Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Intimacy and Fear of Exposure

This is not about that dream you have where you're naked and everyone else is dressed.

But you can read it anyway.

It didn't seem fair to have exposed you to my short list of the Intimacy Fears That Can Wreak Havok on Your Relationship and then not describe them more in detail.

Today's your lucky day.

Keep in mind that the psychological mumbo-babble today is very down on you blaming your family of origin (parents) for all that is wrong with your life. These days we are told that we're to own our emotions and our behavior, take responsibility.

And yet. . .

Parents do have us in their care for a major chunk of our lives. The things they do and say have tremendous power. I'm not saying that they don't have their own reasons and traumas and right to be the way they are.

I'm just saying they affect us when we're kids. It's inevitable. We're little. They're big.

Let's take a look at the fear of exposure, one of the psychological fears that make emotional intimacy difficult in relationships.

Fear of exposure and fear of rejection work together to muzzle perfectly talkative people when they should be talking about themselves. They're self-muzzled because they're thinking, If people only knew the real me, they’d for sure not want to be my (pick one) friend, lover, employer, etc. So this fear of exposure, people knowing who we really are, naturally leads to the fear of rejection, those same people leaving us in the dust.

Abandonment fears rule, capture our psyche, paralyze our ability to act naturally in social situations. They're almost always underlying anxiety disorders, especially panic disorder.

But let's stick to the fear of exposure. Those of us who have this fear might talk eloquently about other things, work, school, politics, religion, but not about our own weaknesses or faults. We don’t expose ourselves and we surely don’t over-expose ourselves.

We never tell what we might think is TOO much, even if we do tell a little bit of the good stuff.

Funny, in the days before digital photography we worried about exposing the negative of the photograph to light. There was a danger that light would blanch out the picture, ruin it altogether. Overexposed, the details of the photo were gone, the pic was whited out, we had to throw it away. That's how people think. If they're over- exposed they'll be thrown away.

But we’re in a digital age, which only means that with a click we can discard a pic. Considering that so many of our relationships these days can be on-line, "virtual" relationships, perhaps the metaphor still works.

Fear of exposure, like every other psychological concept is multi-variate, meaning there is no one reason that people have it. Therapists, however, usually jump to thinking about shame.

For example, people are ashamed of things that they did in their past so they'll hide them. An alcoholic in recovery will remember having missed appointments, embarrassing the family, making a general fool of him or herself while under the influence and may not want the world to know what life was like before sobriety.

But a thief will fear exposure to avoid the consequences of his actions, prison, hardship, fines, etc., none of which have anything to do with feeling shame.

We’ll look at shame. It’s more interesting to me than sociopathy.

Take the case of an A.C.O.A., an Adult Child of an Alcoholic. We'll talk for a moment about people who are A.C.O.A. s, who grew up in homes where one or both parents drank too much. These parents were supposed to be engaged in the job of parenting, but they were drinking at the time or were drunk from having been drinking. It is hard to drink and parent at the same time. People do it, but not well. Not if they’re drinking alcoholically.

Social drinkers can do the same, neglect their children or embarrass them. They're fuzzier to source in therapy as a cause, a reason their children have intimacy fears.

As soon as a patient tells me that he or she is an A.C.O.A. (or has parents who just loved to party, social drinkers, mind you) my mind plays a game.

Have you ever seen computer animation that can zoom forward in time to make a person look older and also zoom backward to make that very same person look younger? I do this in my head, adding freckles, acne, braces and all. It’s not really that hard to see people as children if your brain has this function. If it doesn't, ask your patients for pictures of themselves as children. I do that as a matter of course which may be why I have that zoom lens thing pretty well down.

Depending upon how people in the family related to one another and the other details a patient tells me, I’ll visualize my patient in one of several different childhood videos.

Take Suzie. Suzie could just as easily be a Sam. In this scene Susie is about nine years old and comes home from school in a pretty good mood. She’s doing really well and she has an “A” on a paper she wants to show her mom.

Her mom, however, is passed out on the couch. This is something new. Susie has seen her mother asleep on the couch before, but usually later, after dinner. She's never depended upon her mother for help with her homework. Susie is scared and may even try to wake mom. But if she does, mom might get testy. This happens again and again, until Susie gets it that mom is quite drunk.

She figures it out that she can't bring friends home to this, can't risk waking up her mother, can't risk having to explain the sleep thing. Since alcohol dependency is a progressive disorder, her mom gets worse over time. She acts drunk when she is at social functions (if she makes it to them), slurring her words and saying things that are inappropriate, stumbling physically. Susie’s mom misses social cues, doesn’t know when the class trip is supposed to be, forgets names.

