In this part of the Fear of Emotional Closeness series, I will address the fears of being influenced by someone, being disappointed by or disappointing them, and being exposed and vulnerable to this someone.
You might be afraid of growing emotionally close to somebody, because you worry that they will influence you, making you lose your own thoughts, opinions, and feelings; and that you will lose your autonomy and individuality. Yet, people naturally influence each other. If you are influenced by nobody, you might as well be living in a vacuum.
Some people may say that they are completely independent, that they are not influenced by anyone. But is total independence actually possible? Even when someone casually says something, or when you observe or hear about what somebody did, these words and deeds by others can affect your thoughts and feelings, which in turn affect your own words and actions in the future.
For instance, you hear from a friend who just broke up with their partner; they tell you that love is hopeless, and that it’s next to impossible to find a long-term, satisfying relationship nowadays. You might think, “Gee, it is hard to have and keep a stable relationship. Maybe I should give up too.” Or, you might think: “As much as I empathize with my friend, I think long-term relationships are in fact possible, as I know and have heard of people in happy and lasting partnerships.” In this case, hearing your friend talk about their breakup, gave you an opportunity to refute their argument in your mind, thus strengthening your belief that enduring, fulfilling relationships are possible and real.
Therefore, in this example, hearing a friend’s words influenced your belief, in making you either more pessimistic or more optimistic about romantic relationships, which could impact how you approach your own relationships, and impact what you later say to other people about romantic partnerships.
Here’s another example of someone’s words or actions influencing you. Your friend has been looking for a job in their field for months and still had no luck. But yesterday, they told you that they got hired for the position they wanted! In response to this declaration from your friend, you could think, “Wow, my friend succeeded! So maybe I can succeed in finding the job I want too, since we have similar qualifications and skills.” Alternatively, you might say to yourself, “That’s great for my friend. I don’t think I’ll be that fortunate, though, since nothing good ever happens to me. I feel more and more alone. I’ll always be left out and be destined to envy other people.” Regardless of how you interpreted and reacted to your friend’s announcement that they got the job they desired, your friend’s words still affected your beliefs, e.g. they made you more hopeful, or they made you feel even more defeated, towards job hunting. As a result, you might redouble your own efforts to seek employment in your field, or you might become even more listless in applying to jobs.
As you can see from the above two examples of being influenced by somebody’s words or actions, your interpretation of what the person said or did is crucial in determining what your reaction would be. But the point is that someone influenced you in some way, which led to a change or a deeper reinforcement of your beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. For this reason, I don’t think it’s possible to be completely unaffected and uninfluenced by other people. If just one comment or deed from a friend can change, worsen, or improve your situation (e.g. encouraging you to persevere in finding the job you want), imagine how much more your thoughts, feelings, actions, and life situation would be impacted by many comments and actions from other people.
Fear of Disappointment
Another fear is that when you grow close to someone, you’ll be disappointed when you get to know them in depth.
My response to this fear, is that it’s better to see the honest truth than to cling on to an illusion or fantasy. Even if you are not close to that someone, you would likely discover sides of them you don’t like sooner or later, just by seeing or being around the person. This may sound like a blue pill, red pill situation: You either take the happy illusion or be exposed to the sad and painful truth. But it is not actually as polarized or extreme a choice. Yes, you would learn about less savory sides of the person—whether you get close to them or not. But you will also find out new things you like about them, and enjoy these pleasant surprises. Besides, isn’t it a more rewarding and satisfying experience to know someone as a complex, 3D person with light, dark, and in-between facets? It’s like choosing between having a real-life, flawed crystal, versus just staring at flat Google images of perfect crystals.
On the flip side, you may fear disappointing someone when they get to know “the real you.” All I said above on the fear of being disappointed by the other person, applies here. Plus, if the person can’t like you anymore after knowing some things about you, they are not suitable to be your close friend anyway, though they could be a more casual friend.
