You know how it is…you are standing there with someone you really care about, and you just can’t hold the eye contact. Or really acknowledge the heartfelt gesture. Or provide the empathy and compassion they need right now. So frustrating, and yet so common. But why is it so hard? As we’ve been talking all along on the podcast, it isn’t your fault, because it comes from your very first relationships where you learned either emotional safety and connection or otherwise.
Your Brain Protected You: It put you in the fight/flight/freeze function when you were in the moment to keep your defenses up to protect you. Why? Because, if growing up your home life was unpredictable, such as you never knew when dad would lose it or maybe mom would be drinking or nasty, you had to remain on alert much of the time. We usually carry this mode of being into adulthood, struggling to be emotionally present and not anxious.
Your Psyche Protected You Too. Even if you grew up in a family without a lot of conflict or chaos, you may have experienced the microtraumas of being criticized, judged, embarrassed or questioned by family members regularly enough that you didn’t feel safe to let your guard down. Since this was normalized though, you may not have realized what was going on to create the low-level anxiety and guardedness you needed to survive. Being in the moment is the ultimate vulnerability, leaving you open to rejection, shaming or emotional abandonment. So it makes sense that you would continue to protect yourself.
Adding to the struggle is the concept that we then continue to be drawn to folks who will do the same: friends, colleagues and partners who also struggle with being emotionally safe and mature, so we continue, often unknowingly, the same pattern of less-than-connecting communication. The other person usually isn’t any the wiser so the idea of self-protection for both parties continues to be reinforced.
It usually isn’t until some sort of pain brings us to looking at this, to therapy, to a self-help book or coaching. I believe that’s because through all of the surface connection in our relationships, we aren’t able to get vital needs met such as acceptance, belonging and true emotional intimacy and therefore bonding. These are NEEDS not wants, so it makes sense there will be plenty of unhealthy conflict, avoidance, and often infidelity in partnerships.
So now that you know perhaps why you struggle to be present, you can begin becoming more present with yourself to get acclimated to the idea. Notice your breathing at moments throughout the day. Pay attention to your body: is there pain, fatigue, nervousness? Practice self-compassion by taking care of yourself via deep breaths, going for a walk or journaling. By honoring your emotional and physical state you will feel more confident. Then you can begin practicing being present with others. Notice what’s going on around you. The person’s demeanor, what they are really saying. This takes time and patience. You are convincing your brain that you can be safe AND be in the moment with others over time.
So take it moment by moment – literally – until it becomes more second nature.