Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hardwired for Intimacy

Our brains and bodies are naturally designed to express a range of emotions and to respond to the emotions of others. The emotions of fear, shame, and anger serve us in the most dangerous situations we may have to face. The fear and anger not only energize us to run or fight, but also communicate our emotional state to those close enough to respond. Our anger lets others know we are energized to attack and they had better respect that. Fear communicates to others that there is something dangerous nearby, and they might want to get ready to run, too. Shame also communicates. It communicate surrender so that our foe will not continue to attack.

We are also hardwired to express joy, distress, and surprise. The expression of joy communicates our relief at being safe among friends, while distress communicates our need for help and comfort.
Surprise seems designed to help us assess the situation when something unexpected happens. It focuses our attention and opens our eyes.

We also come equipped with the ability to recognize these basic emotional states in others. Mirroring structures in the brain help us to respond to others actions and emotions automatically. Very young babies understand the difference between a smile and a frown, a lullaby and a scolding and they respond automatically.

Direct uninhibited emotional response between two people is called intimacy, and babies are natural at it, which is why we often find relationships with babies so rewarding. Babies are not ashamed to show their feelings, whether they are distress, frustration, delight, fear, or shame itself. And when we are with them, we are not ashamed to mimic them with goo goos and gah gahs of baby talk that we would be embarassed to see on video, absent the baby context. We are free to be responsive to a baby's distress or frustration. We are rewarded by the good feelings of intimacy.

So what goes wrong later?

Somewhere along the line, we learn to try to hide our feelings because our own feelings scare us or we are ashamed of them. Expressing our feelings becomes associated with feeling vulnerable
because others may make fun of us or try to use our feelings against us. So we work very hard to hide our feelings behind a mask of some kind, and in order to do this we work to suppress the emotions. We can get so good at this that we hide the feelings even from ourselves and feel horrified at the possibility that others could know about our distress, shame, or frustration. Some of us drink, binge, purge, or work long hours in order to numb ourselves and make it easier to suppress the emotions rather than express them. And we lose the freedom and delight of intimacy in a habit of hiding behind our mask. We substitute sex for intimacy and busy routines for friendship.

Underneath the masks, the busy routines, and the defensive habits, we are still hardwired to express our emotions and respond to others, still hardwired for intimacy if we can let go of the habits we have developed to protect ourselves. We can escape the trap of these new defensive habits, but we often have to have help to overcome the fear and shame that keep us stuck behind our masks.

When Joe arrives at an AA meeting and sets aside his shame enough to take the first step of introducing himself, “Hi, I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic,” he stops hiding something he has hidden from himself and tried to hide from others for years. He is rewarded by the welcome from the other members of the group, “Hi, Joe.” It is the acceptance that is the first taste of intimacy he has enjoyed in a long time.

For more on Shame, Anger, Fear, and other enemies of intimacy, see or contact Brock Hansen, LICSW at