It’s not you, it’s me: how to know we’ve closed off to ourselves

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If you asked anyone – including yourself – whether they want mutually supportive and fulfilling relationships, you can assume the answer is going to be yes. If you asked anyone who isn’t experiencing mutually supportive and fulfilling relationships, what the problem was, chances are they’ll be able to run off a list of reasons all of which focus on situations outside of themselves.

Maybe there are no decent <insert gender> out there, maybe they live in a big city and it’s hard to make genuine friends, maybe they just haven’t met people who show up for them in the way they want. Maybe all of that is true. Maybe we’re just having a bad run. But if it seems like we’re always attracting people who don’t show up for us then chances are, the problem is us. If we’re not able to attract new relationships into our lives despite our best efforts then chances are, the problem is us. If we find ourselves feeling lonely in the relationships we already have in our lives then chances are – yep, you guessed it – the problem is us.

The relationships we have with other people are generally a fairly good barometer by which to rate our relationship with ourselves – the more closed off to ourselves we are, the less satisfying our relationships with other people are going to be.  A few points I would make here – by ‘lonely’, I do not mean ‘alone’. The two are different – you can be alone and be perfectly happy or you can be surrounded by other people and feel terribly lonely. Secondly, loneliness is not necessarily ‘bad’. Connection with other human beings is a must for our emotional health and extended bouts of loneliness can indeed have a negative impact on overall health – but occasional experiences of loneliness is something we should learn to sit with.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us will experience feelings of loneliness at some point in our lives and the ability to make peace with this rather uncomfortable feeling will help in the long run. Being unable to ‘sit’ with the occasional bout of loneliness will inevitably result in a desperation for companionship at all costs – leading us to lower our standards for who we allow in our lives. Loneliness can be a great opportunity to spend some time with our own thoughts provided we look at it in a productive and positive light.    

The other comment I would make is that when I refer to ‘relationships’, I mean both platonic and sexual. Our focus may inadvertently be on our romantic relationships but the problems highlighted here will exist in all our interpersonal relationships. If we’re consciously seeking genuine relationships – relationships in which we feel seen, heard and valued by the people around us – and we find ourselves continually coming up short, then we have to start looking at why. Putting external factors aside, we have to start looking at our own behaviours and whether they’re conducive to attracting the relationships we desire, or repelling them. We have to pin ourselves down and try to view ourselves the way others would. And this is where things get tricky.

The problem is of course, that often we’re not aware that we have closed off. Whatever it was that caused the initial shut down has resulted in so much hurt and shame that we begin to lean away from ourselves, we stop seeking our own counsel, we stop showing up for ourselves as punishment for past (so-called) mistakes. It happens so incrementally and on such a deep level, we’re usually blindly unaware of it. Instead our subconscious takes over, doing everything it can to keep us from recognising our self-sabotaging behaviour while our ego does everything it can to convince us that it’s not about us, that the problem is ‘out there’.

In refusing to acknowledge our past, in writing off, trivialising or dismissing our traumatic experiences, we’re telling ourselves ‘you don’t deserve compassion or empathy’. We eradicate our vulnerability to ourselves. We are in effect, holding ourselves accountable and punishing ourselves for the very experiences that caused the pain in the first place. Let’s be honest, if a friend did this to you, you probably wouldn’t seek out their company, am I right? We, in effect, become estranged from ourselves. While the upshot of all that may be that we find it easier to cope at the time, in the long run it can bite us in the arse.

After years of rejecting ourselves, we find ourselves unable to accept other people. After years of denying ourselves love, compassion and empathy, we expect other people to fill that gap for us. We expect other people to meet us in ways we won’t meet ourselves. Quite a big ask. When other people are unable or unwilling to meet our expectations in either respect, we feel tremendous disappointment and rejection.

The subconscious and ego between them work hard to keep us from repeating past hurts and that means maintaining a wary distance from the people around us. We become increasingly closed off. We get stuck in behaviours that result in the exact opposite of the experiences we’re hoping for and unless we’re actively trying to tease these out, we simply won’t see them. We’ll continue to blame the external world – fate, other people, life in general – we’ll cling to the pain and shame of the past and remain trapped in the same patterns that are causing us to unintentionally alienate the people around us.

So what is it we’re doing ‘wrong’ and how do we get back on track? These are a few of the more obvious patterns – not particularly ground breaking, but it’s surprising at our common place our patterns are. If we’re experiencing anything of the above, then we can be sure that some of the below behaviours are being played out;  

The Drama Queen (or King) 

Drama is exciting when you’re a teenager. It bolsters our self-importance when we’re in our 20’s and need to feel self-important.  But if it drags on and becomes a habit, then we need to take a look at whether we’re using it as a distraction.

