The fear of intimacy is debilitating and emotionally crippling and while it is not built into us from the start, it is one’s stoic attempt to manage in the present the heartbreak of the past.
In a sense, it is not a fear of intimacy, after all, intimacy also includes being cared for and loved, and nobody is properly fearful of these things. Rather, it is a fear of the inextricable other side of intimacy: exposing oneself to another and allowing them to traverse, unsupervised, the emotional topography of our hearts, with no promise they will treat the gardens with care and consideration.
We are not born with this fear. It is a (quite reasonable) conditioned response based upon previous circumstances. Perhaps a parent packed up their things one day and never returned, perhaps a partner cheated, perhaps a dark secret confided to in a friend was used as ammunition for bullying in the schoolyard. Sources for this fear are many, but they coalesce around a single point: betrayal. With betrayal, one learns to hold back, wall off, and close up as the only means to defend against future hurts with any certainty.
This may be fine so long as we remain alone enough, taking refuge in our inner world, and receiving comfort from the fact that although we will never feel another’s love, we are protected from ever being hurt.
The fear of intimacy results in behaviours that are – perhaps unknown to those who do it – seriously self-sabotaging. Having been let down in the past, those fearful of intimacy construct walls of emotional obscurantism. ‘Nobody will breach these walls and assault my heart again’. Lacking a history of genuine and reliable love (as those fearful of intimacy often do), they do not recognise it when it arrives, and are drawn to undermine it, if only to prove to themselves that the love was not genuine or reliable in the first place.
To their credit, these tortured souls understand the inherent ambiguity of existence. Nothing is promised in advance. People may accept us as a flower, or throw us away like a weed. There is no way of divining the future. As such, they have made a choice (which we may agree or disagree with) that the candle is not worth the wick, and have declined the invitation for intimacy, if only to protect themselves from its more disastrous potentialities.
Those fearful of intimacy should not be berated for being cold, distant, or seeming unloving. Well, we could berate them, but that would only draw them further into themselves. What they need is the same thing that we all need, just perhaps with a gentler touch. They need to be shown a love that is steadfast and reliable, a compassion that is unwavering, and a tenderness that reflects the precariousness of their situation.
It requires a lot of courage (after many life lessons to do the opposite), to open up and let someone else in. That alone is an act of incredible bravery worthy of the highest honour in the pantheon of achievements in one’s life. When this courage is lacking, we can be there to provide the support and affection that was sorely missing earlier and help someone take the first tentative steps outside their personal citadel, and to reconnect with others.
It may seem counterintuitive, but talking to strangers about our deeper issues offers an opportunity to be candid and honest in ways we are unable with those whom we know well. Unlike friends or families, beyond first impressions, strangers do not have any idea about who we are, how we should act, or the types of thoughts we are meant to have or things we are meant to say. In a way, in the presence of a stranger, we can be unambiguously ourselves.
Of course, there is a time and place for this. It wouldn’t be appropriate or helpful to unload childhood trauma on the cashier at the supermarket but it would be appropriate with a psychologist. Part of the value of a psychologist is they are, to use Adam Phillip’s term, a ‘familiar stranger’, an alien to your inner world and therefore, capable of seeing you with fresh eyes. Our parents will see us through the lens of an entire lifetime of development and maturation. Our friends will see us through the lens our particular social dynamic and the certain masks we wear. But a stranger has no history, no preconceived notions, no box to put us in. They can, perhaps like no one else, really see & listen.
Unlike a parent or close friend, the stranger offers a particular kind of solace because, paradoxically, they do not really care about us. Rather than a weakness, this can actually be a strength. Uninvested in your day to day life, the stranger can give advice entirely free from any emotional attachment, sense of duty, or fear of offence. They do not need to tip toe around issues only a family member would know, or decline saying certain things because it may be hypocritical. The beauty of the stranger is precisely that they do not care and this affords them a quality of honesty and straightforwardness which is always in short supply.
Lack of intimacy is a privilege. Because they are a stranger, they have no reason to be personally invested in our emotional state. There is an opportunity, at least, for things to be said, not because they are nice but rather, because they are true. The stranger can say things without fear of resentment or vengeance, as only those without a future together can. The lack of time too, is a privilege.
