Healing through Intimacy

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, December 06, 2017
By Carolina Pataky, LMFT

Contrary to the popular societal belief that defines intimacy as a sense of physical and emotional closeness and connection with another human being, I have come to believe that intimacy is in fact, first and foremost, a process of profound self-discovery and deep understanding of our own psyche and soul.

The lack of intimacy is at the heart of our addictions, fears, and many of our emotional pains. Whether we can recognize them or not, we all carry a level of discomfort with these elements. When I talk about addiction, I’m talking about many of our behaviors, or distractions that keep us habitually disconnected from our present self and others. We’re of course familiar with the stereotypical addictions such as alcohol, drugs or sex, but in many subtle ways, addictions also show up in our work, relationships and in our general day to day behaviors. For many it can be the relationship you carry with your phone, social media, TV or other generally enjoyable activities such as sports and hobbies. For some it’s the bottle of wine while trying to celebrate, connect or enjoy time with others. Career wise, it can involve work or the responsibility to provide more. At least more than what we didn’t have growing up, more than the expectation, more than the “other guy” at work, more to be able to show our worth, or more to make someone happy. For others, these addictions can be even more obscure, such as the desire or behaviors to find the “right one”, or belief that families or its members must have the right components or be subject to proper familiar, dogmatic, or cultural behaviors. Perhaps a quick self-check scan to see how subtle this can be may shed some light on whether any of this applies to you.

The problem of course may not be any or all of these directly, but often it’s the inability to stand alone in their wake. The need to connect is so important to us, that we often fail to see how often we stumble through our desires, expectations and avoid our true nature. We fear losing these external structures and narratives even at the cost of creating more pressure on ourselves. We avoid discussing our emotional pain and seldom consider the reality of who we are. We’ll use everything from alcohol, a deity, to our cars in an effort to adjust to our external comfort levels, but avoid talking about the internal parts of who we are. We avoid discussing our feelings, pressures in life, our own self-awkwardness, financial concerns, sex performance, love fears, etc.

To expand further on this, let me show you what this looks like in reality. We get into romantic relationships to avoid the fear of facing the world alone or escape the aching pangs of loneliness. If you don’t believe this, consider dining at a fine restaurant alone or going to the theatre alone. While comfortable for some, I’m sure you can now picture how difficult this can be for many, if not you, maybe a partner, friend, parent or mother-in law. The desire to externalize our connection is so great, that we use external validators in an effort to return to love and attempt to connect with others.

The need to connect to the external is so vital to us, that it permeates all us, ultimately keeping us distant from our sense of self and ability to build true intimacy.  So what is intimacy and why is it so important? Intimacy is the process of getting deep within yourself and becoming comfortable with every bit, every space, every experience and feeling within yourself and your existence. True intimacy is about fully accepting yourself without judging yourself or your feelings and developing a familiar, warm, and loving personal relationship with yourself. As a therapist, I specialize in intimacy and have closely observed the interactions between innumerable couples and families. As a part of my work, I have come to recognize that intimacy actually begins with oneself and requires that we patiently build a relationship of empathy, self-understanding, and compassion for ourselves. When you are able to create such deep intimacy with yourself, you become capable of not only fully knowing yourself but also fully and unconditionally accepting your true self. As a result, you become capable of sharing life’s richness with significant others, family members, friends, colleagues and anyone who is present into your life.

I often reference intimacy as to “INTO ME YOU SEE” helping my clients recognize the importance of expression. It is through this transparent process that we teach our significant others how to have the courage to see beyond the surface. It is only then, that two people can begin connecting at the highest frequencies of love and become ready to accept themselves and others unconditionally. From my experience of working with individuals over the years, the process is difficult and an incredibly scary one to begin and undergo. Individuals facing this process naturally tend to adopt more doubt and self-judgment, fearing what others might think or say. When these fears take over, we become vulnerable to more doubt and even lower levels of intimacy. However, as we begin to understand this vulnerability and fear, we begin to become more comfortable with its existence. We become more present and aware, ultimately much more in-tune with ourselves and compassionate to someone else’s process or life.

If you’ve been wondering why this process is scary, let me elaborate further. One of the major reasons why most people consider emotional intimacy to be scary lies in the way we have been raised. Most people are taught very early on in life that love comes along with hurt. As a child, when we first encounter negative experiences such as abuse, neglect, abandonment and/or rejection. Often those closest to us project their personal problems directly on us. We then begin to close our hearts in order to feel safe and to protect ourselves from being hurt. I call this ‘pseudo safety’ because it leaves us in the realm of loneliness and consequently, our spirit and our soul begins to suffer immensely.  In this suffering and alienation, our inner child experiences complete starvation and hunger for the soul food that it longs for: intimacy and love.

