Catch 22: Longing for Intimacy versus Fear of Vulnerability

Sending ripples of love from my corner of the world

By Garet Bedrosian, LCSW, CIRT, CBT, CET

I have been privileged to witness profound healing for thousands of individuals and couples over the last 30 years. My therapeutic style invites deep, life changing exploration so I am quite familiar with delving into the depths of the soul-self and navigating through the obstacles of pain, fear, and self-doubt which obscure the path to self-fulfillment.

As fundamentally essential as I experience this realm of psychic exploration, I know it has been seen by the majority as crazy or woo-woo. This value discrepancy has been a barrier to healing and source of pain for many which is one of the reasons I am excited about what I experience as a societal and even global movement in the direction of consciousness curiosity.

There is a stronger desire for aliveness, authentic expression, intimacy, and genuine connection with others. My sense is that on a universal level we are moving into a more mature, spiritual developmental stage. The dissatisfaction with the disconnected, materialistic way of living is growing stronger and the longing for an evolved, relational presence is becoming ever more present.

Since my expertise is with individuals and relationships this is where I notice the shift. I hear about the suffering caused by living an inauthentic life but a fear of what will happen if that Pandora’s box is opened. What will happen to me? What will happen to my relationship?

Those are legitimate questions to ponder and yet the longings cannot be ignored without emotional consequence. Healing that pain requires a deeper level of consciousness, a deeper connection with the self, a deeper connection with others and with the world. That type of awareness then naturally awakens a deeper level of spiritual curiosity and an intentionality about all interactions and choices.

As appealing as opening that Pandora’s box is for so many, it can also be emotionally threatening. It requires a vulnerability that scares most. This the paradox is at the crux of so much personal discontent. Not opening it can affect feelings of satisfaction or joy about relationships, sex, work, school, hobbies or any other important part of life. However, the need for protecting vulnerability often overrides a commitment to deeper desires.

Protective mechanisms are instinctively created to prevent the possibility of hurt, disappointment, rejection, abandonment, humiliation, abuse or terror. This is especially true if there is a history of neglect, emotional or physical wounding. These protective defenses function both consciously and unconsciously.

Conscious defenses are challenging enough to identify and change but unconscious defenses are inherently more difficult to identify and transform. They are unconscious for a good reason and have become integrated into ‘who we are’.

That’s just the way I am, That’s the way I have always been, That’s just who we are or what we believe, are common proclamations. While those claims might be true there is more to the story. Personal and generational defenses become part of us yet may not allow for our true, authentic nature to be fully expressed. So, yes it is the way we are but is not the full picture of who we are.

What piques my curiosity is that split second before the desire or the vulnerability meets the defense. It seems as though the psyche cannot tolerate another second of exposure and in that imperceptible blip of time the scales are tipped. The impulse to express need or desire is frozen in the wake of the survival instinct.

Whether wounds are created intentionally, unintentionally or inherited may be of little consequence to the psyche. It’s primary concern is survival. I think it is safe to assume that the more tenacious the defense, the more deeply rooted the fear. Exposing that fear can be terrifying so unless there is enough safety the defenses sustain their hold.

On a conscious level this internal conflict may look and feel like anger, frustration, irritation, annoyance, powerlessness or hopelessness. In that state the fight or flight response feels completely justified. On an unconscious level there is a fear of being destroyed. That deeply engrained fear may seem unfathomable to the conscious brain but for the unconscious brain it is very real.

Honoring and building a tolerance for vulnerability is what ultimately allows healing of these unconscious barriers to full aliveness. In that state, empathy for one’s self as well as for the pain of others is possible. This is not easy. It takes courage and as I have said, a sense of safety and trust. Mostly it requires a trust in one’s self.

Every day I see the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit. The authentic life force in everyone fights for genuine expression but will hibernate until there is enough safety or maturity for it to push its way into consciousness. If it is not allowed, honored and lived congruently then the consequences are discontent, depression, anxiety, addictions, obsessions, relationship, money, school or career issues.

Ironically the closest relationships create the most possibility for healing as well as the most risk of wounding. Those relationships can trigger such tenacious and sometimes vicious defenses. It is important to know that it is impossible to open the heart without opening the wound. Opening the wound feels vulnerable and scary.

Building a tolerance for vulnerability in relationship is the only option if the vision is intimacy. This is the Catch 22. How do we allow that level of vulnerability when our instinctive drive toward it triggers a fight or flight response?

Begin with awareness, acceptance, compassion and commitment. It is important to intellectually understand this dilemma but it is more important to understand your own unique patterns.

Be curious about your own defenses and what they may be protecting you against then experiment with trying something different. Be more gentle with yourself and with others. Remaining curious and vulnerable are the keys to developing intimacy. Defensiveness will only foster disconnection.

Most of us feel helpless to affect a change on a global level but we can affect a change within ourselves and our relationships. Become the safety you desire. Call a cease fire on all personal and relational defensiveness. This, of course, includes the blatant abuses but I invite you to stop the subtle and justified criticisms, judgments and blaming.

Take responsibility for your frustrations and reactions and stop pointing the finger at anyone else. Be curious. There is a saying in IMAGO Relationship Theory, ‘If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” In other words, any highly charged reaction has a root into personal history. Be curious.

So, from my little corner of the world I feel like a pebble in the lake of living authentically. Every time I create and model relational safety for those with whom I come into contact I sense a ripple. I witness their growth and eventual creation of safe, vulnerable, intimate relationships and imagine that energy spreading. I envision that we are gently contributing to the ripple which eventually merges into this universal consciousness flow. That image brings me great joy.