In this article, I’d like to share my best thinking on how you might significantly improve the quality and consistency of your connection to your higher self, to others, and to life. I want to share this because increasing your capacity for connection will transform your life, your relationships, your effectiveness, and your sense of meaning and purpose. And, it will increase your happiness and decrease your suffering. Just a bunch of small, little things like that.
In my prior article, I explained why I think connection is the secret to life. I also explained how psychological safety and unconditional love, warmth, compassion, acceptance, and support relate to connection. I will not repeat all of that, for it is all already there, here.
I’m a process and framework kind of guy, so I will give you the journey from here to there as nine steps — four foundational steps and five practices. You don’t necessarily need to follow this order, particularly if you have a basic grasp of the whole of this.
In this article, I’ll cover the four foundational steps. In the next article, the five practices.
Ready to explore this? I know I am.
The problem most of us have is that when certain things happen, we feel threatened and we then react unconsciously instead of responding intelligently. The point is this: Feeling threatened isn’t the problem. The problem is caused as a result of unconsciously reacting instead of intelligently responding to our perception of a possible threat.
Just because we perceive what we think is happening as a possible threat doesn’t mean that it is a real threat. Yet, if our defensive mechanisms take us away, we are acting as if the perceived possibility of threat actually is a real threat. And all bets are off.
When we perceive a threat, if our defense mechanisms take over (unconscious reaction) our internal state goes negative. If we have no strategy for noticing and then working with our internal state (or you could say our mind), a cascade of negative things begins to happen very quickly.
If the perception of threat isn’t checked by some fast and open awareness and some action to shift our internal state, our survival mode and defensive mechanisms take over. It is from this place that we have the potential to do so much harm to ourselves, others, and life around us. We are acting as if we are under a physical threat, and in the majority of cases, we are not.
The parts of our brain and nervous system that scan for and look for possible threats kind of suck at evaluating whether the perceived threat is real. That’s by design because the primary design criteria for that system was to keep us alive in an environment teeming with physical danger. Times have changed. The system fundamentally has not. So our only hope is to be able to notice when we are perceiving a threat, and instead acting out a strategy for intelligently responding to that perception.
Back to the core issue.
If a series of perceived threats is sustained for a period of time and we start linking those together, our ego becomes highly activated. In essence, we’ve shifted from an isolated event or situation to a story or drama that becomes a part of our lives and our identities. Now, a pattern forms. A related situation rises up, our ego feeds on it, and our ego goes dormant for a while. Then it rises up again, feeds, and goes dormant. Always sewing the seeds for the next rising.
The net effect of our defense mechanisms (and ego) running the show — and our internal state going defensive and therefore negative — is: our thinking is compromised, our hearts close, and our spines either go rigid or limp. This is happening in the very moments where we need a clear mind, an open heart, and a strong spine. As a result, we harm ourselves and others and we cause suffering for everyone involved, including ourselves.
What does this have to do with connection?
When our thinking is compromised, our hearts are closed, and our spine goes rigid or limp, we lose connection to ourselves, to others, and to life itself. We are in survival mode. We no longer see people as people. We see them as objects. And when we objectify people, we can justify doing anything to them. Even very unkind or inhumane things.
Being in a survival mode is an asset when we are in a situation of real threat. It is a liability in 99% of the situations we are in because 99% of the time we are not in real danger. That 99% calls for our higher selves and higher thinking — not our primal selves, primitive thinking, and fighting as if living to see another day depends on it.
In other words, 99% of the time, you want a lot more than your brain stem, your amygdala, and your sympathetic nervous system working for you. Most people haven’t a clue as to what is happening to them and through them when their defense mechanisms and ego are running the show, and they have no strategy for working with it.
Another way of saying: our internal state goes negative when we are reacting rather than responding. And when our internal state goes negative, we become disconnected… from ourselves, from others, and from life. This is why we do so much harm and cause so much suffering even when our conscious intention is to be happy and to avoid suffering.
