Relational paradox: When convinced a relationship won’t tolerate who you really are, you leave a part of you out of that relationship.
When I read the description of a relational paradox in Dr. Amy Banks’ book, Wired for Connection:The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships, a lightbulb went on in my head. The concept and real life experience were not new to me but the articulation of it was.
Leaving out the highly sensitive, expressive, emotional part
Over the years, I’ve put the relational paradox into practice in many, many relationships, both romantic and platonic. In most cases, I did it subconsciously. In most cases it was the highly sensitive, highly expressive, highly emotional part of myself that I excluded. It is that piece of me that I fear most people can’t handle or won’t like.
Long-term effects of not being authentic
The long-term effects of not being 100% authentic in those relationships were a sense of not truly belonging and not feeling understood. At any moment, my real personality might slip out, be negatively judged or worse, completely rejected. In some instances it was, which only reinforced my diligence to hide the unwanted parts. My guard could not go down. I had to be strong, tough and quiet about feelings.
From childhood, I have been in close relationships with both judgmental and non-judgmental people. The judgmental people made it unwise to reveal my tender side. My vulnerability was used against me, creating an unsafe environment. The non-judgmental people gave me a sense of friendship and belonging but even with them I was hesitant to completely let my guard down. I still had a fear of being rejected because of past experiences with intolerant personalities. I mostly played the sweet, pleasing, never-sad, friend.
Activating the DaCC
Dr. Banks states in her book that when we are on high alert for not belonging or feeling accepted our DaCC (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) activates. This is a small strip in the brain deep in the frontal cortex. The DaCC is part of an alarm system in our bodies and is primarily known for picking up the distress of physical pain and the social pain of being left out.
If your DaCC is chronically or consistently activated it becomes highly sensitive to potential threats, thus making it more likely that you see danger (dislike, rejection, lack of acceptance) even when it may not exist.
Reading about the relational paradox concept in Dr. Banks’ book happened to coincide with a real life situation in which I was wrestling with the question of how much of myself to reveal to a new friend. In fact, I had written a note to myself a week prior that read, “Am I worried about him not being enough or me being too much?”
My note expressed my fear of my friend not being emotionally sensitive and deep enough (my fear of being too sensitive projected on him??) and my fear of being too sensitive, talkative, dependent, wrapped up in my kids, etc. I had experienced rejection and judgment for all the latter fears at one time or another. I had been ‘too much’ in the past.
I do not want to experience that cut off/rejected feeling again.
How to stop hiding parts of yourself
Dr. Banks recommends starting with taking note of when you hide or pull back in a relationship out of fear of ruining the connection and being rejected. Next she suggests keeping a mental or written library of positive relational moments (PRMs). PRMs involve memories of clear acceptance and connection. Thirdly, she suggests sharing some of your hidden self with people you consider highly safe.
In Are Perfection-Seeking and Self-Reliance Holding You Back from Love, I wrote about letting go of the fear of being too sensitive. I vowed to curb my distancing behavior and move toward love. My hiding and pulling back are now in my conscious awareness.
I have forever kept a diary or notebook of my high and low moments in life. In recent years, I’ve developed a practice of thinking about happy memories when I feel my stress levels rising. In recent months I’ve started putting positive moments in notes on my phone. If I start to feel anxious, I pick up my phone and read the PRMs listed there. The notes have been a great resource for keeping me in calm-land.
Lastly, I’ve done deep reflection over the last year or two about who are my safe relationships. I’m delighted to say I have several. When I start to feel my insecurities creep up I call one of these unconditionally kind caring people and spill my worries on them. I know it’s OK to get upset with them. I trust them. They trust me when they are in need of wholehearted listening as well. These relationships are such blessings.
How safe relationships feel
According to Wired to Connect, this is what you feel when safe relationships soothe the DaCC pathway:
You can count on that person in an emergency
It’s safe to acknowledge differences
A sense of belonging
Like an equal
Like there is give and take
I may always hesitate before showing strong emotions to someone. I may always wonder if they will accept, understand and even reciprocate my sensitivity. My nervous system is primed for negative judgment but with new insight and more discernment regarding positive relationships, I feel a greater sense of trust, calmness and confidence in being authentic.
Do you ever fear you are too much for people to handle? Do you hide parts of yourself to maintain relationships? Do you have safe relationships?
If you would like guidance soothing your social pain or fear of rejection, please contact me for personal or relationship coaching.