I would preface this by saying that some of us love roller coasters – we’re all different and what works for you may be boring as hell for the next person so this is only relevant for you if you feel it’s relevant for you. But if you find yourself reeling from one heart ache to another and you wind up feeling battered and bruised all the time, then we might be onto something here.

The other thing to take into consideration here is how much focus we’re giving our romantic interactions. All our interpersonal relationships are important for our overall quality of life, but our lives shouldn’t orbit around who we’re sleeping with. At a certain point, we need to be able to pull our attention to back to ourselves. We need to be able to regain our equilibrium and provide ourselves some peace of mind rather than seeking that peace of mind from another person. 

It’s human nature to have ups and downs in our interpersonal relationships and we all need the people around us to hear us out, provide their insight and wisdom or just a general grounding while we all figure each other out. But if you find you’re constantly second guessing yourself or constantly in a state of paranoia, then you need to take a look at your patterns. Sometimes we can just have a shit run and no, we’re not responsible for the behaviour of the people around us but if we find ourselves reeling from one disaster to another or repeatedly asking friends for their input into a situation they are not directly involved in, then there’s a need to reset our boundaries.

At the end of the day, the quality of our interactions with ourselves will drive the quality of our interactions with other people. And while our relationships – romantic or otherwise – are important and require attention and nurturing, a high quality relationship with ourselves tends to ensure that we manage our emotional equilibrium decidedly better than we did in our teen years. If we’re not, we need to look at why. If we’re not sure whether we are or not, ask a few trusted friends what they think – chances are they’ve been dealing with the fallout for years.

Ultimately our own emotional well-being should be paramount – if the people around us aren’t showing us that consideration, then we need to put ourselves first and remove ourselves from the situation. If we’re not prepared to do that, then we need to look at why – being caught up in the minutiae of someone else’s dysfunctional behaviour certainly distracts us from our own.

The Vulnerability factor – too much, too soon. 

Research indicates that vulnerability is a key factor – if not *the* key factor – in our relationships with other people. We feel closer and more connected to people who show their own vulnerability and we feel closer and more connected to people who accept our vulnerability. It creates a shared experience of empathy and compassion which is necessary for love (romantic or otherwise) to thrive. Vulnerability connects people. But it’s extremely high risk.

With the right people it brings us closer, cultivates love, acceptance and the deep connection we crave. With the wrong people it sets off a chain of events that leads to pretty damaging experiences. None of us gets it right all the time and the ability to judge this accurately comes down to how well we manage our own emotions and – unfortunately – some necessary trial and error.

We all have different degrees of sensitivity to the world around us and some of us find our emotional responses so overwhelming that we struggle to contain our vulnerability, often offering it too freely to those who haven’t done anything to earn our trust. Overwhelming or not, there are always ways we can tap into which help us learn to manage our own emotional needs in a less exposing way.

If we find ourselves constantly being taken advantage of by the people around us, we need to look at how freely we’re offering our vulnerability. Are we expecting someone to meet us in ways we’re unwilling to meet ourselves? Are we expecting genuine ‘connection’ after just a few dates with someone new, trying to fast track the process by offering someone a little too much information? Are we expecting short-term acquaintances (or even long-term friends) to cope with an emotional burden that we need to take responsibility for ourselves?

I’ll admit, this is a tough one – we all need other people. We all want to connect, we want to have that ‘go to’ person (or people) when we have a bad day or are feeling a little lonely. But if we infringe upon other people in inappropriate ways, it backfires leaving us feeling embarrassed, rejected and deeply hurt. And, to be fair, an unwillingness to acknowledge the impact our emotional downloading is having on the people around us, tends to demonstrate a self-absorption that we need to address.

While we may be sensitive to the world around us, we need to begin to explore solutions that don’t transfer this burden to other people in inappropriate ways. At the end of the day, very few of us want to ‘carry’ someone else through life – and those human beings that do relish the opportunity to pick up the slack of someone else’s vulnerability, are probably not people you should be entrusting it to.

Unfortunately more often than not, we find ourselves ‘trying harder’ when people pull away from us, seeking a reprieve from the onslaught. We find ourselves becoming increasingly and inappropriately needy, losing our sense of self along the way as we desperately grab at other people. If you can see these patterns in your behaviour, maybe take a time out from dating and have some honest discussions with close friends about what they think.

