Cultivating Connection

“Hi, how are you?”
“How are things?”
“Can’t complain.”
“How was the vacation?”
“So beautiful, I really enjoyed it.”
“The kids are well?”
“Everyone’s doing great.”

Polite chit-chat tends to stay positive and just barely skim the surface of people’s experiences. Of course, there are social norms, and I am not suggesting that people spill all their woes and troubles in the grocery aisle or at the shul kiddush. However, when the connection between family members remains at surface level, it is an unfortunate loss of what could potentially be a deep relationship. Family members that get along well can develop their connection to become a built-in support system for one another, with all of the benefits that a deep emotional relationship brings with it.

The ability to build a deep connection is not something to take for granted.

In some families, there are mental health issues that preclude emotional closeness; personality disorders would be an example of this. In other families, there may not be a diagnosable mental health issue, but perhaps other factors such as traumas that prevent access to healthy attachment skills, or simply a lack of developed emotional skills.

The awareness of emotions, including recognizing and expressing feelings, is one of the foundational elements of good communication and close relationships.

One of the very common struggles I have noticed, as people attempt to deeply connect to themselves and with others, is the ability to recognize, name, and manage feelings. It seems like before we can even talk about basic feelings identification, there needs to be a level of comfort for the following ideas:

  • All feelings are okay (there are no ‘bad’ feelings); and
  • It is acceptable to make space for all kinds of feelings.

The idea of ‘making space’ means noticing what is going on within and taking the time to think about it. It is the idea that thoughts and feelings are important and worthy of being noticed and tended to. It may be easier to ‘sweep it under the rug’ or brush things off by saying things like “it’s not really a big deal” or “people have it way worse”. What would it feel like to tell yourself: I am allowed to feel things! I am allowed to have needs! Try saying these phrases to yourself now, and notice the response in your system.

“I wish I could tell my mother about the basic challenges I have with my kids,” Amy shared. “Like, even just to call her at the end of the day and share my exhaustion or frustration. But I just know how these conversations go… she would probably say something like ‘that’s how kids are’ or ‘that’s how it is when you are raising toddlers’. I would love to be able to share my daily experiences but I end up feeling so invalidated. It makes me feel even more frustrated and creates distance.”

Sometimes, religion can be used in a misguided way when feelings are swept away with ‘gam zu letova/this too is for the good/everything that happens is for the best’ or ‘it was bashert/meant to be’. These phrases can be used to whitewash experiences that need actual processing and may be better off used as part of that process.

“The loss was incredibly difficult. But I know everything G-d does is for the best.”

Faith can be an incredible source of strength and hope, but it does not mean that the feelings connected to an experience just dissolve.

When looking for connection, there needs to be a supportive environment, where feelings are heard and responded toward with empathy and validation. This kind of supportive environment needs to be in place for both people in the relationship. It is not fair to place the burden on one family member, or one spouse, to be the sole supporter in the support system.

“I am listening, soothing and validating my spouse constantly. I think I am being supportive. But when it comes to my feelings, my spouse tends to brush them off and doesn’t seem to realize that I need empathy and validation, too.”

If it ends up being one main person who is constantly relied upon to provide physical and/or emotional support, there may be an unhealthy imbalance and there is no mutual benefit in that.

“Emma has pretty strong opinions,” said Liam. “Even if I don’t agree with her perspective, I don’t bother sharing my side of things because, what’s the point? It just creates conflict and drama.”

A lack of conflict does not signify a good relationship. In fact, it is more likely to signify the opposite- that there is not enough of a safe and secure emotional connection to engage in meaningful conversations. Conflict does not need to be avoided, but it does need to be managed so that even intense differences of opinion can be tolerated in a relationship. When there is a sense of ease around making space for feelings and sharing feelings, conflict becomes a space for people to connect. This is where not all communication is equal, and expressing oneself with good communication skills is necessary.

Staying positive and light can keep a relationship pleasant, but it might not feel as supportive, loving, and connected as you would like.

If you are looking to grow closer to your loved ones, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Name them: Practice recognizing your own feelings. I recommend using a feelings wheel to increase your feelings vocabulary and get an accurate idea of what you are experiencing (this goes way beyond happy, sad, and mad). Brene Brown’s book, ‘Atlas of the Heart’, can be a good resource to understand and become comfortable with feelings.
  2. Self soothing techniques: Consider what you need to implement to become more comfortable managing reactions that come along with more intense feelings. Your nervous system needs to know you are safe, so practice these techniques first when you are calm.
  3. Make space: Practice sitting with feelings, even those that are sometimes challenging to sit with. (Make sure you have the self soothing techniques in place before you do this!)
  4. Communicate: To enhance a relationship with deeper connection, share your thoughts and feelings, and practice empathy and validation. Not all communication is equal! A raised voice or the silent treatment are both examples of unhealthy communication. Practice the skills that a good communicator needs.

If the goal is to draw closer to your loved ones, these steps are a way to begin implementing positive change. As the saying goes ‘old habits die hard’, so don’t become discouraged if it takes longer than expected. Intention, practice, and repair is the way to go.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times.