Why Do I Keep Pushing People Away
You’re sitting at the bar with friends and family when it’s time to go home. You glance around the room — maybe someone looks familiar, but you don’t recognize them. After all, how many people are there? The person who does look familiar smiles at you from across the room and waves, and you smile back. Then he approaches the group of people you’re sitting with and says hello. You realize it was your former boyfriend or girlfriend. As they begin talking, you find yourself feeling uncomfortable because their conversation reminds you of something unpleasant from your past. Your heart quickens and your palms sweat. You start having flashbacks to the last time you saw him or her.
This scenario isn’t so different than what happens between us humans every day. It may seem strange to say, but our everyday interactions often have more similarities to those found between strangers on an airplane than we do with those closest to us. We tend to avoid intimacy like the plague, even though it’s part of life and essential for both personal growth and happiness. In general, we also spend less time alone with others compared to years ago, which means we end up spending less time actually interacting with them. Instead, we use technology such as phones, computers and social media sites to keep our distance from other human beings. What’s happening here is not unlike what happens in a romantic situation where we push another person away rather than risk rejection.
Avoidance of intimacy has become increasingly common due to factors ranging from fear of being harmed by another person, to concerns over possible embarrassment. Some people feel ashamed of themselves for any number of reasons, including previous failures in love. There’s an assumption among some that men are supposed to be strong and capable while women are emotionally fragile. This idea, called gender roles, has been shown to cause problems within couples. Women in particular also worry about what others will perceive if they reveal their emotions. This fear goes beyond just worrying about what others will think; it can lead to emotional paralysis.
Fear of rejection can result in pushing people away, too. Just as you might avoid dating someone after breaking up with them, you could also avoid interacting with someone who rejected you in the past. One woman told me she avoided going out with a man who had asked her out because she felt embarrassed by his behavior toward her during a prior date. She said she didn’t want to get caught up in “a whole thing” again. Another man I interviewed described himself as “invisible” because he did not want to be seen kissing or touching anyone, especially girls he liked. He felt that doing so would only make him look needy and desperate.
Another reason why we push people away relates to our own self-perception. Many times we view ourselves through the lens of what others see. If you believe you’re ugly, you’re likely to shy away from physical contact with others. On the flip side, if you think you’re handsome, you might be attracted to someone who doesn’t meet your standards. Our sense of attractiveness is based partly on cultural ideals. For example, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 90 percent of young, thin women consider themselves attractive. Yet, research shows that most do not feel physically beautiful. So if we judge ourselves against unrealistic expectations, we can end up disappointed in our appearance.
The next time you notice yourself looking uncomfortable with someone, try asking yourself these three questions. First, ask yourself whether you’re comfortable with the interaction. Second, examine whether you’re trying to avoid intimacy simply because you fear rejection. Third, ask yourself if you really need to let go of your discomfort right now. Sometimes we push people away without realizing it, and then wonder why we feel bad afterward. Other times we push people away and then regret it later. When we experience these feelings, we should take a closer look at what we were thinking and acting upon.
I first became interested in understanding why people push each other away after reading my friend’s book, “The Fear of Intimacy.” I was surprised to learn that the fear of rejection was one of the biggest obstacles preventing people from connecting with others. I’m glad I read it, because it helped me understand myself better and made me more aware of how I interact with others.
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