To Connect with the World, First Connect with Yourself

One of the constants I see in my therapy practice are people who come in desiring to better emotionally connect with the world in various ways. For example, creating more meaningful relationships with people around them (family, friends, an intimate relationship), deriving more fulfillment from their career (or looking to change careers), or developing a healthier personal and professional life balance, and so on.

For many people, establishing these emotional connections to the world around us can be quite difficult. For people who have struggled to create fulfilling life connections, it’s often the case  that building up internal emotional walls has, for one reason or another, become a safety zone.

For example, there are professions where it’s actually career-threatening to become too in touch with one’s emotions, or, more specifically, to admit internal struggles or perceived shortcomings. Many people are also raised with values whereby being emotional, or acknowledging one’s emotions is considered a weakness in and of itself.

As a result, people in this position often respond (consciously and unconsciously) by building walls around their emotions, or completely dissociating certain emotional experiences, so they’ll never have to face the vulnerability and threat of emotional consequences. Will they be rejected or abandoned if people allow themselves to connect? Will a parent shame or abuse them if they allow themselves certain emotional experiences — such as need, desire, or anger? Will they be berated by parents or peers for being passionate, excitable, or sad? Will they be ostracized from the community or group if they experience emotions others in the group keep away from? Will they lose their jobs? There are many reasons a person may develop and maintain emotional walls. The walls are self-protective.

The unfortunate by-product of these walls is that the more we disconnect from our emotional selves, the more we disconnect from the world around us. While it’s still possible to experience the world in our own ways, the stronger the walls are, and the more dissociation that happens, the more limited the experiences will likely be. If we have been dissociated from these parts of ourselves long enough, we may not even notice our limited experiences. But often times we do, and that’s when we start to experience lack of fulfillment or dissatisfaction with various areas of our lives.

What ends up happening is parts of us become closed off from ourselves. And, when emotional pieces of oneself closes off, in reflection it also shuts down the ability to connect with those parts of others. It makes it truly difficult to share emotional experiences.

For example — someone who has difficulty feeling and experiencing excitement will have a harder time genuinely sharing a moment of excitement with another person who is more able to connect in this area.

Or, someone who has disconnected from experiences of anger may not understand when an experience (relationship, work, or otherwise) may be causing distress or violating boundaries — leading to repeated experiences of distress and violation. The inability to connect with the anger associated with having boundaries violated, and dismissing the negativity, makes it likely to continue in these unhealthy and negative patterns (and furthering disconnect).

Or, someone who has learned to cut off from experiencing and expressing happiness may have a harder time feeling true fulfillment from relationships and career, and may end up endlessly searching for symbols of happiness (new relationships, new jobs, new careers, etc.) in the hope of something permanently waking up the dissociated emotions of happiness and fulfillment.

Basically, people often search on the other side of their emotional walls for something that they hope will be strong enough to break down their internal walls. But what generally tends to happen is people merely open a temporary window with new experiences, and then after a bit of time, the window closes again and the wall is back in place. The new experience gave a breath of fresh air and some relief, but once the novelty wore off, it was back to the same base.

So, essentially, the more we are able to open up and break down those walls within ourselves first, the more we will truly be able to connect with life experiences in the world around us. But in order for it to not just be a temporary window opening, we have to be able to make the connection back to the parts of ourselves from where we have previously learned to disconnect. If we can re-connect to ourselves in these areas, these parts of ourselves will again be open to genuinely share experiences with the world around us.

This process of reconnection to our emotional selves (and therefore the world around us) is at the core of psychotherapy, which is why if you’re having trouble feeling fulfilled in various ways in life (possibly experienced through relationship struggles, lack of career fulfillment, commitment issues, depression, anxiety, or other feelings), a good therapist is highly recommended to help. It’s also why people say things like, “to love someone else, you have to learn to love yourself first.” As cliche as that may be, it turns out it really is true.

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