Fear of intimacy is a common issue that brings many clients in for therapy at Healing Paths, Inc. A lack of connection in our relationships increases our feelings of loneliness and slowly destroys our mental health.
This is why we teach mindfulness at our Utah therapy clinic, which can improve intimacy and connection in our romantic relationships. Being present can also offer other positive impacts, which we discuss in this important episode of Thanks for Sharing.
The host of this podcast, Jackie Pack, ends this episode with small steps you can start taking in your life in order to practice mindfulness and being present today.
TRANSCRIPT: How to Be Present in our Relationships
This is the Thanks for Sharing Podcast, the podcast where we explore all things recovery, healing, and relationship. Remember to subscribe and download episodes in the iTunes Store, Google Play, or on the Podbean app. While you’re there, I’d love a review.
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host Jackie Pack. In today’s episode, I want to talk about being present, and the importance of being present, and what we gain if we can have this practice of being present. So I want to start out talking about three different concepts that sometimes we talk about interchangeably or at least they are interwoven with each other. The first concept is mindfulness. Now, mindfulness has become trendy recently, and I think that’s for good reason. We know and we understand that the practice of mindfulness has numerous positive impacts on us as human beings.
Mindfulness can be described as the practice of paying attention in the present moment, and doing it intentionally and with nonjudgment. Mindfulness meditation practices refer to the deliberate acts of regulating attention through the observation of thoughts, emotions, and body States. Some common mindfulness activities include mindful, nonjudgmental awareness of breath, body, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. This can be when we’re in a meditative practice or just as we check in to our body throughout the day as we’re going about our day. Another mindfulness activity would include a mindful walking meditation, mindful eating, a mindful body scan in a sitting or lying down position, listening with nonjudgment. All of these things, we can practice, and they will increase our awareness and our mindfulness.
Now, some of the things that mindfulness can do for us that we know of. Mindfulness can reduce our stress. If we practice mindfulness, it improves our ability to manage our own stress. It can also increase our focus, our ability to pay attention and concentrate. We know that mindfulness improves emotion regulation. It will reduce impulsiveness. It can improve child behavior, rowdiness, getting angry, or exploding. It can also increase our emotional intelligence and improve our conflict resolution skills. It can increase empathy, and respect, and our understanding of other people. It will also increase our ability to be resilient and to overcome challenges. Mindfulness will improve physical wellbeing and increase our engagement in physical activity, and mindfulness improves our creativity and our collaboration.
Now, let’s talk for a minute about what it means to be present. So I always usually start with an idea or going to the dictionary and looking at what is the word present. How is it defined? So the word present has multiple meanings. The first one is giving a present like a gift or time, right? “The present time is right now.” Present might also mean to submit or hand over, right? Like, “I present to you this certificate.” In grammar, the present tense expresses actions or states occurring at the time we’re speaking of them. That is to say at this moment. What does it mean to be fully present? Well, being present means being there in physical mind and body. Being fully present means receiving with an intent focus on the here and now.
So according to the dictionary definition, present means existing or occurring now or at that moment. This is a simple definition, but being present is more dynamic than that. Being present can represent a number of ideas and situations. For example, for people with negative thoughts, the idea of being present can act as a way to build awareness of those negative thoughts in order to counteract them and change the dialogue that’s happening within themselves. In this case, being present is being aware for the sake of changing a habit or a thought process. On the other hand, for some, being present is the practice of being fully engaged and attentive to what is going on in their mind, body, and heart in the exact minute that they’re in. In this case, the person is not worrying about the minute before or the minute ahead. Either way you define being present, it is the act of awareness without the distraction of something that has happened or something that’s going to happen.
According to Psychology Today, there are four steps to get back to being present. The first of these is to breathe. Breathing slowly through the nose brings a relaxation response to our body, and this response helps us get back to the present. In addition, Psychology Today mentioned being able to witness. Being a witness means seeing what is going on at any given moment and naming it. Hopefully, what we understand with witnessing, right, is that it’s also factual, and there’s not a lot of emotion infused into the facts of what we’re witnessing.
Also, a third step for getting back to being present is letting the rest go so you can stay present. So letting go of things that you have no control over. Whatever thoughts or feelings are distracting you, let them go in order to be present. So by breathing, witnessing, letting go, and then repeating this cycle, you will be present and not consumed with other things that you can’t control. Ultimately, this helps bring you a sense of peace, a sense of wonder and satisfaction from enjoying life because you’re completely present at every waking moment.
