The human brain is a great thing. Except when it isn’t. Its natural defense mechanisms keep us safe from physical and emotional harm, even when we’re not paying attention. But trauma and heartache can send our emotions haywire, driving us to push our loved ones away.

The psychology of pushing people away 101

There’s generally a valid reason why we start pushing away those we love:

  1. Trauma, breakups, or mental health crises reduce our sense of self-worth.
  2. We fear rejection, leading us to avoid the risk of emotionally investing in people.
  3. Our behavior changes. We withdraw both physically and socially.
  4. Because this happens subconsciously, it can be tough to spot in ourselves.

Communication, self-reflection, and support can help us open up again.

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If you’re worried that you’re becoming distant from other people, let’s explore why it might be happening and how to start opening up again.

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Fear of intimacy is often our subconscious way of avoiding stress and rejection. Because we rarely do it deliberately, it can be tricky to realize it’s happening. Often, others will notice before you if you’re behaving differently.

Those closest to you are probably your best indicators of whether you’re acting differently — in states of heightened emotion, we’re rarely the best judges of how we come across. Examples of pushing people away in relationships might include the following:

  • You’re no longer returning calls or messages.
  • You send fewer requests to people suggesting a meetup.
  • You regularly make excuses not to hang out.
  • You show less interest in the emotions of others.
  • You’re unusually blunt or even rude.

It seems so counterintuitive to distance ourselves from others during the times when we need the most support. But this is a common pattern of behavior among those who shy away from intimacy. Research acknowledges the human need for intimacy, but that need is wrapped up in a fear of rejection.

Opening yourself up to rejection is a pretty sizable risk. The pain of trying and failing to make a connection with a friend, family member, or romantic partner can be intense. Some of us are naturally more risk-averse, so we reach out less. Others have had bad experiences in the past which knock their confidence.

Either way, it’s not that being alone generally makes us happy. Sure, people can complicate your life, but connecting with others is good for you, on the whole. It’s fear of rejection that seems to drive intimacy issues, leading us to push people away.

Pushing people away after a bad relationship

Breaking up with someone sucks. The end of a relationship, or even a marriage, can leave us wondering why we went to the trouble of investing in our exes in the first place. Or, it can have us hung up on previous connections that prevent us from reaching out to new boos.

That could provoke a fear of future rejections and intimacy problems.

Pushing people away because of an ex who sux might not develop into a long-term pattern of behavior. Once we’ve withdrawn a bit and focused on ourselves, we tend to want to get back out there and start meeting people again.

Pushing people away during depression

Depression also sucks. Majorly. Among other symptoms, feelings of low self-worth can bring your confidence crashing down. Interactions that’d previously feel natural and easy can become overpowering and scary when you’re in the middle of a depressive episode.

As with depression itself, a fear of intimacy can last as long as the underlying root cause persists. Seeking advice from a mental health professional can speed up your recovery and help you stop pushing people away.

Self-reflection and awareness are the keys to overcoming intimacy problems. Often, pushing people away is an unconscious process, a defense mechanism to avoid stressful situations. When these mechanisms are in tip-top condition, we don’t notice them. But when they malfunction, we get problems.

Today’s understanding of psychological defense mechanisms suggests that we can get a better grip on problematic behaviors by learning to recognize how we defend ourselves and why. Keeping a journal of how you feel day-to-day might help you spot patterns and emotional triggers.

From there, you can start replacing problematic habits with positive ones. Letting people into your life is a gradual process, but you can do things to make it a smoother one.

Start small — for example, next time you get an Insta DM from a friend you keep ignoring, send a short message back instead of leaving it on unread. This way you can learn to redevelop trust in others.

Make sure that connecting with more people is a healthy decision

Some people are naturally more outgoing than others. You might be perfectly happy keeping a small circle of close friends to confide in (which certainly makes the holidays cheaper). But more extroverted peeps might see it as more of a problem to solve.

If you’re going to make a conscious effort to change your behavior and open up to more people, do it for you. If you’re losing touch with close friends or partners, people you value in your life, then you might want to explore options to fix that.

But don’t feel the pressure to become a social butterfly if that’s simply not who you are.

Forcing yourself to maintain more relationships than you can cope with risks unnecessary stress. If you feel there’s a problem that needs correcting, you can look at taking steady, positive steps.

Building quality connections takes time

If you really want to forge more connections with more people, there’s the temptation to rush things. That’s doubly true if you used to be naturally outgoing and you want to get back to the way things were. But it’s rarely the most sustainable method.

Studies show that showering people with affection in the early stages of a relationship, sometimes called love bombing, isn’t a healthy sign. It indicates low self-esteem and a degree of social anxiety.

Instead, take things slowly. Give both yourself and the other person time and space to breathe. Rather than focusing on your plans or goals for the relationship, try to notice what’s happening in the moment.

This has several benefits:

  • You enjoy the time you’re spending with someone instead of worrying.
  • Each of you notices things you like about the other, reinforcing the value of the relationship.
  • Between you, you can note, discuss, and remember behavior patterns (both positive and negative) for the future.