Susie is embarrassed about this. Even if her mother is a kind person and Susie loves and worries about her, having an alcoholic parent isn’t something she brags about to friends. Not usually. And underneath is this notion that her mother does love alcohol more than she loves her.

Mom would never admit to that, but her actions speak louder than words. She chooses (even though she’s powerless, by not getting help she chooses) drinking over parenting.

A kid who grows up like Susie may choose NOT to drink as a teenager or an adult, although some studies put her at an 80% risk of either becoming an alcoholic or marrying one. The Susie I’m talking about may end up marrying an alcoholic but is likely to fall in that 20% that neither becomes an alcoholic or marries one.

Our Susie will do everything in her power as a child and as an adult to project NORMAL to the rest of the world. She acts as if her family is NORMAL. Her grades, of course, were better than normal, they were fantastic. Her behavior was and is beyond reproach. Susie is perfect. She tries like crazy to be perfect. This woman is the nicest person in the world, the first to volunteer to help others, the hardest working person on the committee. The best employee.

When F.D. and I could afford employees I would beg him, “F.D., please. Find an A.C.O.A. I’ll make sure you don’t exploit her. You’ll never regret it. Find a woman who grew up with alcoholics who just wants to fit in and be normal.”

It’s true. An ACOA is likely to be the hardest working, most loyal human being in the world. She will do anything for a little praise and appreciation, a little love and respect. And you'll give it to her. She's fabulous.

Parents who are reading this might be thinking, How do I create a perfect child like that? You don’t have to be an alcoholic but it helps. Shaming your children will drive them to perfection. Or suicide. You pick. (I had to throw that in there somewhere.) Children in emotionally trying families can suffer a myriad of psychological "issues" beyond not communicating well in relationships.

But back to our girl, to Susie and others like her. The need to Fake Normal isn't just a risk for children who grow up in addicted families. Some people peddle really fast to excel so that no one will suspect other things about their families of origin. We might keep our families a secret if we want to hide: (a) alcoholic or drug addicted parents, (b) class distinctions and/or poverty, (c) serious mental illness in the family, (d) violence and rage, (e) sexual perversion, (f) physical illness.

I’m sure I forgot something.

This is not to say that every perfectionist comes from a family with big problems or that you have to suspect all of your perfect friends. But this self-protectiveness is a personality trait developed while very young and it's unconscious. The process of personality development is way below our conscious radar. We don’t set out to be perfectionists. We simply can’t afford not to be. It’s a matter of pride.

Is there anything wrong with this? What’s wrong with wanting things perfect?

If you’re a perfectionist because you’re naturally competitive and need admiration or simply enjoy doing things, well, perfectly, then perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this characteristic at all.

As long as your children don’t feel they’re inferior because they’re afraid they’ll never quite meet with your approval, will never reach your gold standard, or be as good as you are, you’re okay.

But if they do have this issue, or if your spouse has the same issue, then well, Yes, There’s Something Wrong With Your Being a Perfectionist.

The most interesting thing about all of this for family therapists is that perfectionists usually have no clue how painful it is to be them. They don’t see how having to struggle so hard to be perfect absolutely messes with their relationships and dilutes their intimacy.

We family/relationship therapists are nuts about emotional intimacy. It's one of those feel-good things.

Here’s how a fear of exposure worked to mess up Susie, in case you haven't got it by now.

Susie was always on guard to make sure that no one judged her based upon her alcoholic family. All her life she worked against mortification, embarrassment, and shame. She didn't just lose that defense, that need to hide things about herself just because she found herself (by the grace of Someone) in a safe relationship. She’s hardwired to outwardly show perfection.

It is likely, by the way, that she will not find herself in a safe relationship since she's not looking for real intimacy. She doesn't get real intimacy, emotional sharing.

But she's a really attractive person, you know, a high achiever and nice as can be, so it's very possible that she'll also find a really nice person, commit, get married, and think that she can pull it off. And she might, too. Not all marriages have to be emotionally intimate.

All a person has to do to be in a relationship is not drink, right?

But he says to her, "A penny for your thoughts," and there's nothing to say. She's totally out of touch with any negative emotions or thoughts. She's always defending and she does a great job at this. He doesn't really know her. She doesn't really know her.

