“Take this. It will protect you. I made it from the threads woven for you by your friends.”
This line, from the brilliantly innovative animated film ‘Spirited Away’, summarizes the theme of this article.
The emotional threads woven for us by our friends are a potent source of strength and motivation. They provide protection and liberate us to grow into our natural way of being. They are particularly significant for gifted adults whose ability to connect successfully is not always as well developed as other aspects of their being.
I’m using the term ‘friends’ in a very loose way. I mean it to encompass all those life-enhancing aspects of people and things whose effect on us is to promote drives such as courage and creativity.
Confusingly in many cases, those sources can also be a source of hurt, perhaps traumatically so. For the balance of this piece I will simply refer to them collectively as ‘connections’.
I hope these thoughts on connections might make it easier for you to manage yours. This means sustaining existing connections, minimizing the effects of painful ones, and being more selective in creating new ones.
I begin my look at connections with a characteristic that is possibly the hardest to accept: we cannot break them.
The enduring connection
Having spent a good deal of my life trying to break connections, especially painful ones, I’ve been forced to conclude that it’s actually impossible to do so.
“Breakthrough”, “Break away”, “Divorce”, “Split”, “Separate”, “Dump”. The words are many but all mean essentially the same thing: we want to split something or some person away from us and leave it behind. Time and again I hear it from my clients: “I just want to end it. I want him (her or it) out of my life so I can get on.”
It’s not always a significant other who is the object of the projected banishment. Sometimes it is the place the client lives, the job they depend on, or their delinquent offspring. There are often constructive reasons for wanting to bring about major change, but there is a major objection to trying to end a connection: it cannot be done.
There is no way we can get people or our associations with things and places out of our lives. They exist. We can ban people from our shores, our clubs, our professional associations; we can shoot them, gas them, kill them in a hundred different ways, but they’re still there. Julius Caeser and Pocohontas are two random examples, dead but very much alive.
“Ah! But they’re historical figures!” I hear you say. Quite so. And each and every one of us has a history peopled with such figures. Whether it’s Fred E***, the neighborhood bully and my personal tormentor when I was 8, or Ann H*** who sat next to you in school, they were real and still occupy a space in our rich casserole of inner psychological space. Our experience of them flavors and informs, to some degree or another, everything we do.
Although we cannot break connections, we are not doomed to be choked by them. We can internally rearrange them and incorporate more and more positive connections so the detrimental ones are gradually reduced in power.
We are all connected
Everything is connected. Everything is made of the same universal stuff. Visit a low-enough level of sub-atomic structure and, so I understand, you can no longer tell where one human-scale ‘thing’ ends and another begins. There are no boundaries that we can recognize.
Yet here in our daily life we only have shape and identity by virtue of our boundaries. There is the obvious boundary of our skin but there are also less obvious but no less powerful boundaries of social status, inherent capabilities, gender, nationhood and so on. In a way, it is the embodied boundaries which are our selves made manifest.
It is also our embodied selves which have such difficulty with connection. We tend not to refer to it as connection, but as relationship, marriage, partnership, family, friendship, workplace, community, state or nationality. Each of these domains of connection carries its own threats and promises.
Despite the boundaries, everything we do affects everybody else. As I am changed subtly by an encounter, so I introduce that change to my ongoing encounters. This results in those I have encountered being changed, and so it goes on.
There is even some evidence that change can take place without a physical encounter. Tests done on the learning rate of rats has shown that once rats in one part of the world have learned a particular technique, apparently totally unconnected rats in another part of the world learn the technique more quickly.
Whatever the nature of the link, there is no question but that we are each connected to and therefore affected by every other person on earth. The more conscious we are of this, the more effectively we can use it in our daily lives.
Connection is always two-way
Any connection between live humans implies a two-way communication of something. If I shake hands with you, I leave with at least some of ‘your’ bacteria and dead skin cells on me, and you leave with mine. If I exchange glances with you in the street I’m left with a sense of a personality and maybe a sense of threat or promise. If I nurse you I receive your gratitude or maybe your contempt.
This two-way quality of connection ensures that we can never leave another, never be left. On physically or psychologically parting, we are always left with something.
We can gain from connection
The rejuvenating effect of connection can sometimes be seen after a first date. It is common to hear the phrase: “We connected!” usually accompanied by a happy grin. We understand that there was more to this connection than a mere physical touch. It means we had our selves affirmed and authenticated in a way which might be mysterious but is undeniably real. It is almost as if we have psychic receptors specially shaped to invite and hold the transmissions from another.
When we are dynamically aware, such connection is almost invariably a growth experience. It is love with a small ‘l’ and an acceptance of love which may grow into “the real thing” but which doesn’t need to. It is enormously powerful. One such encounter each day and we thrive. No such encounters over several days and we shrink.
People who have been deprived of such connections for a long period respond similarly to people who have been starved of food or water. They are shy of their need at first, and must take it slowly or else risk being overloaded and pushing the very thing they need away from them.
This can easily be seen in people who are emotionally hurt and cry: “Get away from me!” when it is clear to all that nurturing contact is what they really need. They are simply unable, at that time, to absorb more than the minimum of the emotional nutrients available from healthy connection.
