Do you know how to connect? It’s easy and natural to talk to new people, and really connect with our friends and loved ones, right? Well, then why do so many of us feel isolated?
You probably—hopefully—know what it feels like to be connected to someone, but for a lot of us, our knowledge stops there. Who sat you down to explain the secrets of connecting to someone new? No one sat me down.
What stands in your way of connecting may surprise you: shame. At sometime(s) in your life someone shamed you, and he or she disconnected from you. Humans are “pack animals,” hardwired to connect, so you learned never to do that thing again, whatever it was that got you shunned, to never risk disconnection. Then you started to generalize because you wanted to make sure you never screwed up again.
At some point, you also started to believe that there was something about you that, if other people knew about or saw, would make you unworthy of connection. In my thirty-five years of men’s work, I have seen this pattern in myself and virtually everyone I have ever worked with. You hide your deepest thoughts and your feelings because you think there might be something in there that will push people away. We all have parts of ourselves we hide because we think if others knew the “truth,” they couldn’t love us. We are so sure that our shameful part is so bad, we hide it at any cost.
Men get a lot of flak about not being “emotional,” but it stems from not wanting to reveal our secrets. How can a man or woman respect or love us if they really knew the truth about us? So we sacrifice true connection for stoic strength, laying another layer of tension over the need to connect. In our desire to provide and protect others, we keep our imperfections hidden: we don’t want to look bad, and we don’t want it to affect those we care about.
Men, give it up. Keeping those secrets is literally killing you. That repression, the fear of risking connection, is the cause of stress. We don’t realize it because it has always been there for us and others.
To create connection you need to risk the rejection and shame. Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, spent years researching connection and disconnection. In the TED video below, she discusses the impact of being disconnected. Essentially, it makes you numb.
Being vulnerable through opening up and expressing might embarrass you. It might even reinforce that old shame. But the only way to stop being numb is to risk it.
How to get what you want – connect
I like Brené Brown’s term “Whole Hearted,” which she uses to describe the people who feel connected. They are courageous, they risk revealing their imperfections. This is hard for men. It was tough for me. It was hard to start risking revealing myself. I have many imperfections with my Asperger’s Syndrome and dyslexia; for 22 years, I did everything in my power to hide them. When I look back now, I have to laugh: everything from my speech to my walk exposed my flaws. Trying to hide them only made them more obvious… and made me tenser.
Every week, men in our groups open up and risk rejection—only to be accepted more. As an adult, have you ever rejected a man who sincerely shared himself? I’ll bet you haven’t. I suspect you not only respected him more, you also felt more connected to him. If you are like me, you might have even felt jealous that he stepped up when you didn’t.
What you can do to strengthen connection
Open yourself to the possibilities of truly connecting with people by doing things this way:
- Speak first. Introduce yourself first, be the first one to share a feeling, speak the unspeakable.
- Invest in relationships. Don’t wait to see if the other person shows up (emotionally) first – you show up before there is a relationship.
- Take a stand. Declare what you want and go for it. Men come to the group hedging their bets about creating a relationship with a woman. Once they start speaking and acting as if they will have a relationship—even when there is no sign of one happening in the near future—guess what? Inevitably they create one.
- Be compassionate. First to yourself. You will screw up. You are imperfect – accept it. Whole Hearted people have compassion for themselves and gratitude for others.
- Be authentic. Take off your mask. Let yourself feel and express as if you are an innocent child.
Allow your children to struggle. Don’t deprive them of their experience through your need for perfection. As Brené Brown says in the video, “Our job is not to make them perfect.”
Loosen your hold on the need for certainty. Be yourself. Trade in the shame, and belief that you are not enough, for the possibility that your vulnerability can be a gift to another. Allow joy, the sense of belonging and love into your life through connecting to your vulnerability.