Experience has taught you that vulnerability, more often than not, is rewarded with pain.
So, you keep your guard up. You don’t let people get too close.
Pushing people away has become your default. And you tell yourself it’s better this way.
When they eventually reject or abandon you, there’ll be less of an attachment. It won’t hurt as much. You’ll move on more easily.
Because you expected them to leave, anyway. Most people do.
Really, you’re doing yourselves both a favor by keeping the walls up. So, why do you still feel as though you’re missing out on something important?
What does it mean to push people away?
When you push people away, it doesn't mean you physically shove them or attempt to get them out of your space. Although if you did, that would surely foster the desired result of keeping them at a distance — for good.
You are consciously or unconsciously sabotaging the relationship so that the other person gets so fed up or offended that they walk away. It's a defense mechanism you apply to protect yourself in some way — even when deep down you don't want people to leave you.
Why Do I Push People Away?
When you think of the reasons behind your pushing people away defense mechanism, the following might come to mind:
- Desire to be independent
- The expectation of abandonment or rejection (insecurity)
- Fear of intimacy
- Trauma from past rejection
- Low self-esteem
- Mental health issues
Each one deserves some unpacking.
1. Desire for Independence
When you’re growing up, you might push people away out of a desire to stand on your own two feet.
You want to be independent. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The downside of this struggle is when you rebel for the sake of doing the opposite of what your parents or other authority figures are telling you to do. That’s not independence.
As you grow, you’ll learn to do what’s in your best interests, whether it means complying with someone else’s directive or thanking them for their ideas and then doing what you know you have to do.
As an adult, this show of independence may be false bravado masking a deeper insecurity as explained below.
When you expect others to eventually reject or abandon you, you might say or do things to sabotage the relationship and speed things up.
After all, if they’re going to leave you, anyway, the sooner the better. Once they are out of your life, due to your behaviors, you can say, “I knew they wouldn't stick around. No one ever does.”
But in choosing to push people away, you treat all people the same — including those who truly want to stand by you no matter what.
3. Fear of Intimacy
And if you fear intimacy, you’ll put up barriers to creating an emotional bond with someone. You don’t want them to see what’s underneath the armor you wear.
Because if they touch your raw and defenseless interior, their eventual betrayal will hurt more than if they rejected the person they thought you were.
You expect people to make assumptions about you and write you off. It doesn’t hurt as much as when you let them get close enough to see you as you are.
Because then, when they do reject you, you know they’re not just rejecting an idea they made up or that you allowed them to see.
They’re rejecting the real you. And deep down, you don’t expect anyone to love that person. You don’t expect to be enough for them.
Because long ago, someone you trusted to love and accept you unconditionally didn’t.
5. Trauma from Past Rejection
You can probably think of moments from your past that seem to justify your tendency to push people away.
Maybe someone pushed you away when you wanted them to comfort or reassure you.
You couldn’t hold back the tears, and they sent you away, accusing you of trying to manipulate them.
Or maybe you counted on someone to be there and to have your back, but they left you to stand alone.
6. Low Self-Esteem
You may have low self-esteem and feel so bad about yourself that you question anyone who wants to get close to you.
Why would this person want to hang out with someone like you? There must be something wrong with them if they don't recognize how unworthy of love and friendship you are.
You almost feel better developing relationships with people who use you or are unkind to you, because that seems like what you deserve. You keep the kind people at bay because they don't reflect how you feel about yourself.
7. Mental Health Issues
If you are depressed, filled with anxiety, or have other mental health problems, you may not have the energy or emotional bandwidth to be a good friend or partner. As a result, you simply belly-up in the relationship.
You don't make an effort, and the other person's efforts are met with a tepid response at best. Or no response at all.
When your mental health suffers, nothing — including your friends — seems to matter much. Eventually, even the most loyal friends get the message that you don't want them around right now.
Some of these reasons stay with you for decades. Some linger in your memory and influence your behavior toward others until someone challenges you to dig deeper, to forgive, and to grow.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to decide what you want out of this life — and what you’re willing to lose by going after it.
In order to stop pushing people away, though, you need to know what you’re doing now to push them away. Then you can consciously change your behavior for the better.
7 Ways You Are Pushing People Away and How to Stop
Recognizing your own defense mechanisms is essential to learning how to stop pushing people away.
Which of the following self-protective habits feel most familiar to you?
1. Avoiding Social Gatherings
The fewer new connections you make, the less you have to experience rejection, criticism, or abandonment.
And the less time you spend around the connections you do have, the less likely they are to get a glimpse of the real you.
If you don’t expect anyone to stick around for the real you, or if you expect people to criticize that person (find more to dislike than to love), it makes sense to avoid people as much as possible.
The problem? If you keep yourself closed off and avoid people, you’re far less likely to meet someone who will see the good in you and love you as you are.
How to Stop: Slowly increase the number of social gatherings you attend so you begin to feel more comfortable and confident. Practice a new mindset of expecting the best in people. Rather than assuming they might reject you, assume they will enjoy getting to know you. Come armed with some conversation topics and questions to get the connection off to a good start.
2. Neglecting Self-Care
Because “why bother” trying to look well-cared-for when you’re invisible?
