Mom made me terrified of women

Because of my mother's craziness, I expect abandonment, or attack, and I shut down

Published November 2, 2010 12:02AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Recently I became acutely aware of the speed with which life can just pass by, and realizing that, I became filled with a sense of urgency to really try to tackle an issue I've lived with for as long as I can remember. I'm 32 and hope someday to have a loving family of my own, but the biggest obstacle standing in the way is the fact that I'm terrified of women.

I can speak to women and interact with them on a professional level, and even on a superficial social level if I find myself in a situation like a party, where I have to be "on." But once I have the thought that I might be attracted to a woman or interested on a deeper, personal level -- or that she might feel that way about me -- I shut down. I don't want anything more to do with them and I don't allow the situation to develop any further. Walls go up. The realization that there's a possible deeper interest leaves me paralyzed. I suddenly feel like pursuing more would be the equivalent of voluntarily walking into a minefield. I will be attacked and eventually destroyed at the hands of a woman.

The reasons why aren't too elusive. My own mother didn't foster an upbringing that made women seem like loving people. I've been to a few therapists in the past few years and the consensus is that what I always thought of as "just the way things are" was actually intense emotional and verbal abuse. I won't bog you down with a retelling of every incident; it's enough to say I was the outlet for all the bad feelings she had about herself. Interacting with her is a zero-sum game. The two behaviors I learned to expect from my mother were that something would make her either break down in tears and lock herself in her bedroom or that she would lash out with an assault of scathing, personally directed criticism.

As a result, I emotionally associate interacting with women (and in many ways, people in general) as a categorical loss of my own value and free will. I learned early on to disappear. Interacting with women on an intimate level is dangerous and destructive. If I do anything that suggests I exist -- an opinion, a want, or a need -- I expect abandonment as a result of emotional withdrawal or I ready myself for an attack, because really, how dare I.

But knowing this seems to have revealed the real crux of my problem. Though I know, logically and intellectually, that my mother is only one woman out of billions and that it's highly unlikely that each and every woman in the world will behave the same way, I don't emotionally "know" that. I'm discovering that the emotional side has a huge strength advantage over the intellectual side. Therapy has helped me realize these issues, but at the same time, I don't know what to do with the information now that I have it. I have to break this pattern.

Don't Want to Be Terrified Anymore

Dear Terrified,

Your therapists got you to the point that you understand what's going on, but they did not lead you into a practice of life based on these realizations.

Now you have to get into action.

There are ways you could rehearse. Role playing may help. Maybe a female friend would be willing to help you. Maybe you could start dating a female friend that you like and trust, and you could be completely frank with her about what is going on.

But soon you need to spend time with a woman to whom you are genuinely attracted, who does not know you well, who is not cutting you slack, and who will not necessarily respond favorably to an honest emotional outpouring about how you are terrified of women.

So I suggest the direct approach. I suggest, as soon as possible, going up to a woman and just saying,

I am attracted to you.

See what she says. She's eventually going to say something. What she says will probably be a question.

She might say, "And?"

That will indicate that simply telling her you're attracted to her isn't giving her enough information. She needs to know what's your plan.

Try saying some words that have to do with having a plan.

What you say next might be something on the order of,

"As I said, I am attracted to you, and so, being attracted to you, I would like to spend some time with you, and so I would like to ask you if you would have dinner with me next week at a nice restaurant I know of."

Of course you'll be terrified the whole time. But terror is bearable.

In fact, terror is great. Terror is full of information. Terror is our friend. It's our link to the past and to who we are. There is so much energy there. When we learn to be in the terror, we become powerful. We can stand in the midst of it and then nothing can harm us. The world and its threats shrink when we live in our terror, walking in it, carrying it with us. We can be silent in our terror. No one needs to know. We can lean against a wall at a party, or look into someone's face while the voices of terror are active, and yet not flee.

