There comes a point in any remotely serious relationship where you have a major choice to make: You can either drop your guard and allow the other person to see the whole you — or, you can continue protecting your heart by not letting them in. If you’ve found yourself resorting to the latter choice, you’re not alone — in fact, experts say it's a super common struggle. There are several possibilities for why you’re scared of opening up to someone new, but rest assured that regardless of the reason, you can gradually overcome that fear.
As it turns out, this fear is merely an example of a deeply rooted defense mechanism that humans have depended on for centuries. Did you know that humans are hard-wired to avoid pain? The Association for Psychological Science reports that this ingrained protective strategy helps to keep us safe.
"If you had broken your arm riding a bike, you would likely feel some resistance getting on the bike afterwards," says Dr. Dominique Samuels, the resident psychologist for relationship-health app Emi Couple.
So, if you experienced a painful breakup — especially in the recent past, it makes sense that you might subconsciously steer clear of putting yourself in the position where that could happen again. That means not allowing yourself to be vulnerable by revealing your true feelings, or your so-called "flaws."
"Opening up your heart to someone is the epitome of vulnerability," adds Dr. Samuels. "It takes strength, and often resilience. The need for strength and resilience stems from the wounds of past pain and the fear of rejection or betrayal in the future."
According to Dr. Samuels, your brain is trained to look out for and recognize any potential threats — which could be anything that has a negative association in your memory. For example, let's say you were once attacked by a bear in the woods. Whenever you heard a sudden noise while walking through a forest after that experience, you'd likely assume it was a bear and your fight or flight response would kick in. It wouldn't matter that you didn't know for sure it was a bear. Your survival depends on the assumption that it could be.
"This part of the brain, often called the reptile brain, is not connected to the part of the brain that uses a lot of rational thought," says Dr. Samuels. "For this reason, it does not go through the analysis of the situation before deciding whether it is likely to be a bear or a mouse. It just gets in position to react. The same is true of love when we've been hurt."
In terms of relationships, Dr. Samuels says the bear could be someone who blindsided you with a breakup or broke your heart by betraying your trust somehow. You're now essentially programmed to be on high alert for similar situations and to dodge those same threats however you can.
"Being wary about love is virtually universal," adds Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, licensed clinical psychotherapist, relationship expert, and author of the new book Training Your Love Intuition. "Even primates take their time to sniff out which primate would make a good mate."
Still, there's a difference between exercising caution around who you open up to and allowing your fear to sabotage your chances at romantic happiness. Dr. Wish says that if your hesitance forces you to take your time to really get to know someone before giving them your heart, that can be a good thing.
"Healthy fears help you stay observant of your date's behavior, as well as your own behavior, thoughts, and feelings," she explains.
On the other hand, if your fear triggers feelings of defensiveness and avoidance, that may be detrimental to your ability to enjoy fulfilling relationships.
“Acting with any one of these emotional positions will keep that iron fence around your heart indefinitely," says Dr. Wish. "Even getting bullied in school could lead to this, because your faith in kindness and acceptance could be lowered."
Experts agree that resistance to opening up to someone new can hinder your love life in a big way — but fortunately, once you understand where this tendency stems from, you'll have a much better chance of overcoming your fear. If you're still unsure about why you developed this fear, talking to a therapist might help. A licensed mental health professional can work with you to explore some potentially traumatic personal experiences and their emotional impact on you.
Rather than worrying about others' untrustworthiness, Dr. Wish suggests working on building up your trust in yourself by "testing your love intuition." That means listening with both your mind and heart to the person's words, body language, and behavior on your next date.
"Pay attention to your emotions," advises Dr. Wish. "Are you too excited about this date? Are you ruling out this person too soon?"
The more you can raise your self-awareness throughout the dating process, the more likely you are to catch yourself if you feel your fight or flight response kicking in just when you start to get close to someone. Remember: that protective mechanism is there for a reason, and it's not something you want to get rid of or ignore. It's helpful to stay in tune with your gut instincts about whether or not someone is safe to open up to — you just don't want to close off your heart completely out of an unfounded fear that stems from past experiences.
“If you do put yourself out there, if you are authentic and vulnerable, you will be able to go to sleep knowing you were the real you,” says Dr. Samuels. “And if you at first don't succeed, remember that you are worthy and will be able to find someone who knows that. The path there is sometimes painful. But you've survived the pain before and you will do it again.”
In Brené Brown's 2011 TED Talk on vulnerability, she explains that in order to truly connect with someone, you have to allow yourself to be fully seen by them. What if, while running from your proverbial bear in the woods, you miss out on falling in love with "The One?" Honor your fear — after all, it's there for a very valid reason. Then, take small steps every day to embrace your vulnerability knowing that on the other side of that risk is a rich romantic reward.
Dr. Dominique Samuels, licensed clinical psychologist
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, licensed clinical psychotherapist