Our relationships with the people around us shape who we are and how we experience the world as we move through it. Connection to another human being is essential for a baby’s survival. We might think that connection is based on physical survival, but we have learned that emotional connection matters as much as physical connection. Harry Harlow conducted a series of now-classic experiments on attachment in baby monkeys, and found that infant monkeys who experienced a sense of warmth and emotional security preferred that to physical sustenance. Studies with human infants and children also tell us that people crave a sense of emotional security. Children who are deprived of social and emotional connection suffer not just emotionally, but physically and cognitively as well. Our need for connection continues into adulthood. Research with adults reveals that people who are touched more frequently (such as with hugs or massages) experience less stress and become ill less frequently. In elderly adults, frequent hugs and other forms of comforting touch are associated with fewer pain symptoms and better cognitive functioning.
The land of emotional connection can be a bit trickier to navigate, however. Feeling a sense of deep emotional connection to another person involves more than hugs or other physical contact. It requires a willingness to be emotionally vulnerable with another person, and to trust that that vulnerability will be heard, understood, and responded to in kind. Brené Brown discusses the concept of vulnerability extensively in her research and in her writing. She tells us that vulnerability is something we should share only with those people who are trustworthy enough to hear our story. Her research has shown that if people have even one person that fits the bill, they are extremely lucky. If they have more than one, it’s like winning the lottery. She puts it this way: “Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: "Who has earned the right to hear my story?" If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.”
Why is this kind of connection so rare? I think there are a number of reasons, but the main one is that so many of us didn’t receive it growing up. One of the books that has been so helpful to me in my parenting journey is called, “Mothering without a Map.” In the book, a variety of types of mothering are discussed, and how adult daughters can learn to give what they did not get. But the journey is not an easy one. It can be very difficult to feel and express empathy if we didn’t experience it on the receiving end. It often requires a partner, such as a therapist or coach, to learn to acknowledge what we missed. Part of the process also involves learning to be empathic with ourselves. That step alone is a sticky wicket in a culture that emphasizes responsibility and often judges people quite harshly for mistakes or wrongdoing. It can be very challenging to give ourselves even a small break. Is it any wonder, then, that we are reluctant to reveal our vulnerability to another person? The fear that that person will judge us and consequently reject us is enough to keep us silent.
Another piece of the connection puzzle is communication. We don’t have great models for problem-solving in our culture, and many families don’t talk about problems at all. Or, in many cases, parents point out their children’s mistakes or shortcomings and tell them how to correct those, but often aren’t willing to sit under that same microscope themselves. This sends a message to children that parents are right and correct and that once they reach adulthood they too will understand what is right and correct. The only problem is, of course, that it doesn’t really work that way. Those same children reach adulthood and begin to realize that what they experienced was a façade, and that what adults are actually doing is simply hiding their struggles from one another.
How do we move past this point? I believe we can achieve closer connection in our intimate relationships through two means. The first is to find a deeper connection to ourselves, as I introduced in my last post. As I discussed there, once we have more clarity about who we are and what we value, we are more selective about with whom we spend our time and, more importantly, with whom we can be vulnerable. The second is by choosing to learn new ways to communicate. With my clients, I often spend a lot of time helping them practice difficult conversations, such as when they need to discuss a problem or a challenge with a colleague or a family member. We talk through how they would like the conversation to go, but also how they would like to show up in the conversation regardless of the outcome. We talk through how to communicate without either becoming angry and defensive, or simply “giving in” to the other person’s point of view. It’s a skill that most of us didn’t learn in traditional family structures that often bent toward authoritarianism. But it is a skill that can be learned and practiced effectively. We can communicate in ways that open to the door to empathy from others, and we can find ways to offer that empathy as well. Brené Brown conceptualizes it this way: “Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment.” That is what empathy looks like, sounds like, and feels like. It’s knowing that what you say will be heard, believed, accepted, and cared about. It’s the feeling of being truly understood. It is relatively rare, and only possible when two people can connect in a space that is free of judgment.
When we are seeking empathy, we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and opening ourselves up to possible judgment. Therefore, as we saw above, we have to be sure that we choose a person who can deliver. And what if we don’t have such a person? Sometimes we find ourselves bereft of anyone who fits that bill. We have several choices at that point. The first is to treat ourselves in the way that we’d want someone else to treat us. Think how you’d respond to someone who shared something deeply personal with you. Would you judge or shame that person? Or would you say something like, “That must be so hard. I’m so sorry. You are going to make it through this.” Try saying those words to yourself the next time you are feeling the need for connection. The second thing we can do is to begin to cultivate those connections with people you already know. You may have people in your life who are capable of being a good listening partner, but your relationship hasn’t had that level of intimacy before. You can start small and disclose something less sensitive or personal and test the waters. See how that person reacts. If he or she isn’t inclined to respond with empathy, move on. Keep going until you find someone who can respond in the way that you need. Remember too that different people in our lives may handle specific issues better than others. You might have one friend who will empathize about your latest parenting challenges, and another who might really be able to connect with you about your struggles to have your boss notice your work. One of my coaching trainers gave us a wonderful maxim, which is “Stop going to the hardware store for milk.” If you know that your sister will blame you for your problems, don’t bring them to her. Talk to your friend or your cousin or literally anyone else but her. If you need to, reach out for a supportive professional such as a therapist or coach. We can provide a space that is confidential, safe, and supportive. It’s a wonderful way to be heard and to practice the skills that you may need to learn to be heard in your other relationships. That’s especially important if you weren’t provided that kind of environment while growing up. Communication IS a skill that can be learned and practiced, and it is the path to creating closer connection. Connection, in turn, helps us become happier and healthier. It is as essential as eating good food and exercising and sleeping regularly. Feed your soul what it needs and open the door to a life that is more fulfilling and satisfying. You are worthy of that life and that life is worthy of you.
For further reading:
Black, K. (2004). Mothering without a map: The search for the good
mother within. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable
transforms how we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: