When you begin a relationship, you might feel vulnerable. But overcoming fear of intimacy is possible.
If you’re afraid of getting too close to someone, you’re not alone. It’s a common feeling.
Emotional wounds can stay with you for a while, even if you don’t always notice them. They can make you avoid situations that could lead you to experience that pain again.
When you hold people at arm’s length to avoid getting hurt, you might be living with a fear of intimacy. Uncovering why you’re afraid of intimacy can be the first step toward coping.
Intimacy is a personal connection with someone who makes you feel secure, supported, and bonded. The connection suggests you’ve developed a close tie to another person.
Many people assume intimacy occurs mostly at the sexual level, but most literature agrees there are at least four types of intimacy:
- intellectual: bonding through ideas, morals, beliefs, thoughts, and opinions
- emotional: a sense of trust that allows for expression of personal and private feelings and vulnerability
- experiential: connecting through activities, life experiences, or mutual interests
- physical and sexual: sharing romantic and physical touching or closeness
Fear of intimacy can involve all areas of closeness, but it can all come down to emotional intimacy for many people.
Brenda Wade, a nationally recognized relationship expert and a practicing psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, says people who live with a fear of intimacy are often fearful of being emotionally hurt.
They may be worried that someone will discover their “dark secret” — like their belief that they aren’t good enough, for example, or fear that the person will leave them when they’re already emotionally invested, Wade adds.
Fear of intimacy and emotional unavailability: The same?
Fear of intimacy and emotional unavailability share many similarities and can overlap, Wade says. Also, one can be the byproduct of the other.
The primary difference, though, comes down to the underlying causes of fear.
A person emotionally unavailable is often afraid of losing their independence or sense of self, so they don’t get emotionally invested in the relationship.
Fear of intimacy can come from avoiding emotional distress after being abandoned, heartbroken, or disappointed.
Relationships can move quickly from joyful to stressful when you live with a fear of intimacy.
Initially, you might feel comfortable when your connection isn’t close enough to cause concern. At this stage, you might enjoy the social aspects of a new friend or partner.
But as the bond strengthens, signs of intimacy fear can surface.
You may experience:
- skepticism when you’re given a compliment or they express love for you
- suspicion of your partner’s relationship motives
- emotional outbursts or relationship cycles
- signs of self-sabotage
- withdrawal from physical contact
- decline in effective communication
Outside of a relationship, signs you might be living with the fear of intimacy can include:
- history of serial dating
- emotional urgency to be perfect and lovable to all
- inability to express your needs or feelings openly
- discomfort when someone expresses needs or feelings
- signs of low self-esteem
Fear of intimacy and fear of abandonment: The same?
Fear of intimacy can also involve feeling abandoned, but fear of abandonment or separation anxiety isn’t the same as fearing intimacy.
A fear of intimacy can prevent you from allowing people to become close — emotionally isolating you to avoid feeling hurt.
The fear of abandonment can do the opposite. It can push you into quick attachments, sometimes keeping you in unhealthy relationships because your greatest concern is preventing the other person from leaving.
Jason Polk, a clinical social worker, relationship coach, and the owner of Colorado Relationship Recovery in Denver, says the fear of intimacy is a self-protective mechanism.
“This reflex is found more in an anxious-ambivalent attachment style,” he says. “The developmental trauma from this is usually an experience of abandonment growing up.”
Attachment style is how you relate to other people or your relationship patterns. Psychoanalyst John Bowlby first developed the concept in the 1950s.
Bowlby said adult relationships are based on early childhood interactions with primary caregivers. Anxious-ambivalent attachment style is one of four Bowlby and his colleagues outlined.
Anxious-ambivalent attachment style develops when you receive inconsistent care during childhood. For example, having an attentive parent one minute and indifferent the next. This can result in a need for attention, insecurity, and anxiety.
But attachment style isn’t the only factor contributing to fear of intimacy.
Clinical psychologist Hüdanur Akkuzu of Istanbul says repeat behaviors or experiences throughout life that encourage someone to feel unworthy of love can contribute to intimacy fear later.
If you feel you live with the fear of intimacy or notice some of the above signs in yourself, these tips may help.
Consider professional guidance
Wade, Akkuzu, and Polk recommend speaking with a mental health professional.
“In order to overcome the fear of becoming attached to someone, you must first look at your own history and the subconscious patterns you have developed,” says Wade.
“This is where you need to work with a qualified professional to work through it because these are complex and sometimes deep-seated issues that need to be carefully and gently examined, confronted, and healed,” she adds.
Professional support can help you work through your emotions and find ways to cope with them.
Try to work on your self-esteem
You don’t have to live with poor self-esteem to benefit from working on self-love.
When you live with the fear of intimacy, you may feel as if you don’t deserve love or care in a relationship, Akkuzu says.
Focusing on building your confidence, developing your interests, and increasing self-worth can help.
Here are some options to help:
- positive journaling
- staying active and exercising
- exploring your creative energy
- joining a goal-oriented sport or hobby
- working through signs of impostor syndrome in relationships
Learning to reparent yourself can help
Reparenting is about giving yourself the care and support you might not have received as a child.
“You can have a conversation with that younger part of you, the part that experienced the abandonment growing up, and gently say to that part, ‘This was not your fault. I see you, I love you, and I can take it from here,’” says Polk.
This approach can keep you in your adult-self mindset, the part of you that knows and wants to work through the fear of intimacy, he explains.
Try to cultivate your self-worth ownership
Another tactic Polk recommends is actively acknowledging that you — not others, including your partner — have ownership of your self-worth. You can try reminding yourself, through verbal or written affirmations, that your relationship isn’t a reflection of your value as a human being.
“You overcome this fear by remembering your inherent self-worth,” Polk says. “For example, say to yourself, ‘I have self-worth, my partner does not possess it; they can’t walk away with it. I can go after my wants and needs in this relationship regardless of what happens.’”
This might help you feel more confident about getting close to someone else. They can control what they do and feel, but not what you do and feel, and vice versa.
The fear of intimacy often comes after experiencing emotional distress in relationships, even the early ones.
Getting too close to another person can mean exposing your vulnerabilities — emotional hotspots where you could be hurt. But intimacy can also offer you support, understanding, and a sense of connection.
Speaking with a mental health professional can help you explore why you may be afraid of getting close to others and help you build skills to encourage confidence and self-love.