Each connection creates a unique couple-mind
I approach you as a man with a mass of different experiences emanating from the vicissitudes of my life. I receive you as you are, differently unique but no less experienced. We are each a mass of connections with others unknown to each other. Some of those connections may be to people, others will be to objects – books, art, even place-mats – while still others will be to abstractions such as thoughts, music, writing.
When we collide, we create a clash of all these connections and in that clash is born a new entity, our unique couple entity, with its own couple-mind. This couple-mind is a whirling, sometimes conflicting, constellation of everything about us.
It is easy to test the truth of this. Think about one person and dwell on your sense of yourself in that connection for a moment. Then think about another person. The quality of these two reflections is different. Your sense of yourself is different.
For example, if I think of myself with X, I am charming. I accentuate my intuition and bask in their appreciation of my warmth. When I think of myself with Y I am pushy and challenging and bask in their recognition of me as a doughty collaborative competitor. Two totally different couple-minds. Two beneficial connections. Three people reinforced and enhanced by the love energies that we each draw from elsewhere and contribute to each other.
That is what artists do. At their most effective they channel the unconditional love energy, filtering out the fear, and present us with a clear yet inarticulable impression of the truth of being human. It is also what scientists do, though many of them would shrink from such a generalized and untestable statement.
The couple-mind does not need to be created with a physical human. Some experience orgasmic pleasure on encountering an elegant mathematical proof. Some find their hair standing on end and the tears flowing in the presence of an exquisite artistic statement. In each case it is the encounter with the essence of a person which results in the creation of a new couple-mind. This in turn synthesizes new perception in the individual.
Connection is conscious and unconscious
Up until now I have oversimplified human connection in order to show how ubiquitous and powerful it is. In each of us, however, it is made more complex by taking place both consciously (“Hi! I’m Stephanie!”) and unconsciously (“I want you to like me. [felt but not seen]” ).
The problem with the unconscious connection is twofold. One, it is more powerful than the conscious connection; and two, we can only deduce it by observation. This takes time to learn and if we haven’t learned how to observe it we will be held hostage to its demands.
For example, a common situation is when a young person – a man, for simplicity – leaves home. As he waves goodbye to his parents he feels a typical mixture of sadness and excitement.
He does not ‘see’ the profound sorrow experienced by his parents after he has gone. Yet after he settles in the city, he somehow fails to fulfil the promise in his career that he had shown in his home town. Each time promotion or other sign of success beckons, he inexplicably finds himself turning away from it.
Unconsciously, he is responding to his guilt and to his parents’ felt but unexpressed desire that he return ‘home’. The drag effect of the family connection prevents him from fulfilling his potential.
If this seems far-fetched to you, just try saying: “Life’s a lot better now I’ve left!” to those who brought you up. It seems so very cruel. Yet if our parents have done a good job our lives will almost certainly be better than theirs, at least in some regards.
Sometimes, in our efforts to give our early home life the appearance of being better than our current existence, we will sacrifice some or all of our own adult life. This dynamic, of introducing self-defeating behaviors or ‘symptoms’ so others may feel better about themselves, is very common indeed. It is a potentially dangerous side-effect of connection.
Our only protection from these damaging behaviors lies in releasing ourselves from ‘the ties that bind’. This means increasing our awareness of both conscious and unconscious connections.
The war between connection domains
It’s clear that connections exist in different domains: in couples, families, friendships, workgroups, schools and other communities, towns, states, nations and so on. They also exist internally, between different parts of ourselves. This multi-domain existence, common to all of us, is fraught with conflict.
The simple level of conflict, for which many societies have institutionalized tolerance, is when we disagree with the acts of ‘our’ nations. We may find ourselves affronted by the daily news of what is being done in our names, but we aren’t banished or removed from society unless we take illegal steps to make our presence felt.
Family and work life is much harsher. Typically, a significant disagreement here will be met by an immediate threat to cut off your life support. In the workplace, this might mean being fired, but in the family it is a much more subtle process. The shunned one will rarely find their food and water needs cut off, but they could be subjected to a constant rejection of their truth to an extent which amounts to what Alice Miller called ‘soul murder’.
We quickly learn as children to separate tolerated individuality from that which threatens our parents. We will therefore moderate our behavior to the extent that we feel we need to maintain that connection.
This sets the standard for our whole lives. We constantly struggle to maintain our autonomy without sacrificing too much in the way of healthful connection. We form alliances, conduct diplomacy, make new friends, and even go on the attack, as we unconsciously seek to maintain balance and forward growth in a demanding and threatening conflictual environment.
It’s my belief that juggling our priorities in all this is one of the things we do while we sleep. No wonder we sometimes wake exhausted!
Growth versus connection
It quickly becomes obvious that to some extent growth and connection are in opposition to each other. How can we grow if we have to stay connected? Yet, how can we grow if we separate ourselves from our connection to our soul-nutrients?
