Connection, Belonging and our Mental Health

Long post alert! This is an adaptation of a speech I did for GSCE English earlier this year. (Yes, these last few weeks I’ve been sitting my first EVER exams! Better late than never!) I’ve become passionate about connection and belonging and want to share this with you even though you’ll have read some of this before if you read my blog.

I believe that disconnection is a world-wide pandemic; having a major effect on our mental health.

What is mental health? According to the World Health Organization: “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

The Mind website states that “approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.”  And yet “Reports from both England and Wales suggest that approximately 1 in 8 adults with a mental health problem are currently receiving treatment”. That means that treatment is really not that accessible! But perhaps there is something we can do to make a difference for those around us.

I have personal experience as I suffered with a mental illness in 2016 brought on largely by the stress of moving here from New Zealand. It adversely affected my family and myself for more than a year.

I spent a while in hospital and after moving back home the realities of my life crashed down on me and I found myself incredibly anxious and very depressed. I even wished for the courage to end my life. I wanted out. For 12 months I was in survival mode. It was the darkest year of my life so far. I felt that I had nothing of any value to offer anyone. I felt incredibly bored and boring. It was hell.

I’m grateful for my husband. Initially he blamed me, not recognizing that I had an illness but soon he became my life-line. Day after day, month after month I would cry in his arms and send him depressing midday texts. Gradually hope started to creep back in and increasing moments of happiness.

Now that I am well again I am beginning to process that time and even more recently am starting to gain insights into the whole subject of connection, belonging and how it affects our mental health. You see, what really brought me back to life and truly living, is a friendship that after 2 years suddenly clicked and since September has grown into sisterhood.

In his book called Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, David Goleman says that the latest findings in biology and neuroscience confirm that we are hardwired for connection.

So, what is connection? Author Brené Brown defines connection as “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.”

I don’t know about you, but in my experience relationships like this are rare. However, now that I am experiencing it I know that it’s worth seeking and working for. I love this quote from Jeff Brown –

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How can we find relationships in which we can belong? What is belonging anyway? Here is another quote from Brené Brown. She is a research professor studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy and is the author who has most influenced my personal growth in the past few years. “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” Brené Brown, 2010

There is a deep desire in all of us to belong. In her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené shares some thoughts about the difference between fitting in and belonging from her interviews with middle school students:

  • Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
  • Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.
  • If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.

I love these, especially the first one. It’s in my relationship with my best friend that I’ve felt this type of true belonging for the first time in my life. To me that feels rather sad as I turned 40 this year! But it’s made sense as I’ve realized that we are born into our parents unfinished stories and often they are still working through or just accepting the dysfunction they learned in their childhoods. I know this was true for me and my husband when we started on our parenting journey! I’m so sad that we’ve hurt our children, even in the process of trying to be good parents! What gives me hope though is that we can keep growing and changing and becoming better people.

In fact, that is what a psychotherapist in NZ once said to me when I expressed concern that I would inflict emotional baggage on my children like my parents did on me – “The best thing you can do for your children is to work on yourself.” So, I’ve set out to do that, and amazingly am in the process of helping my children to heal from the damage we did in their early years.

The great thing is that while we are hurt and wounded in relationships, we also heal in relationships. Not all relationships are safe, but if we can find one in which we are seen and valued for being ourselves, it can be an extremely healing place.

The other very important part of the quote from Brené is: “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” If we truly want to belong we need to get to know ourselves!

Almost 7 years ago I realized that yet again I had fallen for valuing my relationship with another person more than they did. I think I have always been on the look out for meaningful friendships, and yet would find myself in one-way relationships again and again. This particular relationship in 2011 was the last straw for me! I decided enough was enough! There was obviously something about me that made me find myself in this spot so often! I went on a hunt in the library and amazingly found a book titled, “One-Way Relationships”! Perfect! And that was perhaps the real start of my journey to getting to know myself better. I’ve learned a lot since then, in relationships and through reading book after book.

