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His Fear Of Intimacy Made Him Popular AND Lonely

fear of intimacy

Emotional intimacy

His Fear Of Intimacy Made Him Popular AND Lonely

Jody’s fear of intimacy meant he had no close friends although he had always been very popular and sociable – Why?

It’s overwhelming sometimes
When you’re all alone
And you can’t tell if you’re floating or falling out of place
Like the astronaut calls a little dot a home
Like he can tell from outer space
—San Fermin, “Two Scenes(link is external)

“What happened?” asked Jody. “Where did everybody go?”

The problem—and usually the point—of playing out irrelationship song-and-dance routines with friends (and, especially among groups of friends) is how effectively it keeps us at a safe distance from those supposedly closest to us.

Jody had always been popular at school and beyond. So when he went into therapy, he was totally stumped about why he had felt lonely all his life.

Making myself popular always seemed a good way of keeping myself from being overlooked. I first remember consciously worrying about it in the seventh grade.  I was so worried that nobody would pay attention to me or talk to me, just the way I was pretty much ignored at home. My mom and dad used to joke that I was “an accident.” But they said it so often that it didn’t feel like a joke anymore. I finally began to feel like I was some unwelcome kid they wished had never shown up.

Ironically, irrelationship allows us both to act out in, and to distance ourselves from, family conflicts and fears we had as children that never resolved as we moved into adulthood. The closer we allow others to get, the more our relationships with them come to resemble these unresolved conflicts. But irrelationship protects us from actually feeling the conflict and anxiety left over from childhood.

Junior high, high school, college, this job, that job—it was always the same: I quickly made myself the center of attention, the guy everybody was looking at and looking for—and then I’d take off. But at the same time I was running for the door, I was looking over my shoulder, afraid, both, that I was being chased and afraid that I wasn’t being chased. I knew I had to get out, but I wanted them to beg me to come back.

Irrelationship is like a tide carrying us into patterns of behavior that will make us popular. But underneath the waves is a rip-tide that pulls us back into old caretaking routines we learned as children—routines that limit our connection to those we’re drawn to, and keep at a distance those whom we’re afraid may be interested in us.

If I’m not at the center of attention in whatever circle I’m in—family, school, work—I get lonely pretty fast, and then it’s me against me.

Irrelationship turns down the noise of loneliness and anxiety in our heads. One of the ways it does that is by spreading our emotional investment among a group of superficial connections, none of which ask anything or cost anything. We’re able to fool ourselves into thinking we’re not lonely or afraid because we’re surrounded with people that we tell ourselves are our friends. And because we’re so popular, they may actually want to be our friends.

Jody took a hard look at this.

Was I a caretaker in each new social circle? It seems like it. And my seeming to take care of everybody else’s need definitelys made me popular. Only there wasn’t any “me” there. And even I didn’t know what I was up to. I definitely didn’t know I was doing all that “caring” to distract my attention from feeling that I really wasn’t “all that.”

Jody got the message from his family early in life that he just wasn’t  “all that.” He grew up thinking that the only way he could be somebody was by putting himself though endless acts, tricks and performances to make others like him. But all that performing had nothing to do with what he really had to offer: it was based entirely on what he believed others wanted him to be. Of course, Jody wasn’t aware of any of this—not his sadness and loneliness left over from childhood; that those feelings drove his performance routines; and definitely not that he still felt empty inside whether he was performing or not.

I had no idea that every time I moved from one group of friends to another, I was taking my need to be accepted along with me. And each time the members of those groups moved on with their lives—another school, college, jobs, marriages—I felt abandoned again. I had no idea that what was happening was just part of how life is. But it was even darker: I had no idea that the flip side of my hunger for connection was that real connection scared me to death. But that was why I stayed a moving target for years. 

Avoiding meaningful relationships with others, opting instead for broadly dispersed superficial connections allows us to postpone indefinitely becoming aware that we’re unconsciously avoiding getting close to others in order to avoid being disappointed by them. But managing our fear of getting close in this way has serious downsides:

  • Even though we may move from one social group to another, we still have unconscious feelings of disappointment that we’ve failed to connect meaningfully with others.
  • Enacting our fear of rejection in this way doesn’t make the pain go away: it only blocks our awareness of it.
  • By staying unconscious of our performance routine, we keep our distance from our feelings by repeating the routine over and over (“irrelationship”) meanwhile staying on the lookout for others we can enlist as audience for our performance.

Romantically involved couples invested in irrelationship don’t easily see how deeply committed they are to keeping their distance from one another, even though their relationships usually start out with a desire for intimacy. For people like Jody with a history of multiple, tenuous social connections, addressing irrelationship is even more complicated because the types of connections that are tolerable are in constant state of growth, flux and dismemberment. Jody summed it up this way:  “Yeah. When it came to relationships, I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”

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The Irrelationship Group, LLC; all rights reserved
[Mark Borg]

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D. is a community psychologist and psychoanalyst, founding partner of The Community Consulting Group, and a supervisor of psychotherapy at the William Alanson White Institute. He has written extensively about the intersection of psychoanalysis and community crisis intervention. He is in private practice in New York City.

Grant H. Brenner, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice, specializing in treating mood and anxiety disorders and the complex problems which may arise in adulthood from developmental childhood trauma. He works from a humanistic and integrative perspective, recognizing that each person requires an comprehensive assessment and individualized treatment plan, and that often different types of treatment are sometimes necessary to explore before finding an approach which works. At the same time, he values evidence-based approaches and stays current with new developments. He uses various approaches including talk therapy, medications, and interventional psychiatric approaches such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and neurofeedback. He is a volunteer and Board member of the not-for-profit organization Disaster Psychiatry Outreach. He teaches and supervises, and is a faculty member of the Mount Sinai Hospital and Director of the Trauma Service of the William Alanson White Institute. He is an editor of and author in the book Creating Spiritual and Psychological Resilience: Integrating Care in Disaster Relief Work, and the author of several papers and book chapters.

Daniel Berry, RN, MHA has practiced as a Registered Nurse in New York City since 1987. Working in in-patient, home care and community settings, his work has taken him into some of the city’s most privileged households as well as some of its most underprivileged housing projects. He is currently the Assistant Director of Nursing for Risk Management at a public hospital serving homeless and undocumented victims of street violence, drug addiction and severe traumatic injuries.

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