Psychologists tell us we’re born afraid of just two things. The first is loud noises. Do you recall the second? Most people guess “abandonment” or “starvation,” but neonatal dread was simpler than that: It was the fear of falling. Today we all have a much richer array of consternations, but I’ll bet falling is still on your list. Why give up the prudent concern that brought your whole genetic line into the world clutching anything your tiny fists could grab? Fear of falling is your birthright!
Perhaps that’s why most of us, at least some of the time (and some of us most of the time), are frightened by another deeply primal experience: intimacy. Allowing yourself to become emotionally close is the psychological equivalent of skidding off a cliff; hence the expression “falling in love.” This gauzy phrase usually describes a sexual connection. But love has infinite variations that can swallow the floor from under your feet at any moment. You’re securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed. Then boom! You hear a song and know that the composer has seen into your soul. Or you wake up, bleary with jet lag, in a city you’ve never seen before and feel you’ve come home. Or the wretched little mess of a kitten you just saved from drowning begins to purr in your arms. Suddenly—too late—you realize that your heart has opened like a trapdoor, and you’re tumbling into a deep, sweet abyss, thinking, ‘God, this is wonderful! God, this is terrible!’
The next time this happens, here’s a nice, dry, scientific fact to dig your toes into: The sensation you’re feeling is probably associated with decreased activity in the brain region that senses our bodies’ location in the physical world. When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between “self” and “not self” disappears. It isn’t just that we feel close to the object of our affection; perceiving ourselves as separate isn’t an option. Some being that was Other now matters to us as much as we matter to ourselves. Yet we have no control over either the love or the beloved.
The horror! The horror!
We focus attention on stories about people, from Othello and Huckleberry Finn to the lusty physicians on Grey’s Anatomy, who trip into versions of intimacy (passion, friendship, parental protectiveness) they can neither escape nor manage. These stories teach us why we both fear and long for intimacy, and why our ways of dealing with it are usually misguided. Two of these methods are so common, they’re worth a warning here.
Bad Idea #1: Guard Your Heart
There’s an old folktale about a giant who removes his own heart, locks it in a series of metal boxes, and buries the whole conglomeration. Thereafter, his enemies can stab or shoot him, but never fatally. Of course, he also loses the benefits of having a heart, such as happiness. The giant sits around like Mrs. Lincoln grimly trying to enjoy the play, until he’s so miserable he digs up his heart and stabs it himself.
This grisly parable reminds us that refusing to love is emotional suicide. Yet many of us fight like giants to guard ourselves from intimacy, boxing up our hearts in steel-hard false beliefs. “I’m unlovable” is one such lockbox. “Everyone wants to exploit me” is another. Then there’s “I shouldn’t feel that” and “I have to follow the rules,” etc. Whatever your own heart-coffins may be, notice that they’re ruining your happiness, not preserving it. As poet Mary Oliver puts it,
Listen, are you breathing just a little,
and calling it a life?…
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!
If you’ve buried your heart to keep it from hurting, you’re hurting. You’re also in dire danger of using Bad Idea #2.
Bad Idea #2: Control Your Beloved
“If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself. If you stop loving me, I’ll kill you.” Some people believe such statements are expressions of true intimacy. Actually, they’re weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say “restraining order.” Though few of us are this radically controlling, we often use myriad forms of manipulation and coercion. We can say, “Sure, whatever makes you happy,” in a tone that turns this innocuous phrase into a vicious blow. To the extent that we try to make anyone do, feel, or think anything—whether our weapon is people-pleasing, sarcasm, or a machete—we trade intimacy for microterrorism. So, if neither control nor avoidance works, what does?
Good Idea #1: Be Willing
In The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams reveals the secret of flying. Just launch yourself toward the ground, and miss.
“All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt…if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.”
This is the best advice I know for coping with fear of intimacy. Avoidance and control can’t keep our hearts from falling, or cushion the landing. Why not try throwing yourself forward, being willing not to mind that it’s going to hurt? Please note: “Being willing not to mind” isn’t the same as genuinely not minding. You’ll mind the risks of intimacy—count on it. Be willing anyway.
How? Simply allow your feelings—all of them—into full consciousness. Articulate your emotions. Write about them in a journal, tell them to a friend, confess them to your priest, therapist, cab driver. Feel the full extent of your love, your thirst, your passion, without holding back or grasping at anything or anyone (especially not the object of your affection). The next suggestion will show you how.
Good Idea #2: Go “Woo-hoo”
Author Melody Beattie took up skydiving and was scared senseless. Another diver told her, “When you get to the door and jump, say ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can’t have a bad time if you do.”
This phrase works as well when you’re falling emotionally as when you’re falling physically. When fear hits, when you want to grasp or hide, shout “Woo-hoo!” instead. While there is never—not ever—a sure foundation beneath our feet, the willingness to celebrate what we really feel can turn falling into flying. You don’t need an airplane to practice woo-hoo skills. For instance: I’m writing these words at 2:15 in the morning because writing, like other intimate pursuits, often occurs at night. As I type each word, I come to care about how it will be read—about you, there, reading it. Caring is scaring. It makes me want to stop right now, or spend years composing something flawlessly literate. Unfortunately, my deadline was yesterday, and Shakespeare I ain’t, so…woo-hoo!
Now it’s 2:20 a.m. Across the hall, my son, Adam, is dreaming dreams I’ll never quite understand, because his brain is different from mine. Shortly before his birth, I learned that he has Down syndrome, which put mothering him well above skydiving in my Book of Fears. I yelled a lot during Adam’s birth. Twenty-five years later, I’m still yelling “Woo-hoo!” And so far, the only consequence of that particular plunge is love.
Which takes me to my final point.
What I really panic about nowadays isn’t falling; it’s landing. But even that concern is fading because I’ve realized there are only two possible landings for someone who embraces intimacy, and both are beautiful.
The first possibility is that your beloved will love you back. Then you won’t land; you’ll just fall deeper into intimacy, together. This is how bald eagles prepare to mate—by locking talons and free-falling like rocks—which is deeply insane and makes me proud to call the eagle my country’s national bird.
The other possibility is that you’ll throw yourself forward, yell “Woo-hoo!,” and smash into rejection. Will it hurt? Indescribably. But if you still refuse to bury your broken heart, or force someone to “fix” it—if you just experience the crash landing in all its gory glory, you’ll create a miracle.
A Jewish friend told me this story: A man asks his rabbi, “Why does God write the law on our hearts? Why not in our hearts? It’s the inside of my heart that needs God.” The rabbi answered, “God never forces anything into a human heart. He writes the word on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God falls in.” Whatever you hold sacred, you’ll find that an unguarded broken heart is the ideal instrument for absorbing it.
If you fall into intimacy without resistance, despite your alarm, either you will fall into love, which is exquisite, or love will fall into you, which is more exquisite still. Do it enough, and you may just lose your fear of falling. You’ll get better at missing the ground, at keeping a crushed heart open so that love can find all the broken pieces. And the next time you feel that vertiginous sensation of the floor disappearing, even as your reflexes tell you to duck and grab, you’ll hear an even deeper instinct saying, “Fall in! Fall in!”