My self-esteem was extremely low when I was a child. Which I guess is not surprising now that I know that I suffered from emotional abuse. I was continually criticized by my mother and she openly rejected the core parts of who I am. A lot of this was probably due to the fact that I reminded her of my birth father – her first husband and the man she cruelly betrayed. I never felt like I belonged in that family which consisted of my mum, step-father and two half-siblings and I grew up feeling like there was something wrong with me. My mother was always “right”, and so I learned well not to trust my own intuition/inner knowing. I learned to value more what others said was right than what I felt was right.

I lived what Brené says is disconnection from ourselves.
“…there is another form of disconnection, one that is often more painful and confusing that all of these other forms: it is the feeling of being disconnected from ourselves. We are often so influenced by what other people think and so overwhelmed with trying to be who other people need us to be, that we actually lose touch with our sense of self. We lose our grounding. We lose our authenticity. The reason this is so painful is because our authenticity is the very foundation from which all meaningful change occurs.” Brené Brown P241, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t!)

What is authenticity? Brené says that she realized from her research that “authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice – a conscious choice of how we want to live. Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” And that can be rather scary and take a lot of courage!

When I consider our mental and emotional wellbeing I feel that authenticity is a huge key. When I think back to the lead up to my breakdown I realize that I was putting on a happy mask. I was hiding behind a façade of ‘everything is great!’ when in reality our move to the UK and the main reason for making the move had not worked out well. Everything was crumbling around me – our financial security, my relationship with my husband and my Dad, my son’s mental health… but was I willing to be honest and real with myself? No. I was pretending, I was trying to be who I thought I should be rather than embracing reality.

So what is authenticity all about? Not surprisingly Brené’s research comes in handy again!
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.

Choosing authenticity means:

  • Cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
  • Exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and
  • Nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough.
  • Authenticity demands Wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.” Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection p50

She also says though, that “Choosing authenticity is not an easy choice.” She quotes E.E. Cummings who wrote: “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight – and never stop fighting.” And in Brené’s words – “‘Staying real’ is one of the most courageous battles that we’ll ever fight”.

Brené also goes on to say that we should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packets –

Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.

I don’t know about you, but those sound like mental health issues to me! Which brings me back to my opening statement, which was: I believe that disconnection is a world-wide pandemic; having a major effect on our mental health.

Again, Brené speaks to this when she writes: Our innate need for connection makes the consequences of disconnection that much more real and dangerous. After collecting thousands of stories she says she is willing to call this a fact: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. There are certainly other causes of illness, numbing, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.” Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection p26

And who are we disconnected from? Others, yes, but also ourselves. Since recently reading Brene’s latest book my new mission in parenting is to help my children to believe in and belong to themselves. Above all else. If I can achieve this then I know they’ll be emotionally resilient enough to deal with the challenges of life, wise when it comes to relationship choices; they’ll have the courage to say no to opportunities and relationships that don’t align with their core values, they will have the confidence to seek adventures and experiences that will broaden their perspectives and open their eyes to ways that they can make a difference in the world.

As for me, I’m going to continue to invest in my personal development and in the safe relationships I have and bravely reach out to others. I don’t ever want to stop learning and growing and becoming the best me I can be. And this gives me so much hope that I’ll not only maintain my current sense of well-being and contentment, but I’ll also be able to continue to make a difference in the lives of those in my circle of influence. And for me – that is the greatest blessing and contributor to my mental health and sense of connection and belonging!

Renae Cobb, one of Brene’s blog readers commented as follows:

“Certainly, the people we love inspire us to heights of love and compassion that we might have never achieved otherwise, but to really scale those heights, we often have to go to the depths of who we are, light/shadow, good/evil, loving/destructive, and figure out our own stuff in order to love them better.”

“Loving and accepting ourselves are the ultimate acts of courage.” Brené Brown

My hope is that at the very least I have persuaded you to further your own personal development journey and explore some of the concepts I’ve shared!

Elizabeth

P.S. Since writing the above I can now say I have more friendships where I feel like I truly belong. Amazing. This feels like proof that it really is more about how we see ourselves and how we show up in our relationships than about others.

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