According to the website Knowledgism, to be present, you must learn how to control that which is actually in your control: you, your thoughts, visions, plans, and actions. Instant food, good weather, smooth traffic, and impressed boss, a happy spouse, the client saying yes, the car starting. None of these are actually under our control. When you are present, you know and can take responsibility for the difference between what you control and what you don’t control. Then, we can take wise, decisive action without letting what happens next spin us into this feeling of bad or unhappy with the new moment.
Then, the third concept I want to talk about is intimacy. Intimacy is defined as a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group. Another definition of intimacy is a close association with, or a detailed knowledge or deep understanding of a place, subject, or a period of history. Third definition of intimacy is an act or expression serving as a token of familiarity or affection. Fourth definition of intimacy, an amorously familiar act. Something that we enjoy. The fifth definition, sexual intercourse, which is how often I think we use the term intimacy or think of intimacy. Then, the sixth definition. The quality of being comfortable, warm, or familiar. Then, last, privacy. Suitable to the telling of a secret.
So intimacy refers to this ability to genuinely share your true self and hopefully also be an expert or have this expert knowledge, detailed knowledge of yourself, and then share that with another person and be able to relate to the experience of closeness and connection. According to GoodTherapy, intimacy usually denotes mutual vulnerability, openness, and sharing. It is often present in close, loving relationships such as marriages and friendships. Sometimes the term is referred to as sexual interactions, but intimacy itself does not have to be sexual. Intimacy can be vital to maintaining a healthy social life. If we avoid intimacy, we may find ourselves isolated or in constant conflict with others. When fear of intimacy disrupts a relationship, often, we need therapy to help us work through those issues that are behind that fear of intimacy.
So let’s take a few minutes, and talk about and flush out this idea of intimacy. So intimacy is important because as human beings, we are social creatures who thrive on close personal relationships with others. That is our default setting. Now, usually when we talk about intimacy, right, it conjures up this idea of romantic relationships, but it can also occur in close friendships. It can occur between parents and children, and it can occur among siblings.
When we talk about intimacy, we talk about four types of intimacy. So the first type of intimacy is experiential intimacy. This is when people bond during leisure activities, right? So we’re doing something. We’re experiencing something. Not necessarily deep and vulnerable, but it brings us together. We sync up our actions in this teamwork, and we find ourselves acting in unison or with some synchronicity. So an example of this might be a parent and a child working on a project together, and developing this rhythm to their teamwork, and being able to see each other, and feel safe in being seen.
Second type of intimacy is emotional intimacy. This is when people feel safe sharing their feelings with each other, even the uncomfortable ones. So for example, it might be a woman who shares with a sibling, let’s say her sister, some of her personal struggles or challenges, and goes into detail about what those might be. She trusts this person, her sibling, to offer comfort rather than using these insecurities or these challenges against her down the road.
Intellectual intimacy is when people feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions, even if they disagree or don’t see things eye-to-eye. So for example, two people might be able to debate the meaning of life. They can enjoy hearing each other’s opinions, and they don’t feel this need to win the argument because that’s not what this type of intimacy is about. It’s really about seeing each other, and being seen, and sharing. As one person shares their idea, even if the other person thinks of this differently, it fuels the conversation and the connection between them.
Then, the last type of intimacy is sexual intimacy, and this is when people engage in sensual or sexual activities. Usually, like I’ve said, when we refer to the word intimacy, this is the type of intimacy that we are referring to. However, as somebody who works with people who are struggling with either problematic sexual behaviors or a lack of sexual feelings and trust, oftentimes, it’s interesting when we usually think of intimacy in terms of sexuality. Oftentimes, intimacy is actually what’s missing in our sexualized world.
Now, intimacy in a romantic relationship is usually that something that is built over time. Newer relationships might have moments of intimacy, but building longterm intimacy is a gradual process that requires patience, and communication, and continuous moments of connection. A lot of times, people will judge the quality of their relationships based on the depth of intimacy and the degree to which they feel close to their partners, or friends, or whoever the person is in that relationship. We know that intimacy can help us feel more loved and less alone. Part of this is because people get to see us for who we really are. We get to be able to be authentic, and true, and imperfect, and people accept us. So that will help us feel more loved because we are sharing ourselves in a well-rounded way. It also helps us to feel less alone because people really know who we are, the good, bad, and otherwise.
