“It’s one of the great paradoxes of the human condition—we ask some variation of the question ‘How are you feeling?’ over and over, which would lead one to assume that we attach some importance to it. And yet we never expect or desire—or provide—an honest answer.” ~Mark Brackett, Ph.D., Permission to Feel
I used to feel so satisfied if I had made them cry.
Not in a twisted, sadistic way.
I just knew once things went quiet and they felt safe, we could peel back enough layers, the tears would flow, and we could finally get to the truth. The truth of how they were really feeling, what their real struggles were, and what they really believed about themselves.
I did not like seeing their pain, but I did know how to hold space for it.
This was not achieved in a psychologist’s office or in some sort of support group for mental health. I carried this out in a workplace… for employees.
You see, I have never been a surface level communicator. Most days, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than chitchat about the weather with someone, knowing there is so much more going on beneath the surface of that person. I get frustrated with the façade, pretending we are all okay, when everyone, on some level, is struggling.
Product of Conditioning
I know it is not how most of us are conditioned to operate in society. For many, cultural norms dictate that we be polite, keep emotions to a minimum, and keep conversational topics within acceptable boundaries.
Why are our conversations this way when our fundamental need for connection and belonging is as strong as eating and sleeping?
We have enough solid evidence to confirm that we feel more connected and happier when we take our conversations just a little deeper, yet we don’t. We even have a chemical in our brain called tachykinin that’s released when we feel lonely. It’s the brain’s way of making us feel uncomfortable, so we search out others and connect.
It’s obvious we’re wired for connection. So then why is it so difficult to have meaningful connections that go beyond shallow pleasantries?
Our Beautiful, Messy Complexity
Well, as with most human behavior, I believe the answer is an intriguing confluence of reasons.
I say this based on my academic studies and professional consulting experience. But a more honest answer would be to admit that my response is predominantly coming from my own childhood experiences going back decades, and even some personal experiences from as little as a few years ago.
Since we see the world through our own filters and perceptions, we tend to focus on what we unconsciously decide is important. And I think for me, being able to sense the greater depths of other human being stems from my own childhood of no one acknowledging my own.
I am aware I am not Robinson Crusoe, as all of us, to some degree, had some need that was not met in our smaller years, and I am sure Freud could have a field day here.
The point being my dedication to creating more connection and belonging (primarily in a workplace context) with people, is mostly due to my past experiences. And thankfully for my past, I totally understand why people do not want to connect on a more meaningful level, even though it is so good for our psychological and physical health.
Our Aversion to Deeper Connection
There are many reasons why people find it challenging to have more meaningful, connected conversations with one another, and I feel the list would be even longer if we put this in a work context.
However, here are my top five:
1. We make emotions binary.
Emotions are not “good” or “bad.” They’re simply data, giving us signs and clues. We have not been taught to be with and embrace all of our emotions, so we judge and suppress many of them. We are comfortable around someone who is happy but feel very uncomfortable if someone is sad.
2. We hide our vulnerability.
When we experience uncomfortable emotions like sadness, guilt, shame, or fear it can be scary and vulnerable to share these emotions with someone else. Naturally, we want to protect ourselves from this type of exposure.
Yet sharing these deep parts of ourselves with someone we trust can provide us with a deep sense of connection, as well as a sense of acceptance and belonging (not to mention a cascade of feel-good brain chemicals).
3. We don’t want to risk being ousted.
The need to belong to a group is hardwired into our brains, so if we experience social exclusion, it actually registers in the brain as physical pain (true story). So, it would make sense that we would forgo our own needs, not take risks such as expressing our opinion or sharing deeper parts of ourselves in conversations, if it meant we get to stay and be part of a group. I think we have all seen plenty of this play out at work
4. We get triggered.
Any conversation that goes below the depths of surface level chitchat always runs the risk of an emotion making a guest appearance at some stage. With heightened emotions comes the gamble of getting triggered and moving into a threat response, which can be distressing and traumatic for some people. It is in this space we often see old patterns, defense mechanisms, childhood conditioning, and other unconscious behavior playing out.
5. We hold ourselves back because our emotions were met poorly as children.
When we were growing up, if any of our strong emotions like fear, sadness, or anger were met with negative consequences, we may have learned to shut down that part of ourselves. The narrative then became “it is not safe to show how I really feel.” This coping mechanism can make it difficult to connect with anyone on a deep level as an adult.
Where There is Connection There is Light
Even though this list may act as encouragement to keep our emotions and vulnerability to a minimum, doing so would not allow us to feel the full, beautiful, rich experience of being human.
Thankfully, Covid has provided us with some benefits. All this disruption we have been experiencing the last couple of years has made us acutely aware of how we need to make connection a priority. Loneliness now becoming a public health concern.
I’ve even noticed an increase in my own introversion and a strange apprehension to connect with others at the moment. Even though I specialize in connection and know all the benefits that come with it, I have had to give myself a bit of a push to get out and about and be with others (insert face palm here).
But what I know for sure, is that sharing our vulnerability and struggles connects us. This is where we find commonality, where we do not feel alone. Where we get to see that we are all the same, trying to do the best we can with the tools we have. Where our hearts can soften, so that we have more compassion with not only those around us, but also with ourselves.
Moments of real connection make for a real rich life. So go on, get out there….