December 20, 2011

The Nuts and Bolts of Intimacy

Intimacy, as I’ve mentioned before, is the ability to share both your strengths and vulnerabilities with others. But surely, you ask, there has to be more to intimacy than that.

First, let’s look at some common notions of what people define as an intimate relationship:

Closeness: When we think of being intimate with a spouse or romantic partner, we often think of physical and emotional closeness. And by physical, I don’t mean sex as much as spending all of your time with your partner. Nothing epitomizes our notions of intimacy more than the celebrity couples that we enviously eye in People magazine, or splashed on the Internet, as we watch them joined at the hip, kissing in public, spending day after day vacationing in some exotic place in the world. That, we think, must be the ultimate intimate relationship.

Along the same lines, we sometimes think of intimacy as our ability to agree with those closest to us. An avid follower of the Sunday wedding column in the New York Times, I often read how couples proclaim that their happiness lies in the fact that they always think the same way, never disagree, and as a result, their relationship unfolds without problems or setbacks.

Although both of these notions may sound ideal – who wouldn’t like to live in a perfect world where you spend all of your time with one person, never disagree, and always get along – such is not the reality of long-term relationships. Although we may find that to be true in the beginning stages of a relationship, over the long term, such closeness can’t be sustained because day -to -day life intervenes, and no two people ever see eye to eye on everything.

True intimacy: Although we may hope to find a partner with whom we agree on most things, true intimacy entails something far more rewarding: our ability to be known for who we truly are – in terms of our values, beliefs, strengths, and vulnerabilities. In a close relationship, neither partner has to sacrifice his or her core beliefs in order to please the other person, or to keep the relationship going. And in the face of our differences, we remain supportive toward each other and do not distance ourselves from our partner.

If we think about this for a minute, isn’t this what we all truly want in our relationships? Not only do we strive for this with our romantic partners, but with a parent, a friend, even with a boss, as well: To be truly valued for who we are, while at the same time being emotionally connected. Sounds great, you may say, but how do you even come close to achieving it? Although developing the skills for intimacy is a life-long ongoing process, we will start to tackle that question in my next post.

In the meantime, here is my …

Tip for the Day: Think of a time when you felt valued for who you were – whether it is a current or past relationship. What qualities defined the relationship?

Best wishes to all my readers for a wonderful holiday and healthy and happy New Year!
Anne

Anne is a clinical psychologist turned author and speaker, who is committed to helping people find more intimacy in their lives. Rather than touting the usual fare that people can just will their mind to think or behave in certain ways, Anne writes about what fosters and what blocks intimacy, providing concrete, easy to use tips to increasing intimacy in all of your relationships.

In addition to her blog, Anne writes regularly for BettyConfidential.com, an online woman’s magazine, on relationships and personal growth, and is the award-winning author of The Polio Journals: Lessons from My Mother, which describes the impact of shame and secrets on multiple generations of her family.


December 6, 2011

Growing Up in a Family Where No Pain Was Allowed

For my last post I talked about the movie Soul Surfer, and how by encouraging their daughter that she could overcome all obstacles related to her accident, Bethany’s family likely left little room for acknowledging the understandable emotional and physical challenges that losing her arm entailed. Since one measure of intimacy is a person’s ability to share both her strengths and vulnerabilities, such a positive attitude can cut down on intimacy.

In today’s blog, I share my own experience of growing up with a paraplegic mother, where all that mattered was that my mother adapt to the world of the nondisabled, believing if she could do that, we were just like any other family. The unwritten rule in our house is that we were never allowed to talk about her paralysis. But despite the fact that my mother was able to “overcome her disability” –she was a successful musician who married and raised two children– the silence surrounding our unique situation negatively impacted all of our family relationships.

Despite my mother’s accomplishments, as a child I was keenly aware of her suffering – I saw it in her face when others left her to do the things that she couldn’t do, in her frequent bursts of anger when her electric wheelchair careened into the side of a wall, or when she couldn’t reach for a glass in the too -high kitchen cabinet. I yearned, more than anything, to know what her experiences were like and to empathize with her struggles – to ask her what it was like to use a wheelchair, to not be able to simply stand-up and walk from one room to another.

Not only did I feel that my mother was different, but I felt different as well, for nobody else I knew had a mother who relied on a wheelchair to get around. Just as I wanted to talk to her about her experiences, I yearned to share with her what it felt like for me to always push her in her wheelchair when we went out, or watch her sad face when I left the house to play tennis – something she could only dream about doing.

Despite my family’s code of silence, my feelings didn’t go away. As a child, I became consumed by the feelings my mother couldn’t openly express – I would lay awake at night feeling sad for her, wishing that I could help her. Yet I also felt angry at her – not only did I feel different from other kids, but I was resentful and confused as to why I was so consumed by her problems when the overriding message in our family was that her disability meant nothing.

As a result, my behavior vacillated from my willingness to do anything and everything to help her, to being dismissive of her, never wanting to lend a hand to help her with even the simplest of tasks. My mother, in turn, was angry at me that I wasn’t more sensitive to her needs, which led me to feel guilty. Underneath the smoldering cauldron of feelings that we both shared lay a missed opportunity for us to show compassion for each other.

I often think of how much closer we would have been if we could have talked about these issues. If my mother had shared her embarrassment about being stared at when we went out, we both could have empathized with each other about our feelings of discomfort. If she had told me that she would have liked to have been able to walk down the street with me eye to eye, I could have expressed my feelings of loss that I had a mother who couldn’t do the things that other mothers could, increasing tenderness for both myself and for my mother. Discussing these issues would have freed us both from the destructive cycle of hurt and self-blame that imprisoned us.

Although most of you probably didn’t have a parent with a disability, no doubt many of you grew up in a family where your parents silenced, or glossed over, defining aspects of yourselves, or of a particular member. These may have been issues related to race, religion, or culture, or to the addiction or sexual orientation of one family member. Which leads me to my …

Tip of the Day: Think back to your family of origin. Did you live in a household where painful experiences were glossed over? What impact did this have on you? If you have a sibling that you are close to, you might want to consider asking him or her the same question.
Please share with me your own stories, and let’s get the conversation going!

In future posts, I’m going to share the cultural and family factors that contribute to why we silence painful experiences, which has the unintended impact of shutting down intimacy. But first I’m going to return to the basics, exploring in more detail the nuts and bolts of what defines an intimate relationship. Stay tuned for these informative posts!

Have a great couple of weeks!
Anne

Anne is a clinical psychologist turned author and speaker, who is committed to helping people find more intimacy in their lives. Rather than touting the usual fare that people can just will their mind to think or behave in certain ways, Anne writes about what fosters and what blocks intimacy, providing concrete, easy to use tips to increasing intimacy in all of your relationships.

In addition to her blog, Anne writes regularly for BettyConfidential.com, an online woman’s magazine, on relationships and personal growth, and is the award-winning author of The Polio Journals: Lessons from My Mother, which describes the impact of shame and secrets on multiple generations of her family.


November 22, 2011

Soul Surfer: A Model for Inspiration, or a Model for Shutting Down Intimacy?

I was in the grocery store the other day and overheard a group of high school girls talk about the movie Soul Surfer. “It’s the most inspiring movie I ever saw,” said one. “I agree, it is really motivating me to be a better person,” chimed in another.

If you haven’t seen the movie, here is a short synopsis: It is the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a thirteen year old girl who was an accomplished surfer well on her way to making a name for herself. Out in the ocean one day with a group of friends, a shark came out of nowhere and viciously bit off her arm. Despite losing 60% of her blood, she miraculously survived. But the question remained: will she ever be able to return to her passion for surfing?

Once she recovered, her parents encouraged her to return to the water, conveying faith in her that despite the loss of her arm she shouldn’t give up her quest to become a professional surfer. Despite several setbacks she persevered, eventually placing or winning several regional and national competitions, an almost unthinkable accomplishment for somebody in her condition. I suspect what those girls in the grocery store were referring to is that as long as you can put your mind to something, you can achieve anything.

For some of us, this philosophy will work, yet for the majority of us it won’t, if only for the fact that not all of us can overcome those odds no matter how hard we try. (I’m reminded of the book: Think and Grow Rich. Oh, if only it was that simple). But there is a downside to this philosophy as well, for believing that merely putting your mind to something can solve your problems conveys the belief that there is a simple solution to achieving your goals, leaving you feeling that there is something wrong with you if you fail to measure up to those expectations. For example, I wonder if Bethany would have blamed herself if, despite all of her efforts, she couldn’t successfully compete. And when you feel deficient and flawed, you often silence your feelings, closing down intimacy.

Additionally, such high expectations often shuts down other feelings you may have along the way that you view as “not positive,” — such as frustration, sadness, and differentness — that are normal human emotions that we all feel. Although we’ll never know what Bethany shared with her parents and those closest to her, I wonder if she ever felt safe enough to talk about the inevitable feelings of sadness and grief over the loss of her arm and all that it entailed.

