What is the first emotion you experience when you hear the word, “intimacy”?
If you’re like most of us, the emotion is surprisingly confusing, loaded, and falls somewhere within the purgatory of emotions that should feel good, but somehow don’t. So if you think this word should evoke love in you, but find yourself experiencing fear, confusion, loneliness, shame or guilt instead, well, you’re not alone.
Because words are the building blocks of conversation, and conversations are the building blocks of my work with clients, I’ve always got my head in the dictionary. I want to know what a word means to Webster, which then gives me a base to understand what each of us has made that certain word mean to ourselves. Curiously, I never wanted to read the dictionary definition of intimacy. And I think that’s because I truly believe words can’t adequately describe this extraordinarily important “state”.
Let me explain.
Anyone who knows me well, will agree that by nature, I’m somewhat of a loner and an introvert – not the first personality type that comes to mind when we think of someone who can be intimate. But this thought is built on the belief that intimacy is a personality trait; an ability we are born with, that we can finetune through practice – like Michael Jordan and basketball. When I look back at my life, I realize that even as a 4-year-old, I absolutely hated my birthday parties, did not want to share my toys, and didn’t understand why I had to talk or even share space with people I didn’t ask to be around. Now, before you decide I’m some kind of “pathological people hater”, please stop and reflect on what it is I do. I am deeply intimate with people – 5-6 days a week, for at least 8 hours per day.
I am in the business of building deep, authentic, and impactful relationships. The fact that my clients pay for the Coaching that takes place between us, is irrelevant. I’ve learned to create intimacy (if I choose to) in every single conversation, regardless of its context. So many of us first hear of this word in the context of sex, and most horrifyingly in the therapist’s office. That dreaded diagnosis, “fear of intimacy” can feel like something is deeply wrong with us, leading to life-long shame. It’s easy to blame it on our partner, but it’s not always true, and more insidiously, blaming causes us to give up our own power and ability to create intimacy.
You see, intimate is an emotion, but first, it has to be a result of some very conscious and mindful practices. Intimate is how we feel when we’ve done the work of building, honoring and fiercely protecting the space of intimacy. Although it’s a dance between 2 people, it only takes one to create it, and then everyone involved to honor, protect, and perpetuate it. You don’t have to be born the Michael Jordan of intimacy with some kind of extraordinary talent, to become a master at creating it. All you need is a deep desire and a true commitment to doing the work. Here are the 4 steps I’ve found to be totally indispensable when attempting to create intimacy with another person, family, or any kind of group. It applies equally in the bedroom as in the boardroom, and in a personal as well as a professional conversation. Remember, although sexual intimacy is built on the same following 4 practices, once we inject our own sense of appropriateness, these steps apply to all conversations, even with a child.
- Cultivate Radical Acceptance – This is an inside job for all of us, and has nothing to do with the other person. And it begins with building tolerance for our own unique selves, but only 100% of the time! If you’re not willing to do this work, however long it takes, please don’t even attempt the other 3 steps. If we are unable to tolerate, even love and appreciate those parts of ourselves that we don’t consider so lovely, how can we hold that space for other humans? That lack of tolerance will show up as judgement even if we don’t utter a word. Judgement will make its presence known one way or another, and it’s a non-starter when it comes to creating intimacy.
- Create safety – Psychological and emotional safety is the ground on which intimacy is built. It’s the air that participants breathe at all times. It’s the flavor on the tongue, and perfume that infuses the atmosphere. All the time, in every moment – no exceptions. It’s a verbal agreement that needs to be made in the beginning, and revisited consistently. The vow to never use anything done or said in the container of intimacy against the other once in “the real world” is a sacred vow. I know it to be true, that most of us can bounce back from heartbreak and most forms of betrayal, but to betray someone in this manner, is often a dealbreaker and shatters the whole container of intimacy in one fell swoop. This is the step that requires us to be our most conscious and mindful selves. Intimacy is not just a state of being that feels good – it’s a gift given in love and from the heart – and it’s a responsibility. Take it on only if you’re ready to cherish this gift.
- Be (mindfully) vulnerable – Yep, I said it, and there’s no way around it -, and guess what? You have to go first! The game of waiting for the other to “show their hand” before you share something truly meaningful and vulnerable, is not building intimacy. It’s a chess game, and it’s the absolute opposite of what we’re discussing here. But for most of us, we’ve lived in the states of protection and defense for so long, that we don’t even know what vulnerability looks and feels like. That’s a longer conversation, but for now, I’ll leave you with a quote from Brene Brown that puts it so very elegantly, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable but they’re never weakness.”
- Nurture connection – Phew! Happy to share that if you’ve made it through steps 1-3, it does get easier. Connection can be operationalized, and we can break it down into action steps. This is easier for most of us than the internal work of cultivating acceptance and vulnerability. Connection can mean different things to different folks. Just ask and then make agreements. Don’t assume that if you feel connected talking to your partner on the weekends when you’re relaxed, that he feels the same way. Perhaps, he wants a daily text or call in order to feel connected. In my Coaching work, I only accept clients for a minimum of 6 months because I know from experience, that’s how long it takes to create the deep and sustainable relationship that will have them feeling supported, even when I’m not consistently in their lives. Cultivating connection is an ongoing conversation, and perhaps the most impactful practice in any relationship that matters to us.
Intimacy is not easy to build, but it’s far more within our power to create than most of us realize. And it’s always, always, always worth it!