In a world increasingly self-same, striking up conversations with strangers may yield some unexpected fruits and expand the horizons of possibilities. Opportunities to have meaningful conversations about deeper issues with strangers would be on a first date (freeing yourself from the banality of small talk), with a travelling foreigner, with someone sitting alone on a park bench, a lonely and perhaps despondent soul (for they always have something interesting to say) sitting alone at a bar, and of course, with those most well trained strangers who know how to simultaneously be intimate and distanced: psychologists.
Our culture exalts the lives of often quite remarkable people. Musicians who have sold millions of albums, Nobel scientists who have developed new genetic editing technology, athletes who have become the fastest, strongest, or most gymnastic; authors who have written best-selling books, or a businessperson who with skill and acumen, has become the richest person in the world. Our society is quite bereft of images that glorify the ordinary.
We also live in a society that thinks and speaks of itself as a meritocracy. The underlying assumption is that there are no barriers to self-fulfilment and realisation. With enough hard work, determination and ambition, anybody can become anything they want. If we try our hardest and (in a properly capitalist circumlocution) ‘invest’ in our ‘human capital’, we too can become exceptional human beings like those we see on TV shows, movies, and magazines.
A society focused on exceptional people, combined with a meritocratic myth, merge to instil in people a belief that they must become exceptional and if they cannot, it is entirely their fault.
We will find articles in the news about the student who achieved the highest year 12 score in the state. The journalist will detail their hard work, determination and ambition as values to be held up for emulation. Of course, that student was incredible and beat immense statistical odds to achieve what they did. But it is no more impressive (or rather, impressive in a different way) than the student who studied just as hard, worked a part time job to support their family, and achieved a reasonably good score that allowed them to enter university to study a course that will land them their dream job.
We will praise the Nobel Prize winning scientist who developed breakthrough technology. But, we will overlook the thousands of men and women who work tirelessly in the background, doing the tedious and tiresome work over months and years laying stepping stones that allowed the new technology to come into existence. Their work was indeed ordinary, but without it, something extraordinary would not have come into existence.
We have deep seated beliefs about ourselves that we must become exceptional. According to the message of our society, it is not enough to work a good job that pays well and is mildly satisfying; we must rise to the top of the ladder and become the boss. It is not enough that we have shelter; we must have a grand house with marble benches, enormous columns and a spiral staircase. It is not enough to have modest savings that will tide us over in tough times and give us the free time to lounge lazily in the sun; we must work tirelessly to the point of sickness to build savings, invest, use equity to develop a portfolio and build massive riches. It is not enough to travel to a local waterfall or a desert and enjoy the serenity of cascading droplets or the solace of an empty plain; we must travel to exotic places, sail on yachts across Croatian lakes, or rent luxury suites in Milan or Paris.
Of course, not everyone can do this. But rather than recognise this ludicrousness of the belief system, we embrace a far easier (and more painful) mindset: shame. We feel inadequate being surrounded by such wealth, luxury, and exceptionalism. ‘It could have been me’ we tell ourselves, ‘if I had just worked harder, made smarter decisions, or knew what I did now’, ignoring the statistical improbabilities one has to defeat in order to be truly exceptional. The fact is, exceptionalism is simply not a possibility for most of us and that certainly is not a bad thing. If we can embrace the ordinariness of our existence, we may come across a certain peace and tranquillity that is achieved only when we stop trying so hard, like a cat lounging on a couch in the sun. It is perfectly ordinary, there is no striving to be anything exceptional, and how at peace and happy does the cat look?
We do not need to be exceptional in order to be satisfied because we do incredible things all the time. We may never enter the Olympics, but, in our own way, we compete in the Olympics of everyday life. Feeding, clothing, and taking care of children and ensuring they grow up to be well-rounded and happy individuals is an incredible feat, as is mustering the energy to get out of bed, brush your teeth, and do some work if you are feeling incredibly depressed and want to lay in bed all day. Keeping the house in reasonably good order while juggling the demands of work and friends is something to be incredibly proud of, even if it doesn’t land you on the front cover of Forbes. Montaigne writes,
Storming a breach, conducting and embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating and living together gently and justly with your household – and with yourself – not getting slack nor belying yourself, is something more remarkable, more rare, and more difficult.
Whatever people may say, such secluded lives sustain in that way duties which are at least as hard and as tense as those of other lives.
Well ironed sheets, a bountiful veggie patch, and attending university while working and taking care of the house are not glorified like first place in the Australian Open or rising to the rank of CEO, but they are no less difficult or deserving of respect.
