A few weeks ago I posted about cultivating willingness to accept the emotions I’m experiencing in a given moment. The idea is to let emotions run their course, instead of pushing them away, so they don’t come out later in the form of self-destructive ways like snapping irritably at my partner. I vowed to journal after each time I snapped, reflecting on triggers, unmet needs, and making space to have empathy for myself and take breaks when needed.

A quest for connection

Now that you’re all caught up, I’ll bring you up to speed on what I’ve learned so far. Journaling allowed me to see some clear patterns. I expected feeling hurt to be a common trigger, but, upon closer examination, hurt feelings usually have deeper roots for me. My most frequent trigger, by far—almost exclusively—is feeling a lack of connection. If I’m feeling deeply connected, I’m pretty much good.

Let me explain: Connections are the touchpoints in our relationships, the ways we have contact with each other. There are the easy ways to connect, like hugs, text messages, and conversations. Then there are the ways we show each other that we see one another on a deeper level. These ways take more investment. Maybe, for example, I listen as my child talks about a friend who declared they’re not best friends and how that hurt my child’s feelings. Perhaps I acknowledge with, “That sounds rough,” and, “Thanks for telling me.” All this is in contrast to giving unsolicited advice, evaluating the other kid’s behavior, or any number of other tempting responses that would have more to do with my read on the situation than what my kid is actually saying.

It boggles me that I hadn’t thought of feeling disconnected as a trigger before. You see, I’ve been focused on connection since my oldest kid was an infant, when I started following parent educator Janet Lansbury closely. Everything she suggests comes back to respecting and connecting with kids. She even uses similar terms to those I’ve been blogging about the past few months. For example, she writes about slowing down enough to set aside the baggage we’re carrying and truly notice, recognize, and accept what’s going on with our kids. I guess one way to say what I’m trying to do is apply Janet’s teachings to my adult self.

It dawned on me recently that I look almost exclusively outside myself to meet my need for connection. Over the years I’ve looked for connection from family, friends, romantic partners, coworkers, my neighborhood, and social groups like a neighborhood political cafe and my county’s master gardener program. Those sources of connection are all well and good, but they’re not the only place to seek connection.

Nor is outside myself an ideal place to start my quest for connection. I say that because relying on others for a sense of connection is quite a rollercoaster ride. For example, maybe my partner has had a hard day and isn’t in a position to initiate connection with me. If I’ve also had a tough day, he and I become a tinderbox, needing just one tiny spark to burn up in a flaming argument. After we flame out, we often have long conversations about how to better meet each other’s needs in the future. Ugh. I get so tired of those conversations.

What I really want is to grow my ability to meet my need for connection internally. After realizing all of the above, I can see that connecting with myself increases my ability connect with others; it frees me to see and accept others for who they are because I don’t need or expect anything from them. For example, I can listen to and encourage my partner after a long day because I don’t see his exhaustion as a threat to fulfilling my need for connection.

Now here’s the deal with the title of this post: I don’t totally lack connection with myself. I have my moments of connection with who I really am and appreciation for who I see in the mirror. Yet the saying “you can’t give what you don’t have” resonates with me. I view connecting with, accepting, and truly being myself as keys to happiness. As such, I want these gifts for my kids. But there are times when I struggle to use these gifts myself, making it tough to consistently model what I hope my children will learn.

Biases against looking inward

After mulling over all this awhile, I realized I hold a few ideas that keep me from getting better at meeting my need for connection inwardly. First, it feels counter-intuitive to me to look inward for connection. Connection has always seemed to me to be something carried out in relation to other people. But it’s possible to connect with who I am. I’ll get into how I’ve been doing that lately in a bit.

