How to Connect When It Feels Hard

A few years ago, I realised that the times I felt most hopeless as a parent were when I felt disconnected, when one of my daughters and I had argued and there seemed to be no bridge between us. I’d be in one room, feeling stuck, and she would be in another. I would see  a long sad path before us in which she grew up and wanted nothing more to do with me.

P1090696Much of all our despair as humans, comes from that feeling of disconnection.

Our language reflects this. A man I knew had a son who had a paranoid disorder; the father spoke about how he couldn’t “get through.” He felt the pain of disconnection, the yearning ache. When someone is depressed, family and friends often say they “can’t reach” that person. Conversely, people going through depression often talk about feeling “cut off” from the world. In the deepest depression I ever had, I felt as if there was a brick wall in front of me blocking off the world.

The sense of connection and belonging is one the powerful drives humans have and it is essential for our well-being. It keeps us sane, it makes us feel alive, and it helps us to cope with difficult circumstances. After my father died, my sisters, mother and I hugged each other several times a day. Seventeen months later, my teenage daughters walked ahead of me as we came out after their grandma’s funeral. I noticed they were holding hands.

So what can we do when it seems we’ve lost it?

First, remember that in many ways, we do go through life as if in a dance – we connect, separate, connect again. That’s okay. So the first thing might be to do nothing.

However, when the disconnect feels deeper than that, the following suggestions are ways I’ve found helpful. I use the first two most often, and include the third – a process known as NVC – because I like its perspective, although, for me, the process itself doesn’t always help. It has, however, helped many people so if the first two suggestions don’t appeal to you then it’s worth a try. (Perhaps the its approach suits some personalities better than others.)

Connect with What’s Here Now

Much (perhaps all) of the pain we feel comes from not focusing on what is here right now. Our minds love to remember past hurts and to project that into the future. This means that instead of paying attention to what is actually happening, we pay attention to our story about it.

IMGFor instance, not long after I realised my hopelessness in parenting came from that sense of disconnection, I also realised the problem was inside me. In those moments, I was disconnected from the deeper intuitive part and was scaring myself with my thoughts. My daughter was just in another room, and I was imagining her gone. In my fear, I was projecting my own past onto her – during my late teens and twenties I didn’t get on too well with my mother, so I imagined that the same thing would happen with my children. Because of this, I used to feel like I had to resolve things whenever I argued with my kids, and I’d drive them batty trying to talk it through when we were still tense. It rarely went the way I wanted it to. All they needed – we needed – was some breathing space.

In reality, we’d had an argument, and at that moment my daughter wanted to be alone. That was all. Without the belief that I’d lost connection or that I’d lost her, I could relax and feel the deeper connection that goes way beyond a few arguments. I could also remember that I never stopped loving my mother and that we have have had a loving connection for many years now.

When connection seems difficult, connect with the present moment.

Connect with Yourself –  Allow Your Emotions

When you are caught in argument or trying to help someone who feels depressed or anxious, your mind whirls. In these circumstances, it is very easy to lose touch with yourself. You try to “fix” the other person and forget about the one thing you can do something about – your own emotions.

When we become totally focused on another person, there’s nobody at home in us.

DSCN1898You’ve probably heard the term mindfulness – it’s a buzz word these days. If you think it means meditation, that’s only a small part of it. Mindfulness is most effective if applied throughout daily life. It simply means to be aware (mindful) of something. It also implies some acceptance of what you notice – but that does not mean you need to skip to acceptance of some distasteful situation. Instead, start by noticing your distaste. Start by allowing your emotions. Start by connecting with you.

I’ll be honest – for most of us, this isn’t a quick fix. You might not like what you find and want to avoid it. You will probably have days when you would do almost anything but feel your own emotions. We figure out when we are very young that some of our emotions aren’t welcome. Unless your parents were real Gods instead of the demi-Gods you believed them to be when you were little – you learned to block off or squash down “unacceptable” emotions. For deep connection, it’s necessary to undo that.

Learning to allow emotions, to even welcome them, is like climbing an undulating, forested hill. At times, you can only see a few feet ahead of you, other times the way ahead is clear. Sometimes you think you are almost at the summit, only to get there and discover there’s a long way still to go. However, with every step you take, if you turn around and look around you will see further than you could before. Even in the forest, there is space between the trees.

Why does allowing your own emotions help you connect with someone else? Allowing is not the same as expressing – it just means that you notice you feel fear, anger or whatever, and you are willing to let it be there and to let it go. Sometimes just noticing the emotion is enough for it to dissipate. If it doesn’t, you can consciously choose to let it go. Either way, you connect with yourself and don’t have such a strong need to get something from the other person. Remember that dance of connection and separation? When we stop pursuing, the other person often stops trying to self-protect and opens up to us.

