Too Terrified to Connect

Q: When I was younger I was bullied all the time by my peers. Because of this I developed low self-esteem. I didn't pay much attention to guys because I just wanted to survive the school day. When I got older things got better and I gradually gained self-confidence. However, when I was 18 my dad got cancer and died. For a long time, I had to be there for my mom, brother and sister, so I didn't have time or energy to date. Because of this, at 25, I've never had a boyfriend. I've been on a few dates, but I always kept the guy at a distance.

A few weeks ago I met this amazing guy and we really connected. I'm pretty sure he's attracted to me and I love spending time with him. The thing is, only now do I realize how afraid I am of putting myself in a vulnerable position. I'm afraid of really giving in to how I'm feeling, because he might not return those feelings, he might hurt me, he might leave... I felt so vulnerable when my dad died that part of me just closed off, without me realizing it. I really care about this guy but I feel absolutely terrified whenever I'm with him and just I freeze up. I don't want to lose this chance because I think there could really be something there. What can I do to get over this fear??? -- Alice, 25

Dr. Susan: Getting over a fear that's taken many years to develop isn't something you can do all at once, or in three easy steps. You could probably benefit from some individual counseling to see why you've taken the death of your father so hard that, seven years later, you can't trust an "amazing guy" enough to be your real loving self. I suspect that whatever got you bullied as a child may have something to do with all this. In many instances, those who get singled out and bullied have some quality that makes them easy targets. I'm not saying any of that was your fault, just that the whole bullying scenario might offer clues as to why you are having a hard time now. People generally haven't been all that nice to you, and your own father "betrayed" you by dying prematurely.

One thing you shouldn't do, Alice, is to put too much importance on this one relationship. Naturally you don't want to screw it up, but if you can be a bit more casual about it, you'll be giving it a better chance to develop normally. If the guy is truly amazing, you're going to have to trust him a tiny bit, enough to tell him you're really afraid to be vulnerable, given your history. That kind of opening up is what it often takes to get the other person to see the real you. What you have to understand is that you have nothing to lose. If, by revealing your vulnerable self (telling him what you've told me), you lose him, then he wasn't worth much in the first place. You're never know if there's "something there" until you take the risk. If it's utterly impossible for you to risk at all, then talk to someone experienced and be willing to spend some time working out your troubled history so you can live more fully in the present.

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