A good model occurs in nature. Trees go on developing throughout their lives, sending their roots ever deeper and their branches ever further. They achieve this by integrating past growth and connection into their present stature. Even if trauma or disease should break a root or a branch, these decompose and are once again reintegrated into the tree. Certain roots and branches are de-emphasized as others meet the tree’s needs more economically.
So it makes sense for us, too, to seek to integrate every connection into our growth. We can continue to draw strength from the constructive component in any connections we have made even while we may grow psychologically and physiologically more distant from them.
How to make connections work for you
The way to make connections work for you is to seek out and nurture beneficial ones, while allowing others to gently diminish in significance. Dynamically, this will enable you to maximize the constructive energy you receive through your connections and to minimize the destructive.
It’s important to remember here that we must take the rough with the smooth with our connections because we have no way of filtering out unwanted effects. Most people are a mixture of positive and negative and some will want to use us as negative ‘dumping grounds’ while keeping their positive energies to themselves.
This means we must put a great deal of care into selecting those people and things we encourage to create couple-minds with us.
Here are some hints to help you structure your connections to your own advantage:
- Embrace all your connections:
- See yourself as the sum of everything you have ever been associated with or connected to by thought, word or deed
- Even though there are some connections you do not want to pursue, you cannot ‘lose’ them; allow them to exist, recognize them as part of yourself, and let them lie. Energy put into trying to end them actually gives them more importance, not less.
- To distinguish constructive from destructive connections:
- Ask yourself how you feel when you think of effecting a transaction with them.
- If your response is tinged with negativity, is it because you are reluctant to face what must be discussed or because you feel you will be left under-mined in some way?
- If you feel you will be under-mined, avoid perpetuating this connection as much as possible.
- To facilitate constructive connections:
- Take risks. Be ready to step a little way out of your comfort zone when you sense something of value in the offing. This could mean taking physical steps but is more likely to mean taking psychological ones. Be ready to reveal yourself to another or to yourself so as to open the way for them to ‘see’ you and open themselves in turn.
- Avoid divorcing, cutting off, etc. As I suggested above, these efforts require an investment of energy and are doomed to failure. They therefore perpetuate the very connection they are supposed to diminish. Sometimes, people almost seem to define themselves in terms of their failure to end a connection. We are all familiar with the ‘wronged lover’ who wears their hurt almost as a label and remains stuck in the old dynamic long after their ex-partner has moved on with their life.
- To neutralize destructive connections:
- Embrace that which is painful and integrate it. For example, if a connection has betrayed you, internally thank them for it and for revealing something about yourself in need of attention.
- Allow yourself the hurt of seeing your contribution so that you may learn from it. Remember the old saying: “If you trick me once you make a fool of me. If you trick me twice I make a fool of myself.”
- Establish priorities. This is a bit like prioritizing what you want from life. Then you can assess every connection in terms of its ability to meet your identified needs.
- Be clear with yourself regarding what you want from connection and your unconscious will organize you around your goals. It will also avoid or reduce the impact of those things which do not meet your needs.
- Grow away from connections you want to leave rather than break them off. In addition to the fact that it’s impossible to cut them away, if you try you will lose the benefit of the connection’s positive as well as its negative qualities. You also deny an aspect of yourself that needed that connection at some time. Both of these strategies will diminish rather than enhance you because they dishonor your own history.
- Never underestimate the power of connection:
- Marley’s Ghost may be a fictional character but it’s certain and sure that mismanaged connections come back to haunt us. The sense of having harmed someone or something and being left without having made retribution is a grave threat to one’s sense of integrity.
- For the same reason, always try to complete any outstanding transactions – no matter how potentially painful – before allowing any connection to fade slowly into the distance.
- Ensure you are a positive connection
- This is harder than it seems, for being a constructive connection isn’t just a matter of wearing a bright smile and making contrived remarks about the positive implications of any current catastrophe. It means challenging yourself to be authentic in all your dealings, to risk driving potentially useful connections away, and to risk hurting those whose love you value.
- Maintain healthy scepticism:
- Suspect statements such as:” I’m over that now” whether they come from you or someone else.
- What makes it suspicious is the fact that it’s raised at all. After all, things we are ‘over’ aren’t brought to mind without a great deal of effort.
By the way, by ‘over’ we typically mean that our daily lives are no longer affected by historical connections the way they once were. However, when we start to recall them, wow, there it is: that old feeling of hurt, anger, joy, or whatever. In other words, we’re not actually over anything, we’ve simply managed to diminish its impact by overlaying it with more constructive experiences.
And in conclusion . . .
You are a swirling constellation of internal and external, conscious and unconscious connections mingling with and bouncing off others’ constellations. Our communal swirl takes place within hierarchies and networks of ever larger and more complex domains. This is not a simple place to survive. We are remarkable for our ability to do it at all.
So. Be kind to yourself and to your connections. Set a general constructive direction for yourself and then sit back and let your unconscious lead you. Understand that just as a river’s connections – streams, tributaries, geological features, rainfall – guide and control its direction and pace, so your connections guide and control you. You are not a free agent.
With care, however, you can move yourself away from soul-deprivation and into the general direction of growth and fulfillment.
You deserve it.
We all depend on it.