Vermeer is challenging us to think differently. Perhaps success is a small garden on a quiet street. Maybe all we need is shelter, warmth and the company of people who love and care for us. The buildings are empty because life plays out in the lives of people, not things. The Little Street praises the ordinary. There is no splendour, no grandeur, no bombast. There is only a scene of a simple, yet beautiful thing, called ‘life’.
An ordinary life can be properly rich and rewarding if we adjusted our perspectives and saw, not a failure to be exceptional but instead, a life with its own treasures and precious memories. If we can realise that our lives do not lie in the stratospheric heights of the exceptional, we may gain deeper comfort and satisfaction from simpler things: a night in listening to a favourite album, a cup of hot chocolate by the fire, or a simple yet tasty meal prepared with love and tenderness by a kind and charitable housemate.
We generally think of narcissists as those who consider themselves exceptionally talented, beautiful, or perfect beyond reproach. The narcissist, in this formation, believes themselves to be incomparably extraordinary. They are, in their own eyes, what others should aspire to, and those who fail to meet their high standards (which, by definition, only the narcissist can satisfy) deserve criticism and rebuke.
This is, however, a very narrow interpretation of narcissism. Broadened, narcissism can entail the singularity of one’s perfection, but also the singularity of one’s deformity. To put it another way, the other side to narcissism can be described as the exceptionalism of one’s pain. In this dimension of narcissism, we fall prey to the crippling belief that we are the only ones who have ever felt this way, that nobody will ever understand our pain, and that what we are experiencing is so unique, particular, and exclusive that it would be a waste of time to try and communicate it to others.
This flagellating mentality is centripetal, drawing us away from the very thing that would allow us to heal the pain that afflicts us: the company of others. In a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we believe others will not understand so we keep our pain to ourselves, thereby denying others any chance to discover what is wrong, and thereby using their ignorance as proof that they cannot understand. The curse of thinking ourselves exceptional is that we create the conditions where we must go it alone; Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders alone.
By keeping silent, we compound the pain of mental illness with icy cold isolation, separating ourselves from what would potentially be the best remedy for our toxic exceptionalism: the company of other people.
By opening up, we would find that our friend too has gone through a terrible breakup, the loss of a parent, the revision of self-worth in the face of an academic or business failing, and we might even learn of a problem they have never shared that would put our own problems into perspective.
We are all scarred, bruised, battered and damaged in some way and should not mistake an inability to see pain in others as proof that it is not there. Opening up does not necessarily guarantee we will heal, or we will even feel much better, but it will help put our problems in perspective. We will learn that our suffering is not a curse bestowed exclusively on us, but is the unfortunate lot of human beings. We will also learn a vital lesson that we should draw on for the rest of our lives: we are not exceptional and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We all suffer, but, with the company of kind, caring and compassionate friends, we do not have to suffer alone.
With our prodigious minds, we can recall fond memories throughout our years: birthday parties surrounded by friends and families, the first time we fell in love, the day we received our first A+. But, it is the irrevocable fact of life that one cannot have pleasure without pain. Just as we have fond memories filled with joy and happiness, we likewise have ones filled with pain and suffering.
We remember the nasty things said to us, done to us, and suffered by us at the hands of others: the bully who put us in chokeholds, the peers who taunted us about how we spoke, or the inattentive mother who turned a blind eye to our pains.
In all likelihood, we may never have forgiven others for what they did. We have held on to the hurt, in the process stopping ourselves from finding peace. In order to free ourselves from the self-imposed bondage of memory, we need to share one of the most precious gifts of the soul: forgiveness.
Just as we cannot fight fire with fire, we cannot extinguish the egregious hurt others have committed against us by holding on or deflecting that hurt back. Instead, by cultivating humility, patience and understanding towards those who have hurt us in the past, we allow ourselves the opportunity to forgive. Other people are – as we know all too well about ourselves – flawed, impaired and damaged. Rather than misanthropy, it is recognition that nobody is perfect in every way. When we remind ourselves of this, the fact that we have been hurt by them becomes more understandable. We can show forgiveness in the hope that others will do the same when we (inevitably) experience our own moments of weakness.
Yet, we hold ourselves to different standards than we hold others. To forgive others may be difficult, but one of the most monumentally difficult tasks in life is mustering the necessary kindness and affection to forgive ourselves. We are, unfortunately, often our own harshest critics and strictest moral teachers.
