Dear Neil: You very kindly answered an email I sent you 6 months ago about avoiding attachment with men. You suggested I work on my self-esteem in therapy, which I have done. Hence my sense of utter confusion and despair because I feel terrified of closeness and being hurt, resulting in panic attacks. This only happens in relationships with men. How do I get over the feelings of being trapped and/or smothered? I wait for the other shoe to drop when a man is kind and loving to me. I can’t accept a man treating me well, so I get anxious and angry. It’s as if I feel I have to give up myself in order to be loved. How do I break out of this?
Alone and Floundering
Dear Neil: I had everything with my girlfriend of 2 1/2 years: love, understanding and excitement, and I loved her dearly. But I couldn’t handle the intense intimacy we had, so as soon as she wanted more of a commitment I would run away. I did this perhaps 20 times in the relationship, and finally she said she wouldn’t take me back. Now I’m alone and kicking myself every day thinking about what I could have had. She told me she would snap and that I would lose this amazing relationship we had. She was right.
Kicking Myself in England
Dear Alone and Kicking: This most likely comes from having a history of: 1.) being rejected, abused or betrayed by people you have loved or cared about, especially in childhood; and 2.) not feeling worthy of love. And the two of these might be interconnected. Of course I will not feel worthy of love if a parent (or another person in a position of trust) acts hurtful, unloving or rejecting of me, especially when I am young and unsure of how likable or lovable I am. This sense of inadequacy can easily follow me through life, always making me feel “less than” others, and making me hyper sensitive to anything that resembles rejection.
So now I’m an adult in an intimate relationship, and my partner offers me lots of kindness, love and affection. But all of that is foreign to me. Not only do I not trust it, I also don’t feel worthy of it. I fear my partner isn’t sincere or authentic, that s/he is acting loving as a set up in order to eventually hurt, reject or betray me—just like what happened to me in childhood. So I reject my partner before s/he can ultimately reject me. This self-protection will undoubtably keep me safe, but I will feel alone, lonely and miserable, because I actually want the warmth, affection and closeness that I am running away from.
The solution is to confront my fears by giving myself more opportunities to succeed in a love relationship—without running away. Ultimately, I cannot know for sure if someone else is genuine and sincere, and will offer me a close, loving relationship without rejecting me. Even the closest of relationships sometimes fall apart because of unexpected or unforeseen reasons. Even the most accepting people can also be judgmental and critical of some of the ways I talk or behave, and even the most loving people can eventually fall out of love.
This is why a successful love relationship works well only for adults who are prepared to take the emotional risks in nurturing (rather than running from) closeness, emotional and physical connection, trust, openness and shared goals. It also requires us to learn how to effectively work through differences and conflicts, how to compromise and negotiate without giving ourselves up, and how to stay committed when the going gets rough. Finally, it requires us to trust those people who have the power to hurt or reject us, because there is far more value in trusting someone and risking getting burned, than in not allowing ourselves to trust at all.