Actually, connection more than matters. Connection is essential to our happiness and our survival.
Let’s start this the other way up. What’s it like when you have no connection? How does it make you feel? You probably don’t want to go there – but use these few cues to just move gently into that territory for a moment.
For how long does your own company serve as company?
What’s the longest time you’ve been alone?
Just touch a moment with your mind when things were bad and you didn’t know they could change.
Take a moment to walk into a new job/school/pub where no one seems to register your arrival…..
If you’ve engaged with these prompts, there will have been changes in your breathing, your posture, your facial muscles. You will feel weakened.
We’re not designed to be alone
We are herd animals. We live in groups. Over millions of years, we have relied on others for our survival. Our safety comes through our capacity to connect. Maintaining connection is a lifelong task and without connections to others, we fare poorly. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
We’re most vulnerable in infancy
Without support, the newborn infant would not survive. Have you noticed how babies are great at letting you know they’re there and drawing you in? Babies are wired to connect. Attachment behaviours are about safety in relationships. The aim of attachment behaviour is proximity or contact, with the associated affect of feeling secure and safe. All through our lives, we’ll go to great lengths to achieve these benefits: look at all the pop songs about the cost and consequences of securing that crucial relationship.
It’s this same survival need that drives insecure attachment. After all, baby is in no position to make a judgement on whether their parent has the experiences and capacities required to parent them well. Baby has to connect with what’s available and seek to dance the family dance. There may be cost and consequences here too: we all adapt to what’s required, complicating and distorting our connection capacity in order to ensure we survive. This can have significant consequences when we arrive in school.
Life is unpredictable
Even successful attachment is not a guarantee of personal security. What happens if your attachment figure dies? Without that crucial personal connection, who or what holds you then? Evolution has provided a wider security net in the tribe and the mechanism best described as ‘belonging’.
Although the predominant cultural myth is of independence, the truth is that we are interdependent. We connect within groups. And we’re strongly aware of the threat of exclusion. Again, on a day to day level, just notice what you’re wearing and reflect for a moment what membership is guaranteed by your get up. Who do you connect with? Who is it you are relying on? In return for our security, we have a loyalty to our ‘belonging group’, whether that be a clique at work, a nation, a gang, an ethnic group. We crave being ‘in’, and feel rewarded when we’re central to the group.
How easily I connect in an individual relationship or in a group is determined by my experience. The development of the brain is use dependent (Perry B et al 1995) and, due to rapid cellular growth in infancy, early experience hardwires the brain. My 'normal' starts very early on, rooted in my early experience. Whatever my experience, my capacity for connection is not stuck. Human beings are designed to connect, and experiences throughout my life will change my brain. (Doidge 2008).
Barriers to connection
There’s one more element of connection I want to touch on. How well are you connected up internally? How much of your own stuff gets in the way? How much of your life are you able to be present in the present? How cleanly do you move from sensation to recognition, to action? Many of the impediments, the barriers to connect to others, are of our own making. They are habitual, unnoticed, assumed to be part of ourselves. I see my own on a daily basis and am reminded that this is where the work is!
So, embrace connection. Experiment. Nurture it. Extend it. Enjoy it. You’re designed for it. Think back to the last person who made you smile – and note the movement in your facial muscles. Was the smile rekindled? For all of us, whoever and wherever we are, in whatever circumstances, connection is vital.
Doidge N. 2008 The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London. Penguin
Holt-Lunstad J, TB, Layton JB. 2010. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine 7 (7)
Perry B et al. 1995 Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and ‘use dependent’ development of the brain: How states become traits Infant Mental Health Journal, December 2015