But intimacy also requires a great deal of trust and vulnerability. For a lot of people, they find this frightening. Many people struggle with intimacy, and fear of intimacy is a common concern in therapy. People can fear intimacy due to a variety of reasons. Some of the most common causes of this fear of intimacy include abandonment issues. So in abandonment, right, this often results from the experience of a parent or an other important adult figure abandoning the person emotionally or physically when they were a child. With abandonment issues, one may fear that once they become attached to someone, that individual is going to leave. So they don’t actually get close because they’re always waiting for the exit.
Another issue that can lead to a fear of intimacy is this fear of rejection. One might worry that once we reveal any flaws or imperfection, the other person will no longer accept you or want to be around you. People who are afraid of other’s judgment, evaluation, or rejection are naturally more likely to shy away from making intimate personal connections. There also may be some specific phobias such as the fear of touch, or social phobia, or an anxiety disorder that also may occur as part of this fear of intimacy.
Another issue that might lead to this fear of intimacy is this need to control. So oftentimes, these control issues stem from bad things happening when somebody wasn’t in control or this belief that if I’m not in control, something bad may happen. When they didn’t have control, like in childhood, bad things did happen. So they may fear losing this sense of control and becoming emotionally connected to others or being hurt by others if they’re not in control. However, if one person is controlling a relationship, that’s going to get in the way of true intimacy.
Then, another thing that leads to this fear of intimacy would be past abuse. A history of childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse, may make it difficult for a person to trust others. Relationships will feel risky, and often, the relationship itself is a trigger for a trauma response. Then, another issue that leads to this fear of intimacy is this idea of engulfment. So when we’re talking about engulfment, this usually stems from growing up in an enmeshed family, and the fear that somebody would have about engulfment is this fear of being controlled, dominated, or losing themselves in a relationship.
In an enmeshed family system, right, people don’t get to be individuals. Instead, they operate and function as a group instead of individuals who are part of a group. So somebody has worked hard to gain their individuation and to be an individual person that may be a part of, but is also a part from the group that they came from or the enmeshed family system. They may fear that all relationships are like the relationships they grew up with in their family and that being in a relationship comes at the cost of sacrificing the individuation.
Now, obviously, in healthy relationships, engulfment isn’t required and healthy relationships aren’t about control or domination, or a measurement. You can google this Fear of Intimacy Scale or the FIS assessment or test. This scale measures how much you fear emotional intimacy in a romantic context. It asks you to agree or disagree with statements like, “I would probably feel nervous showing my partner strong feelings of affection,” and research has linked a high fear of intimacy scale score to an increased feeling of loneliness.
Now, the fear of intimacy is separate from the fear of vulnerability. Although the two can be closely intertwined and often play off of each other. A person who is living with a fear of intimacy may be comfortable being vulnerable and showing their true self to the world, or a person, or a family member at first. The problem begins when a person with this fear of intimacy starts to see and recognize that the relationship or that the relationships are becoming too close and too intimate. That’s when this wall goes up and there’s this move to distance.
Now, as I’ve talked about these three concepts, mindfulness, being present, and intimacy, you may have noticed in yourself an awareness that you struggle with one or more of these concepts. You may also have noticed similarities between the three, and often, we do use them interchangeably when we talk about them. You might also recognize in yourself a resistance to one or more of these concepts, and this can happen for a few reasons. So let’s understand for a minute how the nature of the mind is. So the basic nature of the mind is to dwell in the past or to worry about the future. Let’s make sense of that. Why does the brain do that?
Well, our uneasiness about what’s to come is actually our strategy for preparing for the future. It’s our brain’s ingenious way of ensuring that we are equipped to survive with whatever is coming. After all, if we can’t survive, then we’re never going to be able to thrive. The problem is that the mind can get stuck in a constant state of preparing for what is to come, and it never actually gets to thriving. One of the other ways that our brain works, right, is it’s constantly assessing for threat or danger. So it’s going to focus or remember more the situations or predict situations in which there may be a threat or a potential danger.
Now, let’s talk about how does our future-oriented mind, right, this mind that’s always preparing for what’s to come and making sure that we’re going to be able to survive what’s to come, how does that future-oriented mind know how to prepare for what is to come? Well, the mind relies mainly on one thing in order to predict what is to come, and that is the past. So ruminating or rehashing the contents of the mind of what’s already happened to us allows us to prepare for and shape the future.
