Linda Graham, MFT and author of Resilience and Bouncing Back, looks at the two pillars of healthy social connections and provides exercises in how to cultivate them.
I regularly experience the power of wisely connecting with my fellow human beings in a special way: to drive from home to work I have to pass through a 4-way stop sign intersection. All drivers have to figure out who’s going through the intersection next. No verbal communication, sometimes a friendly wave through. We all figure it out quietly, respectfully. A sense of connection in a 10-second community of fellow travelers that brings a smile to my heart.
Many, many research studies these days document the importance of healthy social connections for enjoyment and fulfillment in living, especially as we get older. (See the excellent if densely scientific Promoting Healthy, Meaningful Aging through Social Involvement from the National Institute of Health.)
Let’s look at the two pillars of healthy social connections – common humanity (we’re all the same) and theory of mind (we’re each different), part of this month’s focus on skills of relational intelligence that support healthy, resonant relationships. My shared humanity at the all-stop intersection, along with we are each making our own decisions in that moment, is a small example of that much larger dance in relationships – finding the balance between “we” and “me.”
Every human being on the planet wants to feel safe, to feel loved, to feel like they matter in some way. Recognizing our common ground with the aches as well as the joys of our fellow human beings is deeply woven into every spiritual tradition through all the ages; it’s the basis of feeling the compassion for ourselves, for others, that allows us to relate wisely to ourselves, to others, even when that’s difficult.
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
– Miller Williams, “Compassion” The Ways We Touch: Poems
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
You can cultivate this sense of common humanity through an exercise like Just Like Me, adapted from Mark Coleman’s beautiful book Make Peace with Your Mind:
-Just Like Me-
This exercise helps cut through barriers that make you feel separate or different from others. It is a way you can actively sense your connection with other people, partly by focusing on shared human experiences.
1. The next time you are talking with someone, in a meeting at work, looking at others in a café or on the street, or interacting with other parents at your children’s school, reflect on these phrases:
Just like me, this person wants to be happy.
Just like me, this person wishes to be free of pain and stress.
Just like me, this person has a body subject to aches, pains, and aging.
Just like me, this person has had many joys and successes.
Just like me this person has felt sadness, loss, and pain.
Just like me, this person desires to love and be loved.
Just like me, this person aspires to do their best in life.
Just like me, this person wants peace and happiness.
2. As always, you can repeat this practice with many different people, coming to sense the shared humanity underneath the differences.
Saying these phrases to yourself is particularly useful when you are having a conflict or a challenging time with someone. The more you can sense the similarities between you and see that person as like you, the more likely you are to feel a sense of connection and find it easier to relate to them.
Theory of Mind
Just as important as recognizing our shared humanity with our fellow human beings is being able to tolerate, assert and relish our differences, a capacity known in the field of developmental psychology as theory of mind.
Theory of mind simply means an awareness that I am I, and you are you, and that I may be having an emotional experience (or a thought, belief, or plan) that you are not experiencing. We are two different people with two different experiences, and that’s okay.
As with all capacities of your brain, you develop the capacity for theory of mind by experiencing it with other people. You come to recognize that at any given moment, you may be having an emotional experience that is different from the emotional experience another person is having, and that’s okay. And you get to experience that the other person also recognizes that your experience is different from theirs, and that that’s okay with them. Experiencing theory of mind through others helps develop theory of mind in your own brain.
According to developmental psychologists, most children develop the capacity for theory of mind by the age of four. Depending on your experience with your earliest caregivers and role models, maybe you did, and maybe you didn’t. But it’s one of the essential skills of relational intelligence. You need to be able to sense and accept what you are feeling: that’s mindful self-compassion. You need to be able to sense and accept what other people are feeling while they are feeling it: that’s mindful empathy. And you need to be able to differentiate what they are feeling from what you are feeling: that’s theory of mind.
You can strengthen your capacity for theory of mind by practicing the exercise below, either in your imagination (sometimes easier to get started) or with a real person in real time (where the rubber meets the road).
1. Come into a sense of presence of being in your own body, anchoring in your home base of an inner secure sense of self – you are who you are and that’s perfectly okay.
2. Acknowledge the “okayness” of the person you are imagining or are with. They are a human being, just like you, though different; they are doing the best they can, just like you, though different.
2. Focus your awareness on your breathing, inhaling and exhaling, breathing in for yourself (one for me), breathing out for the other (one for you).
3. As you develop this dual awareness of breathing in for yourself, breathing out for the other, the awareness of “one for me, one for you” can gradually fade into the background as you focus on what you are saying/thinking/feeling and what the other is saying/thinking/feeling, moment by moment by moment.
4. If you notice yourself losing awareness either of yourself or of the other, as distinct from each other, return your awareness momentarily to your breathing. Re-establish breathing in for yourself (I am here), breathing out for the other (you are here, too, and that’s okay).
Both common humanity and theory of mind become core practices of relational intelligence. May they be useful to you and yours.
*Adapted with permission from Linda’s newsletter, 6/7/18.