We can find the space in our hearts to forgive others, knowing they can sometimes be petty, impetuous, and almost incorrigibly blind to how their words or actions affect others. Yet, we hold ourselves to a different (and impossible) standard. We tell ourselves that we cannot be this way and that we must be (although we might never say it precisely this way), perfect.
When we withhold forgiveness from ourselves, we continue living in the past. We never move beyond what we have done, and we continue to allow these things to define us. The petty arguments we started in our last relationship, the time we kicked up a fuss when we were made to wait 20 minutes (even though they had a very good excuse), and the bitter breakup because we were unfaithful; are not seen as unfortunate errors that have given us an opportunity to learn, but rather as irrevocable stains of our character that will never wash away.
It would be wise and therapeutic for us to apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others. We are, just like everyone, prone to faults, missteps and mistakes. But these do not define us any more than they do others. Rather than immutable statements about our flawed nature, our past misdeeds should instead be seen as unfortunate but somehow necessary moments that have given us the opportunity to reflect and grow. In doing this, we can finally begin to forgive ourselves and nurture the most important and long lasting relationship we will ever have: the one we have with ourselves.
Almost everywhere we turn we are encouraged to express ourselves. Social media platforms extol us to share whatever is on our minds, advertisers promise their products will manifest our deeper-selves and reveal them to the world, our employers inform us we can ‘speak up’ about any issue without fear of reprimand, our friends remind us that we can tell them anything, and freedom of speech is one of our most cherished and highly valued freedoms. Despite all this (or perhaps, in spite of all this), we shut up (or shut down) those parts of ourselves that aren’t beautiful or readily marketable out of fear of rejection, judgement, or misunderstanding.
As with so many psychological problems, this likely has its roots in childhood. The parent who tells their child ‘you are driving me crazy’ or ‘you will be the end of me’, or who, perhaps, is going through enough problems of their own that the child sees that their own trouble would only add more weight to an unbearable load; sends a sometimes clear and other times implied message to the child to keep their sufferings to themselves.
As we grow up, we continue bottling up, and therefore perpetuating our suffering, so as not to annoy the people around us. We smile, appease, and do what we can to keep those around us happy; a poor compensation for an inner happiness we cannot have, or believe ourselves unworthy of. In this sense, we aren’t nice, but instead, scared. Our friendliness is not borne from choice, but from a fear of making others upset, just as we did our parents when we were younger.
What we need is two things. Firstly, we need to recognise how we do not want to speak up because we think the people we hold dear will find us broken, inept, and unworthy of their time; that is, we need to see how scared we are people will reject us for who we are beneath the thin veneer of false cheeriness we have carefully cultivated over the years. Secondly, we need to develop the courage and insight to open up and see that the people around us really care, and are here to accept us in all our hues; not just our best, but our worst too.
Just as we silently suffering around others, we also suffer silently within ourselves. Echoing Paul Goodman’s 9 Types of Silence, there is the ‘noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination’ a ‘loud and sub-vocal’ inner monologue of self-hate which drowns out the quiet whisper of the better part of ourselves that says ‘there are others here that love you and are here for you’.
There is another silence, the silence of absence. It is the suffering that has never been registered as suffering. It is not silent because it does not speak, but because it is not heard. When we act tough to avoid feeling pain, or run away from intimacy to avoid being hurt, we dress these up as acts of maturity in a turbulent and contradictory world. The suffering here is silent because the suffering has been dressed as pragmatic realism. If it is never registered for what it is, it cannot be acted upon properly.
Developing into the best versions of ourselves we can be demands that we begin to investigate and reflect on who we are and how, without our knowledge, we perpetuate our own suffering. Following this, we must then muster the necessary courage to share our suffering with those around us, knowing that they truly love us and we do not have to suffer in silence anymore.
One of the problems that arise when listening to others, as David Bohm wrote in his exquisite work On Dialogue, is our belief ‘that one already is listening to the other person in a proper way’. It is always the other person who is misguided, isn’t it? It is the dangerously misplaced belief that we are doing something right (and not just when listening) that ‘blocks’ us from seeing how we might be doing it wrong, and therefore, improving through reflection.