Why put time and effort into looking more appealing if you expect people to only see in you what they dislike?
It only makes sense to groom yourself if it enhances what’s already there.
And you don’t see the point in “making the most of” your assets when you expect people to focus on your deficits — if they see you at all.
How to stop: Taking the time out for self-care communicates that you consider yourself worth the time and energy, even if no one else does. And consistent self-care is a daily reminder of that. Do it for yourself and your self-esteem. Others will notice.
3. Going into Robot Mode
When it’s safer not to feel anything, you can easily get into the habit of going into robot mode when you’re around people — or at least certain people.
Most people don’t mind your robot self, as long as you’re polite and professional. They get what they want from the transaction, and you risk nothing.
At some point, though, you have to decide that the real love of one person is worth risking the pain of rejection by everyone else.
Robots can’t feel pain, but they can’t experience love, either.
How to stop: This behavior is more difficult to change because you've spent a lot of time building this defense mechanism. You may have even lost touch with the authentic person behind the polite facade. One of the best ways to reconnect with yourself and open up to others is by seeking therapy to reclaim your true self.
4. Going into Your Head
When you go into your head, you’re unreachable in another way. What others say to you has to compete with what you’re saying to yourself — which is likely a lot of self-defeating words.
This reaction is especially evident if you sense the other person's reason to draw you out is more about their ego than a real interest in you. Their victory would be a loss for you.
Because having breached the outer gate, they’re more likely to find ways to hurt you.
The flipside of this is that a true meeting of minds is impossible if your mind is closed off.
How to stop: Think of the last time you put yourself at risk to get acquainted with someone you considered worth getting to know. You saw something in them, even when they were hard to reach. You’re worth getting to know, too. So get out of your head and allow the other person room to know you.
5. Ghosting Others
You can push people away simply by not showing up. You withdraw from interactions or consistently cancel get-togethers. You may even go radio-silent with texts.
The people you care about get the clear message that you are no longer interested in them. But that's not necessarily the case. You want friendships more than anything, but fear and insecurity are holding you back.
You'd rather keep people out of your life than risk them knowing who you really are and then rejecting you once you've opened yourself up.
How to Stop: Start by recognizing that you're doing it. Have you stopped calling or meeting up with someone who has been trying to connect with you? Is it because you don't really care for this person, or does it have more to do with your own insecurities? If it's the latter, give this person another chance. You don't want to cause them the pain you so fear for yourself.
6. Losing Yourself in an Obsession
All-consuming obsessions are your jam.
Something piques your interest, and pretty soon, you’re soaking up new information and sharing it with anyone who will listen.
It’s a quirk that pays off sometimes. Other times, the isolation catches up with you.
It’s so much easier to share what you’ve learned about a new topic of interest than it is to examine the kind of thinking that keeps people at arm’s length.
But with obsessions, the relationship is all one-sided. Your newest obsession consumes your time and energy, leaving no time for deep connections with others.
How to Stop: Is this interest of yours more valuable than your relationships? Probably not. Relationships are an essential part of our lives, but you need to nurture them. Make a point to back off your obsession and carve out time for the people you care about.
7. Behaving Badly
Have you been irritable or quick to anger with your love partner or someone else you care about? Have you been selfish, defensive, or overly needy?
You may be unconsciously sabotaging your relationships with behaviors that are sure to make others uncomfortable or hurt. You want to prove how unlovable you are by exibiting bad behavior.
When they do go away as a result, you're shocked by the pain and regret you feel. You wonder, “Why do I push away the person I love?” It's likely because you don't love yourself.
How to Stop: It's time to address your self-esteem issues and get to the bottom of why you express your inner pain by hurting others. Therapy is the safest and most effective place to do this work. As you begin to address past wounds and insecurities and learn to love yourself, you'll be more welcoming of love into your life.
What to Do When Someone Pushes You Away
If you’re the one being pushed away, the following suggestions can help you both save and strengthen the relationship.
- Let them know what you love about them to build up their confidence.
- Remind them you’re not going anywhere. There’s nowhere else you’d rather be.
- Offer your no-strings help when they have a big project (moving, painting, etc.)
- Check on them to see how they’re doing and if they’d like some company.
- Be the friend you both need, and make time for real conversations.
- If necessary, give them some space while still maintaining a connection with texts or notes.
- Try not to judge them or shame them about past mistakes or bad choices. Listen with compassion and acceptance.
Sometimes, you’ll need to ask challenging questions to help the people you care about to confront the thinking that has held them back.
Think about what you’d want someone to do for you if you isolated yourself and kept people at arm’s length. If you still want this person in your life a year from now (and beyond), you may have to fight for them.
Maybe they just need to be reminded of what that feels like.
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Are you pushing people away?
If you now know how you’re pushing people away, you can change things.
If, for example, you tend to feel anxious when you’re on the phone with someone, you can choose to feel curious about the other person instead.
Get out of your own head and ask what you can do to help them.
It takes conscious and consistent effort, but you can become the kind of friend you want to have. You’ll build habits that make you feel stronger and more connected.
And in exercising them, you’ll want to do more. You’ll also inspire others to do the same.
May your courage and compassion keep you moving in the right direction.