may strive to be perfect in order to avoid drawing shame. We may think we have to project an image of being strong, intelligent, humorous, or unruffled in order to avoid rejection or humiliation. These shame-driven behaviors disconnect us from ourselves and isolate us. 

We move toward a courageous self-acceptance as we realize that we're a vulnerable creature—just like everyone else. Our shame begins to heal as we notice when it's operating and then bring gentleness and kindness to ourselves.

Poznyakov/Shutterstock
Source: Poznyakov/Shutterstock

When you are with someone whose demeanor, smile, or kind words suggest that they respect, like, or accept you, how do you feel inside? Do you notice some inner squirming or discomfort? Can you allow those feelings to be there and be gentle with them? Maybe you can take a breath and let in how it feels to experience acceptance.

You might learn to like it.

Please consider liking my Facebook page and click on “get notifications” (under "Likes") to receive future posts. If you like this article, you might enjoy my latest book, Dancing with Fire.

John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally.

© John Amodeo