Disconnection causes harm and suffering. When we are reacting, we are disconnected.
I’m giving you this context so you can understand the need for and the power of these four steps. The four steps set you up to solve the two primary problems above. What are the two problems all the above context point to?
Problem 1: Not knowing what is happening when it is happening.
Problem 2: Having no strategy, no capacity, and no resources to switch off the survival and defense mechanisms, to start the shift of the negative internal state to positive… and therefore to return to clear mind, open heart, and strong spine with alacrity.
When you can address these two problems, you become capable of feeling psychologically safe in and of yourself (not depending on others) and you can extend psychological safety to others… in the moments that you both need it the most. I hope you will read that statement again. This is the essence of connection.
You will increase the quality and consistency of your connection. You will strengthen and deepen your connection to your higher self, to others, and to life when you most need it. You will begin to embody unconditional love in action and dynamic stability.
And that is magical.
So, two things:
You need to know what is happening when it is happening.
You need to know what to do when it is happening and have the capacity to do it.
That’s what these first four steps (and the five practices that follow) are all about. Addressing those two things.
(If the above is fuzzy to you, re-read the section above. And if it is still fuzzy to you, read the prior post here. And if it is still fuzzy to you, my bad. Please let me know in the comment section below and I’ll do my best to bring what clarity I can. Fair enough? Let’s proceed.)
The What and Not the How
In this article, I will focus on the what and not the how. Trying to explain how to do each of the parts, how to link them together, common mistakes, troubleshooting, and the like is far too much for one article. That’s a course.
But I bet you might be surprised how helpful it is to know the what. And, to the extent I can, I’ll link to some resources. Further, we will most definitely get to the how over time. Okay?
Here’s the what. Here are the first four steps, and they build a solid foundation for you to do the five practices.
1. Learn about Self-Deception
Self-deception affects us all and its effects are nothing short of debilitating. It is debilitating because it lets us off the hook and puts others on the hook. We don’t see ourselves as contributing to the problem, and even if we do, we justify it because, after all, the other person is provoking it. So we hope for the other person or the situation will change, and we persist in it even though every bit of evidence we’ve ever seen indicates that will never happen.
Self-deception is the antithesis to personal responsibility, and personal responsibility is the way out and the way through.
Recommendation: Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute.
2. Start Noticing the Impact of Your Self-Deception
First, start seeing the various ways you actually provoke the behaviors in others that you most want them to stop doing. Second, see how you do specific behaviors and shift into an internal state that withdraws psychological safety from others in an attempt to manipulate or force them to act like you want them to act.
And watch the impacts of all this. The impacts of:
a) Your self-deception: Watch the impacts on you and them of you blaming the other, putting them on hook, taking yourself off the hook, and expecting them to change.
b) Your withdrawal of connection: Watch the behaviors you do that make others feel less safe just when they (and you) need it the most… as if to force them to your way.
c) Your internal state affecting theirs: See how (when you are triggered, suffering, or feeling unsafe) you tend to then cause the same thing in others — triggering them, causing suffering for them, and making them feel unsafe. See how misery loves company, and that you — not they — are the cause.
Recommendation: The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute
3. Learn the Basics of Your IOS
In doing 1 and 2 above, the point is to start seeing yourself as culpable. And that’s essential, because until you see yourself as the primary one to change, you won’t.
Once you’ve accepted personal responsibility for the suffering you feel and the suffering you cause, you need to understand the forces at play within you. These are the forces through which all this plays out. I call that your IOS: your internal operating system.
There are five basic areas of focus I have seen are helpful in understanding your IOS.
First, you need to learn about the four aspects of a human being, since you are one. The four aspects are our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects. These four aspects are imbalanced in each of us — it is not a matter of whether but more a matter of which ones and the degree of imbalance. This imbalance among our PEMS causes us problems, and our ego is basically holding these four aspects together so we can continue to function at a socially acceptable level in spite of this internal imbalance.