Other times, paying attention to your emotions gives you the space to feel the connection you already have, and that has never been lost. It can be helpful to think of emotions as energy in motion. Once I felt furiously angry at one of my daughters and when I allowed myself to connect with that energy, I remembered how much I loved her and that I really was willing to let this feeling go.

Connect with yourself by focusing on your emotions.

Connect with Needs – Your Needs and Those of the Other Person

Usually, we feel disconnected from other people because we are judging them in some way. We want them to be different than they are. Another way to reconnect, therefore, it so see that the reason for any negative emotion or behaviour is a an unmet need, rather than a flaw in a person.

This isn’t really a new approach – it has probably existed in some parts of the world for centuries – but it’s not common in Western cultures. Last century Marshall Rosenberg developed what he called Non-Violent Communication (NVC) – recognising that when we judge and attack with words, it does feel violent even if there is no physical violence. The intention of NVC is to maintain connection and to treat others and ourselves with respect.

I became interested in NVC when I read about mediation Rosenberg had conducted with warring tribes in Nigeria. One man yelled, “You people are murderers,” and Rosenberg responded, “Your need for safety is not being met.” The guy calmed down and after some more of this “translation,” the tribes calmed down and reached agreement.

I wanted to be able to understand people that way too. However, for me, it proved to be quite tricky. For a start, Rosenberg’s team had worked with both sides separately for days before the meeting, whereas after I’d done a 2-day workshop in NVC, I tried to put what I’d learned into practice at home.

The idea is to observe, express your feelings and needs or guess at what the other person’s might be, and then make or invite a request. So, if your kids haven’t tidied away their toys to you might say, “When I see toys on the living room floor and I remember our agreement, I feel disheartened because cooperation matters to me.” (Observation, expression of feeling and need.)

You continue, “Are you feeling frustrated when you think of tidying because you want to have fun?” (Feeling: frustration, need: fun.)

“Would you be willing to work out a fun way that we can keep the living room tidy?” (Request.)

If your kids say no, then you would try again to find a solution.

As you’ve possibly noticed, the language can be cumbersome. To counter this, the instructor advised us to let friends and family know we might sound odd for a while, but to bear with us. When I tried, my family rolled their eyes, and said, “Not this again!”

While I found it hard to counter that response, for me the biggest issue with NVC was that trying to figure it out someone’s need often took me away from intuitively knowing it. Although I did really (and still like) the perspective that issues arise because of unmet needs rather than inherent flaws, after attending two courses, I still struggled with that loss of intuition. So I kept the ethos in mind, and went on allowing and releasing emotions and using a process of mindful inquiry. The effect, for me, was that I became more naturally able to consider another person’s needs.

Yet, when it works, NVC is very effective at helping maintain connection. The other person doesn’t even need to know or express their feelings. When you hit on it, they give a huge sigh and say, “Yes.” So you will know – and you will feel connection!

For me, another important take away from NVC is that we often confuse “needs” with “strategies” we employ to try to get those needs met. For example: suppose you sleep with a gun by your bed to protect your family. You might think the gun meets your need to feel safe, but really it is your strategy to meet that need. Other strategies might be to move to a different area or to take up self-defence classes. “I need a gun” is not the same as “I need to feel safe” – it’s the symptom of an unmet need.

Most people try to connect at the level of strategy and group themselves into packs of others who use the same strategies. This creates a lot of division as people try to prove that their strategy is the right one. This is probably most obvious in politics, but it happens in our personal lives too.

If my strategy for meeting my need for love is to persuade everyone that I am kinder and smarter than you so they love me but not you, then you aren’t going to like it much and we’ll probably fall out. (That is how many of us go about life, since it’s what we learned to do as kids to try to get more of our parents’ love.)

If on the other hand, I recognise that we both have a need for love, then I become willing to share. I will support you and will see that in giving love I also receive it.

Another concern I have with NVC is the arbitrary way Rosenberg selects what he considers to be needs. For example recognition is valid as a need, approval is not. (The theory being that approval needs to be given my someone else.) For a more thorough investigation of NVC, I recommend this article.

I eventually realised it’s not always necessary to express empathy in words. My husband is not the most effusive person when it comes to emotions and after trying to get him to open up, I saw that what I thought was my need for communication was more likely a strategy to try to get reassurance. Sometimes, after a week of long shifts, his need is to be left alone. So now, at those times, I silently empathise instead of trying to fix it.

