For the New Year, how about we overcome the little fear spots that hold us back from rewarding moments of connection with others? We can do this by understanding the source of the little fears that constrain us with other people. We can do this by taking little risks of open-heartedness.
Some fears about other people are instinctual and self-protective in a good way. Reactions of disgust, alarm, or ickiness are primal and reliable warnings to get away from certain people or situations. But there are other unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety, embarrassment, a vague sense of loss, or a pit in your stomach that arise when you are subconsciously reminded of childhood rejections. They all come from your inner child’s memories of hurt or shame. When they occur, you know you have accidently reentered your childhood heart by a back door. You’ve ended up where you need to be, but it feels all wrong, and you don’t trust it.
Unfortunately, many of us grew up in situations where our natural open-heartedness as children brought more embarrassment than joy. Our spontaneous instinct to reach out to others may have met with indifference, shaming, or even anger. What should have been a natural exchange between an open-hearted child and a receptive adult became a confusing moment of mismatched emotion. If you have too many of these moments as a child, you learn that emotional openness is a risky business. You become socially wary and fear what might happen if you are too open or friendly.
When we start returning to our original open-heartedness, our defenses can shut us down quickly. It can feel nearly unbearable to stay in a moment of closeness, let alone move deeper into the experience. But if we can learn to trust that these anxious feelings are actually signs of being on the right track, we can begin to experiment with taking risks that lead to more, not less, trust in other people. We can affirm a new set of values to carry us through times when we defensively retreat into what is familiar and comfortable—and lonely. Instead of remaining superficial and avoiding emotional openness, we could decide to take the little risk of opening our hearts and showing our desire to join up with other people.
Here’s an example. I was in a store over the holidays when I wanted to ask the store clerk about buying something from a display that I knew was almost certainly not for sale. She looked stern and unfriendly, and I felt uncomfortable about asking a question that I was pretty sure would result in a no. But because I had set a personal value of going forward in just these moments, I insisted to myself that she was the very clerk I should be asking. As she listened to my inquiry, her face relaxed into a welcoming smile. She was delighted I had noticed the item and began telling me where it came from and how special it was. Then she let me down gently by explaining the owner kept it only for displays and suggesting something else in the store that might be similar to it.
I came away from the encounter feeling happy about our friendly moment, but I was even happier with myself that I had used that tricky feeling of anxiety as a reverse compass to indicate the right action to take. Old childhood trepidation about not bothering busy adults with minor requests took a backseat to my adult belief that all people’s requests matter (including my own,) and that good people will respond with help, not irritation.
You too can take that moment of discomfort to recognize an opportunity. Think carefully about where your guidance is coming from. If it is not a true warning of danger, maybe it’s just a false fear based on old expectations of being judged or rejected. This false warning may actually signal that you are having a healthy urge to open up and have a warm moment with the other person. Ask yourself, am I separating myself from the good in this experience because I’ve learned to be afraid? Ask yourself, is this anxiety warranted, or do I need to be brave and go forward to show my scared inner child that it’s worth the risk?
For a life of more open interactions and new connections, notice and embrace these little feelings of risk that point you in the direction of a more open-hearted, connected life. Say hi to the person beside you in line, tell a clerk what a good job he’s doing, or smile in a moment of eye contact with a passerby.
A ping of discomfort may be just what you need to make this a Happier New Year.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.