Are You Afraid of Love? by David Richo | Omega

How do you love without fear? David Richo, a teacher and a psychotherapist known for drawing on Buddhism, poetry, and Jungian perspectives in his work, describes how to face the fear of opening up to love in your life.

Most of us fear love as much as we want it, sometimes less, sometimes more. We fear both the receiving and giving of full-on love. The engaged focus on us from loving eyes can feel invasive. Those who want our love can seem to be asking too much of us. The vulnerability inherent in loving and in being loved can be quite daunting. We want love to happen on our own terms. We want to show love only in the exact way that feels safe to us. We want full control of the love we parcel out: how much, how long, how deep. To be loved requires vulnerability in three forms of willingness: To show we love someone before he shows he loves us, to be seen at our best and worst, and to show our needs.

In love, there is a direct proportion between vulnerability and courage. The more vulnerable we are willing to be, the more courage we have. Fearless, go-for-it love is reckless, not careful; takes a chance rather than playing it close to the vest; is open and spontaneous, not in tight control. Those options can strike terror in our hearts, having been burned so often for doing just those things.

When we feel needy for wanting more from someone, while also fearing more closeness, a tension arises in us. We feel anxious because we fear what we want and want what we fear.

When we give our love, it can feel threatening. We cannot trust others to receive our love in the limited way in which we offer it. We might feel that too great a follow-up commitment will be expected of us if we accept others’ love. We do not feel safe and secure in showing attention because we might see feelings that will evoke feelings in us, and that is scary. We might fear showing acceptance, appreciation, or affection because we have noticed that those things lead to a closeness we may not be quite ready for. We might fear allowing the other person to make choices since we will then lose the control we want to have over him or her.

When love is given to us
, it can feel untrustworthy, that is, interfere with or cancel our sense of safety and security. Attention can feel as if someone were scrutinizing us too deeply, invading a part of that we are not ready to reveal. Acceptance, appreciation, and allowing can come across to us as obsequious, arising from an untrustworthy motive, that of trying to manipulate us. Physical affection can have a sexual or overly friendly connotation that may be unwelcome, transgress our boundaries, or feel premature, so we are mistrustful of it.

Fears thrive on the primitive emotions in our brain’s limbic system. As we use the awareness factor of our orbital medial pre-frontal cortex, we make accurate evaluations of situations. Now our anxiety can be overridden more easily. When it does arise, it can be calmed with assurance from within that we can deal with whatever happens. This self-soothing builds our trust in ourselves, which is the first step toward loving ourselves. Since fear thrives on making us feel trapped or cornered, when we see new options, fear is less likely to get the better of us.

Our main conflict in life is often between choices made from the unaware amygdala and the aware pre-frontal cortex. A full release from fears would take a major re-structuring of the amygdala, quite a daunting task. But there is hope. With mindfulness as our practice, we can be on the lookout for primitive fears and use body-mind techniques to alter and disable them. We can use deep breathing exercises and access mindful awareness.

We can also use the 4-A technique of admitting, allowing, acting, affirming to release ourselves from the grip of fear of loving or of being loved. Notice how, in each of the four listed below, we are adding part of we learned above:

1. We admit we are afraid and we assess that our fear is not rational or truly dangerous.

2. We allow ourselves to feel a little more fear than we can usually stand, while also reminding ourselves that it is arising from habit and is not a reality to take too personally. We hold ourselves as a kindly parent would, letting it be all right to have our fear, but also assuring ourselves that all will be ok. In this part of the practice, we are choosing our response. This cancels the style of being a victim who is forced to feel afraid—hijacked by the amygdale, which makes fear seems so insuperable. With a paradoxical intention, we gain mastery because we are in charge in a very real sense. “Bring it on” has courage in it. We are allowing the full release of a virtue that is inherently in our hearts. In fact, the word “courage” means “heart.”

3. We have chosen to feel our fear and to act as if our fear had no power to stop us from doing anything, or to drive us to do something. To act courageously is to be courageous. The practice is both cause and result. This is not acting as pretending, but rather as behaving in a new way. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”

4. We design an affirmation that sums up our practice and that we continue to use. An example might be: “I let my fear pass through me and I am free of being controlled by it.”

Our most useful spiritual tool in freeing ourselves from the power of fear remains the lovingkindness practice. Joining daily metta to the 4-A technique combines psychological work and spiritual practice to produce a formidable force.

Fear thrives on isolation. So we also ease our fears through contact with those we trust. Thus, every time we find support from others, we become more able to approach danger rather than have to run or dissociate from it. We thereby lessen the power of fear over us.

I recently heard a radio interview of a man who had been a student protester in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing. The topic was how empowering it was to be standing shoulder to shoulder with other students who were so like-minded and like-committed. When asked if he was afraid of being killed, he firmly and serenely replied: “My fears were gone and it no longer mattered whether I lived or died.” This is the power of affiliation to free us from fear. True connection casts out fear.

In addition, empathy toward ourselves and support from others helps rebuild our pre-frontal cortex. This restructures our neural circuitry so we can regulate our limbic, emotional, and impulsive responses to what happens. Now our cortex and limbic system work together.

A legend says that enemies of the Buddha sent a mad elephant to charge and trample him. The Buddha saw fear in the elephant’s eyes and was stirred to compassion. He raised his right palm outward to the elephant to symbolize: “No to fear.” He cupped his left hand in his lap to symbolize: “Yes to love.” This first mudra, meditative hand gesture, soothed the elephant, who then bowed to Buddha. So love frees us from fear because it automatically turns fear into connection. This happens because fear thrives on exclusion and division. When love comes along, and includes, it rescinds the necessity for fear.

Fear sends blood to our leg muscles so we can run. This hearkens backs to primitive times when we had to be ready to run from predatory animals. Those who could run survived. In other words, those who felt fear and acted on it by running away from it survived and are our ancestors. Our genes do not favor our facing fear, but our practices can. The choice is between primitive survival behavior and enlightened behavior, the evolved way to survive.

This chart may help summarize the differences between love and fear:





Moves toward: connects

Moves away: disconnects

Our natural state, always

Our situational stance, for now

Sees many options

Is caught in one catastrophic view

Trusts fearlessly

Is suspicious of trusting


Holds back

Reveals the true self 

Hides the true self

Opens to feelings

Inhibits feelings



Is generous

Is withholding




Holds grudges

Casts out fear

Casts out love

The happiness that comes from making a life commitment to fearless and loving openness is enduring. This does not guarantee constant euphoria. Indeed, happiness is not a feeling that stands alone. Happiness is the product of an engagement in what is meaningful and pleasing to us. For one person, engaging in a daredevil sport results in happiness. For another, fishing does the trick. For most of us, safety and security bring happiness, but it will never be assured as long as it is based outside ourselves. When our life purpose is to love ourselves and others and to be open to love from others, we feel truly safe and secure because the basis of our happiness is within.

When others hurt our feelings or act in unloving ways toward us, it is natural to feel pain. This is a healthy sign. It means that others matter to us, that love matters to us. Our pain becomes unhealthy when being hurt by others lowers our self-esteem or leads us to retaliate. We can, instead, take the experience of hurt or rejection as a spur to love more, to act more lovingly toward everyone, to practice lovingkindness yet again and yet more.

Now, feeling hurt, and perhaps every feeling and reaction prompted by others, becomes an opportunity for practicing what matters most: the love we really are. This is how hurt can lead to epiphany. 

© David Richo. Used with permission. 

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