The importance of honesty in relationships

Effective, honest communication indicates a healthy relationship. It can also be scary if you’ve fallen into a pattern of shunning communication. If past trauma is your reason for doing this, opening up can feel like a massive step. Don’t worry, though. As with the previous step, slow and steady is best.

Think critically about how much you need to open up to sustain a relationship. You might not need to give your life story and all the reasons you have problems with intimacy right away. In fact, that might overload the other person if they didn’t know it was coming.

Stagger the amount of information you provide in each conversation. That gives people time to process why you feel the way you feel. It also gives you space to understand their reaction without feeling too vulnerable about it.

Having these big conversations can be daunting, but it’s very likely they’ll get easier as time goes on. Studies suggest that communication might not be as much a foundation of healthy relationships as a sign of them.

You know when you started to ride a bike? How you had to think about every step, like maintaining balance and indicating with your hands? Well, now when you ride a bike, you think about where you’re going and ride effortlessly. Even though it’s not easy, treat communication as a tool to get somewhere rather than an end in and of itself.

Respecting boundaries, building partnerships

If you’ve decided to overcome intimacy issues and stop pushing people away, bear in mind that it doesn’t happen overnight. Respect your own boundaries and those of others.

Don’t open yourself up to too many people at once. You need space to process interactions and spot those positive patterns emerging. That’s tough to do when you’re rekindling ties with dozens of people.

Likewise, don’t place unrealistic expectations on others. What you’re trying to achieve isn’t a one-way street. Depending on your reasons for pushing people away in the first place, you might ask too much from those close to you or feel like too much is expected of you.

Instead, try to establish a fair partnership. Show interest in someone’s day without prying into all the details. Share your emotions while also being sensitive to theirs. Because you’re avoiding doing this with too many people at once, you can take your time and get a sense of what’s appropriate.

The way we’ve evolved means that interdependence is a big factor in the reasons we choose friends and partners. You might shy away from intimacy because you’ve gotten a bad deal in the past from those who abuse your contributions.

Reestablishing a healthy sense of give and take, along with clear boundaries, can be a massive help in building trust in others.

Learning to give things time

Making a dedicated effort to overcome intimacy issues might feel frustrating when results don’t show overnight. But that’s definitely not a reflection of your efforts. Show yourself a little compassion. The science is very much on your side.

Studies suggest that acquaintances tend to step up to friend status after around 6-9 weeks of regular contact. But that figure varies wildly depending on people’s lifestyles. Students invest time in one another very differently to working professionals, for example.

The nature of that regular contact is important. Acquaintances who engage in lots of small talk may actually grow further apart after those 6 to 9 weeks. This makes sense. Who’d want to base a relationship on mindless chatter?

But don’t think of that as a pressure thing. Instead, relax in the knowledge you’ve got around 2 months to decide if an acquaintance is someone you actually want to get closer to. You want quality connections. Life’s too short to invest in people who aren’t giving you those meaningful interactions.

When should I consider therapy?

A mental health professional can help you identify the potential root causes of intimacy issues and plan ways to address them. You’ll likely have some idea yourself of what’s happening in your head, but analyzing those processes on your own can be tricky.

Therapy could help you identify the source of problematic behavioral patterns. You could also uncover deeper root causes you weren’t expecting. If you experience anxiety, pushing a partner away might be a result of that. But you might not have tied the two separate factors together.

Once you know the factors affecting your intimacy issues, a therapist can help you develop an action plan. Replacing unhelpful habits with helpful ones over time takes a solid strategy.

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Has someone started pushing you away recently, and you don’t know why? Don’t let the situation fester. It’s best to have a direct conversation. They might not be aware that their behavior has changed or know how that change affects you.

  • Offer support. If something is happening in other areas of their life, ask how you can help them. This means they don’t have to go it alone.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If your partner fears rejection, overcommitting to solutions risks setting yourself up to fail.
  • Be patient. Your loved one might not want to open up at first, or they may still be struggling to articulate how they feel.

Is my partner pushing me away because they’re depressed?

Without treatment, mental health issues can tighten their hold on your life over time. Do you think there’s an underlying mental health reason why someone is suddenly pushing you away? Think of the best way to encourage that they seek help as soon as possible.

Do what you can to tailor your support to the way your friend, partner, or family member responds to stressful situations. Also, remember to practice self-care while helping others. It’s more difficult to support their mental health if yours is suffering as a result.

We’ve all got the right to decide how many people we want in our lives. We get to choose how close we want to be to them in order to feel satisfied. But whether you’re a happy hermit or the life and soul of the party, pushing away the people you love can be a sign of deeper problems.

If you think you’re showing signs of pushing people away as a defense mechanism, think carefully. Is it a way to cope with past experiences? Is it a warning sign of depression? Take time to focus on yourself and your feelings to determine the real issues.

Overcoming a fear of intimacy might be as straightforward as having a few difficult conversations. It could involve a longer journey. Either way, honest self-reflection is the first step toward deeper, more meaningful connections.