Bridging the Connection Gap in the Time of Corona
By Ronald J. Frederick, Ph.D., author of Loving Like You Mean It: Use the Power of Emotional Mindfulness to Transform Your Relationships
The need for emotional connection is wired into our DNA. From the time we’re born, and throughout our lives, we are innately motivated to emotionally connect with others. And for good reason: the sense of security and safety that comes from emotional closeness is fundamental to our well-being.
When we’re able to share our feelings, needs, and desires with each other, it draws us together, increases our sense of safety, security, and trust, and strengthens our connection to those around us. We’re better able to get the kind of caring we need from others, and, in turn, our loved ones feel important, valued, and loved. Overall, relationships in which we feel safe expressing our emotions provide a deep and abiding intimacy that can fortify and sustain us. Emotionally connected relationships not only make us feel good, they also enhance our ability to deal with stress, stay emotionally and physically healthy, and weather life’s travails—precisely what’s needed at this moment to help us get through terrible time we’re all living through.
But what are we to do as we practice social distancing and may be separated from our friends and family members? How do we get these important social needs met when the usual ways in which we were accustomed to connecting with others are not available to us? When virtually spending time with friends has lost its novelty and isn’t quite cutting it anymore? Or when the stress of being confined with a loved one puts us on edge and erodes our sense of connection?
Now more than ever it is essential that we find a way to bridge the gap that separates us, and to connect in meaningful ways. To drop below the surface stories we tell and share how we’re feeling deep down inside. For many of us, leaning into our relationships in a more open and revealing way feels scary, even as many of us are feeling more stress and anxiety than we’re used to. Though we may not realize it, we may be afraid of being vulnerable, of drawing attention to ourselves, of looking like a fool. We may be afraid of being overwhelmed by our emotions, of losing control of them, or of overwhelming our loved ones by sharing these intense feelings. Whether it’s expressing our sense of vulnerability or of needing reassurance; giving voice to our anger, sadness, or shame; or expressing the love we feel inside, in times of stress, our capacity to be emotionally present with others can get hijacked by fear. And it is fear that keeps us from connecting in a more meaningful way.
But why are we afraid of opening up and being seen for who we really are?
The short answer is that our adult brains are still operating on wiring that was established in the first few years of our lives. As the science of attachment shows us, our early childhood experiences with our caregivers shape our emotional development. When our caregivers are emotionally open and reliable, we develop the ability to make good use of our emotions and to relate to—and connect with—others. But when our caregivers react negatively to our emotional needs—for instance, becoming frustrated when we feel afraid and seek their reassurance, withdrawing when we express being hurt or admonishing us when we assert ourselves—we learn to fear expressing ourselves. Instead of feeling emotionally safe to explore our world and our relationships with others in a way that nurtures learning and growth, we become anxious and hold certain feelings back in order to avoid the danger of disconnection.
To make matters more difficult, these powerful lessons about emotion and connection are stored in the parts of our memory that are outside of our awareness. They guide our behavior without us even knowing it. If we don’t recognize how we’re being unduly affected by our early programming and make an effort to push through our fears, we will continue to be unduly influenced by the past. We’ll continue to feel alone in a time when we need to be together.
But, if we can find the courage to get out of our comfort zone and be present and engage with others in a more open and vulnerable way, we can turn things around. We can begin to bridge the gap that’s keeping us from feeling closer. The challenge we face is in breaking free from the old wiring in our brains that is keeping us from connecting more deeply.
Here are some suggestions to get you started in more deeply connecting with your loved ones, whether you’re quarantined with them or interacting through phone or video calls:
First and foremost, set an intention to open up. Without this, you’ll just keep rolling along right past precious opportunities to connect with others. Or you’ll feel rushed and not take the opportunities that come up to connect with those around you.
So, the next time you’re engaging with a friend or loved one, push the pause button, drop below surface conversation, and make some room for your feelings and those of the person you’re speaking to. Give voice to the fears that are eating away at you, the grief that’s coming up as you feel the loss of life as you knew it, the sense of vulnerability you may feel when, now more than ever, life seems so fragile. Almost any moment holds the potential for a deeper connection. We just need to set our minds to make it happen and then seize the moment before us.
Next, as you’re engaging with others in your life, slow down and tune in to your internal experience. Notice what’s going on in your body. What you’re feeling. It may not be clear to you at first, but give yourself some space to start to sense what may be there for you. Paying attention to what’s going on in your body can help anchor you more fully in the present and can help you feel more grounded.
Speaking slowly and deliberately is calming and can help to deepen our connection to what’s going on inside of others. When we’re feeling anxious, we may speak rapidly. I know I certainly do. When this happens, as any time we hurry, it’s harder to hold onto our emotional center. Speaking too quickly can also increase our anxiety. Slowing down the rate at which we speak gives us more space to mindfully feel and reflect on what we’re saying and allows our expression to truly come from the heart. It’s a simple tool, yet it can yield powerful results.
Making eye contact with the other person, even when we’re talking virtually, can bring us more directly into the present moment, although it can sometimes feel uncomfortable. Unconsciously, we may be afraid of what we’ll see in the other person’s face, so we look away. When we do this, we miss an opportunity to confront and possibly disprove our fear. But, when we make an effort to truly take in the other person by looking them in the eyes, the present reality can come into a clearer focus and our fears may begin to fade. We see that sharing our feelings doesn’t have to be frightening. It’s a little like turning on the light in the closet for a child to show him or her that there aren’t any monsters there to be afraid of. Of course, a lot depends on who we choose to open up to, that person may seem uncomfortable or anxious with our sharing, but this is an opportunity to learn that we can handle that as well and it’s not something to be afraid of.
Then, at some point, despite the nervousness or discomfort we might feel, we need to create an opportunity to begin to share from a deeper emotional place. We need to lean into the fear or discomfort about opening up and being vulnerable. Putting words to our feelings may be difficult at first, but you don’t have to do it all at once. You can start small and work up to expressing yourself a little more each time. You can begin by simply acknowledging that you feel vulnerable. You can say, “This feels awkward for me. I’m not used to talking in this way,” and then go from there.
The key to deepening our connections is to lean into our discomfort a little bit at a time. When you start to feel more comfortable, take another step forward. See if you can stretch the moment when you’re making eye contact, sitting in silence, listening to what the other is saying, staying with your feelings, or their feelings. Encourage yourself to be with the experience a little longer each time. Over time our capacity to be present emotionally with others will expand, and the discomfort we might have felt in the past will decrease.
At times it may feel challenging especially when big feelings come up. When you’re tempted to pull back or withdraw, keep bringing your attention back to the present moment. Take a moment to notice what’s happening in your body, what’s happening for the other person, what’s happening between you. Ask the other person how they’re feeling. Remember that you’re both supporting each other in an unprecedented time. Keep grounding yourself in the here-and-now. Trust and closeness grow over time as we reveal our true selves to others and realize that we can maintain our connection, even when it’s challenging.
And, when we feel uncomfortable, when we feel anxious, that’s a sign. It’s showing us where we’re stuck, where we’ve been holding back. It’s showing us where fear has been getting in our way and thwarting our potential for closeness. It’s showing us where opportunity lies. We recognize its message and become more and more comfortable working with that uncertainty and vulnerability. In this way, we can find a way to move through the discomfort and show up in our relationships in our entirety.
When we face our fears, when we lean in and share more of ourselves with our partners, our family, and our close friends—when we explore new ways of being with them—everything changes. We’re able to inhabit each moment more fully. We’re able to respond more sensitively and skillfully. Our experiences become richer. Our relationships grow stronger. Our love deepens. Isn’t that what we all need right now?