What is it that causes us to fear committing? Teal Swan suggests it arises from the desire to be free as commitment is felt to be confining. This may have its roots in a child hood where we were made to grow up too quickly and were overwhelmed by expectations and control by our care givers. The only way we could be manage this was to seek freedom from this control, which may often have manifest as a freezing and denial of our feelings. As adults we have learnt not to feel and to freeze when confronted with any struggle. Seeing relationship or commitment as a source of entrapment we step back from committing.
To overcome the fear of commitment Teal Swan gives nine points which point towards living with a greater self-awareness, care for ourselves and making a conscious choice now about how to act.
Earlier this week a friend sent me a few videos by Teal Swan on relationship and fear of commitment. This was very apposite as we had dated some years back and both pulled back when we were at a point where it might have gone deeper! It’s been a while since I watched any of her talks and I really enjoyed hearing her perspective again on this. As I listened I recognised a dynamic of my own – the pulling away from fully committing to a thing out of the desire to be free. The desire to be free seems to be a good thing, but it can paradoxically lead to a feeling of not fully living my life as I hold back from fully entering into whatever it is that I am doing for fear it will overwhelm me.
How this plays out for me showed up in my approach to writing essays at University. I used to hate the idea of having to write an essay plan before writing, preferring the freedom of being able to start writing and going where the ideas took me. Whilst this gave a sense of freedom from the constraint of having to create a plan it meant I never really had a clear structure to what I was writing and could actually loose the focus of my argument rather than clarify it. The same was true of exams, going straight in rather than spending some time writing out a plan before starting to answer the questions, with the result that I did not have a clear overview of how to use the time in the exam or clearly answer each question.
I was talking about this recently with a friend who in contrast used always to write an essay plan, and consistently got top marks as he was able to clarify his argument and know what it was he wanted to say. Interestingly, in his life now he is very good at focusing on his intentions, writing a plan for the year or for a task and seeing it through.
This avoidance of wanting to plan now manifests in my work through resisting writing out a plan for the day or for a project and instead wanting to be spontaneous in how I work. The result is that I often come to the end of the day without having focused on my core objectives and only realise too late that I have not made time for the things that most needed doing that day (the lateness of this email being an example!), or come to the end of the end of the year only to see I have not moved forward with my plans or projects.
A talk I listened to recently described how the military plan a mission, working back from the final objective, looking at each stage that needs to happen just before the following stage, until they are back to the present moment, with an outline of all the steps needed to get to the final objective. They then focus on the step needed right now that will take them in the direction of their objective, rather than having a vague idea of what it is they want to finally achieve and taking random actions to try and get there. My approach of wanting the freedom of spontaneity results instead in a lack of clear objectives as I make erratic moves forward with my plans, and often find myself a year latter still wishing for the same objective.
An example is that I think “I want to write a book”, which has been an objective for the last few years, but then make no plans for how to go about this or set time aside each day to do it. Hoping it will somehow happen. It is like saying I want to go to Paris, but then not looking at a map or planning how to travel and instead heading out and walking in any direction, hoping I may get there. There’s a freedom in being able to walk where I like, but it doesn’t take me to my objective so in that sense my commitment is to aimless wandering rather than going to Paris – but I say I want to go to Paris, so there is a disconnect between what I am actually doing and what I say I want to do. If I decide that my objective is to walk anywhere and have an adventure not knowing where I am going then that is fine, but the problem is I am saying my objective is to get to Paris whilst doing nothing to make this possible.
The result of all of this is that out of the desire for freedom from constraint I end up constrained by not moving forward and feeling stuck in lacking any clear objectives to move my ideas for a project forward.
Then of course there are romantic relationships…the desire for one and the fear of being lost and consumed by it if I were to enter one which results in not wanting to commit to meeting another or entering a deeper relationship. This seems to be something so many people I know share, the fear of committing to a relationship.
Learning to be present to the fear of commitment
Teal Swan addresses this in her video on ‘How to Get over you fear of commitment’ by giving nine suggestions for how to be present to the fear of commitment. She states that commitment is simply the putting of energy into something and invites us to ask ourselves, if we are commitment phobes, what is it that makes it so scary to give my energy to something or put myself fully into something?
She starts by suggesting that a fear of commitment arises from a fear of the loss of freedom and says that this fear is most likely rooted in childhood experiences of relationship: we had an experience of having to grow up too fast in an atmosphere of control where we had to meet other’s expectations. The only way to be free in this dynamic was to keep control by withdrawing into one’s own sense of freedom. She suggests that as adults this then plays out as a tendency to freeze up when faced with difficulty or conflict.
If we learnt as a child that we could not escape through fighting or running and instead shut down as a way to escape, now as an adult when there is anything that challenges us we turn to freezing as a means to escape whatever it is that feels overwhelming. This may be literal freezing, by going silent when another is arguing, or an energetic freezing, by withdrawing from putting our energy into something – refusing to commit to a task or person.
I certainly remember this from when I was in a relationship five years ago. If my boyfriend started to argue or be angry I would just go quiet and shut down. It annoyed him even more, but by shutting down there was no way he could get to me, and eventually the argument would have to pass as I just was not there to engage with it!
In the following nine points Teal Swan outlines ways to work with this fear of commitment. For more details please view her video above.
