Have you ever heard someone use the phrase that they don’t want to “catch feelings” for someone?
It’s the idea that they don’t want to develop any emotional connection or attachment to another person.
More often than not, it’s used when referring to a person they’re sexually involved with.
That they enjoy spending time with this person and being physically intimate, but they don’t want any kind of emotional involvement.
This article will first explore what it means to be emotionally closed off. Then it will ask why someone might be emotionally unavailable. Finally, it will share an approach to overcome this emotional distance and open up.
What Does It Mean To Be Emotionally Unavailable?
In simplest terms, it means that you aren’t comfortable with emotional engagement.
You might feel awkward when people tell you that they care about you or love you.
You might freak out if you think that you’re starting to have feelings for another person that go beyond wanting to share a pizza with them.
You might find excuses to avoid spending time with a person unless it’s in a group or there’s a clear exit strategy.
For example, you might lie and tell a lover ahead of time that you can’t sleep over because you have to be up early for a meeting.
Instead of admitting to feeling stress or pain about a situation, you might brush it off with a joke or change the subject.
Or you might avoid any kind of social interaction until X amount of time has passed and you can carry on as if nothing had happened.
What’s Causing Your Emotional Distance?
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably well aware that you’re emotionally unavailable in your personal relationships, and hope to do something to change that.
The thing is, there’s always a reason for emotional unavailability, and it’s usually different for every person.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, because there are so many causes.
Consider someone who goes to a doctor or natural healer because they have a rash.
The healer doesn’t automatically hand them a cream or salve – they ask a simple question first: “Do you know what caused it?”
This is because the cream that will alleviate eczema won’t do much for poison ivy, etc.
The same goes for emotional issues.
It’s often a feeling of fear and/or unworthiness that cultivates a person’s insecurity and hesitance to let anyone get too close.
Some people are emotionally unavailable because they had traumatic childhood experiences. They learned very early that they couldn’t trust people or be vulnerable with them, so they maintain distance to protect themselves.
Others were hurt in previous relationships and are determined to avoid experiencing that kind of pain again. So they engage in superficial intimacy and withdraw to a safe distance as soon as things get too serious.
Fear And Vulnerability
In most cases, the underlying factor that causes a person’s emotional distance is fear.
They might fear rejection, or that they somehow aren’t “good enough” or won’t live up to their partner’s expectations.
Others might be afraid of losing those who are close to them, so they do their best to avoid forming attachments.
This often happens to people who lose a parent or sibling early in life. The pain and grief associated with that kind of loss makes them hesitant to create strong emotional bonds just in case they experience it again.
10 Questions To Ask Yourself
When you’re in the right frame of mind to do so, grab your journal and a pen, and write down these questions.
Take your time with them, and try to answer them as honestly as possible:
1. Are you afraid of developing strong feelings for someone because you know how much it’ll hurt if they end the relationship? (Or you’re afraid they’ll reject you?)
3. Are you always on your guard, waiting for the other shoe to drop?
4. Do you tend to keep your interactions light-hearted (e.g. making jokes, telling funny stories) instead of opening up about the details of your own life?
5. Are you uncompromising in your relationship? Do you expect the other person to change to suit your whims, but refuse to make any personal changes in turn?
6. Do you have problems showing vulnerability or weakness?
7. Are you constantly looking for faults or other imperfections in your partner as an excuse to end the relationship?
8. Are you avoiding getting too close because you feel like you’re waiting for someone better?
9. Do you use sexual intimacy as a way to avoid talking about your feelings or where the relationship is heading?
10. Do you have difficulty expressing deeper emotions? Or can only do so if/when inebriated?
These are difficult questions to think about, but try to be as honest as possible.
After all, the hardest questions tend to be the most important ones to ask ourselves.
Yes, this will suck, but it will help.
How To Be More Emotionally Available
Once you’ve been really honest with yourself about the source of your emotional unavailability, you can take action to amend that behavior.
1. Practice Self-Awareness
One of the most important ways to overcome emotional unavailability is to recognize when you’re being distant.
This will require you to be aware of your reactions to different situations, and to be honest about why you’re behaving the way you do.
Once again, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably well aware that you keep people at arm’s length and you’d like to get over that, and develop stronger bonds with others.
For instance, your emotional unavailability might manifest as die-hard independence.
