Feel the Fear... and Love Anyway
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
Fear is a tricky emotion. It serves to protect us from real threats and tries its damnedest to protect us from what we think might be a threat. Sounds pretty useful, right? (Thanks fear, you're the best!) And it can be... except when it comes to our close, intimate relationships. That's when our fear begins to sabotage us. That's when our fear starts to make up reasons to keep us from getting close to our loved ones.
But there are ways to feel the fear (along with fear’s many forms: worry, anxiety, defensiveness, detachment and more), and still move through into a more expansive ability to love.
Too often, we experience a great deal of fear in response to imagined threats in relationship:
"If I show how much I care, they won't reciprocate."
"What if I'm actually not attracted to my partner, and just think I am now, and I stop being attracted to them years down the road?"
"My partner is apologizing to me, but I feel like if I let down my defenses, I'll get badly hurt, so I'm going to keep fighting."
"I'm so happy being close with them... but when will it end?"
How does your fear show up in relationships?
Let me paint a picture of the kind of fear I'm referring to. I'm talking about times when:
You are in a loving, supportive, rewarding relationship, but your worries about whether it will last keep you from fully being present with your love.
The calmest, deepest part of yourself knows that this relationship is full of potential and worth showing up for, yet your fear takes a zoom-lens to all your partner's shortcomings, and you become fixated on the fear that you are with the 'wrong' person.
You are overflowing with love for your partner, or a dear, dear friend, yet your fear of vulnerability – or being rejected – keeps you from expressing the truth in your heart, and keeps you from fully sharing your love with this special person.
In short, I'm talking about when fear of imagined or overblown threats gets in the way of real love and connection with another.
To be very clear, I'm not talking about relationships where fear is present due to actual threats to your health or wellbeing, such as emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. For support with these types of relationships, please check out the amazing services offered at SPAN, here in the Boulder/Denver area. I'm also not talking about the type of fear that is related to past trauma, where certain moments within our healthy relationships trigger our nervous systems into a fight/flight/freeze response – trauma needs a certain kind of support, which is a post for another time.
I'm talking about the type of fear that naturally comes up when we get close to another person, which usually shows up with the aim to keep ourselves safe. When we get close to someone else, our brains and body-memories link it back to all our other close relationships, and many in which we've gotten hurt in the past – by family, early friendships, prior romantic relationships, and more.
Ever heard of the saying, 'Trust your gut?' As a somatic (body-based) therapist, I take a different approach to this: I ask my clients to listen to their gut (and heart, and head, and all parts of their body/selves), but not necessarily to believe it right away.
What do I mean by this? Let's look at an example:
Imagine someone (we'll call her Sally) having a conversation with a close friend, and it is the first time in a long while they have connected with each other. Sally's own past wounds in friendships contribute to her insecurity, and her fears of rejection. As the two are talking, and the conversation becomes increasingly vulnerable, Sally recognizes her own physical sensations of fear: shallow breath, tightened shoulders and jaw, and a feeling of constriction or 'butterflies' in her stomach.
Now, she could straightforwardly believe in the fear sensations (which most of us tend to do), and instantly interpret that the situation is actually unsafe. She might start to think, or subconsciously feel, "I'd better not get too vulnerable, I'll get hurt," or "Don't screw it up! I need to do this conversation 'right', or my friend will never open up to me again," or any number of other fear-based beliefs.
She might then believe in these fear thoughts. Then, how she is able (or unable) to connect with her friend will be shaped and limited by these fears. She might start to clam up, or get quiet, or change the subject to something less vulnerable (and less intimate).
But there is another way!
Another option is for Sally (i.e. for you, me, all of us) to:
Notice your fear, observing the sensations, the thoughts, the impulses that come with it
Recognize and name (to yourself) what’s happening, "Oh, I'm tightening up, I feel nervous... okay, that's my fear.”
Remind your mind not to believe in the fear, “I actually don't need to be afraid right now, it won't help us really connect." You could take it as information, yes – but not the whole truth, not something to fully believe and react on.
Help your body let go of the fear response. You may then take a few breaths, or move your shoulders gently to loosen up, or silently ask for the strength to show up with presence, vulnerability, and love for her friend.
Keep moving and connecting from there. Repeat the process as needed. And that becomes a very different interaction than one based on reactive fear and emotional shut-down!
In my professional work around relationships, with both individuals and couples, I guide clients to explore first the mindful awareness of their emotions, then their interpretations of these sensations. Sometimes we find that the fear is familiar – it feels like it did in another close relationship, or within a past family dynamic. If it’s familiar from elsewhere (or elsewhen), this is a huge clue for us that the fear that's coming up now might not be fully based on the reality of the present. This keeps us from making assumptions about the relationship too quickly, and gives clients more freedom in how they can respond to their fear.
When we are able to mindfully recognize our fear – and truly, all our emotions – and separate the fear sensations and fear thoughts from our immediate interpretation that there is actually something dangerous to fear, we begin to have more freedom in our relationships. We begin to have more freedom to act from a place of intentional love and connection, rather than from automatic, patterned fear and defensiveness.
From this place of expanded awareness, we get to explore new ways of relating to the present reality, to what is actually a safe, loving relationship.
From here, we get to find ways to feel the fear, and to love anyway.
Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT, is a somatic counselor and dance/movement therapist based in Westminster, CO and Boulder, CO. She offers individual sessions, embodied couples therapy, and dance/movement DBT skills.
It takes great courage to feel our fear, and to then move past the limits our fear wants to put on our relationships. If you would like support in moving through your own blocks to intimacy and connection, I would be honored to guide you in that exploration. Please feel free to contact me for a no-charge, 20-minute consultation.