Then at some point she crashes and needs therapy. She'll call it a “nervous breakdown” a “crash” a “burn out” that she can’t afford, she'll tell me. She has no time to be so emotionally exhausted. She won't be telling me about her self-doubts, her fears of abandonment, rejection. Not initially. She might get there, but it'll take awhile.

That kind of sharing only happens when she's totally depressed, brought down, usually from working too hard, it's true. It seems to me that if a person's been working triple time since the age of 12 for approval and love, that eventually there HAS to be a burn-out. Yet Susie won't take off work even though I'm begging her to do this, to take care of herself. Take the Family Leave, blank it. TAKE IT!

No. Then they'd know.
Indeed, Susie hasn't been able to tell me about her fears because they've been unconscious until now. She'll finally figure it out when she says,

No. No Family Leave. Then they'd know.

See, until that point, she's perhaps talked about her problems in her relationship, her unwillingness to ask her partner to meet her needs, her reluctance to tell her boss that she can't do EVERYTHING. She doesn't tell me or others the many salient, very important things about herself that function for self-preservation.

Until she gets sick, emotionally exhausted.

It's easy to talk to a therapist or even a friend about job stress and wanting to Just Quit. It's easy for a Susie to tell someone else that she's sick of doing everyone else’s work, and bored with her own. But our girl won’t complain, won’t draw negative attention to herself as a matter of course.

The shame thing runs so deep that even when it would feel great to drop the façade, it’s virtually impossible. Susie can’t look less than to others. She resists letting herself be seen as vulnerable, a wreck, alone.

She's a person who has never really depended upon anyone else but herself and her trust in others isn’t very high.

She trusts herself.

Such an insult to a significant other, to someone who adores you, cares about you, not to be let in on the secret of you.

So I’ll encourage Susie to be honest about her insecurities, to get in touch with that whole childhood issue, and sure, throw a little blame at the family of origin for neglecting her emotional needs. I'll push the Susies in therapy to be more real, to let down the mask.

At first they'll give me that deer in the headlight look like Are You Out of Your Mind?

But after awhile? It feels really, really good.

Like anyone would reject a person like her, seriously.

It's what those people who have real friends, really close relationships have got going, you know? They share about themselves.

I didn't say it's easy. But it can be done. Just a little oil, a little flexibility, a short stretch, slight risk, and bingo, there's the payback.

But a caveat, okay? This does NOT mean that you blab your life story to just any ol' e-date of any new friend. Intimacy is a slow, trust-validated process. Trust is the key word and you can't just TRUST anyone with your life, your secrets, your thoughts. People really can hurt you, they can use your words against you. They can tell the world. About you.

So take your time. Be discerning.

Just something to think about.

Copyright 2007, TherapyDoc


socialworker/frustrated mom said...

Wow brilliant thanks.

Anonymous said...

My gosh, how ironic (or something); my post today, though I didn't specify it, had a lot to do with being an A.C.O.A.

Sizzle said...

I've been doing a lot of work on my ACOA status and this really hits home. I appreciate what you've said!

therapydoc said...

And I didn't even beat you over the head with the, You HAVE to learn how to say NO thing when people try to take advantage of your good nature (that give, give, give thing).

Emy L. Nosti said...

That is a TON to process. Even more to apply. I have a feeling I'll be rereading this once I can think clearly again.

therapydoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
therapydoc said...

Sorry J, it builds up.

Pat said...

Linda, thanks for the link. I've added you at

linrob63 said...

To really avoid being exposed or seen, you have to find the B+ place. Steady 'A's attract to much attention.

therapydoc said...


Syd said...

Great post and I see myself as being very much like Suzy. Trust is a big issue and leaving oneself open to love is all about trust. Thanks for your insight.

therapydoc said...

Thanks for stopping by, Syd.

Anonymous said...

ummm, how did you get inside my brain?? Thank you for this post. I'm just starting my journey to healing as an ACoA and ran across this while looking for info. This is my life. Seriously. Thank you for posting it.

therapydoc said...

Happy to help, stop by any time.

Anonymous said...

That was a great read. I can really relate to Susie. I can't trust others. I take upon all work. I naturally take responsibilty for everything that comes up. But i cant get close to people. The voice inside me is never heard, rather always concealed.

therapydoc said...

It's hard, but if you don't say something people haven't a clue about what you need. Then there's that, even being in touch with having needs of your own. Very rich stuff, by the way, to work on.

Anonymous said...

I feel a little like someone wrote my life true and painfully acurate.

