The scary secret to deep connection
“the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment, and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Giving and receiving means that in a connected relationship, we meet each other’s needs. This requires open, caring, sincere, and honest communication.
This is much easier said than done.
Communicating our needs is hard. When people don’t know what we want; when our expectations are violated; or when others do things that disappoint, hurt, or scare us; to get our needs met we typically launch into judgment, blame, shame, and manipulation.
- “Every time you come home from work you plop down on the couch and leave me to take care of the kids. You’re so lazy.”
- “You never listen to me. You only care about yourself. You’re so selfish.”
- “I can’t believe you bought that without consulting me. You’re so thoughtless and disrespectful.”
- “You lied to me. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Underlying all our criticisms are unmet needs. But note that, when we engage in judging, shaming, and criticizing communication, we don’t actually communicate our needs.
We have honed our skills at judging, blaming, and shaming each other into doing what we want into an art form. We use criticism, sarcasm, lecturing, blaming, scolding, preaching, yelling and screaming, rejection, etc.
We are highly skilled at doing anything and everything except for getting our needs met.
We make everything about what the other person has done wrong, instead of getting in touch with our own needs and meeting them skillfully.
The real reason why we blame, shame, and criticize
There’s a reason why we do this, and it’s not because we’re bad people or poor communicators: We do it because it’s scary.
Communicating our needs makes us feels vulnerable. Vulnerability feels weak. And weakness feels scary.
We don’t want to set ourselves up for failure — if we communicate our needs to someone and he or she doesn’t respond, where does that leave us? Feeling more weak, vulnerable, and uncared for than before. We fear that if we expose our soft spot, people will take advantage of us.
In nature, when animals expose their soft spots, it signals submission to a dominant animal. It says, “You’re strong and I’m weak. You win.” In short, it’s a sign of weakness.
Since feeling weak and helpless is deeply painful, we do everything we can to avoid it.
Criticism, therefore, is an egoic defense mechanism to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable. It’s a hard shell we build around the softness and vulnerability of core needs.
As Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explains in her book, The Wisdom of No Escape,
“We all have a soft spot and negativity and resentment and all those things occur because we’re trying to cover over our soft spot…it’s because you are tender and deeply touched that you do all this shielding. It’s because you’re soft and have some kind of warm heart, an open quality, to begin with that you even start the shielding.”
Protection is the very thing that makes us weak
Our shield of defensiveness and criticism appears to protect us, but actually prevents us from getting our needs met — particularly the need of connection.
The soft spot is where deep connection is found. If we can’t access and share our soft spot through vulnerability, we have no hope for real connection.
Brené Brown has spent over a decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame, and has published her findings in four bestselling books. In her phenomenal book on vulnerability, Daring Greatly, she explains the difference between vulnerability and weakness:
“According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning ‘to wound.’ The definition includes ‘capable of being wounded’ and ‘open to attack or damage.’
“Merriam-Webster defines weakness as the inability to withstand attack or wounding. Just from a linguistic perspective, it’s clear that these are very different concepts, and in fact, one could argue that weakness often stems from a lack of vulnerability — when we don’t acknowledge how and where we’re tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.”
The less vulnerable we allow ourselves to be in relationships, the greater chance we have of getting hurt. Conversely, the more vulnerable we are, the greater likelihood we have of getting our needs met and feeling connection.
The truth is that we find our strength in vulnerability. Revenge is weak; forgiveness is strong. Anger is weak; gentleness and kindness are attributes of the strong. Masks and defense mechanisms are a sign of weakness; vulnerability is a sign of strength.
The deeper reason why vulnerability scares us
People who have a habit of criticizing others also have a habit of criticizing themselves. In fact, self-criticism is the very source of other-criticism.
As Brené Brown reveals in Daring Greatly,
“We are hard on others because we’re hard on ourselves. That’s exactly how judgment works. Finding someone to put down, judge, or criticize becomes a way to get out of the web or call attention away from our box. If you’re doing worse than I am at something, I think, my chances of surviving are better.”
We have a hard time opening up in trust and vulnerability to others because we don’t do so with ourselves.
We subject ourselves to so much self-criticism that, subconsciously, we believe that others will treat us the same.
Therefore, to open ourselves up to vulnerability, the first step is to stop our self-criticism. When we can trust ourselves with our needs, we will open up to trusting others with our needs.
Connecting with others starts with connecting with ourselves through self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-care.
See yourself, hear yourself, value yourself. Then, and only then, can you deeply connect with others.