People often come to me berating themselves and feeling they are fated to never be close or truly known by someone else. They list family experiences growing up; experiencingdivorce; trauma; a history of bullying; a chronic medical crisis; grief; or a combination of these as permanent blocks to ever getting close and feeling safe in an intimate, mutually healthy,romantic relationship—or even friendship. The saddest part is that people who feel anxious or uncomfortable with closeness deep down truly desire and have the capacity for it—they just need the skills to get there.
Here are 5 steps to take to get more comfortable being yourself with others and deepening your relationships—family, romantic, social and even professional.
1. Build self-love.
Building self-love is a process. A helpful first step is to notice if you are putting all of your energy into making a relationship work or into finding the perfect match. Take a step back and consider if you are hoping someone else will provide you with something only you can develop. If you tend to camouflage what you consider unlovable about yourself through attaching to others, refocus. Instead of seeking this from another potential mate, work on becoming close with yourself. Take time to sit with what you struggle to accept about yourself and treat it with kindness. Instead of pushing it away through trying to find another person to couple up with, remember that until you build a strong relationship with yourself–which means accepting yourself fully–it will be hard to let another know the real you.
2. Recognize your feelings, thoughts, and experiences—and talk about them.
Those who feel uncomfortable getting close to people tend not to express their deeper feelings, and then resent others for not taking an interest in getting to know them on a more meaningful level. This perpetuates a cycle of feeling let down and disappointed in relationships, and a deep sense of loneliness, all of which further disconnects them from closeness and belonging. Instead of blaming others, accept that you may not be letting people in enough for them to care to know you better. When a person vividly describes their feelings and experiences, they come to life—suddenly someone who once appeared like a black-and-white TV screen is now is in full HD color. Some who struggle with intimacy are so uncomfortable in social encounters that they do not know what to share.
Instead of focusing on what others are thinking of you, shine the light within. Work to notice your experiences and feelings and then push yourself to say it. If you feel joyful, happy, sad, disappointed, angry—label your emotions. Do not dismiss them. Find the words to describe what you are feeling, thinking, or experiencing, and communicate this to others in your life. Find people who make you feel normal when you express your emotions, not judged or put down. Notice if romantic partners or friends are receptive to what you have to say. Even if they do not agree with you, when others are close to you, there is a sense of comfort and validation.
3. No longer engage those with whom you feel invisible.
When people have awkwardness or anxiety or feel they do not know how to be close to others, they are prone to hanging out with those who do not challenge these feelings in the least. In other words, they end up surrounded by folks with whom they do not exist in a vibrant way. Although they may resent this, it is comfortable for those who avoid intimacy because they do not challenge themselves to be more open about who they are. Yet, they often walk away from such encounters feeling alone and sorely in need of the exact thing they avoid—closeness with others. If you want to be closer with others, do not let yourself loaf with those who do not challenge you to grow. Engage those who ask you questions and probe you to talk and express who you are.
4. Accept who people are.
Some who struggle with being known by others tend to mask this difficulty through working to get others in line or to “step up to the plate.” Instead of building the skills they need, they focus on what others in their life are doing wrong and need to do better. In fact, some completely ignore the signs that the person they are becoming attached to never asks about them or makes an effort to get to know them in a deep and nuanced way. Work to accept what your partners say about themselves and what their behavior demonstrates about them. If they avoid you, blow you off, or make jokes when you try to be serious, notice what they are communicating. Notice if you are careful and excessively thoughtful about their reactions before you bring up certain issues. Notice if you are talking with your friends more about your upsets than you are with your partner. These are all possible signs that the person you are attaching to is only making your intimacy issues worse. Remind yourself that people who are capable of real closeness are reliable, keep their commitments, and display interest in and a willingness to get to know others. Work to challenge your discomfort with people who are already in a healthy place by merely forcing yourself to be around them.
5. Practice, practice, practice.
There is perhaps no better remedy for becoming more comfortable with closeness than just forcing yourself to do it, over and over again, in spite of yourself. Although your thoughts may tell you that you should hide yourself or that you will look a fool, you can still be yourself. Instead of taking each of your shameful or critical thoughts to heart, let them roll past you like trains at a station. Hook onto your value and your deep desire to be in a close relationship.
No matter the risk or cost, it’s worth it.
Jill Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Washington, DC and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships(link is external).