One of the problems with OAs (Over-achievers) is that even in therapy, we don't always get "caught" being perfect. It takes a really smart, aware therapist to see through the competent adult, who can make even the therapist feel better. We are insightful, we have the answers, we just need a "little" push to get things back on track. Of course that isn't the point of therapy, but I can't tell you how many times I ended up being a good listener in therapy, and having the therapy declared a "success."

Thank you for the article I enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I'm a 39 year old single mother with an amazing 11 year old son (who from time to time says he never does good enough to please me - especially at report card time). Anyway, I recognize the perfectionist in me until about 5-6 years ago when I became good friends with another single mother perfectionist and her and I proceeded to drink every day. Although she seems to have co-dependency issues and has gotten back together with her ex-husband who is extremely verbally abusive and controlling I seem to have fear of intimacy issues. I seem to find guys that don't quite fit the bill or appear to the world to be perfect but are emotionally unavailable. I'm trying to take a hard look at myself. The majority of the world still sees me as perfect but i'm on the brink of becoming an alcoholic and a withdrawn and lonely person. I'm feeling scared and not quite sure what to do. I want to get better but don't know how.


therapydoc said...

Dear Anon, I can't give advice to people who write in except to say you need to find a local mental health professional to talk to. There's nothing better, seriously.
All I do here is spew off and try to teach a little. Your job is to get real help. Hope you do, too. Not just for the kid, but for you.

Anonymous said...

Just found your Blog today.. first I found the Rainbow Connection video and sang and cried, a song I sang so many times to my children and myself... Then, this one..I laughed then cried...being a daughter of an alkie Dad and co-dependent Mum...who grew up to be an alkie...3 yrs sober now and on my path to unraveling the childhood issues...Thanks so very much...this one helped tons!!

stupid smart girl said...

Wow. You just described me. Although I'm not ACOA, I recently learned that I am ACO OCPD, which seems to have had pretty much the same effect.

How do I get over the fear of exposure? I trust no one. I don't know how.

Unknown said...

Wow..what a great post! This idea of intimacy really goes to the heart (parden the pun)of a lot of psychological issues. I would like to comment on this from another angle.
I happen to be a sex addict who has been working on recovery for about 6 1/2 years working And I have not been very successful. Without going in to so much detail, recovery, whether in SA groups or specific therapy groups is about opening up to people who are STRANGERS! (stranger danger) However, the real receover is not just learning to open up in groups...The absolute real recovery is learning to make phone calls to group members during the day wether you need it or not so as to be able to get the "shmutz" out of you. That is, to learn to ask for help and be vulnerable. I absolutely, totally hate doing this. Exactly this point is why I have been not able to succeed. I hate calling. I hate having to be INTIMATE with other people. What the hell is the big deal about making a phone call people say?... Logically, that is true. But I have this block... this voice that says "you can call this person later"...."Don't call this group member now because you want to act out now and telling him will make you feel vulnerable" Or worse, not telling my sponsor that I acted out because I want him to feel like I am doing well and not to be disappointed in me. Intimcacy sucks!!. Well, that is what my addictive personality says. Logically, I know that intimacy is true bliss. My parents were not addicts at all (as far as I know) but in my adolescence I started to really try to "protect them" from anything negative from me as they had various different hardships (such as financial...etc) And I also therfore refrained from being open and honest with them about my "normal" teenage struggles and turned to sex related activities..masturbation, porn, online stuff..etc. etc...of course I couldn't tell my parents that sso I became more isloted from them and from the world. Even though I hung out with friend and was somewhat popular not one of my friends new what I was going through. In fact, everyone thought of me as the nicest guy around, who wouldn't hurt anyone or make fun of people...(I got the middos ((good moral and ethical behavior)) award, many times in school). I had to keep up my image. And slowly I sunk deeper into my addiction to such very low points (which I will not describe here) as I needed to feel "connected" to something and someone. But t\of course that is not real connectedness. It is a total illusion. I crave intimacy so much. Damn if I could just learn to make phone call and be honest with people and ask for help then I could be doing so much better. However, I have this need of just wanting people to like me.

Okay I am sorry for totally rambling here.....I would love to hear peoples responses to this...

therapydoc said...

Oh, I would, too, but since I posted it in 2007, it's likely no one's chiming in. But it is a good one to get back to and I'll try to link to it in an current post some time soon.

It IS hard. It's hard for everyone. All I can tell you is, Make the CALL! Of course do that. There's nothing more rich, more rewarding than connecting with people, and as the Beatles would say, The love you make is equal to the love you take. And I actually believe that's true. You get what you give, and sometimes you have to give you.

