I have been reading some incredible books recently and have had some deeply touching encounters with people. I have felt the ebb and flow of both connecting with myself and connecting with others and am reflecting on the interplay between the two and what it actually means to be connected.
The importance of early relationships
As human beings we are both created and born in relationship. Our development in the first nine months of life is wholly dependent on our mother. The choices she makes during her pregnancy will affect us physically, emotionally and spiritually. Once we are born, we search immediately for the other – the one who will take care of us, and most importantly, who will help us to discover ourselves in this world – the mirror. When we smile, she smiles. When we are unhappy, she too will reflect that downward mouth and let us know that she sees who we are and how we feel in that moment. The connection is precious. An invisible bond that affirms us in this world.
Depending on the quality of that connection and reflection, we will grow to know ourselves and our inner world. We learn what we feel because she encourages us through her attunement to stay with those feelings. We learn how to take care of ourselves through the care and attention she gives us. This is the training ground for all future connection. Children who don’t have it will find ways to adapt to manage the hurt. Some will withdraw, dealing with the painful emotions but not allowing themselves to feel them. Others will become anxious, feeling those emotions but not dealing with them. Some will just not know how to be in relationship and will behave erratically and often destructively.
We recognise these adaptive behaviours in later life as we meet each other. The quiet ones who are hard to reach and understand. The loud ones who are “needy” and demanding. The unreliable ones, who bring chaos and drama, and sometimes danger.
Knowing who we are and how we’ve been shaped by our early relationships is a key part of growing up and growing awareness. There comes a time in life when the learned habits become painful but the new ones aren’t known. As one of my favourite writers, John O’Donohue describes in this poem:
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
Isn’t this so true? And how frustrating these moments in the space in between can be. The space of “not knowing”. Feeling like the old doesn't fit somehow any more but the new isn't yet in sight. A sense of transforming, but into what or whom? Here I feel out of control, aimless, without purpose or clarity and often full of fear and insecurity. Accompanied by the feeling that I really “should” (especially at my age), know what comes next.
How can we nurture real connection?
I'm fortunate enough to be keeping good company right now. The company of people who are willing to be with me in this cavernous space. Those who can endure with me the questions and uncertainty and don’t feel the need to chivvy me along; to move me to certainty; to make me “know” again. These are special and cherished friends and colleagues and guides in my life and I am so grateful to have found them.
The books too, are live accompaniment on this journey. Reading Foluke Taylor’s How the Hiding Seek, gave me a mirror to some of my own feelings and experiences and reminded me that reading was how I often made sense of my world as a child. The shared lives of others reminding me that I am part of a bigger world where we are all connected and often sharing similar experiences.
Through these connections, we return to ourselves. Finding and creating spaces where this is possible is what I am committed to, for myself and for those I love, which includes my clients. I only work with those people as a therapist for whom I feel I can be such a guide. The connection isn’t always there. The time isn’t always right. This is important to acknowledge too.
"The roots of resilience…are to be found in the sense of being understood by and existing in the mind and heart of a loving, attuned and self-possessed other,” writes psychologist, Diana Fosha
For real contact and connection to occur, there needs to be space and an intention to move beyond the surface transactional level. To be present for, truly attend to, enquire and nurture all of the human being in front of you. I’ve always liked the concept of witnessing. That we are here to witness one another in this life, not to judge or criticise or correct, or shape. To provide the gaze for another on their life journey, and to encourage them to listen to themselves to learn the lessons that will guide each of us to a happier life.
I calculate that I have been witness to over 50 people in this last week alone, and that in a week where I have only been working one to one and in small groups. I’m staggered as I realise that. I’ve sunk into a beanbag in a circle of wise, powerful women, holding thinking space for each other; I’ve curled up in my therapy supervision circle and talked of love, life, death and dreams and been reminded that it’s not always all about me; I’ve stood in an ancient Church watching my great niece splashing in the baptism waters; I’ve sat in my therapy chair, inviting, welcoming and exploring all the anxiety, anger, sadness and joy that my clients bring; I’ve Zoomed and Skyped and sat in various spaces alongside my coaching clients, wondering about meaning and purpose and connection and smiling as we find it here, right now, in the space between us. I’ve drunk endless cups of coffee and several glasses of wine, wrapped in engaging conversation with dear friends. I’ve snuggled into my daughter on our sofa, catching up on the day or saying not very much at all.
The value of time alone
It has only been possible for me to be present in each of these conversations because I have also had time alone. Long baths. Even longer walks. Time on my yoga mat. Early morning journaling. My artist’s dates as I fall in love with Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way all over again. Crucial, critical time connecting to my self so that I can go out in the world once again. One can’t exist without the other. The yin and the yang. Being alone is less lonely when I see that it is an essential part of nourishing myself; an essential part of my being.
True connection is both our birthright and a gift. When we connect, we feel part of, and life is more vivid. And more complex. The risks are greater. The feelings more acute. Living in mute colours in the known world of established patterns of relationship can feel safer. Stepping into the circle of real contact is both a fierce and serene way to live. Those relationships that allow us to trust ourselves allow us, in the words of trauma therapist, Bessel van der Kolk “to reconstruct the inner map of ourselves”.
This is the company I'm both seeking and aiming to be right now.
The company that shines a light on the concealed path, even whilst it remains hidden. What company do you offer? And long for right now?