Unlocking Connection

I had a mindblowing lightbulb moment yesterday. I think I’ve found the (light) switch that turns on my sense of connection to other people.

What Is Connection?

I absolutely love the feeling of connection with other people. It’s a really special thing.

Unfortunately, that feeling would come and go, seemingly for no real reason.

I’m now wondering – what’s the average percentage of time for people to feel connected to each other? I imagine there’s a full spectrum of experience…

Some (unfortunate) people feel isolated and alone most of the time – very rarely connected. And other (lucky) people will feel connected to others almost all the time.

I have intermittent depression and I’m a drug addict (God, it’s still a bit painful admitting that, but it’s important I’m honest).

When my mood is low, I often get a strong urge to isolate myself from others. And as my drug use became more problematic, I hid that part of myself away from others too. At times, I even shut myself away from my own wife!

I’m quite introverted to begin with. I really enjoy time on my own and I find social situations quite draining. Usually, a few hours in the company of others is my limit… and then I need to spend time on my own again to relax and recharge my batteries.

But I really come alive in 1:1 chats with people where we both listen intently and talk about issues which feel meaningful. In other words, not just everyday smalltalk.

For me, listening seems to be at the heart of connection. Actually, it’s more than just listening, let me try to expand…

For me, connection to others involves:

  • Listening carefully to what the other person is saying
  • Maintaining an attitude of empathy and kindness
  • Being non-judgemental
  • Wanting the best for the other person

Does that make sense? Do you get what I mean? Am I missing any important elements of connection?

The Cause of Disconnection

When I feel disconnected from others, my thoughts and attention are turned inward. I become concerned mainly with my own thoughts and feelings.

When I feel this way, other people often feel a little threatening… and that feeling is at the root of the social anxiety I often experience.

It’s fear… fear of others… fear that I’m going to be judged. Fear that I’m not good enough.

This fear and disconnection can become a vicious spiral…

I feel a little low / fearful… so I tend to build a psychological barrier against others… my thoughts and attention turn inwards… which only exacerbates the unpleasant feelings of depression and isolation.

I’d often crave a sense of connection with others, but felt unable to break through that barrier of fear and self-analysis.

The Cure

Yesterday, the focus at our 12 Steps meeting was love. In our fellowship, we have an unconditional positive regard for our fellow addicts. We want the best for them. We want to help them recover. And we listen carefully to each other as we share our stories. This is what I mean by “love”.

There’s a saying I’ve heard often at 12 Steps meetings but not quite fully understood…

“We only keep what we have by giving it away.”

I thought that phrase meant that if we want to stay clean and sober, it’s important to help other addicts. But the cynical part of me kinda dismissed this idea as merely a handy way to increase the membership of the 12 Steps fellowship and therefore keep the organisation alive.

But now I see this very differently. I think that quote is talking about love and connection.

Here’s what I realised…

“We only stay connected with others when we give away our love.”

Bollinger, R. (2019)

This is the cure for feeling isolated and disconnected! Rather than focussing inwards and waiting for a feeling of love and connection to magically appear, we have to create it ourselves!

When we feel a sense of love and compassion towards others, it is us that feels love.

If you want to feel love and connection with others, then you have to generate a feeling of love and connection towards someone else.

You have to give away the feeling of love to someone else, in order to keep it yourself.

This strikes me as gob-smackingly profound. It’s fucking amazing!

When I make myself feel love, empathy, compassion and warmth towards another person, suddenly my heart opens up.

Say goodbye to introverted introspection. Gone is the social anxiety. Gone is the fear of others.

Say hello to feeling connected and experiencing a deep sense of love.

“You cannot feel love and fear at the same time. So if you want to feel connected to others, make yourself feel love towards someone else. Your fear (social anxiety) and sense of isolation will evaporate.”

Bollinger, R. 2019

I’ve realised that I can no longer wait around passively for a feeling of love and connection to come over me. I have to make it happen by giving away my love to someone else.

This one realisation has the potential to massively change the way that I relate to other people.

For the 2-3 weeks when I experienced drug-induced psychosis, I had virtually zero social anxiety. I felt very connected to all aspects of myself, and almost as strongly connected to other people (when I paid them close attention).

Sadly that feeling faded as the psychosis worse off. And my social anxiety gradually returned.

But now, thanks to this realisation I’ve had about love and connection, I feel hopeful that I can banish that fear of others and my social anxiety.

I’ve found the key to unlocking a new mode of being which will bring so much more joy and love into my life.

I no longer need to feel afraid of others! I can connect with people at will!

Now that is pretty fucking awesome.

Two Halves

We are two halves. These halves are often in conflict. One option is to pick a side versus the other one. But then we are denying a part of ourselves.

What we have to try to do is negotiate between the different parts of ourselves. This applies at the individual level, with interpersonal relationships, and at a societal level.

If you insist that the way you currently view things is correct and are refusing to listen or negotiate with other points of view… then conflict, death and destruction are inevitable. We must always try to find a middle way.

Bollinger, R. 2019

  • Brains: Logical side vs emotional.
  • Belief Systems: Religious/Spiritual vs Scientific/Rational.
  • Marriage/Partnerships: You vs your partner.
  • Politics: Left vs Right; Democrat vs Republican; Liberal vs Conservative.

