Always Afraid   2 comments

I live in constant fear.  My closest friends don’t see it… or rather didn’t see it.  Now I have no close friends but my wife.  I cannot have close friends.  I am too vulnerable after connecting with my long suppressed fears.  I need real and deep friendships, but the more genuine they are, the more vulnerable I become, and the gentlest touch to raw flesh is shockingly painful.  It seems an unsolvable dilemma: my wounds need the healing hands of compassion, but every human touch is imperfect in its love, and that imperfection inflames the wound.  Instead of relieving my anxiety, relationships provoke them further.

I am frightened that others will not accept me for who I am, a fear (I might add) that has been repeatedly confirmed.  Who I am, as I am today in all my imperfections, is bound to hurt others.  I can be critical, impatient, unthoughtful, angry, selfish, unsympathetic.  My friends, relatives, and acquaintances don’t like this (who would?–I dislike it myself).  They like the good parts, but don’t like the bad parts, and they have many subtle or straightforward ways of telling me to bring the good stuff into our relationship, but leave the rest at home.  The more sensitive I am, the more easily my overall experience feels like one of rejection.  Even if someone is 95 percent affirming, that 5 percent will scream loud enough to drown out the rest, and my imagination can constantly manufacture clues of rejection when none is intended.  To the degree I connect with my own feelings of inadequacy, to that extent I am open to being crushed by conditional love… and all human love is conditional.

Most of my life I protected myself by denying my own distress, which is another way of saying I denounced and rejected who I really was.  The less I accepted myself for the flawed person I was, the less I accepted the faults of others, and their defensiveness to this increased my fear, goading me to thicken my armor of denial.  I was invulnerable, a sea of fear tightly locked within the dyke… until the dyke broke.  Now every relationship is soaked in fear.  I am afraid of displeasing my bosses and of displeasing my employees.  I am afraid of what all others think or say about me–in the grocery store and bank, over facebook and email, by phone or in person.  I constantly second-guess myself.  Was I critical, proud, selfish, unsupportive?  Are they irritated because I was late or snickered at a favorite TV show?  Do they belittle me because of bad grammar or bad breath?  Are they offended or bored or burdened by me?  How good do I have to be or what do I need to change (or hide) in order to be safe in my relationships, for my heart is so distressed that just a mild poke will close it down.

I want to heal, I want it desperately, and I constantly make choices to step into my fear, to share as honestly as my timid soul is able, but it is such a slow, scary, searing process.  If I share with someone what I really think, feel, believe, doubt–the things I am afraid to let out–I give them the power to close me down so that I am even more fearful of sharing with others.  There is a very thin margin of error emotionally speaking: avoid the pain of sharing and block growth or step in too far and get singed.   Those tight margins, combined with my own frailty and confusion, often leads to faulty choices.  I either avoid danger in ways that hurt myself and others or I step into danger and get burned, like learning to be an electrician by working with live wires. Progress comes in this herky-jerky way, and each positive step seems so small and so meagerly rewarded that I wonder if it is worth the effort and pain.  But I have no choice.  I need genuine relationship and genuine relationship hurts.  It seems to me that I can die the slow death of denial or take the path of fear and pain.  My courage is small, please be gentle with me.


Day before yesterday I wrote this and was going to post it to my blog with a link to facebook, but stopped myself for fear of judgments (spoken or unspoken) as well as misunderstandings.  For the first, I will let folks judge as they will and not try to defend my experience to them.  But for those who simply misunderstand, perhaps I should provide a bit of balance to what I have written. 

When I said I am constantly in fear, I spoke honestly and without exaggeration, but I am sharing my experience from only one perspective, which may be misleading if it is taken as the whole.  I was not suggesting that I am constantly conscious of my distress.  I have very well-developed defenses to protect me from feeling scared, so well-developed that I was completely unaware of my own anxiety most of my adult life.  Even then I realized the tension that criticism, blame, or failure created, but I thought it was a healthy stimulus to better myself, not realizing how deeply and harmfully it affected me and my relationships. 

For the last ten years I have been on a journey of self-discovery, purposely uncovering my many apprehensions, but it is a slow and bumpy road.  I am often unaware of the root problem still.  In daily interactions I quail and revert to ingrained habits, leaping to protect myself with avoidance, blame or overwork, reacting so quickly that I jump right past my fear.  Sometimes I ward off the danger with just a warning glance or tone of voice, an apologetic smile or short laugh.  It is over, I shielded myself, and I move on without a second thought.  But if I admit my true feelings, my stomach turns queasy and my face flushes, my throat tightens, my mind stutters and I wait for the ground to crack wide and swallow me.  Why open my heart to that agony when I can easily deny my fear by blaming my coldness on her touchy personality or explaining my compromise as kindness to a friend?  It took me 40 years to discover that buried fears don’t disappear but thrive in the dark like fungus, while bringing my anxieties out into the light with compassion, understanding and acceptance fuels my insight and growth and transforms my relationships over time.

When I said I can have no close friends, I meant the kind of friend with whom I can share deeply about myself in vulnerable ways and still feel fully accepted.  I can have friends with whom I share many things, but as long as I feel the need to hold back any significant parts of who I am, their acceptance seems conditional, and that often feels worse to me than no friendship at all.

For a close friendship to be genuine requires a mutuality of sharing, and few folks are willing to share with me that vulnerably—perhaps for good cause since all acceptance is deficient (certainly mine is) and each of us has unique needs for safety.  My insecurities are different from yours–the harbor you crave and offer me can blow against me like a hurricane (and my kindnesses can also wound you).  Even when folks are willing to share deeply and honestly, they are stymied by lack of self-knowledge, and I feel as though I am risking much more than they are.  Any effort at genuine relationship (the disclosing of the true you to the true me) is fraught with complications, and it takes a great deal of courage to face into the storm.



Posted January 5, 2011 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Always Afraid

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  1. “[…]the gentlest touch to raw flesh is shockingly painful. It seems an unsolvable dilemma: my wounds need the healing hands of compassion, but every human touch is imperfect in its love, and that imperfection inflames the wound. Instead of relieving my anxiety, relationships provoke them further.”Thanks for sharing this. Have you discovered something/anything in particular that helps you return to Peace?

  2. I have not found any quick remedies or complete solutions.  I seek out those who are gentle and understanding and accepting and I share to the extent I am able without putting myself too much at risk.  I find books that speak kindly and honestly to those fearful places in my heart (I can send you a list if you like).  I have been to counseling, which was a great help while it lasted (until I moved and halved my income–it can be expensive).  It is hard to find a good therapist–most of them are pushed by insurance to take a behavior modification approach (which looks for a quick-fix by focusing on behavior and not the underlying long term issues).  I find, partly because of my temperament, that solitude (especially in the context of nature) can be soothing.  I spend a lot of time on my own trying to sort through my feelings in a sympathetic way to try to identify the underlying issues and speak to the falsehoods that attack my worth, and being affirmed by others in this process (my wife) is a huge help.  As a Christian, I find the truth about God’s graciousness a firm grounding, but the perspective of most Christians I have associated with and their understanding of God and the Bible have been crippling to me most of my life (and I myself used it against others in similar ways).  As a result, I find myself struggling to trust God, which is like being afraid to trust a life boat in the middle of the ocean. I distance myself from folks who undermine my self-acceptance and my perceptions of God (when unable to avoid them, hiding my true self from them).  Those are some of the things that I find helpful.  Thanks for asking.

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