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Have you ever struggled with intimacy in your relationships or in dating?
Do you feel uncomfortable with the idea of being truly seen by another person?
You’re not alone.
Fear of intimacy and discomfort with vulnerable connection are common issues that can stem from past trauma, insecure attachment patterns, disconnection with one’s body, negative beliefs about oneself, or a lack of experience in healthy relationships.
Movies and television shows portray these challenges as a sign of emotional weakness or a quirky character flaw, which makes the problem easy to minimize and avoid. In reality, the inability to share a vulnerable connection with oneself and with another person has a significant negative impact on health and well-being
From a mental health perspective, the fear of intimacy is associated with a type of anxiety disorder often stemming from a person’s early attachment that can manifest in many ways, from avoiding emotional or physical closeness with others to feeling uncomfortable or anxious when someone tries to get too close. This fear can stem from a variety of factors, including past experiences of rejection or trauma, a lack of trust in others, or low self-esteem. People who struggle with this fear may avoid social situations or feel uncomfortable in circumstances where they feel exposed or vulnerable—like in giving a class presentation, processing difficult experiences, communicating one’s needs, or setting healthy relationship boundaries,
Attachment styles can shed some light on how early experiences play into current behaviors. Those with a secure attachment style tend to have healthier relationships and are comfortable with intimacy, vulnerability, and being seen. Meanwhile, those with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style may struggle with expressing their own needs and fear rejection, and those with avoidant attachment styles may avoid intimacy or minimize its importance. By understanding your attachment style and past wounds, you can gain insight into your current relationship patterns and learn ways to improve your capacity for healthy, meaningful connections.
Avoiding or discounting the need for intimacy and vulnerability is harmful to your health. If you never allow yourself to be seen, you may never experience the feeling of being truly known and accepted by yourself or by another person.
These challenges of intimacy come up with almost every client I’ve worked with in private practice. In the rest of this article, I’ll share a story from a recent therapy session with one of my clients where we practiced tolerating the discomfort of allowing oneself to be seen during a dating experience by using somatic tools. Somatic therapies offer practical, body-based methods to help you manage emotions and learn new, healthier behaviors in your relationships. At the end of this article, I’ll outline some practical somatic methods you can use at home.
The most recent example I have of a client’s challenge around intimacy and vulnerable connection came up yesterday. At the end of a therapy session, the topic of avoiding intimacy in dating came up. We used the last five minutes of our session to practice tolerating the discomfort of “being seen.”
My client, Elizabeth, is intelligent, high-functioning, and recently ended a relationship that triggered her fears of abandonment and beliefs of her inadequacy stemming from loss in her childhood and avoidant attachment style with caregivers. Elizabeth uses her rational, often-over-thinking mind to feel in control of her life. Recently, she’s been learning to connect with her emotionally minded self and in this session we began tapping into her body-based connection.
She shared that she went on a day-date in the park the day before. She was concerned and unsure about her actions during an experience she had on the date. She felt the person was safe and engaging but wanted to process a moment when she felt discomfort within herself and wanted to learn to better manage her behavior in accordance with her value for deep and authentic connection.
The moment was this: for about 30-45 seconds (according to her subjective timekeeping) she and her date made and held eye contact. She had shared a long reciprocal gaze with someone she’d known for only three hours. Her tone suggested that she expected me to think this was bizarre or unusual. I didn’t.
She wanted to talk about this because she noticed how uncomfortable she felt in her body as their eyes were in contact. It was so unbearable to her that she got up and walked away. Elizabeth was aware that in her past dating experiences, she used alcohol to reduce her anxiety, self-consciousness, and inhibitions.
She said, “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I realize that I’ve never been sober while making eye contact for that long with a date or a boyfriend. Usually, I’ve been drinking so I override that moment by making a move and kissing the guy. It was weird to be sober and be seen like that.”
She has never allowed herself to experience a moment of intimate connection without grasping to control the dynamic. Sitting on a bench in sober eye contact with her day-date, she was riddled with fears of judgment and ruminations of self-consciousness, her breathing became short and shallow, and she felt so overwhelmed and breathless that she had to get up and walk away.
“I think my fear is being truly seen,” she shared. “I noticed that I had totally stopped breathing and my thoughts raced about how he must be noticing that I hadn’t taken a breath. I was thinking how he must see how uncomfortable I was in my body.” She felt she had to flee the eye-locked scene in a desperate need to regain control of her breath, of herself.
As she shared this with me I recognized Elizabeth’s unusual affect and restlessness; she was shifting in her chair, staring out into the upper corners of the room, an unfamiliar smile of nervous anxiety appearing on her face. We only had a few minutes left in our session, so I suggested we stop talking about the experience and instead relive it together.
I invited Elizabeth to recreate the experience on her date in our session. I asked her to hold eye contact with me for about two minutes as she noticed her body and her breath.