We generally need to ‘break the habit’ with this level of neediness so some ‘people detox’ may be required while we try to reconnect with ourselves  – but this isn’t always possible on our own and professional assistance in the form of a really good counsellor or therapist may be required. As with all things, kindness and compassion in how we handle ourselves is paramount.

The Vulnerability factor – The closed book 

The now famous ’36 questions’ outlined in Mandy Lee Catron’s Essay on Modern Love, were based on a study conducted by psychologist Arthur Alan in which he highlighted that “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” In short, the quality of our interpersonal relationships depends significantly on our ability to offer our vulnerability, accept the vulnerability of others and – perhaps most importantly – correctly choose the best people to do this with. It’s not surprising that very few of us can get three for three all the time.

While the ‘too much, too soon’ vulnerability factor suggests that perhaps we’re trying a little too hard to connect with the people around us, the opposite is true of ‘the closed book’. This behaviour suggests that we have no-one to be vulnerable with, including ourselves. After experiencing something painful, something that leaves us feeling deeply hurt and ashamed, our subconscious can respond in a myriad of ways. The ‘closed book’ vulnerability factor tends to arise when we’ve been so stoic in dealing with our pain that we’ve locked it up tight within us.

We push the experience away, refusing it airspace in our thoughts by holding onto the philosophy that what’s done is done and no good can come from wallowing in it now. Maybe the memories just cause too much pain and we simply don’t want to think about it. Or perhaps we just have to push through and get on with it to even keep our head above water – the need for psychological (or physical) survival overturning any consideration for our emotional well-being. More often than not, we simply lack the emotional skills to process the pain in a functional way.

The end result is that we deny ourselves that empathy and compassion that is necessary for vulnerability to exist. Sometimes we become hard-arses and maybe that’s a conscious decision on our part – having experienced something negative as a result of our own perceived mistakes, it’s not unnatural that we would try to ‘toughen up’. But realistically most of us don’t think this way – it’s simply not a conscious decision. Instead, whatever it is that happened, has somehow felt like ‘our fault’. That’s ultimately what shame does to us, it blames.

So, it’s not necessarily just any negative experience that effects our relationship with ourselves – it will be experiences which negatively effect how we feel about ourselves, experiences that cause us to feel ashamed or worthless. In her work on shame and vulnerability, author Brene Brown points out that shame flourishes in silence – we cling to it, desperate to avoid other people ‘finding out’. And that fear and shame becomes habit. It feels like a refuge and instead becomes a prison.

When we internalise that shame, we begin to believe that we deserve to suffer and we punish ourselves by denying ourselves compassion and empathy – this is what kills our vulnerability.  If we can’t accept our own vulnerability, we lose trust in ourselves. Our inner child – the little soul that lives within all of us – won’t feel they can come to us with their sadness. If we can’t accept our own vulnerability, we will find the vulnerability of other people awkward and uncomfortable. We simply won’t know what to do with either our own emotional needs or the emotional needs of other people.

The end result is a total loss of intimacy and connection – first with ourselves, then with the people around us. We may have a large family, we may have a lot of ‘friends’, but we keep our relationships with them on a superficial level focusing on inconsequential small talk and actively avoid anything that may crack the walls we’ve built. Consciously we may desperately want to meet someone we feel we can trust enough to unload to, to share some of our pain with but because connectedness depends on reciprocal vulnerability, this is just not possible for us.

In short, simply because other people just don’t trust us. This isn’t necessarily done on a conscious level – but human beings are instinctive creatures. We operate more on the basis of energy and ‘vibes’ than most of us are willing to admit. We often can’t tell why we like some people, why we don’t like others. For better or worse, we instinctively feel drawn to people with ‘like’ energy to ours and so when we’re seeking people to be vulnerable with – and we often do, even if we’re not consciously doing it – we’re looking for people who will accept that vulnerability. We’re looking for people who will understand, who ‘get us’. We’re looking for people we can trust.

Because vulnerability is such an innate part of being human, our inability to access it is palpable. In much the same way as ‘oversharing’ makes people uncomfortable, being emotionally void and uptight has the same effect. This isn’t the same as being mean or nasty – although that is another possibility – we’re just hollow. We’re unable to understand the emotional set points or needs of other people – because we’ve been closed off to our own for so long.

We’re also so unable to be open with our own emotional needs that pretty soon even our closest friends and family will just stop trying to connect in this way. And then we find ourselves in a very lonely position indeed – because we’re unable to see that we’ve created this prison ourselves, it simply acts as further evidence that we’re unworthy and unloveable. That the world is a cold place unwilling to offer us any warmth, when in actual fact, we’ve created that world ourselves.

So, where do we go from here?

I explore some of the ways we can re-connect with ourselves here.

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