Many of us are hesitant to get emotionally close to others. Getting close means sharing feelings, thoughts, wishes and dreads. Getting close means sharing your true self, flaws and all, with someone else who totally accepts us.

Many people, who are hesitant to get close to others, wish they were not hesitant. They yearn for intimacy. They yearn to be known. And, they feel lonely.

But, closeness can be uncomfortable — not only mentally but physically as well.

George, for example, dreamed of falling in love and getting married. But as soon as he dated one person exclusively, his heart changed. When I asked him to check inside to put more language on his heart experience, he told me he felt a wall inside him. He held his hand, palm to chest, in front of his heart area and gestured up and down. George was showing me where he felt his wall and what it was like.

The great news is that there are many things we can do to melt our walls and expand our emotional repertoire to work towards having more satisfying relationships. The key is to take baby steps, making one small change at a time until we feel comfortable again. Small movements toward intimacy are manageable for most people and make a big difference over time.

We used The Change Triangle as a map and guide to help George understand the relationship between his wall, his anxiety about being close, and his emotions. On The Change Triangle, George’s wall is considered a defense since it blocks anxiety and the underlying emotions intimacy brings forth.

Defenses are compromises the mind makes to cope with overwhelming emotional stress and conflict. For example, as children many of us shared our feelings with the “wrong” person and in response we were humiliated, dismissed, or rejected. Just think of a crying little boy whose father’s response was to say, “Man up!” Our defenses were born to make sure we never get hurt in the same way again. George’s wall gave him protection. Makes logical sense! Except that the protection costs us as well. The cost is the joy, excitement, calm, support, companionship, and overall well-being that close relationships bring.

If we avoid intimacy now, there WAS a good reason.

“Small t trauma” describes the fact that PAST adverse events affect our CURRENT mind and body. We adapted (unconsciously) by building protective walls and using other creative ways to spare us emotional pain. These old adaptations are synonymous with our present day defenses.

When we share authentically with someone who accepts us, knows our flaws and loves us in spite of them, we feel better in life…a lot better.

Unfortunately, we cannot both protect our self with defenses and have close relationships. We cannot block danger and allow in visceral joy, contentment and excitement. A block is a block…we let in all feelings or keep them all out. You have to choose what is best for you.

George was sick of his wall and its consequences. He wanted it to go away. So he decided to learn all about the wall inside him. He learned when and why the wall came into being. He learned from what specifically the wall protected him, and what he feared would happen if he didn’t use his wall.

George knew very well that his wall protected him from rejection. More specifically his wall protected him from the feeling of being ashamed for his needs, quirks and feelings. Behind his wall were his worries. No one had ever taught him that everyone has fears of being judged as weak, defective, unworthy or in some other poor light. The wall also protected him from grief, as he had some real losses to mourn.

As adults, we can protect our self in healthier ways, without erecting walls. We can learn to be intelligently vulnerable. This means we don’t expose our deepest most vulnerable self to others too soon. We get to know people slowly and test the waters. A safe person does not shame, or criticize our personhood. A safe person has empathy and kindness. A safe person is curious about you and cares about your feelings and emotional comfort even in the face of conflict. We must find safe, kind and loving people with whom we can share.

To learn how to tolerate more closeness with others, George learned to be intelligently vulnerable. He also learned to tolerate and work with his own emotions. He started by educating himself on the science of emotions and how they work in the mind. For example, he learned that core emotions are naturally occurring and beneficial when we experience them. He learned several techniques to calm his inhibitory emotions, like anxiety and shame. He learned how to channel anger constructively as opposed to keeping it in or unleashing it on someone else. He learned it was natural to seek comfort when sad or scared. Understanding emotions and how they function helped lesson his fears that his emotions would consume him.

George’s wall melted slowly over time. He fell in love once more but this time he moved more slowly and built a strong partnership based on trust. He still needed lots of time alone. But when he connected, he connected authentically. He felt deeply known and loved for the first time in his life. He noticed his wall from time to time, but now he understood why his wall popped up at a given moment. He now had the choice to lower the wall and talk about the vulnerability it was protecting. He showed his true self more and more, and with this newfound authenticity he felt better… much better.

What protection do your walls offer you?