Now, sometimes this can be a healthy thing to do when we’re trying to anticipate what’s the future or how do I need to process the past in order to move into my future. Sometimes I ask clients to do this in therapy. The problem comes when we’re bouncing back and forth between future and past, and future and past, and like I said, we’re ruminating, obsessing, or rehashing in ways that we don’t need to or in ways that take us out of this idea that in the present, I’m safe. In the present, I’m okay. In the present, I’m enough. So our mind is constantly toggling between these two opposing timeframes, the future and the past. Let’s talk for a minute about what the role of the present is.
Before we talk about that, I want to mention, according to a recent Harvard study, almost half of our waking hours are spent not living in the moment. Now, that’s a shocking and sad statistic. In his 2011 TEDx Cambridge talk, psychologist, Matt Killingsworth, a happiness researcher who studied at Harvard under psychologist and happiness expert Dan Gilbert said, “As human beings, we have this unique ability to have our mind stray. This ability to focus our attention on something other than the present is amazing. It allows us to learn, and plan, and reason.”
Interestingly enough though, despite the fact that most people see mind wandering as a lifting escape from daily drudgery, the data from his study demonstrated that mind wandering was correlated with unhappiness. People self-reported being 10% less happy while mind-wandering than they were when they were focused on the present, regardless of what they happen to be doing. Happiness begets all sorts of benefits like improved health, productivity, creativity, and innovation. So being present actually boosts our happiness, which can lead to improved health, productivity, creativity, and innovation.
Now, for those who experienced childhood trauma, not being present was a coping skill, and it worked. As a child, we had to learn to not know what was happening to us or around us. When we look back at childhood from adulthood, often, this childhood is recalled with a vagueness or it’s just not really recalled. People just don’t have memories of it. Sometimes kids learn to dissociate. Now, dissociation happens on a continuum from mild attachment, from immediate surroundings to a more severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences.
The major characteristic of all dissociation involves a detachment from reality rather than a loss of reality, as in a psychic break. So our ability to dissociate or this ability to not remember actually may be preserving our psyche and getting us through these experiences. Sometimes there comes a time in childhood where the information that’s coming in through the senses is just too much for the child to process, especially because in childhood trauma, there typically is this absence of a loving figure that the child can lean on to assist them in processing the information.
Now, if you’ve ever been around a child or recently been around a child, kids take in so much information through their senses, right? They’re touching. They’re listening. They’re tasting. They’re seeing. They’re hearing. These senses bring in so much information to them about the world that they live in. Again, that information may be way too intense for that child. The information may overload their system, and they don’t know how to process it. I often tell clients that rule number one for the brain is protect the asset, and the asset is whoever’s body the brain resides in. So even if it will create longterm problems or complications down the road, the brain is going to make short-term decisions like what’s best for this moment in order to survive because what’s the point of making this big picture decision, right, like what’s best in the long run if the child never makes it down the road?
So the brain often makes this decision to disconnect the head in the body in order to survive and to decrease the amount of information coming in, this disconnect can carry right into adulthood. When we haven’t learned how to manage our emotions, our emotions seem to be way too intense and much too loud. When we are living in childhood trauma, we don’t necessarily want to anchor ourselves to that time and place, so we disconnect, we dissociate, and we lose track of time. Part of healing is reconnecting the mind, body, and spirit in loving ways.
Another barrier that often gets in the way of being present or mindful is our praise for multitasking. Now, researchers have debated the effectiveness of doing multiple things at once, and sometimes it’s necessary to multitask, but I think we value multitasking more than it should actually be valued. In fact, did you know that multitasking actually cost the economy $450 million a year? It turns out that the lack of focus and higher likelihood of making mistakes when multitasking is not only ineffective and unproductive, but it is also IQ-reducing.
Now, sometimes our brain has this wonderful gift, right? I call it streamlining. That’s probably not the more technical term, but that’s the term that I use for it. It allows us to be more efficient. So often, the example that I’ll use for this is when I’m working at my office, which I haven’t been for a while now, but let’s say I’m working at my office, and I need to get in my car and come home at the end of the day. It is much more efficient for me to be able to get in my car and not have to remember how to get home, not have to decide which exit will get me there quicker. “Which route do I take? Is it left or right that I turn in order to go home?”
Once I’ve taken this route, really a time, maybe two… I mean, I’m directionally challenged. When we moved two years ago, really, by the first time that we had driven to this house, I pretty much had it down. So once our brain gets that, right, we’ve gone through the initial figuring it out. We’ve gone through the initial thinking process. I can get in my car at the end of the day and think about a whole lot of things on the way home that don’t include whether I turn left or right, or take this exit. The next thing I know, I’m pulling into my garage, and I haven’t really had to think about how I got from there to here. That’s a really efficient way that my brain doesn’t take up energy that it could be using much more effectively elsewhere.
