All human beings share the same deepest longings: to know and be known, to hold and be held, to love and be loved, to experience connection without walls and expression without censors.
And yet, when real love is staring you in the eyes, when a loving partner stands before you, you may notice a disconcerting urge to withdraw, to put up walls, or even to run.
What lives inside of this urge is the subconscious awareness that to love means to open yourself to the possibility of getting hurt by losing the one you love. If you pull back from your beloved, you limit the intimacy and, consequently, hedge your bets against the risk. Therefore, the only way to love wholeheartedly is find to the willingness and the courage to risk loss.
We have so many defenses to protect ourselves from the risk of loss. Some of these defenses are obvious and well known: we use sarcasm or dry humor to diminish moments of vulnerability; we create distractions like work and all forms of busyness; we constantly check our smartphones or become addicted to screens.
Other defense mechanisms that prohibit intimacy are more subtle. These forms of protection occur in the realm of the mind and usually manifest as doubt. While there is a place for healthy doubt — especially if there are red-flag issues in the relationship that need your attention — in my work studying and addressing relationship anxiety over the last 15 years I've learned that doubt in a healthy relationship is a very subtle and sneaky defense mechanism that, at its root, is the fear of loss.
This is complicated, so let me explain. We've all been hurt. We've all experienced rejection, ridicule, teasing, abandonment and other experiences that have led to heartbreak and the belief that "I am not enough." It seems almost impossible to grow up in this culture without absorbing this lie about yourself. Few people make it to adulthood unscathed from the overt and covert forms of rejection by caregivers, peers, siblings, teachers, or first lovers.
The belief is also absorbed from the culture itself, for it cannot be denied that we live in a culture of "not-enoughness." The cultural message says: You're not thin enough, fit enough, healthy enough, successful enough; you're not feeding your kids enough vegetables or setting enough limits; you don't meditate enough or practice enough yoga; you don't have enough style, friends, or fun. In short, you're just not quite right because you're not enough.
Once the belief of "I'm not enough" takes hold, it determines many of your decisions regarding intimate relationships. And when you finally do meet a partner who is available, loving, caring, honest, and every other quality you've been waiting for — as opposed to the unavailable ones who had one foot out the door — this latent, silent belief kicks in and the self-protective thought, "You don't love him enough" or "You're not attracted to her enough" is quick on its heels.
Now, instead of addressing your core belief that you're not enough, you've made your partner not enough. Now, instead of you being in the vulnerable position of exposing yourself to the risk of being hurt or rejected, you've positioned yourself into the one-up position of holding the power. Now, instead of allowing the relationship to deepen in intimacy with an unknown end (as we never know what will happen when we commit to one person), the ego, in the power position, will try to convince you to run, thereby controlling the outcome.
The ego hates risk. The ego hates the unknown. The ego hates being vulnerable. In our bully culture, the ego knows it's either bully or be bullied. It chooses to bully, putting your lovely partner under the microscope and convincing you that he or she just isn't enough.
I know from doing this work for so long and being in my own long-term intimate relationship what an incredible act of courage it is to love fully. It's our deepest longing, yes, but it's also our deepest fear. These are the simple steps I suggest for working with the doubt and fear, but please keep in mind that this is very deep work and one must find patience, fortitude, and commitment when dealing with the fears of the heart.
1. Name the fear.
Welcome the fear: get to know it, name it, invite it to dinner for a conversation. Write about it. Talk about it. Every time the thought arises of, "He's not cute enough," or "She's not social enough," (or whatever the area is where your fear hangs its hat), say to yourself, "That's fear and defense talking. It's not the truth."
2. Replace the lies with the truth.
You may know immediately that you carry the belief of "I'm not enough." But for others even contacting this belief can take a long time. Once you're aware of it, the healing work becomes replacing it with the truth, which is, of course, that you are enough. You are loved. You are whole.
You are not without flaws, but your self-worth is not dependent on being flawless. You are worthy of love because you exist. Knowing this in your head and knowing this in your cells are two different experience, however. So be patient with yourself as you ferret out the causes and ramifications of believing that you're not enough and find ways of replacing that lie with the truth.
3. Make peace with the risk of loss.
Ultimately, the only way to love with your whole heart is to make peace with the possibility that you might get hurt. It's our lot as human beings: our time here is finite, and we will, at some point, separate from everyone that we love (even if it's after a sixty year marriage). The ego believes the loss will hurt less if we shut down the passageways of the heart.
But it doesn't work that way: loss hurts no matter what. So you may as well love fully while you have the chance, and trust that, somehow, you will recover from the shattering heartbreak of loss.
It's an interesting paradox: the more fully you love, the more deeply you will grieve when you lose the one you love, and the more likely it is you'll be able to love wholeheartedly again.
There is no greater risk than loving wholeheartedly, and no risk more worth the effort it takes to get there.