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V is for Vulnerability

By Alison Henry

Posted: Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2009

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Photo by LGray Photography

In "Miles From the Aisle," former CB editor Alison Henry takes you on an irreverent trip down the often rocky road of relationships. She can be reached at alisonghenry@gmail.com.

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“What do you want to do, Alison?”

I lay there, face buried in the carpet, limbs dramatically flailed at my sides like a crime scene chalk outline. “I don’t knowwwww," I mumbled into the floor.

But I did. I didn’t want to spend my final night in town with anyone else, but I had already spent the last three sweetly slumbering in his bed. Fearful that I would be overstaying my welcome, I had already texted a friend and secured myself a spot on a couch across town. But that’s not really where I wanted to be, and the combination of my fear of rejection and the self-inflicted disappointment of my alternate plans was making me cold, conflicted and a little too familiar with his apartment’s choice of flooring.

“Alison, what do you want to do?”

I had once again fallen victim to what psychologists call a “counter-phobic mechanism,” or what the rest of us refer to as “self-sabotage.” As Oprah Magazine writer Martha Beck explains in her July column, “When Your Biggest Problem Is … You,” this destructive behavior is a subconscious attempt to alleviate the anxiety-inducing anticipation of your biggest fears by making the undesired event happen on your own terms. The problem with this is paradoxical: While the intent is to minimize suffering, its passive-aggressive nature often causes unnecessary angst in everyone involved, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces the behavior.

This is best seen in those with a fear of abandonment, who despite their intense need for companionship put up emotional walls and push away their significant others. A friend recently told me over lunch that due to his fear of abandonment, he rarely allows himself to get close to women he is dating. Frustrated with his behavior, they often leave, reinforcing his fears. The irony of this outcome is that it was orchestrated by his own actions, a cycle set in motion to rid himself of the anxiety associated with risk. Were he able to face his fears head-on and accept uncertainty, he could free himself to experience the joys of relationships and break the cycle through positive reinforcement.

My own bone-headed behavior is (usually) less about a fear of abandonment and more about a fear of rejection. But regardless of the reason, the actions are still the same. Whether I’m going AWOL in an attempt to protect myself from loss, making plans to sleep on someone’s couch to avoid rejection, or just generally trying to not look like The Bigger Banana Head, they’re all irrational attempts to gain the perceived upper hand over my fears. The more I like someone, the greater my vulnerability and consequently the greater the push-and-pull. And honestly, it’s about time I owned my feelings, addressed my fears and started taking conscious risks. Because although I’ve finally found the upside to singledom, I’d also like to let someone other than my dog love me unconditionally.

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