Thanks so much for writing.

Unknown said...

This was a very interesting post ... but what interested me the most was my own visceral horror at the idea of a therapist asking me for a picture of myself as a child. I'd die before I'd comply with a request like that, and actually, it would be hard for me to continue seeing a therapist who made that request. My perception of the request as a major boundary violation says far more about me, of course, than it does about childhood-photo-requests as an adjunct to therapy.

therapydoc said...

I request it. But it's not a demand. If someone's uncomfortable with anything I ask or suggest, we discuss it, is all.

Anonymous said...

I have (but am working on) emotional intimacy issues. My parents were always very serious about things, if a friend came over and we hadn't asked if they could, they would give me this look, like I had done something bad, plus a lecture about respect or something similar. Apparently when my parents divorced when I was 2, I went from bubbly child to introvert. I haven't quite recovered (27 now!!!!) But I want to just let go, feel no guilt, stop tip toeing around in case I 'offend someone' due to what was never rude or disrespectful behaviour, just my parents taking the wrong aproach....I get on with them really well, but am emotionally closed to most people, including them.

therapydoc said...

What we find, Anon, is that this type of up-tightness is passed on through the generations and becomes very hard to loosen up. But you have to try. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

This is one of the many problems I'm now trying to move past as a 19 year old.
I wasn't an ACOA, but my parents went through a very messy divorce, and I suspect it was somewhere around there that I started building a bunker. A likeable, over achieving one, but one that ultimately has made me miserable for the majority of my teenage years.

Being asked to pick between a parent to live with, and the pressure it causes was like the weight of the world. I was about 9 and old enough to realise what my answer would mean, and I remember the guilt I felt about it then.
Mind you, that's just one tiny part of stuff that happened.

All I know now is that I want a relationship, but am at the same time terrified by. It doesn't help that I confused about my orientation lol!

So I've backed myself into a corner where I either can't or maybe subconsciously I've just made the worlds worst excuse not to pursue a relationship? lol I'm not sure which.

There are two main pathologies I'm aware of:
What if they're not right for me? (ie. I feel like I'm trapped by a realationship, but I would probably find it very hard to end one)


And there is another thing I've noticed where I get emotionally attached (not outwardly though) with people who can't reciprocate it. (In a relationship etc)

hehe What a mess? lol

Anyway, could you recommend a type of therapist to help me with some of these problems? (Probably not CBT I'd imagine? lol)


Idiot Savant said...

Wow, my jaw hit the desk while reading this. I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way as I feel when saying it describes me perfectly (although I'm male). I had my "breakdown" a few years ago and I'm in a relationship that doesn't require a great deal of intimacy but we're working on it. It is so hard for me to open up, I always deflect and get the other person to talk about themself (not hard). Anyway, wow, great post.

BookJunkie said...

To: therapydoc
From: a "susie"

Just found your blog and after spending the last few hours perusing it, I must say that I *love* it. I've been working with a hard-@$$ therapist (which is exactly what I needed) for the last five months and am finally starting to understand this whole intimacy/trust thing. Thanks for keeping this blog going, I think it will be great food for reflection for me to ponder between my therapy appointments.

Anonymous said...

How's this for a late comment (10 years later)? I found your article doing an Internet search for some detail on what makes intimacy worth having? I'm an ACOA in my late 50's. Spent the 1st half of my life in virtually every form of treatment/therapy for ACOA related issues, depressions etc. to no avail. Found some success with 12 step programs and met and married a woman through those (25 years ago). We have a loveless, sexless marriage primarily due to my issues, although she too is an ACOA. The few times I ever approached emotional intimacy with my wife she hurt me terribly. The same goes with every family member and friendship throughout my life. So I have no experience with being vulnerable other than being abused/hurt when I risked it. I have no experience of closeness, love, joy, pleasure etc. The only feelings I am every aware of are anger and fear. We now live in the country and have no access to any mental health/therapy of any kind, not even via Skype as we have dial-up like speed satellite Internet that doesn't support Skype, and outrageously expensive phone service.

So although I have pretty much resigned myself to hopelessness, I still want to know who can tell me what genuine intimacy really has to offer, especially if one's partner is also incapable of it? The reason I ask is that in order to be willing to pursue it, it would probably mean selling our home and entering some form of in-residence treatment program and moving into a city somewhere where helpful therapy exists (if such a place exists, certainly not in my experience being from Canada).

What's Going to Be with Our Kids?