Right away I asked, “What do you notice about your breath and the feeling in your body right now?” She stated that her body posture was inhibiting her from fully breathing so she untangled her legs and placed them on the ground, she sat up straighter and unhunched her shoulders. She continued to connect her eyes with mine.
As we continued to hold our views, I said that for the next minute she would try to move her breath through her body. I asked her to notice where she felt the tension in her body and to send her next breaths to those places to allow for expansion and tension release. She quickly noticed her tight shoulders and chest area. Her awareness is strong, but as she efforted to move the breath through her body, I noticed that her discomfort rose.
Her eyes shifted away from mine.
Don’t break our eye contact, I reminded her.
Come back to it.
Next, I asked her to send her breath downward, into her lower belly, into her seat, and into her legs. I asked her to imagine the roots of a tree stretching downward and expanding into the earth as she continued to focus on deepening her lower belly breathing. She still looked uncomfortable, but this time was able to continue holding her gaze with mine. Her breathing was less shallow, but her mind was busy reviewing self-conscious thoughts in such a way that showed through her body’s unease. Elizabeth was newly developing a sense of agency over her breath in her body. She was clearly motivated to build this new skill. Though it wasn’t comfortable, she was already doing the work through her willingness to engage and continue trying this somatic improv.
Elizabeth and I only toe-dipped into her breath work during these few minutes. She was eager yet nervous, willing yet doubtful. Her motivation to change her presentation was stronger than her conflicting emotions. Her actions preceded inhibition. When we stopped to process before wrapping up the session she shared her excitement about growing this skill in upcoming sessions. She had already done the work in strengthening her awareness and now was ready for the next step to use her awareness to form new behaviors.
She had a second date just after our therapy session, so we made a plan to target some goals. We would use this date as an opportunity to put the somatic practices into action. Knowing that she has her exit strategy to walk away if she needed an out, we made two simple goals that were just challenging enough:
Goal #1: she would use her body awareness to shift her posture to permit unrestricted breathing.
Goal #2: she would take at least one full round of longer, lower-belly breath while maintaining eye contact.
We practiced both goals in our session together.
Now she would take her practice to the arena.
She laughed at the potential weirdness of this when in a real-life dating context. It was easier to try and “be bad” within the safe, non-judgmental space with her therapist. But this is the point of therapy; learn the skills in a safe space, then go out into the world and apply them. This is how we form new behaviors. At the very least, she would probably laugh in the moment with her date. I hope she does laugh- because if she’s laughing, she’s breathing, and if she’s breathing, she’s showing up with vulnerability.
We used somatic therapy techniques to tap into the body. These methods can help you improve your ability to stay connected and grounded within yourself, which is especially useful in moments that feel anxiety-provoking and provoke our fear to run away. Somatic work focuses on the mind-body connection, helping you manage your feelings, beliefs, and behaviors through a physical lens. When you can attend to your inner experience with awareness, you can positively impact your presence in relationships.
Your ability to be vulnerable is the core of intimacy and authenticity.
It doesn’t happen all at once because you first need to feel safe within yourself in order to be intimate. For most people, feeling safe within the body is a foreign concept. Attending to the breath helps to stay connected with the body and turns down the volume on our thoughts of self-consciousness.
Here are three somatic practice takeaways from this article that you can use to develop your ability to feel safe in your body and improve intimacy in your relationships:
1. One technique commonly used in somatic therapy to improve intimacy is called “somatic experiencing.” This technique involves paying attention to bodily sensations and using them as a guide to uncover and release stored emotional trauma or tension. By tuning into the body’s physical sensations, you can learn to identify and regulate your emotional responses to different situations.
2. Another technique used in somatic therapy is called “grounding.” This technique involves using physical sensations to anchor yourself in the present moment and promote a sense of safety and stability. Grounding exercises can include focusing on the feeling of one’s feet on the ground, taking deep breaths, or using physical touch to connect with yourself or a partner.
3. Breathwork is another somatic therapy technique that can be helpful in improving intimacy. Breathwork involves using controlled breathing exercises to release tension and promote relaxation. This can help you become more aware of your body and sensations during intimate moments, allowing you to be more present and connected with your partner.
True intimacy starts with you. By establishing a baseline of comfort in connecting with your breath and body, you will be able to allow deeper intimacy in connection with others. These are simply initial steps into the ways you can use your agency over your breath to improve your comfort with being perceived. I highly recommend working with a therapist to take these practices further. A therapist will help you understand the parts of yourself that avoid intimacy and fear being seen vulnerably. The therapeutic relationship is a safe space to practice, to develop your capacity for greater connection within yourself, so you can apply new, healthier ways of existing in your relationships with others.
When your avoidance of intimacy shifts into openness, your old patterns of disconnecting in relationships will become opportunities for meaningful, intimate connectivity.
Everyone deserves to be seen.
We all need intimacy.
We just need some practice.
Create the life you’re ready to live.
See you there.