Recommendation: Chapter 7, The Centers, from Understanding the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson
B. Internal State
Your internal state — your “mood” or “awareness” or “consciousness” or “presence” — is changing all the time, if only subtly. All this is happening within and through your PEMS. It’s important to learn how your awareness operates, so you can better notice and regulate your internal state.
- Levels of Development–You can start your study of the Levels of Development (which mirror levels of awareness) through the lens of the Enneagram here. There are books referenced in this overview.
- Mood Elevator–Some find the “mood elevator” concept by Larry Senn useful. I’m not a student or fan of it because it lacks the sophistication of the Enneagram model, but it is simple and accessible. There’s a lot to be said for that. There are some videos of him on YouTube, and if interested, you might want to read his book Up the Mood Elevator (which I have not read and therefore can’t recommend).
C. Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
So much to say about this, and yet I know so little about it. This is Sara’s area of expertise. Basically, when you are feeling under threat or doing the crazy things you do (I’ve been watching you), your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is dysregulated. So you need to know something about your ANS, regulation and dysregulation, and how to shift your internal state towards regulation.
I’m hoping Sara will be creating some training around this because the readily available information is somewhat dense, more research-oriented, and not quite as actionable as I like things to be. That said…
- Window of Tolerance. Google it, and study that a bit. Different people have different takes on this. This article is as good a place as any to start.
D. Attachment Theory
The relationship you formed at a very young age to your primary caregiver had a profound impact on the way your brain and nervous system (including the ANS, above) developed. This set up where you are on a continuum of insecurity–security, what dysregulates you, the degree to which those things dysregulate you, what you do when dysregulated (fight, flight, freeze), how long it takes you to become regulated again, etc. This is big.
The key here is that all this can be modified once you understand it a bit and implement some of the practices we will be getting to in the next article. Psychologists call this “earned security”. Basically, we can learn to do for ourselves what we didn’t get from that primary caregiver… and we can move ourselves along the insecure-secure continuum towards more security.
- Moving Yourself Towards More Secure. I’m a huge fan of the impact of compassion and self-compassion on “earned security” and being able to regulate our ANS when we become dysregulated. Sara has some resources for you on that, here. Do this.
Boy, it sure does help to know a bit about ego and how it operates. Trouble is, the theoretical stuff isn’t that useful. But the good news is there are some good non-theoretical sources for understanding the machinations of the ego.
- You might want to start with a blog post I did on the ego here. (This post was part of a series on personal development, and that series gives a lot of information regarding everything I’m covering in this entire article.)
- Also, Chapter 7, The Centers, from Understanding the Enneagram referenced above.
4. Set a Clear Intention and Compelling Motivation
Having a clear intention and motivation for getting better at connection and psychological safety is essential. If your work to increase your capacity for connection and psychological safety isn’t focused, it is diffused. That’s not good. In consultant-speak we say, “You can’t boil the ocean.” A good intention and motivation statement keeps you focused. It defines your place of practice in a way you can wrap your head around… and remember to do it.
Fill in the blanks:
In situations like _____, I’d like to do more of ____ and less of ____. And the reason this is so important to me is ____.
Wrapping Up Part 1
If you explore and understand the above, you will have a solid foundation. You will have:
1. Learned about Self-Deception
(which is why most people stay stuck and make little to no progress at strengthening their connection + psychological safety with others).
2. Noticed the Impacts of Your Deception
(a wonderful source of motivation, by the way, when you see with the best of intentions you are causing harm to yourself and others.)
3. Learned about Your Internal Operating System
(where all that is happening), and
4. Set a Clear Intention and Motivation
That’s quite a foundation! You are fortified for the journey ahead, for the journey of increasing the power of your connection and the breadth and depth of your psychological safety.
You build. Build on this solid foundation. How? Through action. Meaning, learn and consistently applying five practices in your life, in your relationships.
And that, my friend, is our topic for the next article. I certainly hope you will join me again so we can continue this exploration together!