[December 11, 2020] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas
Social Connection in times of physical distancing
This is our Healthy Me Series designed to encourage each of you to rethink what success looks like personally and professionally in today’s world. We start by asking: What is success in an era of geographic distancing, political and social unrest, social media overload, continuous change, conflicting values and priorities, and polarization on every front? How can we have the energy and insights to be all that we can be for ourselves and others? And why do I feel so compelled to reimagine a better way? This series is for those who are feeling the disconnect between head and heart, the status quo and a healthy future. This series is for you.
This third blog in the Healthy Me Series is focused on boosting our exhausted systems through healthy connection with others.
Social Connection in Times of Physical Distancing
A time of physical distancing quickly brings home the power of and need for people connections in our lives. Interpersonal relationships are central to our healthy psychological development and ongoing resilience. Over the past several months, many of us have found it to be increasingly difficult to connect in meaningful ways (no, Zoom doesn’t cut it) and are experiencing the resulting feelings of emotional exhaustion -- loneliness, rage, grief and/or despair. It’s okay to freely admit this!
We are actually experiencing emotional exhaustion as a society. This extreme mental and/or physical fatigue happens when people get stuck in an emotion through constant exposure to situations that activate this emotion (think about healthcare professionals returning day after day to their sick patients). It can also occur when people are trapped in a situation they can’t escape from (quarantined at home, remote work, parenting 24/7). And, emotional exhaustion can also be the result of getting trapped in your own thoughts, ruminating on the negative and unable to move out of your fear.
Becoming a healthier person requires the nourishment of meaningful connection with others. The pandemic has forced us to reconsider how to engage with others during this time. One hopeful prospect out of all this chaos could be that friendships grow deeper and support of community is strengthened.
Through the exploration of elements that promote healthy relationships, from the science of psychology, we can redefine new ways to connect in times of physical distancing. These relationship elements are: interpersonal connection, empathy, mutuality, authenticity and reciprocity.
Connection. We all have two competing needs that are critical to our wellbeing – the need for autonomy as well as connection. These are two sides of the same coin and we vacillate between them on any given day. Autonomy is about independence and freedom -- having an identity that distinguishes you as you. It’s about being your own person. Connection, on the other hand, is about personal familiarity, closeness and intimacy.
Social connection is a form of nourishment of the soul. In fact, it is a basic biological need, and we cannot be healthy without it. Research clearly tells us that social isolation and loneliness increase a person’s odds of an early death by 25 – 30 percent. Isolation is as impactful as having a chronic disease such as diabetes. Without connection we do not receive the ongoing nourishment needed for our daily living – nourishment that bolsters our emotional immune system and our overall health.
So, while we have an innate need to be independent, that does not change the fact that we also need to connect with others in meaningful ways. No one is complete without it – introverts and extroverts alike.
Empathy. Empathy is an important skill for connecting. It is the ability to imagine the feelings that someone else is experiencing. It involves a willingness to consider and/or explore another person’s feelings within the context of their experience. Your opinion isn’t critical here – your heart is. When you empathize, you put yourself in the shoes of the other person to try on their point of view, temporarily suspending your doubts, judgments and personal needs in favor of exploring their perspective. The focus is on understanding the other person and their feelings, not necessarily on accepting their view of the situation as your own. We could probably all use a little more of this – especially as a long and challenging winter is just around the corner.
And to complicate things further, more than ninety percent of an emotional message is nonverbal. People’s emotions are expressed through cues more than through their words – cues such as tone of voice, gestures, facial expression and the like – and are often taken in unconsciously. During times of physical distancing and wearing of face masks, this becomes much more difficult. Shakespeare said that the eyes are the window to our soul – so look beyond the mask, watch with intention, and keep your mind open to new ways to see others and understand their perspective.
