“We live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe.” - Martin Buber.
“We are all storytellers – we make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.” - Stephen Grosz.
Relationships are like breathing; they keep us alive and are absolutely central to our survival. Our natural striving for contact is one of the essential building blocks of human life. We wouldn’t be who we are without other people in our lives to influence, inform, soothe and regulate our experience.
As individuals we begin a relationship when we are conceived and are born into a world where it is inevitable if we are to survive, let alone function healthily. Our desire and ability to seek interaction with others is present from earliest infancy, and it is through mutual contact and communication with our caregivers that we learn to establish and maintain the boundaries between ourselves and others. Only when a baby has begun to recognise its mother as separate and distinct from itself, does it also begin to see where “I” ends and the rest of the world begins; the experience of ‘self’ as individual, separate, is born out of relationship, out of the recognition of the ‘other.’ Interpersonal contact is what affords us the discovery that I and you are separate. You could say that we only discover we exist at all by coming into contact with others.
The quality of our interactions with our primary carers is what largely determines where we end up on the spectrum of mental health. Our formative relationships lay the foundations for the way we relate to ourselves and others in later life, by teaching us how to respond healthily (or unhealthily) to our needs. No parenting is ever perfect, however, and even adequate or “good enough” parenting can leave a legacy of self-defeating behaviour, usually in the form of mistaken beliefs about who we must be in order to deserve the love of those around us – conditions of worth. But whether as children we experienced less than adequate modelling from our parents, or even outright abuse, other people remain one of our best resources for staying sane, and we can go on learning and revising the way we relate to others and ourselves throughout our lives.
“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – C. G. Jung.
Any encounter in which there is mutual impact and openness can remodel our patterns of relating by actually laying down new neural pathways in the brain. The therapeutic relationship is one such encounter and can be used to heal the damage done by other, earlier relationships. The question we must ask ourselves is, to what extent can we be open and truly ourselves in any relationship?
Being open means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Our brains are wired for connection, but our conditions of worth sometimes get in the way, creating shame and, ultimately, the fear of disconnection (or rejection). In order for a true connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be really seen, warts and all. That doesn’t mean it is a good idea to go around baring our soul to everyone we meet or ‘airing all our dirty laundry’ in public, but rather it demands perhaps that we, first of all, find the courage to seek connection with others even when we feel we don’t have anything to offer – when we’re feeling lousy and just want to connect, can we call up a friend and say, “hey, are you free tonight? I could do with some company”, without offering dinner or a pint or whatever currency feels like suitable payment for their time and attention?
Last year I attended a talk on loneliness by the psychotherapist and broadcaster Philippa Perry, during which she asked everyone in the audience to turn to the people either side of us and share three things we were proud of or had gone well for us that week. The point of the exercise was to remind us of how we sometimes forget to share the good stuff, having been socialised not to blow our own trumpets. We find it easier to discuss the weather than to share something really meaningful. Although these apparently more superficial exchanges about the weather, or what happened on X Factor last week (small talk) are important relationally also, helping to establish connection; they play an integral part in social cohesion, in establishing common ground and the sparks of trust between individuals, paving the way for the more ‘intimate’ stuff later on.
Meaningful connection with others relies on our being open and truly ourselves, not who we think we should be. This involves risking feeling vulnerable, but if we are able to be who we really are, it usually follows that the people who stick by us are the ones who love us as we really are, and surely they are the ones we want to have stick by us.
As the well-worn expression (credited originally to Bernard M. Baruch) goes “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
Good encouragement, I feel.
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