You may argue that if you’re just casual friends, it would be easier for you to hide less desirable sides from your friend, including any dark secrets. This may be true, though secrets and unpleasant things often have a way of leaking through to the surface, so avoiding closeness might not be as safe a “protection” as you may think. Plus, in my experience, most of the “deep dark secrets” you divulge, are ultimately accepted by your friend and your relationship stays intact. You might even be disappointed by your friend’s lack of reaction!
Concerning two particular types of secrets, I will share with you my personal opinions. The first concerns having a crush on your friend. The revelation could of course make your friend feel awkward, but if your friendship is strong enough, you’ll likely be okay again after a while. And I don’t know about you, but I would much rather that my friend love me than that they hate me. As long as the confessor is respectful of the other person’s wishes if they do not feel the same way. The second type of secret I want to talk about, is if one has sexual fantasies or feelings towards one’s friend. Again, as long as the person is respectful of their friend’s wishes and feelings, which includes not trying to push or manipulate them into doing anything, and if the friendship is strong enough, the two people should be able to stay friends despite any discomfort the disclosure may cause. One friend made such a confession to me, but though I was astonished and a little taken aback by their honesty, I was still fine, because our relationship didn’t change, and my friend never tried to make me do anything.
In fact, I would personally be less bothered by a confession of sexual feelings than by a confession of romantic interest. Romantic interest seems to imply a wish for something to be done, but sexual thoughts appear to be more casual and acceptable to ignore. However, of course, a friend could admit their crush on you without expecting reciprocation or even a relationship; or a friend could disclose their sexual desires and hope for some physical involvement in the future. Regardless, I myself would feel less weirded out by sexual confessions than by romantic ones. That said, it would still be helpful to be euphemistic when talking about sexual feelings, though some friend groups may be accustomed to more frank language. Nevertheless, there is no obligation to tell anybody your secrets, even if they are your closest friend in the world.
Fear of Being Exposed and Vulnerable
You might be scared that becoming close to someone, would mean exposing yourself and being vulnerable to someone else, which feels dangerous and unsafe. In this case, it’s good to ask yourself what exactly it is that you’re afraid of. And remember, we’re talking about exposing yourself to someone you like and trust, since you wouldn’t want to be close friends with someone you don’t trust or like enough anyway. Do you feel safe around this person in general? Does their presence comfort you? If you feel safe and comfortable around this person, why does the thought of being exposed and vulnerable to them scare you?
Maybe you feel that safety is on a continuum: you feel safe to reveal some parts of yourself to this individual, but not some other parts. Well, remember that even if you are close friends with someone, there is no obligation to disclose to or show them everything about yourself: I believe that everybody deserves their privacy, even from their nearest and dearest.
Or perhaps you’re not worried about your friend finding out your secrets; you’re more concerned about them seeing sides of you that you don’t like. For instance, you don’t want them to see your angry side, or you don’t want them to see you cry. If so, ask yourself why you are afraid of their seeing these normal, human facets of you. Do you think that they’ll dislike you for getting mad, or for crying? Or that they’ll become afraid of you after seeing you grow angry? Or you think they’ll despise you for weeping?
In my opinion, someone who would despise or dislike you for crying, would not be a good close friend to you anyway. And if someone can stop liking you after you express your anger, the friendship doesn’t seem stable or strong enough to become a close friendship in the first place. If the person’s relationship with you is solid and secure enough, they would still be able to like you and stay friends, even if they feel scared for a short while after your anger outburst. Besides, in any relationship of significant length and depth, conflicts are inevitable, so if your friend never becomes angry at you, that would be strange.
I don’t endorse expressing anger in disrespectful ways, such as insulting your friend or punching them, though some other friend groups may disagree with me. You can display your anger in less explosive ways, like sinking into sudden silence, showing tense body language (e.g. frowning, furrowing eyebrows, hunching shoulders, folding arms across one’s chest), or using a colder tone of voice, to convey to your friend that you are unhappy. Some ways of expressing discontent without showing anger, are to make a request, point something out in a joking tone, or to voice your disagreement or concern in a gentle (i.e. not yelling) manner.
