For most of my life, I’ve thought of myself as a very independent person. Although I make friends quickly, maintaining friendships for any extended period has been much more difficult. When I date, my relationships seldom last for more than a few months to a couple of years.
I always chalked this up to the fact that I’m pretty comfortable in my own space, and that my needs for companionship are few. Because of that, I believed that relying on others was a weakness that I’d been wise enough to dispense with. I was moving along in a perpetual state of “fine” until the words of one of my few long-time friends hit home.
Pushing People Away
We were talking about relationships and our respective dating histories. I was explaining that, although I like the idea of relationships, every time that I start dating, I get overwhelming anxiety by the thought of commitment. When she turned to me and casually said, “Why is it that you don’t think you are worthy of love?” It startled me.
It sounded like the kind of comment that you read in some pseudo-scientific self-help book. I asked myself, “How could she be so wrong?” If anything, I was suffering from an excess of ego, not a lack of it. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was right.
So Why Do I Do it?
I had been pushing people away for my entire life, and I hadn’t realized why until that moment. It wasn’t because I didn’t need people, felt abandoned or that I was self-actualized. It was because I was afraid to open up to another person. Except for a few cases, like my insightful friend, the majority of my relationships never penetrated the surface layer.
One method that I often use to insulate myself from actually having to engage with another person is to become obsessive about ideas. My friend’s words left me with the desire to understand a complicated question: Why do we push people away?
Pushing People Away as an Act of Independence
When we are children, pushing people away isn’t so much a repudiation of the other as it is an affirmation of the self. By rejecting another person’s desires in the act of rebellion, we establish our own desires as a primary aspect of our identity. While this type of resistance is vital in the formation of a child’s sense of self, we understand that it isn’t true independence.
In the words of Dr. Carl Pickhardt, “Although the young person thinks rebellion is an act of independence, it actually never is. It is really an act of dependency.” This is because the child is still defining themselves, in the negative, according to the desires of other people.
If the child were self-actualized, they would pursue their own desires irrespective of the demands of others. That means sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing with the wishes of others. When our desires align with the hopes of others, rebellion is seen for what it is, as a self-destructive behavior that only proves our lack of confidence in our identity.
Parents who don’t understand how vital these immature acts of rebellion are, might inadvertently stand in the way of their child’s development. These acts of resistance are an immature stage of personal growth, but a necessary one.
A problem develops when adults who never successfully developed that natal stage of identity affirmation begins to form relationships. Every request made of them by a committed partner might feel like a burden or a mechanism of control that threatens their independence. I have to admit that this is something that I still deal with.
Luckily, understanding that response can be transformative. When a partner asks something of me that causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up with self-righteous indignation, I can reason through the actual cause of that reaction. I’m being a child. After reaching that conclusion, I’m free to ask the important question: What do I really want? I’m surprised by how often the answer is, “To make my partner happy and have peace in my relationship.”
Pushing People Away Because We’re Afraid of Intimacy
The fear of intimacy is a significant contributor to why many of us push people out of our lives, but what causes it? For many, the fear of intimacy is rooted in a parasitic lack of self-worth that amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many people deal with insecurities stemming from the internal narratives that play out in their minds. Because of our fear of failure, we don’t take the chance of going after the things that we believe would bring us happiness. As a result of not going after those things, we convince ourselves that we are unworthy of that happiness. It’s a vicious cycle that can leave us mired in self-doubt.
The situation is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, we lack self-confidence; on the other hand, our ego is part of the problem. We build an idealized construct of a scenario in our mind, and we hold ourselves accountable to that construct. Anything less than perfect execution of our situation leaves us feeling like a failure. We’re so great that a mistake is unforgivable!
Unfortunately, as long as we are mentally trapped inside of our ideal fantasy, it is impossible for us to fully engage with the reality that is in front of us. Our expectation has ruined our experience and has made intimacy at the moment impossible. As the pattern perpetuates itself, breaking the cycle can feel impossible, even if we understand it on an intellectual level.
Unlike our immature rebellious reactions to the desires of the people close to us, merely understanding the causes of our feelings won’t necessarily help us to overcome our fears of intimacy. At some point in our lives, we got off track, and it will take a significant correction to get where we want to go.