You know the show "Monk," on TV? You might take a cue from him. He dresses well and he's skillful but he's nuts. People give him the benefit of the doubt because his nuttiness is known to them.

If you make your nuttiness known to a woman you are attracted to, in a harmless form, it will be less off-putting to her. Look at Woody Allen, for heaven's sake. Think of Woody Allen, and Monk. But you have to observe certain boundaries. You can't get into this whole terrified-of-women thing right away. The reason for this is that being terrified of women sounds a little insane and women need to protect themselves from insane men because some insane men are dangerous to women. They murder women and rape women and beat women. So insanity in a man is a red flag. Women wisely avoid insane men. So don't get into the whole terrified-of-women thing right away. I know you're not insane -- at least no more insane than I am. But don't give off signs of being insane. Have a date first.

Have just one date. See how it goes.

If you want to allude to your terror and discomfort, tell her you feel nervous being on a first date and ask her if she feels nervous too. Tell her that it actually took a lot of courage for you to ask her out, because you are shy around women.

She might say that she didn't notice your being particularly shy or nervous. If you have taken the direct approach, it's possible she has not seen any nervousness.

Take this as a compliment. It shows that you're doing better than you thought you would.

If the first date seems to be going well, try to find out if it seems to be going well to her also. This is for later in the date, near where it could end comfortably either way. Near where it's time for you to be going home, or when you're taking her home if that's what you're doing, tell her that, to you, the date seemed to go pretty well, although you were nervous. Ask her if she also thinks the date went well. If she does, then propose that you have a second date.

If she doesn't think the date went well, then just accept that. Don't jump to any conclusions. Later, you will be free to decide if you want to attempt having a second date.

Notice that all evening you still haven't told her all about your terror of women. Wait until the second date, if there is to be one.

On the second date, don't really get into the whole terror of women thing, either. If you get anxious, just allude to the fact that you're a little nervous. Wait until the third date.

On the third date, when you can get alone, go ahead and tell her how crazy you are. Tell her you are absolutely insane.

No, not really. Don't do that. Just keep putting off the whole thing about being terrified of women. Just keep putting it off, and going out with her.

You may have to do a lot of dating. So try to make the dating fun. That way, you're having a good time while you learn to work through your terror of women.

Would you like me to say a little about the conceptual thing? I could. It's not as interesting, but I will try.

So, OK, here is how it seems to me conceptually.

I will propose some rules for you. These rules will help you separate your emotions from your actions.

You don't have much control over the feelings you have. But you do have control over the decisions you make. So one way to tackle this is to begin speaking of it in terms of feelings and decisions. You say you shut down. But that isn't terribly precise. All we can really know is that you are having feelings and making decisions.

So you are not allowed to say you shut down or that you get paralyzed. Concentrate on what you feel and what you do as a result. For instance, in the instance of "being paralyzed," we might say that you feel something, a shortness of breath, a tightness in the chest, a desire to run away. Concentrate on these feelings. You might feel that your mind is blank. You might call this nervousness, or shyness. For the first part of this, just concentrate on naming the things that you feel.

Try saying them out loud. Try saying, I feel like running away, or my chest feels constricted and tight, or, I feel that my mind has gone blank.

You might have other things going on in your head. You might hear voices saying things. You might hear things your mother used to say. Your job is to just hear these things, identify them and write them down. Also get the book "Feeling Good" and read about Dr. Burns' two-column method of writing down and deconstructing these thoughts.

Then write down the possible decisions you could make in response to these feelings. You could write down, "Well, I feel a constriction in my chest so I will go for a run." Or, "I feel that my mind has gone blank so I will just not say anything for a minute and wait for something to come to me." Then find constructive solutions to these situations. Practice doing this. You will get better at it.

Eventually, you will get to the point where you can look at a woman and tell her exactly what is going on right then. For instance, you might get to the point where you can say that in this moment you are absolutely terrified.

Say it with a smile.

Write Your Truth.

Want more?


By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Since You Asked