NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Relationships: Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable

In a prior article, Dating: Is It Time to Have "The Talk"? , I discussed how people who are dating are often afraid, due to their fear of being emotionally vulnerable, of having "the talk" to clarify the nature of their relationship.  In this article, I'll expand on the theme of  fear of emotional vulnerability.

As a psychotherapist in NYC, I've seen many clients, especially clients in their 20s and 30s, who feel that the idea of "romance" and being in a committed relationship is old fashioned.

Relationships:  Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable

Many of these clients have told me that they prefer to "hook up" and "hang out" rather than getting serious with anyone.

This perspective might work for some people.  But for many others, this perspective is rooted in a fear of getting hurt.

Many of these same clients, who avoid romantic commitments to keep from getting hurt, discover, after a while, that their experiences feel shallow and meaningless (see my article: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Relationships: Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable

They often discover that the emotional numbing that's required to ensure that you don't get hurt isn't a process where you can be selective about what you feel:  Not only do you numb yourself to potential hurt, you also numb yourself to potential joy.

Let's take a look at the vignette below which, as always, is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Lee was in her early 30s when she started therapy with me.  She came to therapy because she felt vaguely dissatisfied with her life, but she didn't know why she was feeling this way or what to do about it.

Relationships:  Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable

She was oldest of three children, and her parents divorced when she was 10.  She and her siblings spent the school year with their mother in NYC and their summers with their father in Los Angeles.

Each parent criticized the other parent to the children, not realizing what an emotional burden this was to place on young children.

Based on seeing her parents' marriage unravel in such a destructive way, Lee vowed she would never get married.  Instead, she decided she would focus on her career, travel, and other things she wanted in her life.

When she was a senior in high school, Lee started dating a young man where there was a mutual attraction.  Even though she thought he was kind and intelligent as well as handsome, she made a conscious decision not to allow herself to develop intense feelings for him.  She told him she didn't want any "strings attached."  So, despite his wish for something more committed, they kept it casual and things eventually ended between them when Lee went off to college.

Throughout college and into her early 30s, Lee maintained this same "no strings attached" dynamic with men.  Even after she was settled in a career and doing well financially, she kept things casual with the men that she dated.

She thought of herself as being "an independent woman" who enjoyed casual "hook ups" with men.  And in order to ensure that no emotional intimacy developed, she intentionally distanced herself emotionally.

Whenever she dated someone who showed signs that he wanted to take things to the "next step," which involved a commitment, Lee ended it.

In her early 30s, although she prided herself on not experiencing the heart break that many of her friends had experienced, she also felt deeply lonely.  And, although she was happy in her career and she had good friends, she felt an emptiness in her life which she didn't understand.

Lee was comfortable taking risks in her career and in other areas of her life.  But when it came to romance, she was risk averse.

As we explored the vow she made to herself as a child that she would never get married, Lee began to understand how her experience of her parents' divorce affected her ability to be open and emotionally vulnerable with men that she liked.

After a while, she began to understand that her view of herself as an "independent woman" was really a pseudo independence based on her fear of getting hurt.

She realized that her loneliness was based on her avoidance of having meaningful connections with the men that she dated.

As she was able to be more emotionally honest with herself, she also realized that she really cared for the man she was currently "hooking up" with and she didn't want to end things between them the way she did with other men.

But Lee had a dilemma:  On the one hand, although she wanted to continue seeing this man, she was also very afraid to open up to the possibility that they could have something more between them because she didn't want to get hurt.

Whenever he brought up the topic of, possibly, taking things to the next level, Lee made a lot of excuses as to why this wasn't "the right time" in her life.

But, as she and I explored this in her therapy, she realized that she was emotionally paralyzed with fear and that fear, as opposed to being "independent," was dictating her choices.

And, as we continued to explore this in therapy, she knew that if she continued to allow her fear to get the best of her, she would eventually lose someone that she really cared about.

So, we started by working on the unresolved emotional pain about her parents' divorce, and how abandoned she felt as a child by parents who were focused on their animosity towards each other, as opposed to focusing on their children.  This wasn't easy work for Lee, who tried to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions.

But, over time, as Lee was able to work through her unresolved sadness and anger about her parents' divorce, she began to feel a glimmer of hope that she could allow herself to open up more with the man she was dating.

After several months, Lee's worst fears came true:  The man she was seeing ended their relationship.  From his perspective, even though Lee was starting to open up a little, it was "too little, too late" for him, and he wanted to be in a relationship with a woman who didn't have Lee's problems.

The breakup was so painful for Lee that, at first, she vowed to never allow another man to get this close to her again.  It was a real setback for Lee (see my article:  Setbacks Are a Normal Part of Therapy on the Road to Healing).

But, over time, as we worked together to help her through the emotional pain, Lee realized that, although it was hard, the pain she felt was preferable to being numb emotionally.

After several months,  Lee began to feel she was ready to open up again with another man that she met.  Not wanting to make the same mistakes, she was able to dig deep inside of herself to find the courage to open up and allow herself to be more vulnerable with this man.

She was afraid, but having overcome the emotional pain of the prior relationship, she knew she wasn't going to crumble if this new relationship didn't work out.  She knew she had the inner strength to survive.

And, as it turned out, over time, Lee and her new boyfriend developed a passionate, loving relationship based on their willingness to open up to each other and experience love.

Fear of Opening Up and Allowing Yourself to be Emotionally Vulnerable
As human beings, we're hard wired for attachment to others.  But, sometimes, early childhood experiences cause people to become too afraid of intense romantic attachments.

Some people spend their whole lives protecting themselves from getting hurt--only to look back later with loneliness and regret.

I've also met people who are perfectly fine without being in a relationship.  Being alone for them isn't about defending against emotional vulnerability.  It's a choice they've made that they're happy with it.  They have people and experiences that make life meaningful, and they're not lonely.

But for many people, who have allowed their fears to numb them, life has little pain but also little joy.  Everything feels "flat" and unsatisfying to them.  They're also very lonely.

Getting Help in Therapy
If the vignette in this article resonates with you and you want to overcome your fear of being emotionally vulnerable, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health practitioner who has expertise in this area.

Numbing yourself emotionally might help to protect you from getting hurt, but it also keeps you from feeling joy and happiness.  This is a heavy price to pay to remain "safe."

By working through your fears, you can open yourself up to the possibility of leading a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.