Intimacy is more than being physically close to someone. It is about exchanging personal information and feelings with others and responding to them with attentiveness, understanding, and validation. Only when two people are no longer strangers do they become intimate.
People who have intimate relationships experience greater well-being than those who lack them. If so, it seems ideal to seek intimacy. Yet for some people, intimate relationships evoke fear and anxiety. The fear of intimacy is deeply rooted in our childhood’s experience of intimacy and is most of the time unconscious. Men and women who struggle with a fear of intimacy don’t usually know that they do. It only tends to come out through work or romantic relationships. When you’ve identified that you have a fear of intimacy, you can work on overcoming it. By doing so, you’ll increase your sense of self-worth and lower your stress level.
What Is a Fear of Intimacy?
When we fear intimacy, we find it challenging to be physically or emotionally close to others. It leads to complicated relationships with lovers, friends, family, and colleagues. In reality, a fear of intimacy is a mirror to the real self. When we’ve built up defenses around ourselves, it shows that we’re not comfortable with who we are. We can’t be vulnerable with others. Men and women who experience a fear of intimacy often struggle to understand and accept themselves.
Having a fear of intimacy has nothing to do with not wanting love, yet the moment someone is getting closer to us and offers us, love, we feel uncomfortable. Something inside us won’t trust this love and we’ll push it away.
Fear of Intimacy Causes
The fear of intimacy comes from us not having a secure attachment.
A secure attachment is what forms when we are babies or children. Whenever we expressed discontent, discomfort, or hurt, a parent came in, soothed us, and let us know that what we felt was normal. They validated our feelings and they comforted us. That’s how we form a secure attachment.
An insecure attachment – avoidant or anxious – is when we cried or expressed discontent and a parent didn’t show up. They weren’t around or said things like, “oh, he’ll cry it out.” On the other hand, if we had smothering parents, they might have worried too much about how we felt and we might have picked up on their anxiety.
When we grow up with an insecure attachment, we think that our emotions are not okay. We end up with thoughts like:
- “No one is going to come to my rescue. Maybe I’m making this up? Maybe I don’t have the right to feel this way“;
- “I’m going to burden my parents so much. It’s going to be so stressful if I express what’s actually happening”.
It leads to a fear of intimacy. In both cases, the only safe way to exist is not to feel any of these emotions. We bury our feelings deep within ourselves and hope they go away. By the time we’re adults, we’ve never had a good experience with feelings and it becomes scary to let these emotions out.
There are other factors that damage the ability to trust others as adults, regardless of a child’s secure attachment style. Sexual, physical, or emotional trauma or personality disorder increases fear of intimacy.
Signs of a Fear of Intimacy
Men and women who struggle with a fear of intimacy don’t usually know that they do. It only tends to come out through work or romantic relationships. It usually takes a while even to recognize this is something that they struggle with.
If you have any of the signs below, you might have a fear of intimacy:
1. You need to maintain your independence and freedom at all costs. Maybe you say things such as “I need a lot of space” or “I could never be with someone who isn’t completely self-sufficient.”;
2. You feel uncomfortable with too much closeness, even though you want to be close to others. You use distancing strategies such as sleeping in a different bed as your partner or living in a separate household for years;
3. You tend not to open up to your partners. You have difficulties talking about what’s going on and certain topics are off-limits. For example, you’ve been with your partner for a while now, but you haven’t said “I love you.” Your partner often complains that you are emotionally distant;
4. During a disagreement, you need to get away or you explode. You seek to remain distant and have difficulty understanding your partner’s views or feelings. You might say things like, “You know what, forget it. I don’t want to talk about it.” ;
5. You describe yourself as a free spirit who has short relationships and multiple conquests. When you are in a relationship, you tend not to worry about your partner’s feelings or commitment toward you;
6. You’re often on high alert for any signs of control or impingement on your territory by your partner.
How to Overcome the Fear of Intimacy
Here are three actions you can take to work on your fear of intimacy:
#1: Reconnect with your emotions.
Your emotions are like a compass. They are always telling you about what’s going on within you. If you’re thinking a thought, your emotions will always be reflecting the way you feel. They’ll let you know exactly where you stand at all times. It doesn’t matter if the feelings are reflective of a thought or a perception that is accurate or not.
Learning to feel after unconsciously choosing to cut off your emotions begins with a conscious decision. Once you take this decision, you can slowly start reconnecting with your feelings. A good start is to dig deeper when you catch yourself saying, “I’m fine” or “I’m okay.” What are you experiencing that you don’t want to see? You can’t dismiss your own feelings without doing the same to other people around you. Accept your emotions as they arise without judgment.
Once you learn what emotions you’re experiencing, practice communicating them to the other people in your life. Consider this a process of re-owning your truth. With dedication, it will become easier to recognize, accept, and express your feelings.
#2: Practice reading the emotions of others.
Many people who struggle with a fear of intimacy have a hard time reading other people. I encourage you to have a trusted friend, family member, or loved one who you can bounce this off as you practice. The more we practice, the better we’ll get, and the quicker we’ll be able to recognize the emotions of others.
Make a dedicated practice of noticing social cues. When you believe you won’t be accepted by others and close yourself off, you’ll live in a self-centered sphere that creates a negative pattern. You’ll either ignore or dismiss subtle – and not so subtle – cues from other people all the time and you’ll ignore their feelings. You’ll reproduce what your parents have done to you.
In every social interaction, practice reading others’ emotions. Check-in with them about whether what you are perceiving is accurate or not.
#3: Notice when disconnection with people occurs.
Do you sometimes have a sensation of being just a brain without a body, wandering all over the place? It’s an indication that you’re disconnected.
When you’re disconnected, people around you will always reflect that back to you and be the carrier of the feelings you are trying to suppress. Here’s what I mean: let’s say you feel rage in your body and you’re disconnecting from that. People who you are interacting with will likely pick up on that and amplify your hidden feelings. They become the carrier of your rage.
Start now by noticing how other people respond to you with anxiety, neediness, or rage when you disconnect. Disconnection from the people who you perceive to be causing those feelings is not an escape from the feelings themselves. When you are terrified of strong emotions, force yourself to be present while practicing calming techniques. Let yourself embrace these feelings. It’s the only way not to create a vicious spiral of lost connection with the person you genuinely want to connect with.
Why Therapy is Important
Working on the last three actions is a good start, but it is not enough. Because the fear of intimacy is linked to difficult childhood experiences and trauma, I’d recommend therapy. The therapist-client relationship can be a way to try new ways of relating and trusting. When you choose your therapist, choose one who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It seems to be the most appropriate type of therapy to heal from fear of intimacy. CBT helps correct distorted behaviors and improve emotional regulation by implementing coping strategies.