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 never showed affection.
How would a little boy learn that it was good to express intimacy and affection if his own father could not? Answer: A little boy would not.
Early brain wiring makes us very aware and wary of unfamiliar experiences. 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 feel comfortable with as adults. These lessons can be overridden, but usually not without some conflict as our early brain programming is strong.
Changing our behavior is a challenging task for most of us and takes willingness and mental energy. Doing something different than we saw our parents do initially triggers a sense that we are risking something: rejection, humiliation, or embarrassment. We are out in proverbial left field when we demonstrate feelings and behaviors not part of our family culture.
Seth, however, was trying to grow beyond what his father modeled. During one of our sessions, he shared, “I can sense that part of me that wants to shy away from intimacy. Every bone in my body wants to retreat. I feel very embarrassed showing any public display of affection. But when I’ve forced myself to put my arm around my girlfriend 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'm starting to actually like it.”
I was moved by Seth’s courage to do the opposite of what was familiar, to forgo total safety in service of personal growth. And I was impressed by Seth's strength to overcome the impulses that pulled him away from connection. It was brave to demonstrate tenderness towards his girlfriend. He liked the connection and intimacy even though he struggled to accept that he liked it. He came to learn he wasn’t weak for wanting and showing intimacy. He realized he was instead strong.
All people have the ability to grow their capacity for intimacy. When you tap into your desire for more connection, you have the choice to embrace the opportunity.
Here are 5 tips to help you grow your capacity for intimacy:
Expect and welcome the (temporary) discomfort that comes with doing something different.
Start off with small steps to minimize discomfort.
Share with your partner or friend that you are trying out new ways of being and ask for support.
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.
Remember that you are worthy of love and connection even if you feel unworthy because you didn’t get enough 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.”
Postscript: If you are a father reading this and my words are bringing up guilt or remorse that you didn't give enough to your child, it is never too late. We can make amends: be accountable for our actions, apologize, and forge a new intimate relationship. A+ for trying!
(Patient details have been changed to protect privacy)
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