Ever since I can remember, I have had this preoccupation with freedom. I saw myself with no possessions covered in dirt in Africa somewhere, or traveling somewhere far away with nothing but a bag and a little bit of food. While other people wanted nice cars and homes, I wanted to see the world. I was never much for settling down and found myself wanting to move on after being anywhere for too long. I sabotaged relationships that I knew could go somewhere and gravitated towards relationships that I knew would fail. Knowing I was stuck somewhere or with someone felt like death by suffocation to me and I found myself doing a lot of running away or getting the other person to do it for me.
In retrospect, I know that when I was young, I saw some unhappiness which I came to associate with family and settling down. I remember promising myself that I would never let that happen to me-that I would never settle down to become an unhappy person. The promises that children make to themselves are very powerful-the small seeds that become very large manifestations later in life. Every time I drove in the car, I would imagine myself flying outside the window. I would be an astronaut, a missionary, a bum or a wandering minstrel-anything but stuck. When I closed my eyes, the fantasy was the same. I was always running as far as I could away from everything and everyone. No ties, nothing but freedom.
It is difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced commitment phobia how intense the fear reaction becomes at times, or how fantastic the fantasy of escape can feel. I would go on a date, but when the relationship progressed, the person literally began to look repulsively ugly to me. One very handsome person I dated smiled just like a toothy dinosaur. Another one was so repulsive I could barely stand being in the same room. All I could think about was “Where’s the nearest exit?” It felt a bit like someone was putting a pillow over my face, cutting off my air supply and crushing my chest. If I stayed at a job too long, people got to know me, or had hope of advancement to a higher position, I would begin to look for another job in another city. It was like the world started turning in the wrong direction, kind of that woozy feeling I got the only time I gave blood, just before I took a nose dive and fainted. On the other hand, I easily committed myself to relationships that were wrong for me and would inevitably end as they never triggered my fear of permanence.
The truth is, the journey to overcome commitment phobia is not an easy one. Because the decision is often so deeply embedded in the subconscious, understanding needs to happen on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level. Trauma tends to be encoded differently in our minds than different kinds of memories. Like a bubble, the mind/body/emotion memory tends to remain disconnected until it is triggered by something that reminds us of the trauma. The memory comes back vividly and powerfully, sometimes only with the body or emotions. We may not remember the trauma explicitly (being able to recall the memory) but we often remember the trauma implicitly (with our bodies and emotions). Luckily, there are therapeutic techniques that can effectively help to resolve these pockets of traumatic memories.
Here are a couple approaches to overcoming commitment phobia…
1.) I have found hypnotherapy as an excellent source to help identify the source of the fear and fantasy as a coping mechanism. This is a great resource for people who are having a hard time identifying where things went wrong and/or want the quickest results. Other therapies that I have found to be effective in resolving phobias and trauma are EMDR and Lifespan Integration.
2.) You can also try this self-help approach…
a.) First you need to identify whether overcoming this fear is worth it to you. Deciding to do this means facing your fears head on-it’s certainly not the wimp’s way out. It also means letting go of your fantasy of a perfect person, a perfect place or a perfect situation. It is very difficult to come back to the ground after a beautiful dream. One reason you may want to consider overcoming this fear is that dabbling with hearts and varying situations is often hollow, stressful, lonely and hurtful to others (and especially to you). People with commitment phobia, just like everyone else, long for a deep connection. Because of this, they are always looking for love or stability only to run away from it at full speed.
b.) Write down the word “commitment” and place a series of dashes around the word connecting to words that you associate with commitment. It may be “boredom” or “suffocation” or “danger”…whatever comes to mind, don’t judge it, just keep writing until you have written out every word or phrase that comes to your mind. This is called free association.
c.) Once you have all of the words written out, circle the one/ones that have the strongest emotion attached to them. See if you can’t identify the word or phrase that describes your feelings about commitment the most powerfully. You have just identified your true fears about what commitment means.
d.) Decide to accept yourself exactly as you are and understand that your feelings are not “crazy”, they come from a wounded place. Focus on one of the phrases for a while undisturbed until the feelings come to you. When you feel the feelings of the repulsion, fear or disgust while thinking of that fear, see if a memory comes to you. Hold the memory and the feeling in your mind’s eye (if it is not too traumatic to deal with in which case you may do better working with a professional) and see if you made a decision at that point in your life. See if the older you has a better decision to offer the younger you, one that may serve you better. Open your eyes and write out the situation, and your new decision.
e.) Focus on the other words or phrases, one at a time using the process above until you begin to feel less and less fearful and repulsed by the idea of commitment. Please note, the more deeply relaxed you are during this exercise and the more you stay focused on the task at hand, the more you will benefit from this exercise. Remember to approach yourself with kindness and full acceptance, as this is your gateway to growth.
f.) Do some research on what types of healthy mates to look for. You may not be ready for a relationship, but at least you can know what kind of people you really SHOULD avoid. Be honest with the people that you date about what your intentions are and don’t let attraction alone guide you to your next mate.
g.) Do some research on setting healthy boundaries especially if you are afraid of being taken over or suffocated.
h.) Let yourself feel revulsion, disgust or fear without reacting to it. It will fade if you don’t give it power. I have found that it comes in waves after a landmark in a relationship or after certain accomplishments. If I embrace the feeling without letting it impact my behavior, the feeling goes away until I reach a new summit. Growth is uncomfortable, facing your fears is uncomfortable.
i.) Remember that love is a choice, not a feeling-therefore you do have the power to behave lovingly, despite your fears. It is best if you can find someone with whom you can be honest about your fears, who can accept you, listen to you, and hold you accountable. Most importantly, make the decision to love yourself unconditionally, no matter how many mistakes you have made, how ashamed you may be, or in how many ways you fall short of perfection.
I have found that the process is a little bit like growing up. It’s about looking at the monsters in the closet and telling them to take a hike. It’s about learning how to protect and nurture yourself, while learning to honor the feelings of others. It’s a journey to a remarkable and lovely summit of true love and dedication to life.