Next post I’ll talk about my own personal experience of growing up with a paraplegic mother, and how my mother’s positive attitude that she could overcome all obstacles led to silence and a lack of intimacy in all of her relationships.

In the meantime, here is my …

Tip for the day: If you feel burdened by high expectations – either from yourself or from others – ask yourself, are they realistic? Do these high expectations make you feel that there is something wrong with you if you fall short of achieving them? What emotions are you burying and not allowing yourself to feel as you strive to meet those expectations?

Have a great Thanksgiving!
Anne
To learn more about me and my work, including my various topics as a speaker, please click on the above links on my website.


November 8, 2011

Shame: A Major Roadblock to Achieving Intimacy

If you put a group of people together in a room, more than likely most of them will openly, and eagerly, talk about their phobias – “I’m afraid of heights” – and even their most embarrassing moments – “When I had a job interview, I was overcome with embarrassment when I later learned that the back of my skirt was up by my waist and tucked into my underpants.” But not so when it comes to shame, because what you feel most shameful about is usually too shameful to share – even with those to whom you are closest too. And it’s that silence that makes shame one of the greatest roadblocks to achieving intimacy.

Let’s start with the basics:

What is shame? Shame is a general feeling of being bad, flawed, and deficient that permeates the very core of how you feel about yourself. You feel alone, and you feel different. And you can feel shame about any aspect of yourself – from your appearance, your race, your parenting, your culture, your sexual orientation, an illness or disability – the list goes on and on.

How does it differ from other emotions? Most emotions we feel are specific: worry, sweaty palms, racing heart when we feel anxious; unhappiness and lack of energy when we feel depressed. In contrast, shame is a very pervasive feeling, and most of the time we aren’t even aware that we are feeling this painful emotion.

Although we often confuse shame with guilt, the two differ as well. Guilt is tied to a specific behavior, as in feeling guilty that we weren’t nice to someone, whereas shame is about who we are, as in feeling different and not good enough. Yet guilt and shame can coexist if feelings of guilt morph into a general feeling that we are a bad person.

Shame touches us all, to varying extents and for a variety of reasons. But shame is strikingly absent both in our conversations and in those of mental health professionals. Walk into any bookstore and peruse the psychology section, and you’ll see topics ranging from anxiety and depression to ADHD, but very little about shame.

Why all the silence? Shame is a social emotion: it causes us to live in fear that others will find us unlovable if they know us for who we really are. It’s that fear that fuels our silence and need to withdraw, the hallmark signs of shame. And since all of us feel shame – including professionals -it’s hard for them to talk—or write about it – as well.

The desire to be accepted is perhaps the most universal of all emotions, leading all of us to struggle with wanting to belong, on the one hand, yet on the other hand wanting to develop an authentic self. On this quest, we hide or downplay parts of ourselves that we believe are flawed. Yet this “out of sight, out of mind” approach to silencing that which you feel ashamed of doesn’t ultimately protect you from pain. Rather, keeping these issues to yourself, as we will discover later on, only increases your sense of isolation and differentness.

Stay tuned for more information on the destructive nature of shame and how to recognize it and overcome it in your own life, leading to enhanced intimacy in all of your relationships.


October 10, 2011

Welcome to my blog!

We all strive for intimate, close relationships with others, whether it be from a spouse, our children, other family members, or friends. But what exactly does this mean, and how do we go about achieving it in our relationships?

Simply put, I believe intimacy comes from our ability to share both our strengths and weaknesses with those closest to us. For only then can we attract generous people who care about us for who we really are.

Yet in a culture which strives for perfection, and places a premium on silencing, glossing over, or ignoring distressing emotions (think of how often we are admonished to think positively!), achieving intimacy is often difficult. And this is where my blog comes in!

Each blog post will provide insights into helping you determine the cultural factors, as well as your own personal and family influences, that hinder your capacity to share openly with those closest to you. Easy to use tips to overcoming these obstacles and enhance your capacity for intimacy will be discussed. Finally, I will share with you my own personal journey, as described in my award winning book The Polio Journals: Lessons from My Mother, on how I overcame the destructive forces of living in a family bound by secrets and unable to express pain to achieve a greater sense of intimacy in my own life.

I am very excited to have each and every one of you join me on this exciting journey. The success of my blog will be determined by how it is impacting you, my readers. So please, throughout our travels together, share with me your feedback, thoughts, and comments!

Look for new posts on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month!