Some Steps Essential to Authentic Intimacy
- February 24, 2016
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Know your conditioning inside out. This means being very familiar with your personal history, recognizing whatever wounding you carry (and how you tend to compensate for it), seeing how and where your conditioning has made your choices, and how and where it is still running you. Breaking your conditioning’s grip on you won’t erase it, but will put you in a position where you’re not at its mercy, being able to relate not from it but to it. You’ll likely need the help of a good therapist to do this well. A good place to begin is to take a reactive pattern you have and — when you’re not feeling reactive — look at it objectively, tracing the raw feeling of it back to when it first arose in your life, noting what triggered it back then.
An example: Jeff’s mother used to criticize him in a shaming way to make him “behave.” Now, when his wife is starting to talk to him about something he’s done not so well, even in the form of a loving observation or question, he usually explodes immediately, ragingly accusing her of picking on or nagging him, not realizing how much he’s projecting his mother on to her. His old hurt, still intact, must be worked on to reduce the inner charge he carries regarding being criticized.
Another area to explore is that of past traumas, which we coped with as children through survival strategies (like dissociating, going numb, dividing ourselves, and so on). For many of us, these strategies remain our adult go-to methods in conditions that mimic our past circumstances.
An example: When Susan had to again and again face her father raging at her, she learned to “blank out” (to, so to speak, vacate the premises), having the sense of standing ten or so feet behind her body. Nowadays when her partner challenges her with even a slightly raised voice, Susan goes blank, immediately slipping into a mental fog. She doesn’t do this consciously; when her partner gets upset at this, Susan pulls even further into her fogginess. The solution is a compassionately guided journey into and through the roots of her going blank (best done under the guidance of a professional skilled in working with trauma).
Turn toward your pain. As natural as it may seem to turn away from or distract yourself from your pain, practice turning toward it, daily. When pain arises, acknowledge this as soon as possible, and then direct your undivided attention toward it, taking care not to turn it into suffering (meaning the over-dramatization of pain).
An example: When Gerald thinks he’s not succeeding at work and gets discouraged, he watches a lot of TV. His new practice — when he’s about to watch TV — is to name what he’s feeling emotionally, saying it aloud to himself (“Here’s shame” or “I feel sad” or “I’m afraid”) and noticing where he feels this in his body, breathing a touch deeper and allowing himself to simply be with that feeling. He can also include the sensations he’s experiencing (“My upper back feels tight” or “My jaw is aching” or “There’s a tingly feeling in my right hand”). Gerald is turning toward his pain, his discomfort, paying attention to what’s making his watching TV so attractive. In so doing, he’s beginning the process of neither being controlled by his pain nor by his craving to distract himself from it.
Don’t treat vulnerability as a weakness. Practice being vulnerable — transparent and undefended and significantly softened — in safe circumstances, where the only “danger” is getting embarrassed by such overt self-unmasking. Vulnerability can be a source of strength.
An example: Your partner says something that triggers you, and you slip into aggression, getting defensive — but then instead of continuing “protecting” yourself, you admit you’re being defensive, adding that you felt hurt when you heard your partner’s comment (avoiding the temptation to blame your partner for your hurt). As you thus drop your guard, you soften, making your connection with your partner more important than being right. This is vulnerability. Not so easy perhaps, but so potent in getting your relationship back on track.
Bring your shadow out of the dark. To the extent that your conditioning is allowed to operate you, it is your shadow. Get to know whatever in yourself you have disowned or rejected, and know it very well, to the point where its energies no longer internally divide you.
Deepen your emotional literacy. Become a student of emotions, casting both a finely focused and panoramic eye on them, getting to know them intimately. The more deeply and skillfully you can relate to your emotions, the more you’ll be able to do so in actual relationship. (My book Emotional Intimacy is all about this.)
Distinguish between anger and aggressiveness. Aggression is an attack, however “nicely” it may be conveyed, but anger is not. When you feel your anger starting to shift into aggression, acknowledge this (at least to yourself) and don’t allow it to do so, choosing to see the offending other with at least some degree of compassion.
Practice opening your heart when you least want to do so. Don’t lose touch with your love when you are not being loved, and do so without collapsing or sinking into exaggerated tolerance. This at times may mean opening your heart to your own close-heartedness. Opening your heart doesn’t always mean you’ll look loving, but the very intention to thus open is a potent context-shifter.
Love and protect the child within. It’s easy to push away our indwelling child — that locus of prerational innocence, vulnerability, and softness. But when we are out of touch with the child within we are cutting ourselves off from much of what make intimate relationship possible.
Release your sexuality from the obligation to make you feel better. So long as you assign your sexuality to the labor of making you feel better or more secure or more wanted, you’ll over-rely on it, preventing it from being a natural expression of already-present love, connection, and well-being.
Make your connection to your partner top priority. If you are caught up in reactivity or battling for relational turf, you’ve very likely forgotten or marginalized your connection with your partner. At such times, do your best to remember your connection with her or him, and reestablish it as soon as possible, allowing it and your autonomy to fruitfully coexist.
You don’t need to be an expert in all of the above before you can enter intimate relationship, but you need to be already committed to learning them as fully as you can, having at least some momentum in your practice of them. And of course it’s crucial that the other also be similarly committed, or else your relationship will be all about you trying to get them to “do the work.”
And even if you don’t end up in such partnership, the very steps you’ve taken to ready yourself for it will further and deepen your life immeasurably, including in all your relationships.