About the Author—Linda Smallbones
Linda holds a Social Work Master’s in Play Therapy from the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and has worked as a social worker for over 20 years.
Understanding emotional connection
What does emotional connection look like and feel like to you? How do you know when you have made a connection with someone, and when you have not?
I recently ran an informal survey on this topic. Here are some of their answers to the question “How do you know when you have a connection with someone?”
There is an ease, a feeling of comfort in their presence. A comfort to open and share as there is no judgment. You have a feeling of being understood as well as a sense that you understand how they feel. So, you see a bit of yourself in them.
If I have an emotional connection with someone, because I am an empath, I look for pain, hurt, or discomfort and almost instantly try to heal and help.
Emotional connection includes feeling securely attached to someone, feeling in touch with someone who cares about you, who understands you and you understand and feel safe with them.
Connection is not just a good feeling, but it’s a biological imperative; we are hard-wired for connection from birth.
Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.
Connection is a Skill We Learn
While we’re born with a deep need for connection, we don’t actually have connection skills from birth, they develop through our interactions with others.
We learn by imitation. (Most) Parents of baby’s mirror them quite naturally; copying sounds they make, smiling back when baby smiles at them, talking to them, comforting and empathising when they cry. These are all connection-building skills. The safety and love parents provide whilst children are learning these skills is how they learn what connection looks and feels like, how they learn to judge who they feel safe or unsafe with and how they develop a sense of belonging.
Perhaps it wasn’t your parents* who provided this kind of experience for you as a child growing up, it could have been another caregiver or sibling or even friend or teacher.
Imitation is our most fundamental social skill. It assures that we automatically pick up and reflect the behaviour of our parents, teachers and peers.
The social and communication skills we require to successfully build connections are referred to as ‘soft skills’, and while you can learn about them, they are not knowledge-acquired. The best way to grow in these skills is through being with other people who have them, and practicing.*If you did not have the experience of emotional connection and care in your childhood, the topic of connection may be very difficult for you to engage with. You may need professional, therapeutic help if you feel you cannot connect in healthy ways with others. You may feel that you are in a constant state of protection, but change is possible.
Connection is Give and Take
There is a reciprocity to connection that has been described as ‘serve and return’ by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. For connection to grow and flourish, we need reciprocity.
For example, greeting someone in a coffee shop elicits a smile from them, which prompts you to strike up a conversation. The beginnings of a friendship perhaps, if you both choose to keep connecting over time.
However, if your first greeting was met with stony silence or averted gaze you would more than likely have read the signal as “not interested in connection” and moved on.
Connection Takes Work and Practice
The foundations for connection are established in childhood and built on throughout our lives. It takes time and effort to build meaningful connections. Connection takes work.
The social skills we need to build connections include listening, empathy, turn-taking, and reading non-verbal cues to name a few. The thing about these skills is that they all take practice, and some of us are naturally better at some of them than others. The encouragement for all of us is that we can practice and get better at the skills we’re not so great at.
The Impact of COVID on Connection
The Covid pandemic impacted on our connections and social skills practice in a massive way. I have spoken to so many people over the last three years who say they have become more introverted than they were and that it takes real effort to socialise these days.
The pandemic put us all into survival mode. An unknown threat was upon us and our limbic systems in our brains went into high alert. The limbic system is responsible for our emotional and behavioural responses, and also for keeping us safe through our fight/flight response.
When the limbic system is on alert for a long period of time, it takes up a huge amount of psychic energy, thus not leaving a lot of energy for the work of connection. The very thing we were all needing was being actively discouraged during the pandemic, for very good reason, however the fallout in people’s mental health has been significant.
In a state of protection, survival is the only goal. The system is closed to connection and change. In a state of connection, health, growth and restoration are possible.
Factors That Can Interrupt Connection
Connection is possible when we feel safe emotionally and physically. The opposite of this is a state of protection or survival mode. There are numerous life circumstances that can interrupt connection.
Trauma disconnects us from others. Trauma is an event(s) that involves feelings of horror, helplessness, and fear and can include a threat to life or the life of a loved one. A trauma could be once-off, or chronic. The age at which trauma occurs has a significant impact on development and functioning, especially on the ability to receive and give connection.
The experience of shame also disconnects us.
Shame is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.
Using screen time/social media/devices as your sole social outlet is often counter-productive to connection. For example, consistently choosing Netflix over a dinner date with friends or scrolling for two hours instead of calling a family member.
Whilst online connection can meet some of our connection needs, it cannot replace face-to-face interactions with people.
All work and no play is detrimental to connection building. As I’ve already said, connection is work and it takes time. If you want to have meaningful relationships, allow yourself to be known outside of your work persona.
Ways to Build Connection as a Remote Worker
With all this talk of connection being work, is it even fun?? Absolutely, it really should be! We build connections with people we like, hence it includes having fun and laughter. Do stuff you enjoy and invite others along, joy is contagious!
Make a “connection routine”. It could be a shared meal one night of the week, or playing a sport. Building a routine with the same people over a period of time builds memories and a sense of belonging. Routines don’t have to be rigid, but they can provide an anchor that mitigates against loneliness.
Sometimes initiating friendship with someone can feel scary. Our self-doubt can kick into overdrive. That’s normal. You simply won’t make new connections if you don’t take a first step. Also, be brave to say yes to invitations. (Unless of course you genuinely don’t feel completely safe with the person asking.)
What if you just want friendship and your intentions are misconstrued for more?
Clear is kind, as Brene Brown has said. Sometimes people are so hungry for real connection they can jump to romantic attachment, or it may be that romantic attachment is the only way they know how to connect. Be clear about the kind of connection/friendship you are available for.
Try be device free (sometimes)
Take time to be out in public device-free and see what happens. Sit in a café without your phone. Take a walk without your headphones. Watch people (without being weird), make eye contact and smile.
In our increasingly individualistic societies, community can be hard to come by. As a remote worker, consider your unique situation and ways you can build or contribute to community.
Join an existing community such as sports/religious/music/creative group. Invest time in the people you meet there and be a contributor. Figure out who you want deeper connection with beyond the group and see where this is reciprocated. Being part of a community reminds us that we are not just ourselves, but part of a much greater whole.
Over to you
In the end, connection is about a myriad of small, but significant interactions. In my survey I asked “Can you give a short example of the last time you felt emotional connection?”
In the kitchen talking about personal stuff with my flatmate. We were both vulnerable and open with one another.
You’re worth knowing. You’re worth connection and belonging.