Seth’s natural impulse was to shy away from showing affection to his girlfriend. That made perfect sense to me since he grew up with a father who rarely showed affection to anyone in the family.
Seth’s grandfather was an alcoholic who punished his children harshly. Seth understood his father received very little love and tenderness and probably never received any physical comfort like a hug or pat on the back. The lack of intimacy between father and son extended back through the generations.
How would a little boy learn that it was all right to express intimacy and affection if his own father could not? Answer: A little boy would not.
Children take their cues from their parents. When we are little, we watch our parents relate to the world. They model for us what is right for them and what is wrong for them. Little minds don’t have an understanding of subjectivity yet. Little minds live in black and white worlds of good and bad. If our parents are doing something, by definition, it is good. And, conversely, if they are not doing something, it is bad. In general, the feelings and actions that our parents freely expressed when they were raising us come to be the feelings and actions that we freely express as adults.
Changing is a challenging task for most of us. Our brains are designed to seek and protect us from danger. Doing something different than we saw our parents do triggers a sense that we are risking something: rejection, humiliation, or embarrassment. When we demonstrate feelings and behaviors not part of our family culture, it feels strange to the brain.
Seth, however, was trying to grow beyond what his father modeled. During one of our sessions, he shared, “I can feel that part of me that wants to shy away from intimacy. Every bone in my body wants to retreat. That part of me is very embarrassed showing any public display of affection. But when I’ve forced myself to place my arm around my girlfriend’s shoulder when we are out with friends, I can see how much that means to her. Seeing her happy makes me happy and overrules my discomfort. Each time I show affection, I grow more comfortable. I actually like it.”
I was moved by Seth’s courage to do the opposite of his impulse. He was courageous to demonstrate his tenderness and love to his girlfriend. He liked the connection and intimacy even though he struggled to accept that part of himself. He came to learn he wasn’t weak for wanting and showing intimacy, even though he felt weak inside.
All people have the ability to grow their capacity for intimacy. When you tap into your desire for more connection, embrace the opportunity.
Here are 5 tips to help you overcome your past and grow your capacity for intimacy:
- Expect and welcome the discomfort that doing something different will evoke.
- Start off with small steps to minimize discomfort.
- Share with your partner or friend that you are trying out a new way of being and ask for support and validation.
- Learn more about human emotions and the biological need for intimacy and attachment so you have the validation that your needs for love, connection and intimacy are totally normal. The Change Triangle is helpful tool.
- Remember that you are worthy of affection and connection even if you feel unworthy because you didn’t get much as a child.
As Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic and political activist, once said, “Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give.”
(Patient details have been changed to protect privacy)