Connection after all is also about understanding.

Connect by letting go of judgments and instead think  of needs.

Connection with the Mirror (Not the One in Your Bathroom!)

Finally, I find it helpful to notice that what I dislike in someone else is a reflection of what I repress in myself. If I can forgive them, I also forgive myself, and reconnect with the disowned part of me.


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  1. beautiful thoughts, Yvonne.

    Lack to connect could also be due to some ego problems….gotta keep that aside to be able to draw a line from our various emotions, and embrace what we have today!

    Loved your tweet!

    1. Author

      Thanks Ruchira. Yes, I’d say that what most people call ego is either pride – which is an emotion – or else wanting separation – to be special – which is a desire that can be released too. So even with that, connecting with emotions and desires allows it to release and for us to be here now.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. It is fascinating how you have broken this down, Yvonne. The step by step process, the standing back and self analysing what you are feeling and why, the somewhat laborious way of addressing the seemingly daily frustrations to find a way beyond any simmering annoyance and it a better understanding. I think (I hesitate to place it higher than that) I do not have either the mind or temperament to do that. For me, I hope I come to a similar conclusion but not in anything like as structured a way. I fear, when I try and grasp at my emotions I get muddled and stuck. At best I try and think ‘what are they thinking and feeling and why’? Trying to imagine why I’m receiving the reaction I am to what I’m saying (or not saying) doing (or not doing) helps me. Though reading your approach makes me wonder at the implicit arrogance in my approach – it rather smacks of my believing my emotions and reactions are appropriate and needing to work out why others feel and say what they feel and say. In practice I do adjust my behaviour when it is apparent that it is mine that is out of step. But my default feels like I’m testing others before I test myself. I will look at what you say about NVC again and see how I can accommodate it more readily into what I do.

    1. Author

      Geoff, please correct me if I am wrong, but I think you are mainly referring to the last part of this post – NVC? If so, then I do agree with you that it feels laborious. That was largely why I didn’t keep trying with it but went back to the process of inquiry was already using and then learned to allow emotions and release them. With those, there’s not the same need to think in the heat of the moment and they aided my intuition rather than hindered it. (I’ve slightly amended this post after reading your comment because I don’t think it was clear enough.) I include NVC largely because it did help me look at negative emotions and behaviours in a different way, and because I do know several people who find it really useful.
      It sounds as if what you do is actually similar so it’s interesting that you feel you wouldn’t have the temperament for it. I almost wrote in the post that I wonder if it could be because I have always tended to be naturally empathetic that NVC didn’t work for me – it made what was an intuitive (and therefore unconscious) process into a thinking one. But I don’t know if this is true, so I didn’t include it in the end!

      I also find interesting that you say perhaps there’s an arrogance in your approach. To me it seems a sound approach – acknowledging your own part whilst considering why someone reacts the way they do. Though I suppose if you do it with that outlook that seems common these days of: “It’s not me, it’s them,” then that’s different. But it doesn’t sound as if you do that.
      While I was writing this article, I looked for some examples of NVC (to check what I was about to write against them) and came across an article comparing NVC to “Clean Communication.” I had not heard of this before, but it seems to be similar but with significant differences. The writer expresses many of the reservations I have about NVC, not least, “in attempting to perfect our communication, we risk destroying the natural flow of human interaction, sounding a little like robots and thereby risking damage to our relationships.” The writer also says that aspects of NVC are: “somewhat condescending.” (I should add that don’t agree with every point the writer makes – but with many!)
      If you are interested this is the link:
      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment!

      1. You got me to re read the post and yes we have more in comon when I stop and think about examples of where being mindful, empathetic led to a better more cooperative, conjoined outcome. I think the comment ‘ the natural flow of human interaction’ best captures my issue. I have a dislike, maybe even a distrust of too much pre analysis. I want to let my emotions flow while allowing for part of me to act as a sort of referee, standing to oneside and ensuring I’m not trying to pressurise or force a conclusion. So, looking at it that way, it feels more instinctive, but in truth there’s always some part ready to acknowledge the emotions are overflowing and call a time out. In reality, the troubles really come when I stop listening and interject a thought, view or comment. I constantly relearn the two ears one mouth principle.

  3. This was a powerful post for me – all of these suggestions could be so helpful when I lose connection with my son through his being overwhelmed, or anxiety, or melting down. It is at those moments that I feel like I am swirling and these suggestions could really help! Thank you!

    1. Author

      Elizabeth, I’m so glad to see it could be useful to you. I think most parents fear that loss of connection and I expect it is harder when your child has autism.
      Thanks for your comment.

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