I recently read an article in Psychology Today by Dr. Karl Albrecht on The (Only) Five Basic Fears We All Live By. It reminded me very much of how people are when in relationships. As a psychotherapist who primarily specializes in relationships and relating for individuals, couples and groups, I consistently see how our deepest fears are what often sabotage our relationships. In fact, at the heart of many of our relational conflicts are fears. When those fears are triggered, we react and often those reactions are not authentic or productive. Our reactions can be quite destructive if we aren't aware of why we are reacting the way we are and how that affects those around us. Let's take a look at some of the fears that Dr. Albrecht discusses in his article that contribute to the conflicts in our relationships:
Separation: fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness - of becoming a non-person - not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else.
Ego-death :Â fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; fear of the shattering or disintegration of one's constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.
Loss of Autonomy :Â fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or controlled by circumstances.
To a large extent, many of these fears above come from earlier childhood wounds. I practice Imago Relationship Therapy and in an Imago practice, we see how many of our clients fears are stemming from their earlier years and playing out in very similar ways in their current relationships. For example, the fear of abandonment and rejection could come from a rejecting parent or a parent who was never around. The fear of not being wanted, respected or valued could come from feeling that way from a significant person or even peers from our childhood. If we were damaged or wounded by feeling those painful feelings, we carry it with us. Sometimes we bury it so deeply we don't even realize they are still there. Then when an important person in our lives all of the sudden triggers those fears, we react. Then they react. Then conflict ensues. Imagine if two people in a relationship are both being triggered in different ways and reacting based on their individual and often very different triggers? That's when things get complicated. If you have a deep fear of abandonment and your partner storms out of the house after an argument, then that fear might be triggered. Everyone reacts differently, but when those type of fears are triggered, it normally ends in high emotion and frantic attempts to find connection again. Sometimes we try to feel loved and to find connection by fighting or threatening our partner, hoping to get a reaction, and instead of that validating us it only makes things escalate.
If our deeper fear is of the ego-death, then that may play out in relationship as the fear of the shattering of our constructed sense of lovability, capability and worthiness. I see many clients trapped in unhealthy relationship patterns because of their deep fear that they are unlovable and unworthy. They often choose partners who challenge them on this and often these partners are not treating them with respect. The fear of being unlovable and unworthy has these people working very hard to get validation to prove to themselves that they are indeed lovable and worthy, but the striving for validation from an emotionally unavailable partner can be a near impossible feat.
If our deeper fear is the loss of autonomy, the fear of being entrapped, smothered, or controlled by circumstances, this often translates to fear of commitment in relationships. People who fear commitment are fearful of being entrapped or controlled at a deeper level and they worry that they will lose all sense of their autonomy if they enter into a committed relationship. These people may react by feeling very torn. On one hand, they want to be in relationship and have connection, but on the other hand, it completely terrifies them. This may cause them to behave in ways that are confusing and hurtful to the person they are involved with.
Understanding our deeper fears can help tremendously with restoring communication and connection in our relationships. If you feel a strong emotional reaction coming on, step back and ask yourself, "where is this coming from?" Usually under anger and frustration is sadness, hurt and fear. Being able to communicate this to important people in your life allows a space for compassion. To share your genuine and authentic feelings without confrontation and anger can help heal relationships in a very powerful way.
This article first appeared in Pamela's Punch