Similar to how we notice other people’s annoying habits, but rarely our own, the ‘block’ which Bohm details, is an ‘insensitivity of anaesthesia about one’s own contradictions’. For example, I am an atheist and my friend is a Christian. We are discussing God and I can plainly see that everything she says is filtered through the lens of her religious convictions. I find her reasoning limited and her judgment flawed. She passes over the difficult questions and answers a different one altogether. She hits mental walls where she cannot follow her own train of thought because it would lead her to contradict her basic position. She is unable to speak freely and therefore, her logic is often fallacious, and her answers often nonsensical. It is easy to see the blocks in another person and no awards are handed out for it. But what of my own? What of my blocks? My adherence to the non-existence of God will in turn lead to its own ‘blocks’ that while different, are no less problematic. The result is a conversation (if you can call it that) that traverses well-explored territory. Or, rather, it is two kings exploring their own territory behind high walls, neither seeing nor interested in what is on the other side. Neither person grows because neither person wishes to leave their position. Tracing the internal landscape of a ‘blocked’ individual, Bohm writes,
Whenever certain questions arise, there are fleeting sensations of fear, which push him away from consideration of these questions, and of pleasure, which attract his thoughts and cause them to be occupied with other questions. So one is able to keep away from whatever it is that he thinks may disturb him. And as a result, he can be subtly defending his own ideas, when he supposes that he is really listening to what other people have to say.[i]
And how many weird uncles or overly zealous friends have we spoken to who, while thinking themselves as good listeners genuinely concerned about what you have to say, are nevertheless busy defending their own ideas, not taking the time to actually hear what you are saying?
The block arises when become more focused on defending a position than inquiring into the truth. Of course, we will never say this. More likely, we already believe our position to be the truth, which amounts to the same thing.
When we are busy defending our position (vaccines cause autism, climate change is a left-wing scam), we lose the ability to speak freely. We become committed to a stance that disallows the creative and free flow of meaning that is at the heart of communication. In defending a position, we stop ourselves from growing and learning anything and merely experience repetitions of the same old thoughts. Bohm continues,
Communication can lead to the creation of something new only if people are able freely to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other. Each has to be interested primarily in truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old ideas and intentions, and be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for. If, however, two people merely want to convey certain ideas or points of view to each other, as if these were items of information, then they must inevitably fail to meet. For each will hear the other through the screen of his own thoughts, which he tends to maintain and defend, regardless of whether or not they are true or coherent.[ii]
If we could, only for a moment, drop our own prejudices, assumptions and preconceived beliefs, we may come across something entirely new, fresh and interesting. Of course, we may not. We might be talking to a very boring and simple person. But, at least, when we drop our position, we open up the space for this to occur, and that is something that would not have happened otherwise if we were just busy defending ourselves.
Despite what we may say to the contrary, we are not very good at listening. We are good at judging, discriminating, criticising, and comparing, but not listening. Listening involves a type of silence, not the silence of a mind waiting to speak, but of a mind receptive to what is being said; a mind both empathetic and understanding, working in good faith with others to try to discover the truth.
Real communication, as Carl Jung observed, involves not only sharing your beliefs, but sharing in the others’ too. You must fully identify with your partner in conversation. It is reminiscent of Gadamer’s art of conversation as “a process of coming to an understanding” and that therefore, “it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says”.[iii] If you are a pro-vaxxer, you must identify with the position of the anti-vaxxer. Why have they come to the position they have? Was it distrust in government, evidence of corruption in science, the links between research and big money? It is on these grounds, the ground of your partner’s point of view, that the conversation must be held. It is only with the quality of total listening, which demands identification with the other that we will begin to understand. It does not mean you must agree, but that at least now you understand why they form the position they do. It will, therefore, allow the conversation to proceed from a considerably more stable starting point. Hopefully, we will reach new understandings. It isn’t certain, nothing is, but it is worth trying.
Being a good listener is very similar to being a good friend and lover, because in each, you are a partner on a journey. If you make it all about yourself, it will fail. If you refuse to ever see the other’s point of view, it will fail. You are required to have empathy, understanding and importantly, love. Not love in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out and overcoming the fear of losing yourself. It is with these qualities that we will be able to overcome our blocks, become better listeners, and, in the process, become better friends and lovers too.
[i] Bohm, D.B., 2014. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge. 4.
[ii] Bohm, D.B., 2014. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge. 3.
[iii] Gadamer, H.G.G., 2013. Truth and Method. United States: Bloomsbury. 403.