Building Emotional Intimacy
Working with individuals and couples, I often notice how people can be more disconnected from themselves than they realize, which in turn has an impact on the depth of their connections with partners, friendships, and beyond.
Often, people who are frustrated with the state of their relationships will ask: How can I build emotional intimacy in a relationship?
Becoming self aware is actually a pretty crucial step in connecting to others. I have heard people tell me that they are self aware, when in actuality they are seeing themselves in a rather subjective light. For example, some people are hard on themselves. They are able to give encouragement to others, but struggle with their own sense of self, including self worth and self esteem.
Esther never felt that she was good enough, as an employee or a friend. Anytime her friends confided in her about their own shortcomings, Esther would praise, encourage, and motivate them. When her therapist pointed this out to her, Esther shared that she truly admired and believed in her friend’s capabilities, she just didn’t think much of herself. Interestingly, this was really getting in the way of Esther’s ability to cultivate deep connections. She was shortchanging herself by accepting the bare minimum from her friends. She was their confidante and coach, providing them with a support system, but not able to rely on them to be supportive of her because she didn’t believe she deserved their support. Once Esther worked on accepting and appreciating herself, she was able to give herself validation and support as well as ask for her needs to be met by others.
Self confidence benefits relationships because:
- You know clearly what you want and what you deserve.
- You can set boundaries that lead to healthier interactions.
- You can trust more easily and not get sidetracked by overthinking or second guessing.
Working on a strong sense of self is an ongoing process, and as all growth processes, it is not a linear one. It is normal to experience days where you feel stronger and days when you need extra encouragement. It takes constant practice to stay in a state of wellness, but it is well worth the effort for the positive impact it has on you as an individual and on your relationships.
Sometimes the subjective self awareness shows up totally differently than in the example above. In fact, Tami is a prime example of how subjective self awareness can really hurt relationships. Tami thought quite highly of herself. Though she was aware that she wasn’t perfect, she described herself as kind, thoughtful, friendly, and a good communicator.
Tami was in for quite a surprise when she learned of how others perceived her. Her spouse did not think she was, in fact, a good communicator. (“He says I hint at things and it’s confusing for him. Why doesn’t he just get it?! He also thinks I’m too critical.”) While Tami could be kind and thoughtful and friendly sometimes, these behaviors were not consistent, and she would often be aloof and self absorbed. Her lack of awareness of that part of herself led her to misinterpret spousal and social interactions and caused her a lot of emotional hurt and pain.
Self awareness includes the ability to notice and observe oneself in different scenarios to truly understand what is needed within a relationship. It also helps to have knowledge of what you consider to be your top 6-8 core values. Core values are values that align with how you want to live your life. They are the values that guide your daily choices. While all values sound positive (such as creativity, curiosity,determination, fairness,faith, fame, friendships, fun, growth, happiness, honesty, humor, just to name a few!) prioritizing a few of these values is what shapes your essence and contributes to self awareness.
In addition to being self aware, having a good sense of your own emotions is an important part of cultivating connection. Many people are aware of the really basic emotions such as happy, sad, angry, scared. While these are some of the elemental feelings, there is a tremendous range of feelings that can more accurately describe what one is experiencing. For example, if you say that you are ‘happy’, are you more proud, optimistic, ecstatic or content? If you describe your feeling as ‘sad’, are you actually sad, or perhaps hurt, lonely, disappointed or devastated?
Feeling and understanding your emotions is crucial, as your thoughts and behaviors are driven by emotion. The feelings you experience may stem from what is happening in the present and/or past associations, or triggers- events that remind you of what is happening in the present. People often numb their emotions to a certain extent to stay ‘safe’, i.e. they are protective of themselves. When emotional intimacy is present, there is freedom to feel and express oneself, including encouragement, support, and space to show up as one is in the moment.
The ability to identify and connect with your own emotions allows for shifts to occur within, that are helpful to you as an individual but also as someone who is seeking emotional intimacy in relationships.
The two major shifts include:
- Self awareness- see above!
- Vulnerability- the vulnerability that is required to really bond with someone cannot happen until you are able to be vulnerable with yourself. It takes a lot of courage to view oneself in a way that is true yet compassionate. Truly connecting with one’s emotions and being able to share those with others is an incredible way to build emotional intimacy.
When we notice other people’s behaviors and reactions, we often make assumptions based on their own perspectives or life experience, when in reality the assumption is often inaccurate. (“Why does he think it’s okay to bring that up? It’s so hurtful.” versus “I felt safe enough to have this kind of honesty with her.”)
Making assumptions about another person’s thought process or intentions usually leaves someone feeling misunderstood, which drives a wedge between people. When there is emotional intimacy present, there is safety sharing insecurities.
When we are interested and curious and compassionate, we are letting people know that we are creating space to hold their emotions and really be with them. It’s not about controlling or fixing the situation, but rather about connecting with them. We cannot really know what another person is experiencing until we ask them (which will require self awareness and vulnerability!), and this is another way to build emotional intimacy.
We cannot be more connected to other people than we are to ourselves. Conversely, one cannot build a deep connection with someone who is disconnected from themselves. In order for connection to happen, one must allow themselves to be truly seen.
Having a sense of self awareness and a willingness to connect to oneself and others with vulnerability can allow for emotional intimacy to blossom.