In order to avoid being hurt, we stop trusting ourselves and our ability to love without getting hurt in the process. When we stop trusting ourselves consequently, we naturally resort to distrusting others as well. When we find that we can’t trust anyone including our own self, we stop loving unconditionally becoming fear-based beings instead of remaining love-based beings. Receiving open love with barrier of fear around us, becomes increasingly difficult. To combat this, we seek validation from external sources never quite feeling the love and magic we can express within. At the level of pseudo-safety, we also keep recreating and manifesting various forms of the pain we had experienced in the past. Until we begin to recognize this, we will keep seeing the exact same scenarios over and over again: “work sucks”, “my partner can’t communicate”, “all men cheat”, “I could never do that”, “I am too fat”. Until we become more open to who we are, changing any narrative becomes difficult.

According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943), safety is considered the second  most important need. Coming right after our most basic needs such as food, water and shelter that sustain our life here on earth.  However, things go wrong when we try moving further up in the hierarchy of needs without first meeting the most basic needs we have. Imagine for a minute, the thoughts crossing the mind of a soldier involved in a deadly war. In all situations, the soldier is acutely aware of the destruction that war heralds and the possibility of his own death. Do you think they can stop and smell the roses? To this soldier and even for family members back home, safety comes first. Life’s aesthetics and pleasures must be placed on hold. Common sense tells us that all of the soldier’s internal and external resources must remain focused. Without this, the possibility of death becomes an increasingly worrisome reality.

Skipping our need for safety in an attempt to move up the rest of Maslow’s pyramid to enjoy higher-level needs such as belonging and love needs, esteem needs and need for self-actualization set us up for nothing but failure. Without first feeling safe in our skin or secure in our surroundings, we can only pretend to accept others or to belong anywhere. When this happens, we drastically lose confidence in ourselves unless we cover it with the external facilitators of addiction I pointed to earlier. It is only natural that a person who is facing so many expectations, can never attain self-actualization, but further, when we end up in pseudo safety, we fail to see through the external noise and actually meet our own internal needs.

My best advice to build deep intimacy between you and your loved one is to go back to this second level of safety and work on improving this important structure.  Give yourself as much time as you need on that level because the rest will follow effortlessly. Once you begin to see how your level of self-intimacy relates to the rest of your world, everything will open up and begin to look differently. Authentic thriving relationships, passionate vocations, joy and happiness will literally consume your new life.

With the many levels and complexities surrounding intimacy, here are some helpful tips that can help you or someone else begin to understand themselves at a deeper level.

  1. Consider becoming more open to yourself first. Spend an evening in silence, without your smartphone, without the TV or even your partner. Find a quiet bench, close your eyes, connect to your breath and spend 20 minutes focusing on your body. What is it feeling, how’s your breathing, what is my mind doing? Notice any tension, fidgeting, anger, or fear.
  2. Have your Man/Woman in the mirror moment. Literally, head to the mirror and sit with yourself for 20 minutes. Who do you see, what are you doing with your life? Are you being graceful, caring and loving? Is the makeup representative of who you are, or is a mask you use to not show the world your true beauty? 
  3. View a younger version of yourself through an old picture. Take out a picture of when you were 8-10, what did this child need that he didn’t get? What am I not getting internally today? How can I begin to help that child and now myself receive what might be have/be lacking? 
  4. Leaning to connect with others isn’t just about what they say or hear. Take time with a partner, child, sibling or even parent to sit and stare at each other for 20 minutes in silence. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about yourself and them just through the eyes. 
  5. Be patient and graceful in your growth. Many lessons are here to help us grow further. There is no shame to your true being if you become comfortable in whatever space you’re in. We all face challenges and failures, but learning how we navigate through our patterns can prevent us from facing repeat failures in the future.
  6. We create new neural pathways when we exercise new methods that challenge us. Try that fancy dinner alone and see how you feel. The next time you’re on a date, connect to your breath and allow yourself to be awkward and vulnerable to the experience rather externalizing someone you’re not or expecting them to be someone they’re not. 
  7.  Begin challenging the beliefs you carry and the methods you use to cope. Am I bored and need to see what’s going on with facebook? If I’m out with my friends, is the beer I’m holding for the taste, thirst, or is it a social lubricant? What would it feel like for me, if it was replaced with a water? 
  8. Take an evening and discuss your fears and or concerns with a family member or friend. I promise you that simply communicating it can be helpful. A side benefit to this is that your own vulnerability can greatly improve your relationship with that person. 
  9. Intimacy takes practice. Becoming intimate starts with your ability to be brutally honest with yourself. Practice that begin testing just how truly open and honest you can be with those around you. 
  10. Lastly, a therapist’s primary job is to help make you aware of your blind spots. We all have them. Our conditioning started before we were born. Learning about your life and your behaviours solely from your perspective is limiting. The interactions, connections, relationships, education, personal growth, and level of love you can both receive and give can be monumentally different.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.