The good news is that it’s not impossible. We’ve let our expectations rule our lives for too long. By learning to reconnect with the world around us, we can start to repair the damage that our internal dialogue has done to our confidence. Our approach has to be two-fold. We have to reorient our awareness to affix itself to our experience, and we have to fix our confidence.
Fixing Our Attention in the Moment
When our thoughts are dominated by an internal narrative that strips us of our confidence, we’re stuck in a feedback loop that won’t ever end unless we end it. We have to find a way to redirect our thoughts away from the fantasy and plant them into reality in the moment.
But how can we do that?
The power that our internal narratives have over us is rooted in the power of habit. We’ve formed a habit of responding to specific triggers that we encounter in our relationships that propel us into our internal dialogue.
It is challenging just to break a habit, especially one which has dominated our mental lives for so long. Dr. Bernard Lushkin, a licensed Therapist, explains that what is far more effective, is to interrupt an old habit by developing a new more powerful practice. We need to find a new pattern, one that serves us instead of hinders us.
Before we can do that, we need to understand what exactly is triggering our internal dialogue. For people who suffer from performance anxiety, it can be tied to a key event in an intimate exchange that snaps them out of the moment. As the physical experience begins, they might be stuck in an embarrassing memory from the past.
Your new habit has to be custom designed to interrupt your destructive pattern.
For example, I love food. I love to cook, and I love to eat. In the past, I would often use food as a way to deal with those times when I would fall into a slump. It was a short-term fix, and when the pleasure of eating was over, I would feel worse than before.
I didn’t want to give up eating food that I liked, so I knew that I needed to exercise more if I want to stay healthy. I knew that I always felt good about myself after a workout, so instead of trying to stop myself from eating, I told myself that if I started to feel depressed, I would go for a run first, and then afterwards I would eat whatever I wanted to as a reward.
You can probably guess where this is going. I would go for a run, and afterwards, I would feel great. Then I lost the desire to use food as a coping mechanism. Finally, I interrupted my old habit with a new one.
You can apply the same device to your thoughts
Close your eyes and imagine being in a social situation that would normally create anxiety. Usually, that anxiety will cause you to begin to feel self-conscious.
Imagine feeling that anxiety and instead of becoming self-conscious, you become curious. You wonder whether the person you are talking to is feeling anxious too. It genuinely interests you. You might feel a little uncomfortable, but your curiosity about the other person has overwhelmed you.
The next time you are about to enter a social situation, think about this scenario in advance, and remind yourself that when you start to feel anxious, you’ll become curious. It might not work the first time, but slowly, you will create a new habit that will be capable of interrupting the old pattern.
This process will take time and patience, so be kind to yourself. Don’t create another unrealistic expectation that you can’t hope to measure up to. Most importantly, if you’re having trouble isolating these triggers or thinking of a new habit that you can use to interrupt the old one, reach out to somebody close to you or a trained mental health professional for help.
Repairing Our Confidence
A lack of confidence is often an expression of a fear of failure. Being confident doesn’t necessarily mean believing that you will always succeed. Sometimes, being sure means embracing failure as an opportunity.
Psychologist Jonathan Brown explains that we should learn from failure. Failure is a form of feedback. Imagine that you have a large sheet of paper in your mind. On the piece of paper, you want to draw a map that you’ll use to navigate your life. Every time you fail, if you’re paying attention, you can fill in a little bit more of the map. Eventually, you will get where you want to go.
Now imagine being lost in the woods without a map. How likely do you think it is that you could pick the right direction and get where you want to go on the first try? Not very likely! This is the insane standard that we hold ourselves to when we are afraid to fail.
If you approach your relationships joyously with a child-like sense of exploration instead of trying to impose control over your experiences by forcing them to conform to an imaginary ideal, you might find that confidence becomes a bit irrelevant. You’ve shifted your focus from expectation to experience.
Every person is unique. Your insecurities are not my insecurities, and it’s possible that not all of these solutions will apply to you. However, isn’t that always a risk? Isn’t the chance to be happy worth the possibility of a little lost energy? Take a moment and imagine how your life could change if these solutions did work for you. Not only would you be able to put yourself into new situations that you would have been afraid to before, but you might actually enjoy it!