Our Need For Connection
When exploring love and intimacy I look to the ‘Lover’ (or ‘Feeling Body’) archetype – the side of us that longs to connect, that is vulnerable, sensual, creative and open. The need of this part of us to connect – to bond with other human beings, with ourselves, with nature and with spirit, is the most fundamental and the most powerful drive we have as human beings. There are many well documented examples that demonstrate that humans and most other mammals place connection above food and physical wellbeing – sometimes even above their own survival.
George Monbiot discusses this in a recent article in the Guardian where he gives the following examples:
‘Experiments summarised in the journal of Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.’
If we look to our history then we see that the way we lived for over 99% of our time on this planet was as hunter gatherers. We lived in small close groups, working together and celebrating together, sharing food together and sharing our grief together. We were rarely alone. We also had a powerful connection to the land and to nature. Many tribes are found to have had in depth rituals for processing grief, and this is very relevant to how we live today. If we do not grieve fully for the connections we have lost we are not emotionally free to go on to form new connections. We continue to have a painful bond to those we have lost, and this takes up all our energy and stops us from openheartedly re-connecting with the world. Living in our society today, where such powerful emotions are given little space, many of us find ourselves living with unresolved grief and carrying around painful connections inside ourselves.
I would like to talk more here about this tendency we have to hold on to painful connections, even when they are clearly destructive and bring us no apparent benefit. In shadow work, as in many other personal growth/spiritual belief systems, we believe that, at core, for all of us, our essence is to love and be loved. We don’t have any choice, this is our natural state of being. As children, we are hard wired to love and connect to those around us, and we do this even when these connections are painful or when we are being treated harshly. We don’t love less in such situations, we love painfully. I remember being taught in my training as a relationship counsellor that there is no stronger connection between two people than a complete cut off. If we are cutting someone out of our lives we are remaining powerfully tied to them by the strength of our feeling and by the amount of energy we are using to keep them out. We can’t escape our connection with them simply by decicing to cut them off. There is far more to ending a relationship than that.
If we lose someone painfully – through a sudden or traumatic death, through suicide, through a painful divorce, if someone cuts us off, or if we lose a parent or loved one with whom we had a difficult relationship – whatever the loss, if we lose someone painfully then we may take on a painful way of remembering them and staying internally connected to them. Unconsciously we will choose to do this rather than to lose the connection altogether.
If you are carrying a painful dynamic around in your life that you find you are not able to shift it is worth considering that this might be something you are carrying as a way of staying connected to someone or something you have lost. If this is the case it is unlikely you will be able to change this dynamic until the original painful feelings have been resolved. Then a new and more joyful way to stay connected can be found.
Below are some examples of painful losses, and the painful connections that might result from these:
– a daughter has been beaten by her father during childhood and he then leaves the family when she is 15 and she never sees him again. She goes on to have relationships with physically abusive men and is unable to change this pattern despite years of therapy. Without realising it, she is maintain a connection with her father through these abusive relationships.
– A son is told by his mother that he is her special one and makes her happy and he belongs only to her. She dies tragically when he is 10. In adult life that he is unable to form any long term relationships. Without realising it, he is maintain his connection with his mother by belonging only to her and not giving himself to any other intimate relationship.
– A young boy sent to boarding school loses the precious connection that he has with his mother. Before he leaves for school she tells him to ‘Work hard and be brave.’ He may then, unconsciously, take this on as his way of staying connected to her. He may spend the rest of his life working hard and trying to be brave as a way of staying connected with his mother, even at the expense of his relationships and his happiness in adult life. So a man who doesn’t cry when his mother dies, and who can’t stay on after the funeral because of work commitments may not look very loving to us, yet in fact he may be deeply loving, by maintaining this connection he has with his mother via his bravery and hard work.
The Path To Loving Joyfully
There are many other examples I could list of ways we love people painfully, we are endlessly creative in the ways we use to stay connected, and the part of us that is driven to connect doesn’t care how destructive our strategies may be.
Without the opportunity to really feel and grieve our losses we won’t be able to let go of these painful connections and we may end up carrying them around with us for the rest of our lives. We may end up not thinking of ourselves as a loving person, but actually we are loving very powerfully by carrying this painful dynamic in order to stay connected to the person we loved.
In shadow work we have a way of supporting people to let go of the painful connection they are carrying and to lovingly return this to the person for whom they carry it. We then support them in finding a more joyful way to stay connected to this person, so that they can continue to carry that person with them in some form inside themselves, in a healthy and loving way. They are then free to go on and make new loving and joyful connections in their lives.
The Effects Of A Lack Of Connection
In addition to the George Monbiot quote above, here are some more examples of the strength of our need to connect and the devastation we experience when this desire is thwarted:
– Well documented experiences in orphanages show that despite having adequate food and water and having all other physical needs met, babies fail to thrive and many even die if they do not have regular physical contact.
– In this talk Gabor Mate a medical doctor, describes his findings showing that much illness, physical and emotional, stems from unaddressed childhood loss and lack of connection.
– In this poem London-based actor and poet Elliot Barnes-Worrel shares his experience of men’s struggles with connection and their inability to feel their grief.
It seems strange to have to search for quotes and articles to explain the power of our need for connection – yet it feels so important to find ways to acknowledge this longing in us, and to work to restore it to its true place in our lives. I find myself in need of reminders that I am human – therefore the single most important thing to me is connection. It is as if this is something we all know and yet don’t know – or at least don’t acknowledge.
It seems that living deeply connected lives and experiencing ‘success’ in this society do not sit well together. Everything in our culture suggests connection should not be our priority. We should be independent, strong, successful, capable, or there is something ‘wrong’ with us – we might even be packed off to see a therapist or life coach to sort out this ‘problem’. Yet as Jiddu Krishnamurti says:
‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’
Impoverished artists, struggling single parents, carers, people going through emotional breakdown or spiritual crisis, addicts, those choosing to live in community or close to the land – may all be valuing their connections, feelings and creativity above security, money and status. Have these people made better or worse decisions than the wealthy, successful much admired man or woman who goes home to an empty house at the end of the day and who may have compromised or sacrificed relationships, friendships and their connection to the earth and to their body to get to where they are? Let’s think about this for a minute, maybe the priorities of ‘successful’ or ‘well adjusted’ people are also based on love and connection – could it be that this is their way of maintaining a painful connection with someone they have loved and lost?
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