Another thought that’s kept me from adopting strategies to better connect with myself is that they seem…self-centered. This is an ill-considered bias I’ve had against meditation and other forms of self-care (although I know intellectually that such activities are great for well-being). It would be more accurate to say that it’s self-centered NOT to work on my connection with myself. If I never look inwardly to meet this need, I’m asking the people around me to meet my needs for me; I end up judging and trying to influence others if they’re not connecting with me. That’s ultimately what I’m doing when, for example, I get upset with my partner for being distant when I feel a need for connection with him. Now THAT’s self-centered.

Finally, I’ve always had an urge to be productive, and certain ways of focusing inward, and of tuning into the present, just haven’t seemed productive to me. I can always rattle off a mental checklist of things I ought to get done around the house and at work. For a long time these things have had a tendency to drive how I spend my time. And this is a cultural thing—the dominant culture in the U.S. puts a premium on being busy, as if getting shit done were proof that we deserve to exist. But when my mental checklist drives my actions, I’m not tuned into either my emotions or the people around me. In other words, favoring the future over the present undermines what’s truly important to me—quality relationships with the people I care about.

Ways I’m deepening my connection with myself

You’ve probably observed that a lot of what I write about on this blog relates to connecting more deeply with myself. Here’s how I’m putting all these thoughts into action these days:

  1. Meditation. I’ve been listening to guided meditations on a free app called “Stop, Breathe & Think.” With this app, you start a meditation by dimming your phone screen for 10 seconds to pay attention to your body. Then you rate how you feel physically and mentally, and, based on that, the app recommends meditations for you to try. These meditations help me slow down my brain and pay attention to the present. It’s tough, after all, to notice and accept how I feel at any given time if I’m focused on the future. When I’m done meditating, on the other hand, it’s easy to stay tuned into the moment as opposed to dwelling on the future.
  2. Learning about those who came before me. I’ve never bought into the rugged individualism story many (mostly white) Americans like to tell ourselves. I feel most fully alive and at ease when I acknowledge and deepen my understanding of my context. Because of this, I’ve spent tons of time learning about history, other countries, and even majored in Latin American Studies; I’ve also spent time getting to know some of my neighbors and getting involved in my neighborhood. I haven’t looked inward at where I fit within my own family and lineage, though. So I’ve been getting more acquainted with where I came from. What were my ancestors like? What did they do? What was their culture like? What are things like now where they came from, and how does that compare to where I live?
  3. Investing time in solo activities I truly enjoy (and that aren’t just distractions). One way I keep myself from dealing head-on with emotions is to distract myself with any number of activities, from looking up ideas to improve the house to frittering away time on Facebook. Never have I spent an hour doing any of these things and felt better off for it. However, certain activities always enrich and recharge me: gardening, garden planning, getting to know neighbors, going outside with the kids with no particular agenda, keeping in touch with people I love through long emails or in-person conversations, getting together with my book club, and going out with a friend for a walk or a meal. Like meditation, these things keep me in the here and now—even garden planning, which for me is more about the process than the end product.
  4. Bringing my actions in line with my values. Many of the posts on this blog are focused on intentional living—that is, aligning my impact with my intent. When I connect with my kids and partner, work hard, limit household waste, hang laundry out to dry, listen to music I love, etc., I have a strong sense of internal satisfaction because I’m doing what’s in line with who I am.

This is an exciting and hopeful bunch of insights for me. I guess it comes down to understanding myself better, fully being that person, and, in turn, feeling a more meaningful connection with the world around me. So, you know, it’s the same old questions humans have tried to address through stuff like philosophy and religion: Who are we and why are we here?*

No big deal, right…?


* Indeed, if you Google the title of this post, you’ll come across lots of people grappling with passages from the New Testament of the Bible implying that you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself. Apparently this idea comes up a lot in the Bible.

One thought on “You Can’t Give What You Don’t Have

  1. Thoughtful. And I think the heart of all our problems can be found inside the “heart.” If we remember to look. But, I only think that when someone reminds me! Which only occurs once in a blue moon of worrying and wringing my hands.
    I’m going to nap now after I erase my worries?

    Like

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