During a tough year personally for me, I have been doing lots of soul searching and reflecting on life and the universe. Maybe it’s a turning fifty thing, but whatever the reason, I have been asking myself many questions. “What is important to me?”, “What makes me happy?”, “What lifts me up?”, “How do I want to feel?”, “Am I aligned to my values?”, and making some brave and difficult decisions based on the answers.
One of the things that I realised through asking these questions and many others, is that the most important thing in life is ‘meaningful connection’ with others. Whether that be with my children, friends, family members, clients, or when meeting someone for the first time. Connection that is real and deep is at the heart of what I am seeking in life, and ultimately what brings me real joy.
Thus, towards the end of last year, the words I created for living into throughout 2022, were “meaningful connection’ and ‘joy’. I thought about how I might experience both those things every day and was therefore thrilled when one of my favourite authors, Brené Brown, dedicated a whole chapter at the end of her new book, “Atlas of the Heart”, to ‘cultivating meaningful connection’.
What is connection?
Brené Brown describes connection as follows:
“It is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Hell yeah! Who wouldn’t want that with the people we interact with? Imagine a world where this was the norm. We’d all constantly feel full of joy.
It takes huge courage and vulnerability to cultivate meaningful connection, and according to the research, there are three core ingredients to doing so.
1. Grounded Confidence
This means removing the armour we wear to protect ourselves when we feel afraid. To develop grounded confidence, we can practice courage, be vulnerable, stay curious, practice humility, commit to mastery and recognise and feel our emotions.
The opposite of grounded confidence is ‘protecting fragile self-worth’. This looks like acting out, shutting down or giving up; choosing comfort over courage; showing indifference, disinterest, or defensiveness; getting stuck in fear and shame, and feeling disconnected from ourselves.
However, there is a more dangerous obstacle to grounded confidence, which is covert and sneaky, and on the surface might look like creating connection, but in fact it does the opposite. That is ‘knowing and proving’. This is when we shape emotion and experience to fit what we know; not owning our hurt, pain and fear – pretending everything is fine; avoiding vulnerability and ‘performing’ or not being authentic; challenging and criticising more than exploring and contributing; self-protecting with perfectionism; and acting our emotions without really feeling them.
2. The Courage to Walk Alongside
This means committing to being other-focused; practising compassion, empathy and non-judgement; being relational; setting and respecting boundaries; and sharing power with others, not over others.
The opposite is ‘walking away’. This is when we act out, shut down or give up; default to self-protecting and being self-focused; create distance, separation, disconnection, and treat others like they’re invisible; judging; leveraging power over; disengaging; and building walls.
The sneaky, perilous barrier to walking alongside is ‘controlling the path’. We do this when we act concerned while actually we are trying to control or distance; when we show pity and compare our suffering; we default to sympathy rather than empathy (*); we perform non-judgement, but we nevertheless judge, blame, compare, and distance; we ‘help’ by trying to control people, perceptions or outcomes; we connect for gain, to fit in or to control; and we create distance or become enmeshed in others’ lives.
3. Practicing Story Stewardship
We are good stewards of the stories we tell by trusting them to people who have earned the right to hear them and telling them only when we are ready.
We are good stewards of the stories we hear by listening, being curious, affirming and believing people when they tell us how they experienced something.
This means listening, discovering, and staying curious to other people’s stories as well as building narrative trust by believing, acknowledging, and affirming what others are saying.
The opposite of practicing story stewardship is not valuing the story, as well as damaging trust and self-trust through showing indifference, disinterest, dismissing or diminishing; fuelling narrative distrust; and diminishing the humanity of others and ourselves.
The sneaky and dangerous obstacle to story stewardship is ‘performing connection while driving disconnection’. This means creating separation by knowing, advice-giving, and problem-solving, and disconnecting through narrative takeover and narrative tap-out.
A longing for connection on an emotional, soulful, physical, romantic, intellectual, and spiritual level
Reading about this was one of those “a-ha” moments in my life. The results of this research really struck me as so very true of human beings. At the end of the day, we are all searching for meaningful connection with others, no matter who it is. It could be with your son or daughter, your work colleagues, your partner, your mother-in-law, or a neighbour.
When we experience an exchange with someone where both parties practice grounded confidence, have the courage to walk alongside each other, and when we are good stewards of the stories we tell and hear, it changes everything. At our very core, we all want to feel seen and heard, and this is at the heart of connection.
I sense that the longing we all feel from time to time comes down to this – a longing for meaningful connection with others in all areas of our lives. That connection might be on an emotional level, it might be a soulful connection, a physical one, a romantic one, an intellectual connection and / or a spiritual connection, or all of them at once. The joy and love we experience from these connections are boundless. I believe that connection is at the heart of what drives us and the reason for everything we do. It is the fundamental purpose of our lives.
That is why the hospitality industry, Christmas, the travel industry, the dating industry, etc, are such big business – they are selling the desire for connection. When we go out for dinner with our loved ones, the principal purpose is for us to connect, and having delicious food and drinks is simply a means to help us to do that.
And it is why we suffered so much during lockdown. It is hard to connect with each other via a screen. We need to be physically close and share each other’s energy and auras to truly connect.
A lack of connection with others causes loneliness, which is one of the biggest killers in the world today. Loneliness kills more people than obesity and smoking. And I would hazard a guess that it kills more people than Covid has, and ironically, because of Covid, more people are lonelier than ever before.
The holy grail
Meaningful connection is the answer to life and the universe and is what brings us true joy. It is the holy grail, the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life. So, let’s remove our armour, find the courage to walk alongside others, and practice being good stewards of the stories we tell and hear. No easy feat, but well worth a go, surely.
(*) Difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
Sympathy: “I am sorry you are in pain.” (Distant) Empathy: “I can imagine what this pain feels like.” (Shared) Compassion: “You are suffering, and I will do what I can to help.” (Connected and Action-oriented)
Do you have any questions?
I hope you found this helpful. If you have any questions or would like to explore how coaching might be able to help you find meaningful connection and joy, just get in touch. I'm very happy to have a chat.
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