Why I opened up to IN­TIM

De­spite a full so­cial life, Liz Hog­gard couldn’t shake a sense of lone­li­ness – so she de­cided it was time to shed her in­hi­bi­tions about get­ting close to peo­ple – and un­locked a whole new world of pos­si­bil­i­ties

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - BODY & SOUL -

F or years, up­tight was my mid­dle name. I rarely em­braced my friends. A brief, frigid hand­shake seemed good enough to ex­press real love and deep friend­ship. So­cial kissing was a night­mare. At par­ties I’d spend the last half hour in a state of panic. Should I con­fine my­self to a peck on the cheek or go in for a sec­ond kiss as the other per­son was re­treat­ing? Ei­ther way I’d end up feel­ing like a maiden aunt who’d been at the sherry.

There are rea­sons why some of us grow up emo­tion­ally in­hib­ited. I come from a fam­ily that doesn’t do a lot of hug­ging. My male rel­a­tives found talk­ing to women awkward. A shy, book­ish child, I never quite had the gift for friend­ship. I’d be too in­tense, too ea­ger — the sort of child who be­comes an easy tar­get for bul­lies. I be­came so wor­ried about be­ing liked I for­got to fo­cus on lik­ing peo­ple my­self.

By my teens I had learnt self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour. My lit­tle band of fe­male friends were, like me, slightly book­ish. We watched with envy glamorous teenagers go­ing to par­ties and fall­ing in love.

Univer­sity was a rev­e­la­tion — full of pas­sion­ate peo­ple de­bat­ing books and ideas I re­ally cared about. I made ex­cit­ing new friends. And yet in some ways my so­cial awk­ward­ness grew worse. I was al­ways wor­ried I’d say the wrong thing, drive peo­ple away with my ea­ger­ness. I’d spend hours con­coct­ing clever anec­dotes and yearned to be more funny and nat­u­ral. While flat­mates lay curled up to­gether on the sofa, gos­sip­ing, I’d al­ways choose the fur­thest arm­chair. It was al­most as if I wor­ried about be­ing too ‘close’ to peo­ple.

We are so­cial an­i­mals who dream of true friend­ships where we can share pri­vate jokes, fin­ish each other’s sen­tences. But we’re also ter­ri­fied of los­ing our unique selves, or let­ting other peo­ple see the com­plex, flawed per­son we re­ally are. Of­ten it feels bet­ter not to look for in­ti­macy than to try — and fail. ‘Far too many of us are pri­vately nurs­ing a fear that we are bor­ing, dif­fi­cult or over­whelm­ing,’ psy­chother­a­pist Brett Kahr once told me.

True friends would tease me about my self-con­scious body lan­guage, or spiky repar­tee at par­ties. ‘I do ad­mire the way you are so con­fronta­tional with men,’ a fe­male friend laughed. Con­fronta­tional? I thought I was be­ing flir­ta­tious! Un­sur­pris­ingly, I found ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships tricky and was sin­gle for years. I’d fix­ate on emo­tion­ally un­avail­able men, which is al­ways a good way to avoid in­ti­macy. You have all the ex­cite­ment of un­re­quited love with­out ever need­ing to re­veal your­self. It wasn’t that I wanted to be stand­off­ish. Heaven knows, I longed to live a more con­nected life, to con­fide worries and se­crets with­out fear of be­ing judged. And to be the sort of per­son that other peo­ple con­fided in, too.

In his book In­ti­macy (Acu­men), psy­chol­o­gist Ziyad Marar ex­am­ines the four in­gre­di­ents you need in the mix for a true en­counter to take place — kind­ness, height­ened emo­tion, rec­i­proc­ity and con­spir­acy (that lovely sense of be­ing the only two peo­ple in a crowded room where you share neart­ele­pathic mu­tual un­der­stand­ing). If you can’t make di­rect eye con­tact or al­low your­self to be warm, oth­ers will be slightly wary. We have cor­dial en­coun­ters but noth­ing im­por­tant is ex­changed.

In my late 30s I made a de­ci­sion to tackle my prob­lem with in­ti­macy. I re­alised it was hold­ing me back pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally. I found my­self in­creas­ingly dread­ing talk­ing to new peo­ple (ironic when I’m a jour­nal­ist). In the of­fice, I longed to be the per­son hand­ing round birth­day cake or hold­ing the floor with a bril­liant story, but I’d be nervy and awkward.

Con­scious emo­tional avail­abil­ity (as psy­chol­o­gists call it) takes real work. If you’re not used to trust­ing and dis­clos­ing, it can be hard to make true friend­ships. Many of us are too self-ab­sorbed. It’s a real skill to be able to lis­ten not just to what is said but to the un­spo­ken sub­text — and find com­mon ground with the other per­son.

De­spite my full so­cial life, I was lonely. I loved my friends but I felt awkward about ring­ing them at week­ends or sug­gest­ing a short trip. I as­sumed they were busy with part­ners or fam­i­lies. There’s noth­ing worse than feel­ing un­com­pan­ion­able. Peo­ple will ad­mit be­ing de­pressed (in­trigu­ing and

Book smarts Left: Liz faced the fact that, de­spite years of in­ter­view­ing peo­ple as a jour­nal­ist, poor in­ter­per­sonal skills were hold­ing her back in her pri­vate life

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