What comes to mind when you think of the term “intimacy”?
Most people desire intimacy, but I think most of us haven’t quite fleshed out the meaning of “intimacy” and what intimacy looks like in our lives. In fact, when people think about the term “intimacy,” what most commonly comes to mind is sex. However, while sex is an arena where intimacy can happen, sex is not intimacy. Intimacy goes well beyond sex.
Intimacy is a mutual process that happens between 2 or more people, in which each person is unconditionally and whole-heartedly accepting of the other’s vulnerability, NO MATTER each person’s dark sides, short-comings, imperfections, and history. Intimacy is an act of true, unconditional love and connection… and the mark of a healthy relationship. When I say “relationship,” I mean all kinds of relationships (e.g., romantic relationships, marital relationships, friendships…)
In the midst of true intimacy, we feel totally exposed and vulnerable (aka TERRIFIED!) and yet comfortable and safe at the same time. In other words, we feel like we can let our guards down and be seen, but this is simultaneously scary, especially at first. Over time, this terrifying feeling dies down as we develop a safe, secure companionship if we allow ourselves to go with it.
It is during this initial vulnerable-intimacy stage that anxiety comes in. Anxiety will try to drive a wedge into the process and make you sabotage the relationship with doubts and fears. For most people, true intimacy is uncharted territory because it is so rare. It’s rare because we spend most of the time trying to armor up against the vulnerability that leads to intimacy. We armor up because we’re afraid that others will use our vulnerability against us (an act that is truly one of the most cruel). Therefore, it’s only natural that our anxiety would start sounding off the alarms to protect us. Anxiety is just doing its job as usual.
I would encourage you not to rob yourself of intimacy out of fear. Intimacy is a God-given right that we all deserve. Intimacy allows us to grow, change, and transcend and help others grow, change, and transcend in return. Yes- it’s a risk like most worthwhile things in life, and it hurts deeply when intimacy is betrayed, but it is well worth it when you find intimate connections that change your life for the better. Let your anxiety be and practice the courage to lean into the vulnerability of intimacy, a process I call “anxious intimacy.”
That being said, intimacy is a sacred process that should not be indiscriminately practiced with just anyone. Sometimes, in our own craving for intimacy, we seek it in false places, and we open ourselves up to feeling cheap, cheated, betrayed, taken advantage of, and empty. We increase the chances that it won’t be received and reciprocated. I’m about to use what I call “a good should…” Intimacy should only be practiced with those who have earned the right to have your vulnerability.
Don’t rush intimacy, and use your experience to gradually gauge others’ worthiness of sharing your vulnerability. What I mean by that is… Start with giving them an inch of your vulnerability and, if the coast is clear, give them another inch and so on… If someone has demonstrated that they can’t handle an inch or two of your vulnerability, they aren’t worthy of it. Maybe that person is worthy of someone else’s vulnerability, and that’s ok.
Bottom line, you are inherently worthy and deserving of intimacy. Practice Anxious Intimacy— the courage to allow intimacy in your life with or without the anxiety alarm bells. And practice intimacy with those who have earned the right to receive that precious, God-given gift from you.
Until next time,
Have courage and kind wishes!
Tannah E. Chase, Ph.D.
The Anxiety Counseling Clinic, P.L.L.C.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.