3 Key Qualities to Cultivate Connection

I’m very excited to be writing this first blog for my website!

Whilst I’ve written blogs before, this feel quite different… My previous blogs have been rather formal or “technical” in nature, focusing on delivering information about one psych-related topic or another. However my primary focus here is to share more of my personal insights on a a range of psychology and mental health topics, particularly those related to disordered eating and body image, so that readers can get a better sense of who I am as a person and a therapist. So my ultimate goal here is really that of CONNECTION.

Connection is crucial- not just in blogging or in therapy, but as a general life experience. As humans, we have the capacity to connect to animals, music, food, nature – but many of our deepest connections are with our fellow humans. We tend to form connection more naturally with those who we feel cared for and loved, who we spend most of our time with, who we’ve shared memorable life experiences with or those who have similar interests and values.

Connections can be enduring or last for the length of time that the other person shares a common space in our life. They may also cease to be connections if you no longer feel understood, valued or respected by the other. On the other hand, more fleeting connections with say a ‘stranger on a plane’ have the potential to become longer term connections when the right conditions for nurturing are at play. And sometimes, it’s just the simplest connections that can make us smile or bring a new perspective to our day, such as a ‘hello’ from a passerby, or a quick chat with the local newsagent.

Whereas in childhood and adolescence, connections can often proliferate with more ease as we move though different classes, teams or courses. However over time, it can sometimes become either less of a priority or more difficult to cultivate connections. This can be because: (1) we already have existing connections that we are comfortable with, either in our family, workplace or social networks; (2) we have competing demands on our energy or time so that building new connections feels too much like a chore; or (3) or we sometimes become fearful about building connections as we believe that our desire to connect won’t be reciprocated and instead result in embarrassing rejection. These factors can mean that we lose our skills in building connection or feel less comfortable putting ourselves out there, especially if we hold the assumption that others may not be as interested in connecting with us as we are with them.

It’s important to note also that building connection may be something that some people with chronic shyness or social anxiety may have always struggled with, and continue to struggle with over time, for fear of judgement or rejection. The effects of disconnection or loss of connection can have detrimental effects on mental health, such as loneliness, depression and low self-esteem. These effects can also be observed in people who lose connections as a result of significant life changes, traumas, losses or shifts in personal identity. When these events occur, therapy support can be helpful in rebuilding connection with self and other.

So as I step out on my own journey of connection with my readers, here are my reflections on 3 key qualities that can be actively cultivated to help us build meaningful connections in our lives:

Authenticity and Vulnerability => Authenticity and vulnerability are key components in my opinion, particularly as these are the qualities that many of us feel as a gut sense rather than a conclusion we reach by thinking about it. Brené Brown, Ph.D, a social work research professor at the University of Houston, who has carried out extensive research into the experiences of shame, authenticity and vulnerability, describes authenticity as a necessary daily practice in being emotionally honest. Vulnerability is the courage to risk uncertainty by sharing authentic emotional experience with another. A scary thought for many, especially if the age-old belief about vulnerability being akin to weakness is lingering there, somewhere in the psyche. Ironically though, as Brown’s research has highlighted, true emotional vulnerability is perhaps the most courageous action that humans can take. Vulnerability goes beyond just sharing a sad or emotional story, but requires us to share something that touches at the heart of who we are as a person- a belief, a value, a perspective, or a reflection.

One tip for building authentic connection may be asking yourself, am I being emotionally honest in this moment or am I saying/ doing something to fill the silence/ keep the peace/ stroke the ego/ avoid being seen as different? Am I actually being emotionally vulnerable or am I disclosing a familiar ‘content’ narrative about an emotional experience?

Compassion => Compassion is having a sensitivity and concern for the suffering of others and then wishing to actively do something to bring about some relief. The active part may be a willingness to sit and listen to the other as they share their thoughts or feelings about an experience, without needing to offload advice or similar experiences of your own. It may also be doing something kind such as supporting them or their cause, giving an anonymous donation, offering a token of appreciation or gratitude, or making someone’s life easier in some way (e.g. letting someone go ahead of you when paying for groceries or giving a shout out on social media). Compassion may also look like something else entirely, however it tends to come from a heartfelt place of wanting to tend to the needs of others, rather than only ourselves. This is a powerful quality that can bring about deep connection and the desire to reciprocate in others.

One tip for building compassionate connection may be asking yourself, how can I be kind towards someone who I know is struggling? How could I show empathy, listen, validate or be generous without expecting anything in return?

Acceptance and non-judgement=> Yes, I already acknowledge how much easier this is to say than to put into practice. It can be incredibly challenging to accept an opinion or perspective that is significantly different from our own. It can also cause us to – if not always consciously- attribute certain characteristics to the person who provides the opposing opinion. Such heuristics are then used to judge others more broadly or diminish our willingness to continue engaging. Non-judgement can require us to suspend our own ideas or beliefs, knowing that they have largely developed from our own set of life experiences, in order to be more curious about what set of circumstances might have led someone else to hold the ideas or beliefs they do.

One tip for building more acceptance-based connection may be asking yourself, am I being too quick in leaping to a judgement? Is my body indicating a shutting down of willingness to the other’s perspective (e.g. am I wanting to walk away from this conversation?) Could I be more curious or ask different questions to understand the origins of the opinion? Could I tolerate any discomfort of “not being right” a little longer?

As always, self care and maintaining personal boundaries is very important in ensuring healthy connection. This means that disengaging from certain situations or conversations may be necessary if you’re feeling the environment is toxic or unsafe. However, if your experiences are more indicative of mild anxiety or discomfort, any attempt to tolerate these feelings and “embrace the moment” could help you to build meaningful connection in small ways, everyday 🙂