There’s also a lot of mundane tasks that we have to do every day. Showering. Getting ready, right? I don’t necessarily have to concentrate on shaving my legs anymore. Time or two, I still may nick myself and start bleeding. But for the most part, I don’t necessarily have to really give my undivided attention to this process of showering and getting ready in the morning. That’s also something that my brain has just been able to streamline so that I have space and energy to devote to things that are much more important.
Now, I think it is important to be able to distinguish when it is efficient to streamline and when it’s time to slow down and to amplify because I think our brain sometimes will just try to streamline anything we allow it to. So we might have to set a rule, like when it comes to human beings, I can’t streamline. I can’t decide that because this person named Sean did A, B, C, and D, therefore most Seans do A, B, C, and D. Right? It doesn’t work that way, and so I can’t really apply a label and decide that I’ve already went through the thinking process and come to the conclusion. When it comes to human beings and especially when it comes to our relationships, it’s difficult to streamline stuff.
Now, you may be thinking… I know when my kids were young, right? I have four daughters, and doing their hair was not particularly fun. Right? They acted like I was trying to remove their hair from their scalp when I was just simply trying to brush it most of the time. So I could tune that out, right? I could not listen to what they were yelping and crying about, and I could just be like, “You know what? We’re going to get it over. Just deal with it. We’re done.” If though I could slow down and listen to what they were saying, and empathize with them, and hear them, and see them, it might actually make the process of even that mundane of a task much smoother and resulting in something positive instead of this negative interaction every day.
I think, also, we need to recognize that it’s in these relationships, it’s in these moments. If we will lean in and slow down, we tend to savor. We tend to enjoy. We tend to notice those moments of connection that we have every day the possibility for, and then we’re able to amplify this. Right? Not just to rush past it, not to enjoy it while I’m doing something else, but I’m actually able to lean in, to savor, to digest, to amplify so that I can pull on that when I want to remember that down the road, when I want to remember how good I feel about this relationship.
So if you are somebody who struggles with this intimate connection, if getting really close brings up the hair on the back of your neck or gives you a pit in your stomach, you don’t have to jump in feet first. You can start with some simple steps. Designate a specific time in your day to focus on what’s in front of you. Get present. Check in with yourself. Now, oftentimes, we will find, even when we’re doing this, maybe it’s five minutes that I’m going to check in with my body. It’s not uncommon for our mind to wander, to sneak off, and we just have to say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing. Come back here. We don’t have to judge ourselves. We don’t have to criticize ourselves. We just gently guide us back to where we’re going,” and notice what’s happening in our body. Then, we can worry about wherever it was wandering later.
A good thing to ask yourself while you’re checking in is to go to the census. “What do I hear? What can I see? What can I taste? What do I feel, and what can I smell?” Now, it’s impossible to live in this state of bliss all the time. The reality is that the world we live in doesn’t allow for that and maybe our humanness doesn’t either. Anytime you feel disconnected from yourself, or your family, or your friends, it’s a good idea to simply unplug and tune in to what’s surrounding you. What’s going on presently? You’ll notice a huge difference, and most often, so will the ones that you love and care for. You’ll also begin to move out of living in the extremes where you’re either turned off or turned on. When you’re turned on, you’re all the way turned on or you’re turned all the way off, and we can start to live in balance.
When we’re living in balance and we are in our present, this is an invitation to go deeper, to live in our bodies, in our feelings, in our present, or maybe our presence because our presence or our present isn’t overwhelming to us. We no longer need to continually bounce out of our body or move back into our head. We can translate our feelings into words. We can also allow others to do this with us. We can think, tolerate, and communicate about what we are feeling, which moves us into relationship and connection. At the end of this episode, I want to remind you that your story matters. Remember, there’s something meaningful in every chapter. Don’t wait to share your story until it’s finished. Until next time, Jackie.
The legal stuff. This podcast is solely for the purpose of information and entertainment, and does not constitute therapy nor should it replace competent professional help. The prayer of the perfectionist. Nobody has time for perfection. We are pursuing progress. Help me to remember the only step I need to focus on is the next right step for me. Help me to remember that life is a journey. Help me to be able to separate all that I am learning from all that I have to do. Help me to remember that I’m not alone. I can ask for help. Help me to strive for frequent awakenings, not mastery. I’m enough. Amen.