We must always:

  • Listen respectfully to others.
  • Ask good questions in order to better understand differing perspectives.
  • Choose kindness over our need to be right.
  • Empathise and try to see other points of view.
  • Be still, calm and wise. Don’t rush.
  • Negotiate – try to find common ground
  • Giving us… A plurality of ideas
  • Which leads to… Peace and harmony

The opposite of this is:

  • Being certain you’re already right. In other words, refusing to consider the possibility you may choose to amend your current perspective in light of new evidence.
  • Refusing to listen to others, or just waiting for our turn to talk.
  • Act quickly and rashly.
  • Belittling, mocking and dismissing other perspectives or other people.
  • Giving us… Ideological purity
  • Which leads to… Conflict and anger

Looking for differences, reasons to disagree… this often results in us throwing the baby out with the bath water. In other words, we reject a small part of something, then use that small rejection as justification to reject the whole idea/belief system/person. We miss out on huge benefits just because we don’t like a small part of something.

Instead, we need to look at what we have in common, how we can accommodate other ideas and other people.

Let’s try to integrate all the advantages of all these different ways of thinking and being… and just learn to ignore or tolerate the parts which we don’t like. We need to find ways to live in peace and harmony, rather than continually rejecting parts of ourselves and others.

This is the middle way.

It’s not easy. It feels painful. It rarely feels fully satisfactory.

But it’s the best way, overall.


Person First

One of the most disappointing aspects of my recent psychosis is how certain people used it as a justification to dismiss anything I said which seemed a bit out of the ordinary.

Don’t listen to him, he’s got psychosis. It’s bound to be nonsense.

Firstly, that’s intellectually narrow-minded. Secondly it can be unnecessarily hurtful.

A close family member is a consultant in dementia care. Sometimes people living with dementia get confused and say things which aren’t true or don’t make much sense to carers and family members. But the important thing to remember is that they are still people and they still deserve to be treated with dignity.

Grandma’s Glasses

When grandma accuses a staff member of stealing her reading glasses, some people might react by saying:

No grandma, don’t be silly. You’ve got dementia, of course no-one is stealing anything. It’s all in your mind.

Actually, it’s surprisingly common for people to behave like that. But put yourself in grandma’s shoes for a second. How would it feel to be spoken to that way?

If you’re grandma, then to you it makes sense that someone stole your reading glasses. They’re not here any more and the first possible reason that popped into your head was that someone must have stolen them. There are actually quite interesting and scientifically valid reasons why grandma’s dementia made it more likely she’d jump to this conclusion.

So for grandma, when someone tells you you’re being silly about something which feels important to you, it can feel absolutely horrible. No-one likes to be told they’re stupid, like my ex-friend has been doing to me recently. It causes you to start re-questioning everything you think you believe is true. Let me tell you, feeling like you might be going insane is pretty unsettling!

A much kinder (and intellectually rigorous) way to respond to grandma is to take her concerns about her missing glasses seriously and consider alternative explanations for where they might be.

Perhaps she just misplaced them. Maybe a staff member put them away in an unfamiliar drawer. Maybe a staff member really did steal her glasses. For this last option, it’s pretty unlikely, but we still shouldn’t instantly rule it out as a possibility.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt is much kinder than telling them they are wrong.

Please don’t totally invalidate someone’s view of reality – it’s soul destroying. Instead of thinking, “That can’t possibly be true,” try thinking, “Well, this person seems to think it’s true, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt,”

Being kind is more important than being right

– Bollinger, R. (2019)

Modern Life

I mean, I get it. Life is incredibly fast-paced these days. Our lifestyles and use of modern technology is shortening our attention span and forcing us to make decisions ever more quickly.

It’s becoming necessary to make snap decisions in many cases. If we leave room for uncertainty, then it’s too late.

I see this as a huge problem facing society. Our public discourse has become dumbed down and shallow. People are publicly rewarded for emotionally-laden invective rather than carefully reasoned argument.

We need time to think. But even more than that, we need time to listen. If you’ve stopped listening to opposing points of view, then you’re likely already in an ideological echo chamber. Have you picked a team, either religiously or politically, which you’re duty-bound to defend? Then you’re part of the problem.

All of us need to get better at making room for doubt. We all need to continually ask ourselves, “Might I be wrong about this?”

We need to get better at understanding opposing arguments, rather than dismissing them as stupid, ignorant or racist.

Left vs right, atheist vs believer… so many of us are engaged in needless wars when we should be listening to each other instead. It makes me sad.

How to deal with life’s fast pace

  2. Question your underlying assumptions.
  3. Make better choices about where you put your attention. What could you cut out of your life that’s not adding anything meaningful?
  4. Listen more carefully to opposing views.
  5. Assume the person you’re talking to knows something you don’t (one of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules).
  6. Try to “steelman” your opponent’s arguments – assume they have good reason for their thoughts and beliefs.

Let’s start treating each other as dignified human beings again: Individual person first, everything else second.

Person first, dementia second.

Person first, drug-induced psychosis second.

Person first, religious or political beliefs second.

– Bollinger, R. (2019)

There was actually so much more I wanted to write about today, but this post is already pretty long and I feel this is a good place to stop for now.

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