When I start working with a new coaching client, one of the first things I look for is how well the person is connected. Several years ago I came to the conclusion that the quality of my clients’ connections with others often determines the extent to which they will achieve their coaching goals.
Being well-connected doesn’t necessarily mean joining a lot of groups or having dozens of friends. Numerous studies have shown that it’s not the quantity, but the quality, of connections that matter. However, being connected does mean having at least a few high quality connections that give meaning and purpose to your life.
Being Connected Feeds Your Spirit
Brené Brown, a social researcher and one of my favorite authors, published her 4th New York Times bestseller this year: Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Over the past 15 years, she and her team have collected 200-thousand-plus pieces of data about “connectedness” and related topics.
Brown’s conclusion is that we have sorted ourselves into factions and that we are more disconnected from each other than ever. In fact, she concludes that the world is in a collective spiritual crisis.
Brown bases her conclusion on a definition of spirituality from an earlier book that she wrote, The Gifts of Imperfection:
Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Brené Brown
Being Connected – Almost Anywhere!
Dennis and I just returned from a 10-day vacation in Belize. Sure, the weather was wonderful (a high of 83 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 70 while we’re shivering in the 20s back at home today!). But if I had to say one thing that made our trip really special, it was the connections that we made.
In Belize, our shuttle drivers, tour guides, and B&B hosts were amazing. They knew just what to say and do to make us feel comfortable and to connect us with the heart and soul of Belize – and to them. On our snorkeling trip and boat ride to Bread & Butter Cayes with a family of four, we discovered that the father in the family knows my brother in Ipswich, MA! On a walk into Hopkins Village, we met a man who worked for DuPont in Richmond, VA – where we had our very first client in 1981 and know many people in leadership positions.
In short, Dennis and I felt connected to others on our vacation. It was a great feeling, and it lingers.
That Lonely Feeling When You’re Not Connected
Recently, one of my clients said to me, “I can barely get through the Holidays with my family members. They were with me for four hours on Christmas Day, and I’m still not quite back to being myself. I felt so alone, even though I was with my family. Now, I know that’s not healthy. In fact, I want to have a closer connection to my family. I want to move past some of the things that are keeping me from doing that. I want to be connected.”
My client physically connected with her family members for a few hours. And she wanted to connect with them emotionally. Yet she couldn’t.
Why didn’t my client feel connected? In short, her brain was attempting to override connection with self-protection.
The brains of social species have evolved to respond to the feeling of being pushed to the social perimeter – being on the outside – by going into self-preservation mode. When we feel isolated, disconnected, and lonely, we try to protect ourselves. In that mode, we want to connect, but our brain is attempting to override connection with self-protection. That means less empathy, more defensiveness, more numbing, and less sleeping. In Rising Strong, I wrote about how the brain’s self-protection mode often ramps up the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, creating stories that are often not true or exaggerate our worst fears and insecurities. Unchecked loneliness fuels continued loneliness by keeping us afraid to reach out. Brené Brown
Loneliness as Perceived Social Isolation
Neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has been studying loneliness for over 20 years, describes loneliness as “perceived social isolation.” We feel lonely when we feel disconnected. That lack of connection results from an absence of meaningful social relationships. It can happen when a group doesn’t accept you, when you lose an intimate relationship or friendship, at family gatherings, or even in your own neighborhood or at work. When you’re lonely, you’re just not “connected.”
But here’s the hope that I find in Cacioppo’s definition of loneliness: Loneliness is perceived social isolation. As long-time administrators of 360 Feedback in workplaces, we know that many employees’ self-perceptions of their value and performance in the workplace are different from their co-workers’ perceptions. Through 360 Feedback, learning to let go of one’s own perceptions, and opening up to others’ perceptions, employees can change their mindsets and behaviors and become more productive and valuable employees. Similarly, when a person perceives that they are socially isolated, they can change that perception by learning more about themselves and reaching out to others.
Just to be clear – there’s a world of difference between loneliness and solitude (or being alone), though the terms are often used interchangeably. Solitude is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to a sense of calm, enhanced awareness, insight, and gratitude. Indeed, introverts get their energy and overall sense of well-being more from being alone than from being with others. Loneliness, on the other hand, has a sense of isolation. Loneliness is painful; being alone need not be painful.
For more information about this topic and how personality type impacts the amount of solitude you need, check out Dennis’ article, “Solitude or Loneliness – Which Is It?”
What Keeps Us from Being Connected?
Brené Brown says that there is one variable – fear – that, more than anything else, drives and magnifies our compulsion to sort ourselves into factions and cut ourselves off from real connection with other people. Some of the common ways that fear shows up are fear of:
- Getting Hurt
- Pain of Disconnection
- Criticism and Failure
- Not Measuring Up
Fear almost always gets in the way of being connected.
The Danger of Not Being Connected
As I said at the beginning of this article, the clients I have who are not well-connected to others are usually not very successful in meeting their coaching goals. It’s not surprising that I often have a gut feeling, right from the beginning, that those clients may be in danger.
In a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton found that loneliness can be life-threatening:
- Living with air pollution increases your odds of dying early by 5 percent.
- Living with obesity increases your odds of dying early by 20 percent.
- Excessive drinking increases your odds of dying early by 30 percent.
- Living with loneliness increases your odds of dying early by 45 percent!!
Being lonely is not just sad – it’s dangerous.
Four Ways to Get Connected
- Learn to identify loneliness when you feel it. Don’t just sweep it under the rug and hope it will go away. Face it head on. Don’t be ashamed. Transient loneliness is ok. But if it lingers a long time, it’s not ok – even when the cause is grief, loss, or heartbreak.
- Muster up your courage to see loneliness as a warning sign of what’s to come – sadness, depression, pain, perhaps even early death. Determine that you don’t want to live that way and that you want to do something about it.
- Find someone you trust and go deep, as Brené Brown says. Be vulnerable. Lean into your discomfort by opening up about yourself, your life, your fears, and your dreams. That “someone you trust” could be a family member, friend, co-worker, significant other/spouse, neighbor, coach, or therapist. Whoever it is, be willing to own your own pain, share it, and feel it.
- Identify a few social situations in which you can start connecting with others. Reach out and make them work for you. You may have to try several groups, clubs, churches, coffees with co-workers, or outings with family members before you find out what’s right for you. But slowly and steadily build your connections until you are no longer alone.
We Can Help You Get Connected!
As coaches, we help our clients find deeper self-connections, as well as connections to others. That enables them to be healthier and to be in a better position to meet their coaching goals. We would love for you to contact us if you need help in finding the best ways to get connected.
We leave you with this final thought on being connected:
When we really examine kindness, we find it is a deep and abiding understanding of how connected we all are. Sharon Salzberg
Happy New Year to our readers! See you in 2018!