The Problems with Relationships

Robert F. Mullen, PhD

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The distinction between social anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a matter of severity; reference to one includes the other. The recovery tools and techniques provided are applicable to most emotional malfunctions including depression, substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and issues of self-esteem and motivation. These malfunctions originate homogeneously, their trajectories differentiated by environment, experience, and the diversity of human thought and behavior. 

“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid, Málaga)

The Problems with Relationships

Our need for human interconnectedness is universal. The innate desire for friendship and intimacy is no less dynamic for someone with social anxiety, but our fears and avoidance of engagement disrupt our ability to establish, develop, or maintain human relationships in almost any capacity. The spirit is willing, but competence is insubstantial.

We crave companionship but our perceptions of undesirability and incompetence impede our efforts. Our low self-esteem and high self-criticism disrupt connectivity. Our expectation of criticism and ridicule compels us to avoid social situations. Our fear of rejection results in isolation and loneliness.

Human interconnectedness is a complex system with broad emotional implications. Relationships come in sundry forms including collegial, family, intimate, and platonic. To effectively challenge our patterns of thought and behavior, we need to understand the different types of relationships to evaluate our inability or unwillingness to engage.

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Childhood Disturbance

Emotional malfunction is a consequence of childhood disturbance – a broad and generic term for anything that interferes with our optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, or social development. Instability and insecurity originate in a toxic childhood. The disturbance may be major or minor, accidental or intentional, real or perceptual. (The imaginings of a child are legendary.) SAD and other emotional malfunctions sense our vulnerability and onset in adolescence. This fuels our core and intermediate beliefs with a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness.

Healthy psychological development is sustained by satisfying fundamental needs. Childhood core perceptions of abandonment, detachment, or exploitation negatively impact the satisfaction of basic biological and physiological needs. Subsequently, safety and security are impacted, as well as our innate desire to belong and be loved.

Physical, sexual, or emotional disturbance can negatively impact our early sleep patterns and sexual health. A child will have difficulty learning if they are hungry. Absent reliable parenting, we are less likely to feel safe or secure. A sense of detachment or abandonment imperils our sense of safety and belonging.


Belongingness is a yearning for human interconnectivity. We are social beings, driven by a fundamental human need for social interaction and interpersonal exchange. The necessity for personal connection is hardwired into our brains. Healthy relationships are important influences on our mental and physical health. They are essential catalysts to our emotional well-being and quality of life. Research has shown that social contact boosts our immune system and protects our brain from neurodegenerative diseases.

Research informs us that persons living with SAD have significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls. Our symptomatic fears and anxieties aggravate this deficit. Our negative core and intermediate beliefs and image are directly implicated. Fortunately, our self-esteem is never lost, but latent and dormant. Underutilized positive self-properties that atrophy like the unexercised muscle in our arm or leg can be regenerated. 

SAD Symptoms

Why do we have problems with relationships, with human interconnectedness? Let us review some of the symptoms of social anxiety disorder. 

  • Fear of situations in which we may be judged negatively.
  • Worry about embarrassing or humiliating ourselves.
  • Intense fear of interacting or talking with strangers
  • Fear that others will notice we look anxious.
  • Fear of physical symptoms that may cause you embarrassment, such as blushing, sweating, trembling, or having a shaky voice.
  • Avoidance of doing things or speaking to people out of fear of embarrassment.
  • Anxiety in anticipation of a feared situation.
  • Intense fear or anxiety during social situations.
  • Harsh self-analysis of our performance and identification of flaws in our interactions after a social situation.
  • The expectation of the worst possible consequences from a negative experience during a social situation.

Communcation Skills

All these elements factor into our difficulties with relationships and impact our ability to communicate effectively. The lower our level of self-esteem, the less responsive we are to the needs and concerns of others. We cannot share what we do not possess.

Human interconnectivity is facilitated by communication. Words have enormous power; they are a source of compassion, understanding, and intimacy. Sixty percent of communication is represented by our body language. Until we hone our listening skills, however, words and body language may be insufficient. Healthy human interconnectivity is facilitated by compassion. That is evidenced by defining the various levels of listening and communication.

Ignoring listening. As SAD persons, we are symptomatically self-obsessed, and our shallowest means of communication is ignoring listening. The concerns and interests of others are subverted by our ANTs. When we attempt to interact, the severity of our anxiety impedes our ability to focus on anything beyond our inadequacies.  In ignoring listening, the only thing we listen for is a break in the conversation where we can intervene, usually, with unrelated topics.

Counterfeit Listening. An essential part of recovery is exposing ourselves to social situations. This happens only after we have learned to identify and rationally respond to our automatic negative thoughts and behaviors. Early exposure often results in counterfeit listening, which is a step up from ignoring but not yet communicating. We ingratiate ourselves into conversations without contributing to them. We are unable to muster interest in or awareness of the needs or concerns of the other. Instead, we mirror their input and reactions to be accepted. 

Selective Listening. We hear what we want to hear. We’re less interested in what the other has to say than we are in making a good impression. Afraid of appearing ignorant or boring, we only show interest in things that allow us to display our astuteness. We wait for topics to which we can personally relate, ignoring anything that doesn’t have the potential to make us appear viable. We’re not yet communicating well, but we are participating. Our skills are improving. 