It’s completely understandable if you don’t want to jeopardize a treasured friendship by displaying any discontent at all, but it is possible to express your opinions in a way that is respectful and not resentful. For instance, saying in a gentle but clear voice, “Hey, I think Jeremy was a bit hurt when you started talking about his weight. It would be best not to say that next time.” To appear non-threatening and still friendly, I would advise not raising your voice (keep it at a normal or even slightly quieter volume), and to speak more slowly. That way, your friend would be less likely to feel attacked or criticized.
One thing I find extremely helpful in friendships, is that shortly after making even a gentle request or remark, look for opportunities to restore positivity into the relationship, such as asking them to come get food with you; doing an activity with them that you know they love; sincerely complimenting or thanking your friend for something; or asking for their assistance on something, provided that it is easy to help you. For the latter, you could politely ask them to give you their opinion on some drawings, provide tips on purchasing an electronic device, help you understand a sentence you just can’t make sense of, or any other things. Basically, this is about creating some positive moments to counteract any discomfort you or your friend feel after you expressed your discontent.
Aside from the apprehension of your friend knowing your secrets, and seeing you get angry or cry, what other fears do you have about being exposed and vulnerable to a friend? Something to note is that when we think about an idea in a vague, abstract way, our imagination can conjure up something big and scary. But when you get yourself to name the concrete situations that you fear, you frequently find that the thing is not that frightening, after all; your imagination has simply obscured the problem and made it look large and menacing.
Sometimes, our minds can also scare us by using certain images and metaphors. Thinking of being “exposed and vulnerable,” could make you think of a fresh wound exposed to the air, vulnerable to being poked and hurt even more. That kind of image clearly doesn’t make emotional closeness feel good when we talk about being open and vulnerable to someone. Yet, what if we use instead the image of an adorable, happy child babbling about all the things they like and dislike, and charming everyone in the room with their innocence and cuteness? Due to the child’s youth and size, they are vulnerable and exposed to potential hurt, both physical and emotional. But the child is so pure and guileless, that you love and treasure them so much. We could make similar metaphors, by comparing openness and vulnerability to a carefree little puppy, or to a delicate, beautiful butterfly.
The metaphors of a child, puppy, or butterfly certainly feel much better than the metaphor of a gaping wound! So if we want to change our emotions towards something, or want to understand why our fear or anxiety towards something persists, we can look at what metaphors and images we are using to represent that thing, and change the metaphor and imagery to something more positive and pleasant if we wish.
What if you’re afraid that letting someone know too much about you, will give them the ability to manipulate or blackmail you? I have to point out that even casual friends have the potential to learn information about you that they could use for exploitation and blackmail. If somebody were really motivated, they could hire a personal investigator and find out all sorts of secrets from you, regardless of how close you are to them.
Also, this is all about trust and taking risks. Many great things in life require you to give trust and take the leap. It’s like in business, where you have to have faith that your business partner, hired professional, customer or client will do their part, because there is always the chance that they will do an unsatisfactory job, or fail to hold up to their end of the agreement. If you don’t want to trust any business partners, clients, or professionals, then you’ll never get the task done. Plus, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You won’t get much out of life if you never take any risks. Of course, there is always a chance that your close friend will betray you in some way. Bad things will happen in life; we just need to be careful not to generalize what happened in this instance to all future instances, just as being scratched by a cat once, doesn’t mean you have to hate all cats forever. Plus, if your friend really hurt you, you can always leave the relationship: you aren’t tied to them for life.
Can you think of more counterarguments against the points I raised? Do you think it’s possible to not be influenced by anyone at all? Would you still be afraid of disappointing or being disappointed by others after getting to know them well? What else is frightening about being exposed and vulnerable in an emotionally close relationship?
I tentatively plan to write one more post on the fears of emotional closeness. See you then!