how and why we should strive for greater emotional intimacy

Amidst a busy holiday season, starting to plan a wedding, getting hooked by a new show on Netflix, and trying to keep my head above water at work, it's been a while since I've posted! But here I am, proving my guilt gremlins wrong and saying -- who cares, I'm going to keep this little blog trucking along at whatever pace feels right or my life at the time. EmotionalIntimacyIn pondering the many topics I'm interested in learning more about and sharing, the one I landed on for this post is the concept of emotional intimacy. The idea is very consistent with the ACT philosophy of approaching rather than avoiding our uncomfortable and even unpleasant internal experiences because of how we usually dig ourselves into deeper holes when we go the route of avoidance. Emotional intimacy is something that I have been acquainted with for as long as I've studied psychotherapy, though I haven't always known the best words to describe it, or the nuances of acquiring it -- at least beyond the basic "feel your feelings" cliché. I wish I could say that I was familiar with the concept at a personal level long before I started learning about therapy, but I'm not really sure that's true. I -- like most people -- learned the hard way that my vices were usually just covering up feelings I didn't want to have to feel, and even well into my recovery, I often just switched one vice for another so I got to have the illusion of improving even though I was really just channeling my avoidance in another way... until eventually I just found myself in deeper and deeper holes and admitted that my way wasn't working anymore. (In the addiction field, it's often referred to as cross-addiction or addiction interaction, but that's a post for another day.) Although I can't claim these days that I welcome all my feelings with openness and curiosity all the time, I can say that I do so more frequently, and when I do, I feel more compassionate with myself, more empowered, and better able to do what I need to do (and not do what might hurt me) even amidst emotional distress.

In addition to how emotional intimacy has shown up more as part of my work with acceptance & commitment therapy, last summer I came across an in-depth interview on the topic with psychotherapist and author Dr. Robert Augustus Masters on a podcast I follow. The interview took part over 2 episodes of the "Insights at the Edge" podcast, hosted by Sounds True founder Tami Simon -- I highly recommend checking them out here and here. (Great car listening, especially for those of us with long commutes.) I was immediately enthralled by Masters' deep and wholehearted description of emotional intimacy, and amidst my ever-growing stack of books, recently began reading his new book, Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting with The Power of Your Emotions. (Shout out to my awesome future mother-in-law who got me the book for Christmas from my Amazon Wish List!) 

I'm still working on the book --  it's not one of those you want to skim or rush through -- but it has already proven valuable both personally and professionally, and I know it will be one that I recommend to clients. With a 7-page table of contents, the book is highly comprehensive (so the subtitle's claim is true!), but don't worry -- it comes in at under 300 pages, and Masters's style is engaging. To keep this post from becoming a novel in its own right, I thought I'd focus on one of the most salient and foundational points from the first chapter: the 10 basic factors that synthesize to create emotional intimacy. As you read through this list, I recommend pulling out a piece of scratch paper and rating yourself between 0-100% on each item based on how strong you are in that area currently -- and be honest! You don't have to share your numbers with anyone, so the only person you'd hurt by fudging it is you.

What Emotional Intimacy Is Made Of:

  1. Being sufficiently well acquainted with our emotions so that when one arises we recognize it, can name it, and acknowledge what we are doing with it.
  2. Relating to our emotions rather than just from our emotions, so that we neither fuse with nor dissociate from them.
  3. Listening to others deeply, both to what is being said and to what is not being said.
  4. Remaining emotionally transparent and non-defensively expressive of whatever is arising in us, be it pleasant or unpleasant.
  5. Being fully vulnerable.
  6. Knowing our personal history well enough to be able to recognize when old survival strategies have possessed us, along with the willingness to fully share and work with this.
  7. Being empathetic without any loss of personal boundaries.
  8. Keeping at least some connection to our core of self as we allow our emotions as open expression as our situation warrants.
  9. Cutting through any tendencies to play victim to our emotions so that we no longer blame them for our bad behavior.
  10. Being able to wake up in the midst of our reactivity and not let it run the show, at least not for any significant length of time.

 (Masters, 2013, pp. 5-6)

Notice how you rated yourself: perhaps you rated highly on some, but lower on others. Good -- now you know what areas need your attention the most. And if you're feeling shameful, sad, angry -- or anything else -- about how you "scored" in this mini-assessment, see if you can just let yourself notice those feelings without judging them... notice what they feel like in your body, what stories in your mind are also playing, and what those emotions might be telling you if they were communicating something important and compassionate to you. As Masters says and I agree, there are no negative emotions. There are certainly harmful responses to emotions -- both pleasant and unpleasant ones -- but to make the emotions themselves the enemy is to lose the forest for the trees.

And with that, I will leave you with a hilarious and inspiring 2-minute video about becoming intimate with arguably the most misunderstood and avoided emotion: Fear. (And dang it, I don't know why the video refuses to embed on this page, but it's worth clicking through!)

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.