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Vulnerability and The Importance of Deep Connection

Loneliness is an emotion we all suffer at some point. It is universal, it transcends culture, time and social stature. It’s our human weak spot: we are often driven by an almost primal need to belong, to be part of something bigger than we are, to have a place in a tribe of those who are like us, or at the very least one person who ‘gets’ who we are on a deeper level. We all have a fear of being Eleanor Rigby: and that’s why that haunting Beatles song about that fictional character picking up ‘rice at a church where a wedding has been’ spent eleven weeks at number one way back in 1966, and still resonates today. There is a little of Eleanor in all of us.

It’s about more than just being part of a group, or a community, although those things are extremely important. Essential even. But it’s also about deep connection: truly feeling like we are seen and understood. Each of us has a different story. Our lives change us is completely unique ways: we are all essentially the same, but the small differences we have are important ones. Even identical twins have different finger prints. No one really knows what it’s like to be ‘us’, and that can be an incredibly isolating feeling. Author Michael Schreiner writes ‘The unconscious fear that seems to always be lurking in the background is that if we aren’t understood, it will be as if we never existed’. It’s the cliché of feeling alone in a room full of people.

Connection is vital to our health. Loneliness has been linked to everything from Alzheimer’s to depression, anxiety and even addiction. To be understood and truly connected requires work. It requires being vulnerable, showing the facets of ourselves that we guard oh-so carefully. It’s about ditching the small talk and getting down to what really matters. It’s scary. Showing the most confused and broken parts of ourselves is risky. What if the person we decide to open up to, the one in which we think we see a part of ourselves, and would most understand us, turns away? Then what?

It’s about effective communication. We can’t really understand each other if we are not truly listening in the first place. As Stephen R. Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply”. To better understand each other we need to pay attention and be aware of the clues and cues those around us are sending out to us to connect. In the 1980s, researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson created ‘The Love Lab’ and set about studying the communication dynamics between couples. What they discovered was that couples constantly send out what Gottman called ‘bids’ to their partner: gestures or words which may seem trivial or unimportant (‘Can you help me in the kitchen?’, ‘I’m tired’, ‘How was your day?’) but that are actually bids for connection and attention. If we can’t connect over the small stuff, then we are never going to connect over the big stuff. Gottman noticed that in successful couples (those still married six years after the initial experiment), those bids were successful (meaning their partner responded and connected) 86% of the time -meaning those were meeting each other’s needs around 9 out of ten times. In couples that divorced during those six years, had only around a 33% success rate, meaning those couples only picked up and responded to those bids for connection 3 out of ten times. Gottman found he could predict, just by observing this behaviour, whether a marriage would last or not. Boredom, he found, was not the main catalyst in marriage breakdowns, but rather a lack of emotional connection. This kind of communication applies to most types of relationships: we all send out bids to connect, subconsciously or otherwise. If those bids are missed, we feel a disconnect.

So be vulnerable, be seen, open up and start to really listen. Life is too short to be Eleanor Rigby.

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