Collectively we are experiencing an “empathy famine.” Patience, civility and understanding are increasingly replaced with intolerance, rage and abrupt behaviors. Think about your past week and your experiences related to negative social media messages, road rage, mean politics, confrontive public behaviors and even argumentative interactions in the local grocery store. Sadly, it’s everywhere. So … take that slow deep breath before you react, ask more questions, check in more often, stay curious and put on that other person’s shoes. It’s time to be more intentional about building connection rather than severing it.
Mutuality. Mutuality is a dynamic condition in which two or more persons simultaneously experience situations together. It is a sharing of energy. When we do something together, such as watch a funny movie, cook a holiday meal, or play a game of hoops, our brains’ emotional responses synchronize, even if we are with strangers. It creates a connection that is comforting, even when the experience isn’t. As an example, hospitalized patients and their nurses often feel a strong sense of mutuality after going through difficult times together. Mutuality shores people up and is forever memorable.
Think about the special people in your life and the situations you enjoy together. Find innovative ways to experience events while keeping yourself out of harm’s way. Get creative. Friend or family game night – even via Zoom – can be fun and provide that needed break from the pandemic madness. Talk about it. Plan it together.
Authenticity. Authenticity is a condition in which a person is able to know and present themself to others in a manner that genuinely represents their thoughts and feelings. It is the ability to share the good, the bad and the most intimate or difficult parts of yourself, including the parts people might judge. Breaking out in sweat yet? We know this isn’t easy or comfortable for most, but it can be liberating (check out our prior blogs in this series) and enables genuine connection with others.
We gain a better understanding of ourselves through a blend of personal introspection as well as through the interactions within our relationships. It often requires getting our ego out of the way (which is always a good thing) and paying attention to when you are pretending, performing, pleasing, perfecting or looking for approval. It’s about acknowledging your feelings, admitting a lapse or imperfection and acting out of your values.
Authentic living is built on an internal clarity of your identity or purpose – that strength in you that gives you joy and meaning in even the most mundane acts – and making intentional choices over and over again that build on this purpose. This may be difficult initially but with courage you can begin a journey that is life-altering for you and others.
This is a great time to learn more about yourself as you move in and out of new, difficult and challenging situations. What is it that gives you meaning, that energy boost, puts you in the zone where time passes quickly? What choices can you make today to build your strength and live more meaningfully?
Reciprocity. Reciprocity is the give and take that occurs in relationships. It is the exchange of things or experiences with others for mutual benefit. It is not something that can be mandated, but is given freely – no strings attached. We give and receive all kinds of things in our relationships – money, time, attention, gifts, favors, empathy. Trust is created through our give-and-take-experiences when we hold the belief that the other person will reciprocate in proportion to what we give them. We believe it is a two-sided relationship. This trust further enables us to share our most difficult feelings - such as sadness, hurt and anger - during difficult times without fear of judgment or defensiveness.
Reciprocity also involves mutually holding back at times – resisting the urge, not saying that thing or throwing that stone, showing some compassion. Sometimes less is best.
Do you have reciprocal, trusting relationships? Is there someone you’d like to build trust with? Think about ways to graciously invest in others and receive the benefits that others give to you. Keep challenging the status quo and initiate the change you would like to happen!
It’s Time to Connect
We live stronger lives when we have something positive to move toward. Too often over the past few months we have found ourselves fighting against our current circumstances, resisting, and going nowhere. Connection with others can help us get unstuck and find more meaning in our life -- that bigger, broader purpose that energizes and sustains us. Connection is an accelerator for healthy movement from survive to thrive mode.
Reach out with intention this week to one or more people in your life. Find new ways to connect meaningfully, experience something together that you both enjoy, talk and laugh about it, share the real you versus the perfect you, and give them some of your time and attention. You will feel more alive, more energized, and they will too. Do it for the health of it!
And we also encourage you to feel free to reach out to us. We guarantee we are good listeners; we can generally make you laugh, and you will always end the conversation feeling a little more connected to a community of women who support one another!
“If love is the answer could you please rephrase the question?” ~ Lily Tomlin
Nagoski, E. & Nagoski, A. (2019). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. New York: Ballantine Books.