Not many would dispute social connections can bring happiness and help us live longer and more fulfilling lives. There are numerous studies looking into just how big of an effect they can have. One meta-analysis across 148 studies (308,849 participants) found benefits comparable to giving up smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Not every social connection is the same though. What kind of connections really bring out the best of us and help us grow? To start, let’s think about what we mean by connection. My favorite definition would be from Brené Brown:
“Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
The more these conditions are met, the better connection there will be. That is a lot of requirements though, so let's break this down.
How does someone feel seen? This can be from small things like a simple "Hi" when they enter a room to bigger things like receiving invitations to participate in something fun or even being asked to help. What often happens though is we may feel upset in not having our own needs for connection met and it changes our own behavior.
We might think they don't want to talk to us because they respond less, so we stop trying to initiate conversations. We only talk to them when we absolutely have to, which is usually when there is a problem. We invite them out, but they rarely want to go. After a while, we just assume they don’t want to go and stop asking in the first place. We start minimizing our interactions, worried about a negative response. We might feel hurt that they don’t seem to want to be around us. Asking for help seems pointless because the best case scenario feels like they’d say no. Changes like this can communicate that we don't want to see the other person and every time we do seem to talk to them it’s because they’ve done something wrong.
What we really want is for our actions to say, “I see you.” Keep inviting them no matter how many times they say no. Don’t judge them or ask why they can’t. Just let them know it’s okay, but if they change their mind to let you know. We don’t want them to feel like they’re being forced through a door. Just that the door is there and it’s open any time they want to use it.
To help someone feel heard, we need to truly listen. It isn't time for suggestions on fixing their problems. This can be difficult in practice because we want to help. We can see someone in a downward spiral and we want to pull them out. We want the best for them. Unfortunately, this may result in them coming to us less because they feel it’s just one more person not listening and trying to tell them what they are doing wrong. As they talk to us less we feel even more pressure to give advice because it feels like there aren't many opportunities so better get them in while we can! Not only does this give the impression we are not willing to listen, but it may send a message that we believe they can't handle things.
They're not looking for answers. They just need to be heard. We can always try to ask later if they would like our help troubleshooting. If they say no, we can respect that and not give unwanted suggestions. That way we are showing we are here for them and we believe in them.
Feeling seen and heard is part of feeling accepted and valued for who they are. That they are good enough. Many times I see solutions brought up about getting friends or improving social skills, but this can promote fitting in as opposed to finding somewhere they belong. It implies there is something wrong with them and encourages not acting like themselves because to be accepted they have to be someone else. If they change to fit in, they won’t be able to get a sense of belonging by being vulnerable and authentic. Belonging is needed for true connection because they cannot feel valued while acting in a way that doesn’t feel true to them.
How else may someone feel valued in a relationship? To feel they have some agency. That their input is considered even when it is not agreed with. To feel they are not a burden and that they are able to contribute in some way. Just as the definition says, “when they can give and receive without judgment.”
We may worry about asking someone for help because we see them struggling and don't want to add any pressure, but so long as we don't show resentment if they decline it may remind them how much we value them. It can also show that we see no judgment in needing help, so they feel comfortable asking for help too. That it's okay because we are all interdependent. This can be a powerful reminder.
Having someone that is able to provide that compassion and continual effort to connect can be a lifeline. It can make all the difference. At Acceptance, we're providing a space where someone can be themselves without judgment. Where we can all receive the connections we need, so we feel safe enough to be more vulnerable with others.