Afraid to Open Up
I have a fear of opening up to people. I am able to open up to a few select people in my life, but not everyone. I want to be more open, especially with my boyfriend, but I just don't know where to start. I am concerned and I don't know what to do to change.
How do I stop from being afraid of opening up to people (even the person I share an intimate relationship with)?
I perceive you to be a young woman who has a desire to be more connected with others, and who wishes to share your thoughts and feelings with others; yet, your sensitivity to either the reactions of others or the manner by which you critique yourself paralyzes your ability to share what is internal and private. From your writing, I also understood that your anxiety about speaking about your feelings may not be generalized to all situations -- that is, you may find yourself to be more open with your mother than you are with your boyfriend.
I also found you to be a woman who has a head start in how to resolve your concerns. The manner by which you described your situation and stated your question seems to be drawn upon "this is what concerns me and I wonder what I can do to change."
I have read studies that suggest that the majority of people view public speaking as a more fearful experience than death. I have heard people say that their anxiety is born from thoughts that an audience will judge them as "less than", an idea that they will be exposed as "incompetent, different, a fraud", a conviction that they will lose control of themselves, and/or a belief that there is a way to affect how others will perceive them. Therefore, I find myself wondering if each person's anxiety arises from a fear of loss and if everyone experiences some form of negative discomfort when they speak to an audience -- be it an audience of one or a thousand.
When I was a young child, I read a story about a young woman who, while walking through the forest, gave assistance to several people who were in need. Unbeknownst to her, a tiny wizard decided to reward her for her positive deeds and upon her arrival home, gold and silver coins fell from her mouth as she spoke. Well, when her greedy stepmother saw the gold and silver, she forced her daughter out into the forest. The stepsister encountered the same people in distress; yet, she responded to them with disgust and failed to offer any form of assistance. When she returned home and began to speak, it was not gold and silver that fell from her mouth but frogs and toads.
This story holds within it a similarity to the process of relationship development. When people begin a relationship, they often describe how easy it is to speak about their feelings, dreams, fears, and expectations to the other. They feel delight in hearing common interests and dreams. They find fullness in being connected and easing the other's hurt. Yet, it seems that as the relationship becomes more important, an internal "stepmother" begins to feel feelings of anxiety, perfectionism, urgency, or compulsiveness. Then a "stepsister" arises with the belief that the relationship cannot continue, that one cannot be loved, accepted, or survive unless s/he feels, acts, and complies with what s/he believes the other expects. Then what is heard are "frogs and toads" as s/he strives to be more "in control", over responsible, rigid, and/or over functioning.
Consequently, I am wondering if your relationship with your boyfriend has become so important to you that your ability to be open about your thoughts, feelings, and actions has been lost. Also, I find myself questioning if what you wish to speak of with your boyfriend is either a "taboo" subject in your family, you have a sensitivity to your boyfriend that has you unconsciously pick up that the subject is "taboo" for him, or your moving towards being more open about your sexual self may result in reactivity within you as you respond to the anxiety within him.
All of this leads me to a thought that anxiety about how each of us are connected to others binds us so much we lose our flexibility to be ourselves. Observe yourself while with others to learn with whom do you feel less anxious when you speak and with whom do you feel the most anxiety. When do you find yourself more able to speak in "I" statements and when do you move towards focusing on the actions or words of the other? What topics are more comfortable for you to speak of and which ones stir up anxiety? Where does the anxiety regarding the "taboo" reactions come from?
How can you begin the steps towards becoming less anxious when you speak? It is my suggestion that you begin to move towards your anxiety by beginning a journal in which you write letters to yourself. Define one small thing about yourself that you would like to share with your boyfriend. Take time -- a month or so -- of writing letters to your self-sharing this element of yourself with yourself. Allow yourself to become more clear and definitive about this one thing. Write your letters to yourself in "I" statements.
Respond to each letter by asking yourself process questions -- that is questions that are based upon who, what, when, where, and how. And never, never ask yourself "why." Why questions only lead to more why questions that don't really lead to a conclusion. If you ever found yourself playing the "why" question with a 2-3 year old child you know those questions can go on forever and result in feelings of confusion and frustration.
When you believe that you have become clear in regards to this one thing about yourself, arrange to have a special quiet time- over dinner, a cup of coffee in a morning -- when neither one of you are rushed to go somewhere, and share this one thing. Share only to share, absent of any expectations.
Brenda Kofford, LMHC