Are You Afraid of Being Loved?

Being loved is daunting, but worth it.

Posted Sep 21, 2018

 Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Recent studies have revealed the prevalence of loneliness in the United States.  One online poll of 20,096 adults suggested that nearly half of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out, one in four rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them, and one in five rarely or never feel close to people or feel there are people they can talk to.

The undesirability of loneliness is clear.  Research has shown loneliness to be associated with poor physical health as well as adverse psychological wellbeing.  Psychologists are exploring multiple reasons for widespread loneliness.  One observation stands out as particularly instructive.  Only around half of the Americans surveyed reported having meaningful in-person social interactions, such as an extended conversation with a friend or quality time with family, on a daily basis.  Has our lifestyle become increasingly less personally connected?  Unlike research findings in previous time periods, recent survey data suggest that young adults (ages 18 to 22) are now among the loneliest people.

Could it be that many people have become more cautious about engaging in close relationships?  Psychologists have long studied the phenomenon of anxiety inherent in loving another and its associated fear of commitment.  But now we may be encountering a growing trend in anxiety about being the recipient of love.  Are many people, in fact, afraid of being loved?

Given the universal powerful allure of love, why would anyone fear being loved?

  • You might be afraid that you don’t deserve to be loved

Implicit in accepting love is the sense of deserving that love.  Adults who had experienced some degree of family discord when they were children might feel insecure about their worthiness, unlike adults who felt less complicated unconditional love as children.  High tech images of virtually unattainable ideals—products of photo editing software, cosmetic enhancements, and athletic supplements—have created a world of illusory perfection.  To the extent that social comparison drives self-evaluation, immersion in false aspirational models can fuel feelings of inadequacy and not being good enough to be loved.

  • You might be afraid of disappointing your lover

In The Teddy Bear Song, the singer explains her wish to be a teddy bear with “no dreams to dream and nothing to be sorry for,” and with just a string her lover could pull:  “Then I’d know every time I spoke, the words were right and no one would know the mess I’ve made of my life.”  When we are unloved, our failures seem to hurt only ourselves.  When loved, we run the risk of hurting the one who loves us when we fail to achieve, to fulfill our potential, or to live up to the image our lover has fallen in love with.  Striving to attain a goal can be energizing and anticipating success can make us exuberant, but feeling a need to succeed to avoid disappointing one who loves us can be stressful and exhausting.  Someone can also be reluctant to accept love if they fear that serious illness or injury might one day impose unfair stress or responsibilities upon their lover.

  • You might be afraid of losing your freedom

Despite loneliness, remaining unloved is one type of emotional freedom.  Superficially, being alone allows you to keep the pragmatic aspects of your lifestyle intact.  Being loved is likely to encourage or even force you to adapt to the other’s needs and desires.  In that simple sense, the lover is a bit of an intruder, changing your physical and mental space—from furniture to time for reading, meditation, or watching your favorite shows.

On a deeper, more fundamental level, being loved for who you are or once were can feel like a burden to preserve that identity.  Growing, changing, following different dreams could seem to be a betrayal.  Becoming a new person can feel like one way of abandoning a loved one, as the relationship is inherently now between two different “selves.”

  • You might incur an emotional debt by being loved

Being loved imposes an emotional debt.  When loved, one feels the obligation to love in return.  Love is expressed in varying ways by different individuals.  One might wonder whether they are able to love in the same way or with the same intensity as their lover loves them.  Fear of such indebtedness can be intensified if the recipient doesn’t want to love in such ways.  Being loved can feel like we owe gratitude, emotional support, and attention to our lover.  While giving of ourselves freely makes us happy, feeling obligated to do so can rob our gifts of their essential value.

  • You might be afraid of falling out of love

Being loved entails the risk of that love being withdrawn at some time.  Someone who has had love end might not be willing to take such a risk again.  Such reluctance can be especially strong if the previous relationship involved unfaithfulness, betrayal, or hostility.  On the other hand, one might not be willing to take the risk of one day falling out of love and putting their lover through such emotional pain.

  • You might be afraid your true self will be discovered

Everyone has a public self and a private one.  In some people, the two selves can differ in important attributes.  Some people feel that the image they portray to the world is not accurate, or is even phony in certain aspects.  The term “impostor phenomenon,” or “imposter syndrome,” was coined to describe the feeling an individual has that the capable, successful person other people think they are is not who they really are.  They are convinced that others have been fooled by accomplishments that had been the result of luck, human error, or preferential treatment.  They fear that eventually someone will discover that they are actually a fraud, an impostor.  As intimacy threatens to reveal a person’s true nature, impostors might fear being loved and having their authentic qualities exposed.

  • You might be afraid that your lover will uncover your secrets

People divulge information about themselves, beliefs, values, and past experiences to others with discretion.  Some details are shared widely, while others can be hidden from others over a lifetime.  The longer a secret is kept private, the harder it can be to ever reveal it.  Most people are willing to share their most emotionally difficult secrets only with those they trust the most.  Changes in society in recent decades, including high divorce rates, tell-all exposés, and online privacy concerns, have eroded complete trust in others.  Being loved entails the risk of carefully guarded secrets being uncovered.

If you are hesitant to let someone love you, consider whether your fears are justified.  Remember that being loved is an integral part of living.  Being closed to love deprives another of one of the most wonderful experiences of being human—loving you.  Accepting love might involve some sacrifice, but it can also be one of the most selfless, meaningful, and rewarding challenges you can take.

References

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Batcho, K. I.  (2012).  Childhood happiness:  More than just child’s play.  Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/longing-nostalgia/201201/childhood-happiness-more-just-childs-playBa

Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Prahler, E., Reiner, I., Junger, C., Michal, M. . . . & Tibubos, A. N.  (2017).  Loneliness in the general population:  Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health.  BMC Psychiatry, 17, 1-7. 

Caughlin, J. P., Afifi, W. A., Carpenter-Theune, K. E., & Miller, L. E.  (2005).  Reasons for, and consequences of, revealing secrets in close relationships:  A longitudinal study.  Personal Relationships, 12, 43-59.

Cigna.  (2018).  New Cigna study reveals loneliness at epidemic levels in America.  https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A.  (1978).  The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women:  Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.  Psychotherapy, Theory, Research and Practice15, 241-247. 

Cowie, M. E., Nealis, L. J., Sherry, S. B., Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L.  (2018).  Perfectionism and academic difficulties in graduate students:  Testing incremental prediction and gender moderation.  Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 223-228.

Langford, J., & Clance, P. R.  (1993).  The impostor phenomenon:  Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment.  Psychotherapy, 30, 495-501.

Lane, J. D., & Wegner, D. M.  (1995).  The cognitive consequences of secrecy.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 237-253.

Yan, J., Feng, X., & Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J.  (2018).  Associations between parent-child relationships in middle childhood and child-perceived loneliness. Journal of Family Psychology, 32, 841-847. 

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