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
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