Hostile Communication needs no explanation, and we can engage in hostile interaction while ignoring, counterfeit, and selective listening. It is a form of communication, however, as we are conveying or sharing ideas and feelings:

Attentive Communication. Our extensive work in recovery leads us to attentive communication. Because we are regenerating our self-esteem, we can now consider the concerns of others. Our communication skills are becoming more responsive to their needs, interests, and desires. Attentive communication is authentic interconnectivity – relationships of shared experience and personal disclosure. 

Empathetic Communication is selfless interconnectivity that allows us to move beyond our beliefs and experiences and feel how the other feels as we participate in their presence. When we communicate empathetically, we seek first to understand rather than be understood.

Empathy is not sympathy. In the latter, we feel for someone; when we empathize, we experience that individual. This opens the self to a novel participation, a being with and within the other. Empathy is generated through robust interconnectivity; it is an interactive and heightened method of communication that involves the verbal, the physical (sounds and gestures), and the intuitive (moods, and attitudes). Empathetic communication is the most responsive and conscientious form of human interconnectivity.

Types of Relationships

To change our patterns of thought and behavior, we examine relationships by category to better evaluate the symptomatic causes and methods of resolution. The first step in learning how to establish, develop, or maintain relationships is to identify the type of personal affiliation. Each has its own components and is approached differently. The classic Greeks differentiated relationships by type, e.g., platonic, practical, sexual, and so on. This writing addresses seven primary types of relationships – eight if we consider the two forms of philautia: narcissism and self-esteem.

Friendship. Aristotle called philia one of the most indispensable requirements of life. A healthy camaraderie is a bonding of mutual experiences and personal disclosure. A core symptom of SAD is the fear of revealing something that will make us appear stupid, inferior, or undesirable. Even the anticipation of personal exposure can induce physical and emotional anxiety. We avoid committing to friendships out of our fear of being found wanting.

Sexually Intimate. Eros is reciprocal feelings of shared arousal between people physically attracted to each other, the fulfillment expressed by the sexual act. Our self-image of undesirability and unworthiness, coupled with fears of ridicule and rejection, challenges our sexual competency and comfort in intimaty. Studies show that, due to our fears of intimacy and sexual incompetence, SAD persons experience less sexual satisfaction than non-anxious individuals. 

Unconditional. Through the universal mandate to love thy neighbor, the concept of agape embraces unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance. To love unequivocally, however, one must self-love in the same fashion. As earlier indicated, persons living with SAD have significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls. One of the three major components of recovery is the regeneration of our self-esteem. 

Family. The disruption in our natural human development due to childhood disturbance can fracture satisfaction of basic biological, physiological, and safety needs. It can generate core beliefs of abandonment, detachment, or exploitation. These are ostensibly caused by the family unit. As a result, storge or familial love and protection, vital to the healthy development of the family unit, is severely affected. 

Playful or Provocative. Our conflict with the provocative playfulness of ludus is evident in our fears of criticism and rejection. We do not find social interaction pleasurable, anticipating anxiety and discomfort. Our negative self-perceptions generally manifest in awkward and inappropriate social behavior. 

Pragmatic relationships are formed by mutual interests and goals securing a working and endurable partnership. They endure through rational thought and behavior – a balanced and constructive relationship. The pragmatic individual deals with relationships sensibly and realistically, conforming to typical standards of conduct. Our SAD-induced fears are irrational and cognitively distorted, and we avoid situations that most people consider normal. SAD persons are anything but pragmatic and logical.

Healthy Philautia

The spectrum of self-love. Loosely translated as love-of-self, one end of the spectrum is narcissism, and the other is self-esteem.

Narcissism is a psychological condition in which people, according to the Mayo Clinic, “have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others.” It is the need for excessive attention, masking an unconscious sense of inferiority and inadequacy. 

Its opposite is self-esteem – the wherewithal to appreciate our value and significance to self and society. Healthy self-esteem is a prerequisite to loving others. By understanding and appreciating ourselves – our character strengths, virtues, and attributes as well as our defects, we open ourselves to sharing that authenticity with others.


To address our inability to effectively establish, develop, and maintain relationships it is necessary to define the situation – the source and expression of the problem. This is facilitated by personal introspection, memory work, journaling, role-playing, and other tools and techniques that help us rationally respond to the negative self-beliefs that generated our lacuna of self-esteem. Outside of a comprehensive recovery program, there are some steps we can initiate on our own to change our patterns of thought and behavior. We:

  1. Identify the type of relationship we are having difficulty establishing, developing, or maintaining. It may be collegial (work), sexual, family, pragmatic (networking), social, short- or long-term, and so on. Each one is approached differently in recovery and resolution.
  2. Unmask our fears. What is problematic for us in the relationship? How do we feel (physically, intellectually, emotionally)? What are our specific concerns or worries? Are we afraid of rejection? Are we worried we will say or do something stupid? Are we concerned we will be criticized or ridiculed? 
  3. Identify our corresponding ANT(s). Automatic negative thoughts are our immediate, involuntary, emotional expressions of our fears. They are the self-defeating things we tell ourselves. “No one will talk to me.” I’ll say something stupid.” “I’m a loser.” She’ll reject me?” He’ll find me undesirable.”
  4. Examine and analyze our fear(s) and corresponding ANTs. What are the causes, thoughts, and images that precipitate and provoke them? It is these fundamental self-beliefs that impact our relationships.
  5. Generate Rational Responses. Our fears and ANTs are irrational. Once we have examined and analyzed them, and become mindful of their false assumptions, we devise rational responses to counter them.

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