1. Recognise that there is no such thing as not being able to commit: we are always committed to something. She gives the following examples of how seeming inability to commit is actually rooted in a commitment to something that is the opposite of the thing we cannot commit to. If we fear committing to a relationship, we are in fact fully committed to freedom. If we procrastinate and seem not to be able to commit to action, our commitment is to distraction. Hence, we are never not committed to something! To find what it is you are committed to, try looking at whatever the opposite is of the thing you say you are committed to but which you keep pulling away from.
2.See the damage that not committing to what will nourish us has done in our life:what opportunities have been lost? How has it impacted on others?
3. Love the aspect of your self this is so afraid it cannot commit: the part that was controlled or not loved enough, that needs a sense of freedom because it needs the safety of escape. Teal Swan suggests loving this part of oneself rather than trying to kill it off or make it disappear. Recognising that it is a part of us that found the best way possible to survive in difficult times. We may now see that the choices this part makes do not serve us, but we feel compassion for it rather than fighting or rejecting it.
4.Become more aware of, and dedicated to, what you really do want: whilst loving the part of us that chooses to avoid commitment, we can also start to turn our attention to what we really do want, to get a better idea about what we might want to commit to. If I fear relationships, but I see I am lonely, then I can recognise that whilst the avoidant child feels it’s safer to be alone, my experience of that is to feel lonely. I might then see that what I really want is deep respectful heart connection to another but one that respects my need for autonomy.
5. Get present to your needs and meet them every day: Teal Swan says that people who fear commitment will suppress their needs and try to convince themselves and others that they do not have any needs. She goes on to say “if you do not express your needs and deny them whilst trying to meet your partners needs you’ll end up feeling controlled by your partner and at their mercy – never realising that its because you are not saying what your needs are”. It can feel frightening to admit that we have needs, for that means we are not fully free and self-sufficient, but depend on others and external conditions for our well being.
6. Get deeply in touch with your feelings: if you are afraid of commitment you’ll feel you need to cut off from your emotions to maintain control and in order to feel safe. If you can allow yourself to start to feel the pain that is there in life you will no longer be trying to run from the fear of future pain by avoiding committing to another or a task. If I fear that I cannot be with the pain of a project not working out, I will keep it as a dream to act on at some point in the future, rather than try it and feel the pain of it not succeeding. But if I can tolerate pain or disappointment, then it will simply be something to try out, knowing that it is ok to feel disappointment if it doesn’t work out but being fine with this. I find this especially important in the realm of dating. I know I pull back from fear of the pain of being rejected. But what this does is never give me the opportunity to experience being accepted. If I can learn to tolerate the fear of rejection it might, paradoxically, open me to the feeling of being accepted.
7. Explore the idea of perfection in order to be free from it: finding fault is a way to avoid facing the fear of committing. We can find fault with ourselves, thinking we are not yet perfect enough to undertake a task or we can find fault with others to pull back from a deeper commitment. I have seen this a lot in my work, constantly telling myself I am not yet good enough to run a group for gay men (until a friend pushed me to do it), or run mindfulness classes in a corporate setting (until being contacted by the head of HR at Kensington Council and being booked to run some sessions which then showed me I could do it). This links with point 8 below, how low self-esteem leads to the idea that I am not yet good enough, or perfect enough, to do whatever it is I wish to do. Instead we might look at the example of so many entropenours who have set up business, failed, tried again and finally arrived at a successful enterprise. As Becket says: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better!”
8. Practice meditation: learn how to be present with your experience as it is right now, without judgement or the urge to pull away. It is this that has really helped me in my own path. Learning not to believe in the inner tyrant. To look directly at the story teller as I sit in meditation and learn not to believe his narrative. The awareness that arises from the practice of mindfulness can then permeate one’s whole day, and give a clarity to recognising the mind’s tendency toward catastrophisng, self-cristiscim and fear of feeling. It is mindfulness that underlines all of the other points in this list: the ability to recognise what is here right now, without going into judgement or loosing oneself in the drama. As trapped as I feel at times by my patterns, I also see that through my practice it has been possible to make choices that do lead to a greater freedom and happiness as I let go of identifying with old and unhelpful patterns of behaviour or beliefs about who I am.
9. Commit to improving your self-esteem and self-image: fear of abandonment leads to fear of commitment and the belief that we are not good enough means we never feel we are going to be loved enough for people not to abandon us. Teal Swan suggests you make an inventory of your strengths and skills to fully appreciate your qualities. This may be hard to do if we have a strong inner critic, for this critic will seek to ‘protect’ us from being proud by telling us how crap we are and any list we write may have a background thought of “yes, but……”
Something I did when on a self-development course some years ago was very powerful, but also excruciatingly hard. We were tasked to ask a number of friends to write what they value about us. We explained the context, that it was to help us see how we are seen by others. I was so touched and moved by what people wrote. It was the first time my self-view was really challenged, as I realised just how others valued me and the things they saw in me that they admired. Another similar approach to this is a dating site called My Single Friend, where you ask a friend to write your profile, avoiding having to say good things about yourself, and letting them say what a great person you would be as a partner! Perhaps you have a friend you could do this with? Either the dating site, or simply writing a list for each other of what you appreciate about the other: the qualites they see in you, the things they enjoy about your company and what attributes they see in you that would make you a good partner. Then take this and read it every day.