You might have learned a long time ago that you couldn’t depend on other people, so you’ve muscled through and taken care of everything yourself, always.
If and when you find yourself in a situation where you need other people, such as if you injure yourself or get really ill, you may balk at the possibility of being vulnerable and letting others know that you do, in fact, need them.
The thing is, more often than not, when you give people the opportunity to be awesome, they actually step up with their awesomeness.
But that takes courage on your part.
Instead of trying to smash down your protective walls all at once, consider chipping away at them bit by bit.
Take little steps into vulnerability-land and give the people who love you the opportunity to show you that they’re sincere, and can be trusted.
Have you been flattened by the flu? I bet the person you’re dating (or a close friend, or family member) has offered to swing by with soup and throat lozenges.
And you’ve immediately tensed up because:
You don’t want them to see you in such a vulnerable state.
You look like hell and can’t cultivate your usual polished facade.
You might feel beholden to them in some way.
…but it would be really nice to let them take care of you, even a little bit, right?
3. Communicate Openly And Honestly
If you’re trying to be more emotionally available – whether it’s with your partner, children, family members, or close friends – tell them that.
Let them know that you’re aware of your evasive behaviors, and ask for their help in changing them.
Do you know what communication style works best for you?
If so, tell your loved ones that you’d like them to tell you when you’re being distant with them or shutting them out.
Let them know the best way to communicate with you so you’ll receive their input effectively instead of immediately getting defensive or pushing away further.
Here’s an example: let’s say that you shut down and go quiet when you’re stressed out about work.
You might not be the type of person who would react well if your partner brought up that subject to talk about over dinner, or when you’re trying to wind down for sleep.
Determine the best time and method to communicate, whether it’s by a handwritten letter that you can read on your own time, or a predetermined time slot you can use to discuss things.
Let them know the tone that you prefer, and will respond to best, such as gentle awareness versus accusations and tears.
It’s basically creating a neutral zone where both parties can communicate without any hostility.
You’ll be in the right frame of mind to listen to them, and they’ll feel validated about the fact that they’re being heard.
Furthermore, it’s important to remember that these are people who love you, and who want to connect with you on a deeper level.
As a result, they’re likely to be eager and willing to communicate with you in the most effective way possible to help you break through your emotional barriers – gently, with unconditional love, support, and understanding.
4. Open Up Bit By Bit
Remember that bit about not knocking down all your protective walls at once?
Taking small steps toward greater emotional availability allows you to feel safe. It also offers the opportunity for little tendrils of connection to reach through.
Let’s say you’ve been keeping things really light and fun with someone you’re dating, but you want to connect with them on a deeper level.
Perhaps they’ve mentioned that they want to get to know you better, but feel like you’re keeping them at arm’s length.
When you’re in the right frame of mind to do so, let them know that you’re aware that you’re being emotionally unavailable, and that you’re trying to learn how to be more open.
Share one aspect about yourself that you’ve been keeping from them.
This could be something difficult that you’re going through, or something awful that happened in your past, or even just some personal trait that you feel silly about.
Show them the tiniest bit of vulnerability and allow them to step up and accept you.
And support you.
And stick around.
Then, when you feel a bit safer, do it again with another bit of info.
Bit by bit, those little tendrils will reach a bit further and you’ll feel more comfortable with your vulnerability with this person.
Asking your friends and family members for help to overcome your emotional distance is great, but sometimes a bit of professional help is needed.
It’s no different to getting physio after a bad injury. Sure, you could muscle through and heal from a broken back on your own, but things would go more smoothly (and heal more quickly) if a physiotherapist were helping you along, right?
If you’ve been struggling with overcoming your emotional unavailability, there may be deep-seated issues that you need help reaching.
And that’s absolutely okay. None of us are issue-free, and that’s what therapists and counselors are for.
Being emotionally available after years, or even decades, of distance takes a lot of courage.
After all, there’s the very real possibility that when you take the plunge to be a bit more emotionally available, you may end up rejected and/or hurt again.
Some degree of hurt is inevitable in personal relationships, but being able to feel deep, sincere love – and be loved in turn – really is worth the risk.
This article has taken you on a journey to explore what it means to be emotionally unavailable, the reasons why you might be this way, and how you might open up a little more.
Now it’s your turn to take a journey of your own. You will face challenges, but you can overcome them with perseverance and practice.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.